“You think what I believe is crazy, right?” I said to a Jewish-atheist friend.
His girlfriend kindly intervened, “No, he doesn’t think that!”
“Yes he does,” I said. “I believe that the whole of human history hinges around a first-century Palestinian Jew who died on a cross and was raised from the dead. That’s crazy, right?” My atheist friend agreed. “But the problem is,” I responded, “I think you believe crazy things, too.”
When our friends hear the claims of Jesus, they wonder why we’d believe such fantastical things when there is a perfectly rational, coherent view of the world available to us. But if we look at the secular ground on which we supposedly all stand, we’ll realize it’s more like pack ice floating away from land.
And there are cracks in the ice. Here are six of them.
1. LACK OF FOUNDATION FOR SCIENCE AND EXISTENCE
Belief in a personal Creator God may seem crazy, but it’s the foundation on which science was built. The scientific method was developed by Christians because they believed in a rational Creator who ran the universe according to rational principles. Princeton professor and world-class philosopher of science Hans Halvorson argues that science still rests best on a theistic foundation. Science can explain how the universe came to be, but the scientific method of seeking natural causes for natural phenomena can’t give us a first cause. Atheism struggles to explain why there is a universe at all or why the universe follows rational laws comprehensible to human minds. If the success of science points us anywhere, Halvorson argues, it’s to supernaturalist theism.
2. LACK OF GROUNDING FOR HUMAN EQUALITY
My secular friends believe that the equal value of all humans is a self-evident truth. But if we embrace the materialist story that humans boil down to their physical parts, why should we be valued equally? Some try to ground equality in science, referencing evolutionary sources for altruism (a field led by Harvard professor and Catholic Martin Nowak). But evolution gives us plenty of evidence in the other direction, and as leading atheist psychologist Steven Pinker observes, examining how human morality emerged is different from the moral project of how humans ought to live.
If the universe is nothing more than what science can measure, we have no ultimate grounding for human value and equality. We’re only atoms, after all.
Others look to ethical frameworks that transcend culture, often citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the Declaration was penned by a disproportionately Christian committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt—a keen Christian—and is strongly informed by Judeo-Christian values. Indeed, in 1983 the Iranian representative to the UN called it “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims.”
Of course, secular philosophers can and do formulate ethical systems that uphold human equality. We can even observe that equality promotes flourishing. But if the universe is nothing more than what science can measure, we have no ultimate grounding for human value and equality. We’re only atoms, after all.
3. TENSION BETWEEN SECULAR VALUES AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
My secular friends celebrate religious diversity and uphold the rights of religious minorities to practice their faith. This is a beautiful instinct. But what happens when religious beliefs clash with secular values? If we say to our Muslim friends, “We uphold your right to be a Muslim, so long as you embrace equal roles for men and women, the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, and the freedom of your teenagers to experiment sexually,” are we truly upholding their right to practice their faith?
Beliefs predominantly held by white Westerners often stand in tension with the beliefs of racial and religious minorities.
Nicholas Kristoff challenged his tribe in the New York Times, “We [liberals] want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us—so long as they think like us.” My non-Western immigrant friends from a range of religious backgrounds often struggle with the sense that a secular worldview is being thrust on them and their children. Of course, this doesn’t mean secular liberal ethics aren’t right and shouldn’t be enforced. Perhaps they are. But we must recognize they’re beliefs predominantly held by white Westerners, and they often stand in tension with the beliefs of racial and religious minorities.
4. COMPETING NEEDS FOR OBJECTIVE TRUTH AND RELIGIOUS RELATIVISM
Some of my secular friends are comfortable saying religious beliefs are just wrong. Most, however, would balk at that and prefer to think all religions are equally valid: the COEXIST bumper sticker approach. But since religions make competing claims on objective truth, we can’t say they are all equally true without invalidating truth itself.
If racism is wrong, then religious beliefs that uphold racism are wrong. If the claim that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead is untrue, then the central tenet of Christian faith is untrue. Where different religions make conflicting claims about historical events—as they do—they simply can’t all be right. However hard it may be to prove what happened in the distant past, if we abandon the concept of historical truth, we abandon truth itself and reality unravels.
5. FALSE ASSUMPTION OF INCREASING SECULARISM
We don’t see the cracks in the ice of the secular worldview because it seems like the default setting. Religious believers are thought to be on the wrong side of history: as the world becomes more modern, more educated, and more scientific, secular humanism will spread and religion will recede. But this hasn’t happened, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, the world is becoming more religious.
The idea that atheism is the default setting for educated people is simply untenable.
That memo has yet to arrive in most university departments, but it’s been sounded loud and clear by sociologists of religion. Moreover, the link between education and secularism is a myth. Christians invented the university, and today, Jews and Christians are the most highly educated groups in the world, with the smallest gap in education levels between men and women. In the United States, while college-educated Americans are less likely to say they believe in God with absolute certainty, it’s still 55 percent of the graduate population, and college-educated Christians go to church more often than less educated Christians do. The idea that atheism is the default setting for educated people is simply untenable.
6. FALSE ASSUMPTION THAT LESS RELIGION IS GOOD FOR SOCIETY
New atheists argue that the world would be better off without religion, but you have to be highly selective with your examples to make that claim persuasive. And you have to ignore the data indicating that in the United States at least, people who participate in religious community are happier, healthier, and live longer than those who don’t.
In our present moment, atheism isn’t evaluated on the same basis as any given religion. People say, “I can’t be a Christian because of the Crusades.” People don’t say, “I can’t be an atheist because of North Korea.” Of course, my secular friends will protest that North Korea, China, and Stalinist Russia don’t represent their kind of atheism. Amen to that. But neither do the horrors of the Crusades or the Inquisition represent my kind of Christianity.
To be sure, religious beliefs can motivate horrific actions. The so-called Islamic State gave us daily examples of this horror. But atheism is not well-correlated with virtue, even outside its totalitarian regimes. As atheist psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes, “Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk.”
Don’t get me wrong. We Christians aren’t good people either: We’re a bunch of immoral hypocrites clinging for dear life to a beautiful Savior. But something about that clinging seems to help.
So do religious folk believe crazy things? Absolutely. And, for the record, my Jewish-atheist friend is far smarter than I am. But it’s crazy whichever way you look—and it may just be that people who believe in crazy things like the resurrection are on counterintuitively solid ground.
The late Dallas Willard once wrote:
Because I make my living as a university professor and philosopher I am frequently asked, in so many words, “Why do you follow Jesus Christ?” My answer is always the same: “Who else did you have in mind?”