What Theists and Atheists Should Be Talking About

Denys TurnerIn the following interview with Denys Turner, he gets to the very basis of my thinking regarding spiritual matters, and I think he has a lesson for how atheists should talk to theists. Basically, he says that if you are going to be an atheist, you have to disregard one question, “Why does anything exist?” I understand where he’s coming from and he is certainly right that most atheists in fact do avoid that question. The problem is that those atheists do not explicitly avoid the question. Too often, they seem utterly unaware of the question.

I disagree with him, however, that we must avoid that question. I think it should be the number one question that theists and atheists consider. And the fact that the vast majority of them don’t understand the question and its importance is a big reason why atheist-theist arguments quickly degenerate into tribal wars. Since I am an atheist, I don’t claim to speak about theists other than to note that most American theists seem more interested in conservative politics than in any matters of spirituality. But I know the atheist community pretty well, and I’ve noticed a few things about it.

Consider two very famous atheists: Richard Dawkins (a brilliant biologist) and Lawrence Krauss (a brilliant physicist). Dawkins thinks that evolution proves there is no God. Krauss thinks that the fact that particles spontaneously burst out of nothing proves there is no God. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say of both men that their scientific views prove to them that no God is required. But they are both making the same mistake. Krauss thinks that the existence of his kind of nothingness that allows matter to pop out of it answers the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” His answer, which he repeats ad nauseam is, “Nothing is unstable!”

That answer is actually slightly less useful and sophisticated than, “God created it!” All Krauss has done is push the ultimate question back one level. My question to him (which he claims to not even understand) is, “Why is there the kind of nothingness from which stuff spontaneously erupts?” You are still talking about a “nothingness” that has certain properties. (Which means, by the way, that it is not nothing.) Where did those properties come from?

Dawkins position is even more naive than Krauss’. It is true that natural selection does not require an interventionist God. But it does require particles in the universe and physical laws that describe how they interact. I assume that Dawkins thinks that Krauss has his back on that issue, but as I just showed, Krauss is totally clueless on that ultimate question of why all those particles are around to allow natural selection to exist.

I suppose that those atheists who claim that I am not a real atheist may have a point. Maybe I’m a “negative theist.” I don’t know why the universe exists but there are a lot of thing I can say that are not the reason for it. One of them is all the teachings of the Abrahamic religions. But I still call myself an atheist, because I think if I could talk to Lawrence Krauss, he would pretty much agree with me: existence is a kind of paradox. But regardless of where I may land on the theist-atheist scale, I don’t believe any of the nonsense of a personal God or an afterlife.

But I think it is sad that theists and atheists can’t seem to discuss this real issue that divides us. I think it is especially sad for atheists, because if they were willing to talk about this kind of thing with theists, I think we would pull them more into our camp. After all: “God created the universe” doesn’t answer any real questions. Just the same, “Only idiots believe in God,” just reinforces tribal identity.

Afterword

Two things. First, I’m planning to write an article soon to explain why I am not a deist. Second, this is the only time I’ve been able to understand Denys Turner. I’ve watched lectures and read some of his writing and it is completely over my head.

Evolution and Elvis

Alfred Russel WallaceOn this day in 1935, Elvis Presley was born. I know what you’re thinking, “How could he not win the day?” After all, in that scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks, “Elvis or the Beatles?” Of course: Elvis. As she points out, I like the Beatles. But if I had to pick the collected works of one or the other, there is no question. I even wrote very fondly on the Elvis impersonator industry: Transubstantiation of Elvis.

So you will just have to forgive me for not picking Elvis today. For one thing, the competition was extreme. And the guy who won is really, really important. One song will never do it, but here he is doing “Viva Las Vegas”:

Singer Shirley Bassey is 77 today. Here she is doing “Goldfinger” live:

And David Bowie is 67. Here he is doing “Five Years” live:

Other birthdays: playwright Wilkie Collins (1824); landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830); Dutch academic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836); publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday (1862); Russian avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov (1883); humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902); actor Jose Ferrer (1912); comedian Soupy Sales (1926); concert promoter Bill Graham (1931); character actor Roy Kinnear (1934); creepy game show host Bob Eubanks (76); physicist Stephen Hawking (72); and professional racist Charles Murray (71).

The day, however, belongs to the great biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who was born on this day in 1823. He is my go-to man when talking about how the brilliant aren’t all that brilliant. Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection. And at the same time, so did Wallace. Actually, it would seem that Darwin came up with it first, but he didn’t publish and it was only when Wallace wrote to him about the same idea that he had come up with independently that the two of them published a joint paper explaining the idea.

This goes along with my idea that if any “great man” had not be around, someone else would have. If Newton had not come up with universal gravitation, someone else would have soon enough. In the case of Darwin, we know that’s the case: Wallace was right there. This is not to take away from the accomplishments of people like Darwin and Newton. Nor is it to put people like Wallace at a lower level. Basically, I think universal gravitation or natural selection require great minds and lots of luck—especially timing. We tend to think of Darwin as a somewhat greater biologist than we do Wallace. But had Wallace been born 15 years earlier and Darwin 15 years later, maybe we would think the opposite. Regardless, Wallace is one of the greatest biologists ever.

Happy birthday Alfred Russel Wallace!

Obama Soon to Put Chris Christie in Charge of Department of Transportation

Chris ChristieYou’ve probably heard of the George Washington Bridge closure story. Even though it was a small story, it was too delicious for liberals. What it looked like was that henchmen of Chris Christie caused a huge traffic jam in Fort Lee because it’s Democratic mayor endorsed Barbara Buono rather than Christie. Now it has been shown that as improbable as it sounded, this is exactly what happened.

Before I get into this, I want to state again that the Democratic Party (in New Jersey especially) acted unconscionably. When this story first broke, I think a lot of people thought, “Didn’t all the Democratic mayors endorse the Democratic candidate for governor?” And the answer is, “No. The elected Democrats of New Jersey showed exceptional disloyalty even by Democratic standards.”

I didn’t pay a lot of attention to this story. I was sorry for the people of Fort Lee, but it was not an especially important story—especially on the national level. But I did notice something interesting about the reactions. On the left, there were a lot of people who really wanted it to be true. First, Christie is a bully and this story played right into that narrative. What’s more, he had just won an election that he didn’t deserve to. The people of New Jersey should have rejected him powerfully given that he stands for pretty much everything they are against. And there was a certain sense in which it served as a good lesson to the people of New Jersey coming right after the election.

But the more common reaction, even on the left was skepticism. I heard more than one person say, “Why would he do it?” That really struck me because that is exactly what the Foreign Editor says in All the President’s Men about Watergate. The arguments were even the same: Christie (Nixon) was way ahead of Buono (McGovern). It just didn’t make sense.

I was of two minds about this. First, they were right: it didn’t make sense. Second, many other things that Christie did during the campaign didn’t make sense either. For example, why have the Senate election a couple of weeks before the general election? That wasn’t going to make Buono win. That was done just to add a couple of percentage points onto his election win. What I think it mostly means is that Christie has created effectively a kind of criminal enterprise in the State of New Jersey, just as Nixon had nationally.

Jonathan Chait wrote a good column this morning, Chris Christie 2016: A Bridge to Nowhere. He argues that whatever chance Christie had to run for president in 2016 is now gone. And Chait has long agreed with me that Christie had little real chance. My problem always was that the whole “New Jersey asshole” act that northeasterners seem to love, does not play well elsewhere. This scandal just feeds into it. It used to be that he seemed a lot like Tony Soprano (just not as nice). Now it seems he is Tony Soprano. And the fact that he didn’t have to be directly involved in this petty act of political retribution only makes the image stick more.

But the real reason that this kills Christie’s presidential dreams is that reporters are now going to go crazy looking into every scandal the man has ever been involved in. If Christie’s people were willing to go after a small town (Less than 40,000 population!) mayor for the sin of sticking by his own party, what would they all not be capable of.

The ultimate resolution to this would be that Christie would be forced to step down as governor. And then, Obama could nominate him to run the Department of Transportation. That’s a joke of course. There is no way Christie will be forced to step down. But the part about Obama putting him in charge of Transportation is exactly the kind of thing that Obama would do. Remember: Democrats aren’t loyal. After all, the Democratic president did not endorse Barbara Buono. What a great opportunity for Obama to polish his bipartisan credential even more.