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Reasons To Believe

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By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

Pope Francis made headlines back in 2013 when he responded to an open letter published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica by its atheist editor Eugenio Scalfari. Scalfari asked “if God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith if they sincerely obey their conscience?” The Pope’s answer: “God’s forgiveness and mercy is open even to the Godless”; the “key task for unbelievers is to obey their conscience; the goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.”
Predictably, some in the media seized the moment to contend that the Pope was diminishing the Church’s role in salvation history and suggesting a moral equivalence between Christianity and atheism. There is no reason to think that. Francis was restating Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of our obligation to follow our conscience even when it is in error. (Providing, of course, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that we “have made a sincere effort to form a correct conscience.”)
This has long been the teaching of the Church. It is also a truth confirmed by our personal experiences in life. I would wager that most of those reading this column know atheists who are good people, gentle, kind, with a genuine commitment to social justice.
But that leaves us with the question of whether all atheists reach their conclusion about the nonexistence of God in a sincere manner. Do most of them do that? Just some? Why do atheists not believe in God?
It strikes me that atheists would want to spend some time with a column by Robert H. Nelson published last spring in The Conversation, if they are serious about forming a correct conscience in this matter. (The Conversation is a web page established, in its founder’s words, to provide “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.”)
Nelson holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland; he is also the author of eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles.
He entitles his article “Five rational reasons why God (very probably) does exist.”
(It can be accessed at https://religionnews.com/author/robert-h-nelson.)
Nelson seeks to demonstrate why it is logical to hold through reason alone that God exists, in an effort to persuade those who are unwilling to accept Jesus’ instruction about the existence and nature of the Father. It is what the scholars call natural theology, the study of the arguments for the existence of God based on reason and the ordinary experience of nature, unaided by Revelation.
1) Nelson begins with the “laws of math.” Why does the universe operate in an orderly and measurable fashion, everything from the orbits of the planets to the precise flow of blood through our body?
He writes, “Isaac Newton was considered among the greatest mathematicians as well as physicists of the 17th century. Other physicists sought his help in finding a mathematics that would predict the workings of the solar system. Newton made strenuous efforts over his lifetime to find a natural explanation but in the end he conceded failure. He could say only that it is the will of God.
“Despite the many other enormous advances of modern physics, little has changed in this regard. It takes the existence of some kind of a God to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible. It is a mystery that lies beyond science.”
Nelson is on the mark. Asking us to accept that the order in the universe is a result of blind chance is like asking us to accept that the complexity and precision of a Beethoven composition came about when a hurricane swept through a warehouse of sheet music and threw it all together. We would never accept that to be true, regardless of how many billions of hurricanes took place.
2) “The workings of human consciousness,” Nelson continues, “are similarly miraculous. Like the laws of mathematics, consciousness has no physical presence in the world; the images and thoughts in our consciousness have no measurable dimensions. Yet, our nonphysical thoughts somehow mysteriously guide the actions of our physical human bodies.”
Our minds lead us to create works of art, find cures for sickness, design the computers that have transformed our modern world. “The supernatural character of the workings of human consciousness,” writes Nelson, “offers a second strong rational grounds for raising the probability of the existence of a supernatural God,” a First Cause of the universe, an Unmade Maker.
3) The impact of Darwin’s theories. Nelson writes, “Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859 offered a theoretical explanation for a strictly physical mechanism by which the current plant and animal kingdoms might have come into existence, and assumed their current forms, without any necessary role for a God.” But modern scientists are finding this explanation too simple to accept.
“From the 1970s onwards, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, complained that little evidence could be found in the fossil record of the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.
“In 2011, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist James Shapiro explained that, remarkably enough, many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful ‘sentience’ of the evolving plant and animal organisms themselves — a concept far removed from the random selection processes of Darwinism. With these developments bringing standard evolutionary understandings into growing question, the probability of a God existing has increased correspondingly.”
4) Miraculous ideas occurring at the same time in history. “For the past 10,000 years at a minimum,” Nelson notes, “the most important changes in human existence have been driven by cultural developments occurring in the realm of human ideas. In the Axial Age (commonly dated from 800 to 200 B.C.), world-transforming ideas such as Buddhism, Confucianism, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew Old Testament almost miraculously appeared at about the same time in India, China, ancient Greece and among the Jews in the Middle East — these peoples then having little interaction with one another.”
Why did that happen? Nelson argues we are looking at a “revolution in human thought, operating outside any explanations grounded in scientific materialism, that drove the process.” He sees the phenomenon as “further rational evidence for the conclusion that human beings may well be made ‘in the image of a God’.”
5) Different forms of worship. Nelson quotes a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 by the essayist David Foster Wallace: “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Why does this yearning exist — in humans as different from each other as the tribes of the Amazon jungles and the yuppies in the bustling metropolises of the industrialized world? Why is it that all cultures yearn to believe in a supreme being, in a divine order?
The Marxists say religion is a projection of our human ideals upon an imaginary spiritual being. Nelson sees it differently, as a universal longing that indicates we have been made in the image and likeness of our Creator and long to live our lives in conformity with His will, that we have been made to know, love, and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
In his PBS 1980s television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan would explain all the wonders of the universe with the observation that it took “billions and billions and billions of years” for evolution to bring them about.
No matter how precise and orderly and awe-inspiring the natural phenomenon he was analyzing, that was always his answer: “billions and billions and billions of years” of evolution. Robert H. Nelson makes more sense to me. Jesus, too.

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