Monday, October 20, 2008

Ghosts for the Atheist: Establishing a Haunted Universe

Many years ago I came across a phrase in an article by Dallas Willard. In part he wrote, "we now have an ontologically haunted universe. It is haunted by unnerving possibilities." This first appeared in the book Does God Exist?. Willard's commentary in which he used the phrase "haunted universe" is available here.

In a general sense, as I use it, the phrase "haunted universe" means that apologetic arguments by Christians can cause intellectual tensions for atheists. These tensions can fester, bothering the atheist because their worldview becomes haunted by ideas that favor the existence of God.

What "ghosts" or arguments can Christian apologists provide to "haunt" the universe of the atheist? There are many, but I will briefly present six.

Ghost #1: Cosmology. I the universe had a beginning, and if everything that has a beginning has a cause, then what caused the universe? To state that the Big Bang caused it is not a sufficient answer, as the Big Bang, if accepted, is an event. But what caused the event?

Ghost #2: Design. Is the universe fine-tuned? Is it designed? A better approach may be to argue from a best explanation line of reasoning. Does apparent design in the universe, both at a macroscopic and microscopic level, suggest chance or design? This is a brief presentation of one form of the design (teleological) argument.

Ghost #3: Morality. Do moral standards exist? If so, where do they come from? If they are mere inventions of beings who themselves are the result of time and chance then there are no real standards of right and wrong. The result is moral relativism or variations of a sort of social contract theory of ethics. Whatever the atheist explanation, it falls short of having ultimate authority. But if God exists, we have a real and transcendent standard of right and wrong.

Ghost #4: Evil and Suffering. Atheists often appeal to the reality of evil and suffering as an argument against God. If God exists, the claim goes, then why does He allow so much evil and suffering in the world? But as C.S. Lewis succinctly pointed out, where does the atheist get the idea of evil? Where does a sense of injustice in the world come from? To paraphrase Lewis, we can't call a line crooked if we have no idea of a straight line.

Ghost #5: The Intelligent Christian. Another "ghost" that may haunt the universe of the atheist is that of the intelligent Christian. When I was an atheist, I was under the impression that most Christians were idiots. To be blunt, most of the Christians I encountered were intellectual bumpkins, unable to articulate why they believed what they believed. But when I began to encounter intelligent Christians, both through their writings and in person, I was haunted by a dilemma: How could seemingly intelligent people embrace Christianity?

Ghost #6: Atheism as Nihilism. As I have argued elsewhere, it is my assessment that followed logically, atheism ultimately leads to the despair of nihilism. In the end, there is no lasting meaning to life within atheism. In this regard, atheism has nothing truly positive to offer the world. This is why traditionally it is Christians who help the needy, establish hospitals, care for the hurting, etc. Atheism has no real grounds to offer help to the world, unless its grounds are borrowed from the foundations of a justifiably moral worldview.

Atheists who become Christian generally do so as the result of a series of progressive steps that ultimately lead to theism, then Christian theism. For example, following my atheism I became more of an agnostic, then somewhat deistic. It took awhile for me to move to theism, then Christian theism.

One consequence of my haunted worldview was a turn towards pantheism. This is a danger of the haunted universe -- an atheist may turn to another false worldview as a consequence. That is why the Christian apologist cannot merely offer arguments for the existence of God without ultimately pointing to the Christian worldview as the solution and best explanation of reality.

Not all atheists will necessarily be haunted by the same apologetic ghosts. My incremental goal in dialoguing with an atheist is to offer various rigorous and well crafted arguments that will create intellectual tensions in their thinking.

Over time, these tensions may move the atheist closer to theism. If we can haunt their universe with solid thinking by presenting reasonable arguments, that is not an apologetic defeat, but a significant though incremental step towards Christian theism.


david said...

Thanks Robert! This is very encouraging to me as I refine my apologetic skills. Recently I was very discouraged by a lengthy debate on the problem of evil over at my friend Drew's blog. I am convinced that on both sides many folks will do anything but honestly evaluate their opposition's position.

Nevertheless, with internet apologetics it is helpful to remember that between what a person argues and what he thinks about lying in bed, we can only know the former.

Robert Velarde said...

Glad you found the post helpful. I think sometimes Christians think they will easily convince someone with apologetic arguments when it is often the case that someone with a deeply entrenched worldview may take years to move incrementally in the direction of Christian theism.

Speaking as a former atheist, I can testify to the fact that sometimes I'd put on a poker face or even ridicule an argument I was presented with only to have it "haunt" me internally later.

GutShotSlim009 said...

Ghosts for a Christian.

I am not an atheist - and overall i find beliefs unnecessary.
I wonder if you are aware of certain similarities between Jesus and Dionysius?

Firstly the mystery school of Dionysius was located at the place where the vatican is now located - 300 years before Jesus.
Dionysius was born of a virgin birth, turned water to wine, brought a dead man to life, died and was resurrected himself ect...

Basically you believe in miracles which were stolen from an earlier religion, and which are only appropriate in a mythological interpretation.

You don't haunt athiests, at most you humour intelligent rational people. While you may think you have found some intelligent Christians - admittedly every member of my family without exception is a christian - all you have found is a few adults that believe in childrens stories which defy logic.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for your comments, GutShot.

"overall i find beliefs unnecessary" - is that belief necessary? Perhaps you are referring only to religious beliefs, otherwise your statement is somewhat self-refuting.

Yes, I've heard about and studied the "mystery religions" argument. Supposedly Christianity has stolen its core ideas about a dying and rising god from these mystery religions, making Christianity something of an amalgam of religions rather than unique.

Unfortunately, the differences between Christianity and mystery religions far outstrip the similarities. For a brief but erudite rebuttal see J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, chapter 6. In brief, mystery religions were myths while Christianity is grounded in historical reality and the similarities are superficial.

For a discussion of myth in general in relation to Christianity see my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis, chapter 3.

History is filled with intelligent Christians, as is contemporary Christianity. Your suggestion is that Christians are not intelligent (i.e., they are naive, stupid, etc.), making your final paragraph a veiled but nevertheless fallacious ad hominem argument.

"childrens stories which defy logic" - please expand and provide at least one definite example.

david said...


What source are you using to get your information about Dionysius? The mystery religions allegation against Christianity came to fruition in the early 20th century. Timelines for the various mystery religions that supposedly pre-date Christianity have been updated since then in light of archaelogical discoveries, but the internet seems to keep buzzing with the older data and interpretations...likely because as humans we tend to use whatever ammunition we can find to protect our deeply held beliefs.

To summarize the current scholarly opinion: these mystery cults were at most parallel to Christianity's explosive growth, and probably slightly delayed - which we might expect if a religion exploded and copycats renditions became available. The mystery religions were extremely secretive and usually the actual participants only knew all the practices and rituals, which lowers the probability of those religious practices being transferred to Christianity. On the other hand, Christianity's early days were filled with rumors, persecution, and public spectacle. So even at first glance I think a rational person would conclude that it is more likely that many mystery religions borrowed from Christianity instead of vice versa.

Another book that I found useful alongside the J.P. Moreland book Robert cited, is Ronald Nash's The Gospel and the Greeks. This book contains some serious historical research on the subject.

Best of luck in your search for the truth.