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The Atheist's Faith

May 1, 2022 | by Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens

There are a lot of atheists out there. Does it actually require faith to maintain that position?

I may be an academic philosopher, but I’m also an Orthodox Rabbi. Consequently, you may not be surprised to hear that my answer to the question “Is there a God?” is a resounding yes. There is a God. By the word “God,” I mean a supremely good and intelligent being, powerful enough to bring this universe into existence and govern its evolution according to its will.

Sadly, most of my colleagues in the world of contemporary philosophy, at least in the English-speaking world, disagree. Nevertheless, I’m happy to report: my theism doesn’t place me in an insignificant minority. Despite our numbers, some of the greatest, most well-known, and celebrated philosophers of our times are committed theists (Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, Dean Zimmerman, Richard Swinburne, Lara Buchak, and more). What we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality.

By the word “God,” I mean a supremely good and intelligent being, powerful enough to bring this universe into existence and govern its evolution according to its will.

Of course, atheists often accuse theists of wishful thinking; of creating an imaginary friend in the sky to comfort them in the face of human helplessness and mortality. In actual fact, I think that wishful thinking is often at the root of atheism. Some people would simply rather not believe in God.

Here’s an example. The various physical constants that govern our universe, it turns out, are extremely “finely-tuned” so as to be hospitable to the emergence of life. According to most physicists, the chances of our universe having been hospitable to life at all is less than one in a trillion trillion trillion trillion. The atheist physicist Leonard Susskind writes that the conditions for life in this universe are “so incredibly finely tuned that no one could possibly think it accidental.”

The theist doesn’t think it accidental at all. These conditions were established on purpose, by a being powerful enough to govern the evolution of the universe: namely, God. So, how does Susskind escape from God? He does so by supposing that there exists an infinite number of universes. Suppose you’ve got an infinite number of universes. In that case, the odds might be more than one in a trillion trillion trillion trillion that your universe will be hospitable to life, but some universe or other is bound to get lucky.

The theist doesn’t think it accidental at all. These conditions were established on purpose, by a being powerful enough to govern the evolution of the universe: namely, God.

To escape the existence of one God, the atheist is forced to posit the existence of an infinite number of universes – some of which, presumably, contain very powerful God-like beings of their own. All of this to escape from God. Who here is guilty of allowing their psychological desires to lead them to absurd conclusions?

According to the best scientific account of the origins of life, we emerged as the product of natural selection, in a struggle for survival, in which only the best-adapted genes got passed on to subsequent generations. Taking God out of this picture, you have to assume that our cognitive faculties were shaped only by the survival needs of Homo Sapiens in Palaeolithic Africa. If that’s true, then should we trust our cognitive faculties?

Perhaps it’s true that evolutionary pressures will generally carve out reliable belief-forming mechanisms. But why think that the mechanisms formed in our Palaeolithic ancestors are reliable in our very new environment? Why think that they would be reliable when forming beliefs about very abstract theories of philosophy and science, which have little bearing on our day-to-day survival?

Unsplash.com Dustin Humes

The point, first argued for by Alvin Plantinga, can be put this way: the theory of evolution, coupled with atheism, undermines itself. If the theory is true, then our species has excellent reason not to trust that the outputs of our cognitive faculties are true in our current environment, especially when thinking about abstract philosophical and scientific topics, such as the origin of species.

But, if you plug God into the equation, think of evolution as a mechanism by which God allows biodiversity to emerge and assume that God has the power to influence the trajectory of the process. If you believe that – as a function of His goodness – He desires to be known and enter into a relationship with cognitive beings, then you needn’t distrust the theory of evolution if and when the evidence leads your cognitive faculties to believe in it.

Let us not forget that the methods of modern science were forged by theists, such as Francis Bacon, Robert Doyle, and Isaac Newton. They believed that every complex phenomenon should have a simple explanation. Their reason for thinking so was their faith that the universe itself was constructed by a law-loving, law-giving, perfectly powerful being who wanted us to live in a world that we could come to comprehend. Without that faith, scientific investigation would seem to be irrational. Perhaps this is why Einstein recognized that “science without religion is lame,” even while declaring that “religion without science is blind.”

Perhaps this is why Einstein recognized that “science without religion is lame,” even while declaring that “religion without science is blind.”

According to Richard Dawkins, monogamous romantic love can only appear irrational and counter to the demands of evolution by natural selection. He writes, “Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of ‘polyamory’ is on the face of it more rational.” Perhaps monogamy and an exclusive romantic love can serve a short-term Darwinian purpose: to engender loyalty to one co-parent for long enough to raise a human child. There is no discernible evolutionary advantage to monogamy beyond that point.

But have you ever been in love? I imagine you won’t be too quick to conclude that it’s an irrational byproduct of evolution if you have. Such an account simply robs the experience – an experience that we know with more certainty than any scientific speculation – of its tremendous existential significance. The theist has a better explanation. God loves us and wants us to love Him too. As C. S. Lewis put it, the total commitment of romantic love “is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man.” For Richard Dawkins, by contrast, it is a peculiar error in our evolutionary programming that promotes fanatic devotion for no good reason.

Dawkins writes:

“I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

But Dawkins doesn’t get the difference between God and all of those false gods. The difference is seismic. I wouldn’t trust the sciences based upon the promises of a being as fickle as Zeus. I’d have no explanation of love if I tried to establish it on the lustful excess of Baal. To play the role that God plays, in my worldview, as the foundation upon which most of our explanations of the universe come to rest, God has to have very specific properties – He needs to be a supremely good and intelligent being, powerful enough to bring this universe into existence, and to govern its evolution, in accordance with its will. In other words, He has to be God.

Lots more should be said. I haven’t exhausted my reasons for believing in God, nor have I responded to some very serious objections. Instead, in these words, I’ve tried to explain, in a nut-shell, and with lots of details overlooked, how my belief in God functions as part of my overall explanation of the universe. Moreover, I’ve tried to show the ways in which refusing to believe in God can be philosophically costly. If atheists wonder at my psychological need to cling to God, I can say that I wonder equally at their psychological need to reject Him at all costs.

For more information about Rabbi Professor Samuel Lebens and his work, visit www.samlebens.com – and look out for his forthcoming book, A Guide for the Jewish Undecided, coming out later this year with Yeshiva University Press and Maggid Books.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash




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