When Tammy is not with me, I never know who might sit next to me on an airplane. I’ve sat next to lawyers, business owners, mystics, soldiers, pilots and just about every other profession. It has made for some interesting conversations
On a flight to Dallas one week, my seatmate was James — a nice fellow in his late twenties. James was somewhat full of his intellectual capacity and thought the world was full of stupid people. Christians, he explained, were exceptionally stupid, because they seemed to be oblivious to the discoveries of science. In his estimation, they were like people who believed the earth was flat. James was obviously proud to consider himself an atheist.
I enjoyed the look on his face when I told him that I was one of those so-called ignorant Christians. I mentioned that he might not have heard of surveys showing that 40% of scientists are agnostics and 40% are Christian. I told him that I knew personally several believing scientists who work on the cutting edge of scientific discovery. I reminded him that Francis Collins, who was the director of the Human Genome Project, is a devout Christian. James seemed interested to hear more.
I told him that I am amused by TV characters like Dr. Sheldon Cooper and his “Bible belt” mother in the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory; and by Alice, the assistant to the vicar in the British sitcom Vicar of Dibley. I also admitted to him that some Christians would benefit from more education. But I told him that I’m annoyed that it is now acceptable to portray Christians as simpletons. These TV characters are definitely not typical of most Christians.
I explained to James that many of the concepts we grow up believing are myths. For example, there is the commonly held idea that even educated people in historic times believed that the earth was flat. However, the historical record does not support this idea. As noted by Jeffrey Russell (professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara) in Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, the flat-earth theory is a fable used to denigrate pre-modern European civilizations.
The historic fact is that as far back as 330 BC, Aristotle pointed out that the shadow of the earth on the moon is always circular. In 240 BC, Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s spherical circumference. The Venerable Bede, who lived over 700 years before Columbus, explained the varying duration of daylight in terms of the roundness of earth, reasoning from the Bible that spoke of the “circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22).
Some of the most notable scientists through history were Christians. In the sixth century, philosopher and theologian John Philoponus anticipated the modern physics of light and atomic structure based on the doctrines of the Trinity and creation. Galileo was reading Philoponus as he calculated the movement of the stars, laying a foundation for our modern understanding of the cosmos.
Unaware of all this, James was intrigued. I hope I left him less sure that Christianity is only for dummies. I’d like to think I helped him shift in his thinking from being an atheist to an agnostic.
Of course, many assume that atheism and agnosticism are synonymous. They are not. There is a significant difference in the two. It is fashionable today to say you are an atheist. Writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins have made names for themselves by ridiculing religion in general and Christianity in particular. They have suggested that if Christians cannot convincingly demolish the atheist argument and prove God exists, the only sensible default position for an educated person is atheism. But hold on a minute. Atheists claim that God does not exist, so it is up to them to prove their point. They can’t, of course — philosophically you cannot prove a negative. When cornered, most atheists have to admit to really being agnostic. Agnostics say they do not know whether God exists. This is a reasonable position for people who have insufficient evidence (and/or interest!) to make a decision.
Do you see the arrogance of those atheists who say they have won the argument because those who believe in God have not proved their point? It is true that you cannot “prove” God exists to someone who is not willing to show some faith. Lending an initial mustard seed’s worth of trust is an essential ingredient. As Thomas Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” I realize the atheist will say that to “have faith” is a weak argument. But it is not. We “have faith” in all kinds of things we cannot fully understand or control. So what is “weak” about basing a decision on evidence that is accepted on faith? We may not be able to make a 100% knockdown scientific proof that God exists. However, there is plenty of evidence to say that to believe in a Creator God is not preposterous nonsense.
God, of course, is not interested in our faith being the result of a successful experiment. What he wants is a relationship with us. That is why the ultimate proof of God’s existence must be in and through Jesus — for he himself is the place were God and humanity perfectly meet face to face. He is the place where we can enter into personal relationship with God. We meet and relate to God where he meets and personally relates to us. But entering into that relationship, like all personal relationships, calls for some initial trust or faith. No faith, then no knowledge, no relationship.
Of course, explaining all this to James would have been overkill. But, since he was proud of his analytical ability, I wanted to challenge him to think his position all the way through. Just because Christians have not proven their point to his satisfaction, it does not mean that the atheists have won. Atheists must present their position with the same strength of proof that they expect of believers. Until they do, we could only accept their premise by a sheer act of will. But such an assumption, lacking an object of trust, does not even deserve the label, faith.
Like most “atheists,” James was really an agnostic. Agnosticism is a valid intellectual parking lot. However, a parking lot is not a destination. I hope I helped him on his way.
Author: Joseph Tkach