By Robert E. Meyer
Robert Nordlander (hereafter referred to a Mr. N) is well known locally as an atheist who writes letters to the editor (and has been a contributor to this publication), often making rhetorical arguments impugning Christianity.
In a recent response to Mr. N’s letter, a friend of Mr. N’s, whom we will refer to hereafter as Mr. R, made a statement that may have left many people puzzled. He wrote…
“I believe in his latest letter (Mr. N) unwisely hovers over the issue of “evil.” Unfortunately, the noun “evil” is a classic reification that points toward nothing in reality.”
He was referring to Mr. N’s earlier letter, in which Mr. N mischievously questions whether Christians violate an edict of Jesus by fighting evil (Matthew 5:39 “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”), or whether Jesus was mistaken, since at least some Christian do openly fight what they consider evil. While I might mention in passing that Mr. N’s careless inference (known as “eisegesis” in theological circles) is noted, it isn’t the purpose of this piece to take him to task for that.
It must be understood that Mr. R and Mr. N are both atheist materialists who adhere to a narrative of wholly physical reality. The ramifications of this worldview are articulated by Richard Dawkins in the quotation below.
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
Of course, no atheist can actually live according to that manifesto, which in turn reflects heavily on the probability that atheism actually mirrors reality. My initial reaction to Mr. R’s remark was that the cat had been let out of the bag. But, I quickly realized that there would be few readers who understand the ontological implications of what Mr. R had said.
The whole idea of “evil” reintroduces the concept of God and Satan, good and evil into the equation, and Mr. R realized that Mr. N was inadvertently assuming a theistic view of reality (that evil actually exists as an entity outside of the mind), in order to make a rhetorical argument against it. Therefore, the “hovering over evil” could be problematic for those claiming to be atheist/materialists.
For those unfamiliar with this issue, they need to do a bit of research in the areas of “physicalism” and “materialism.” Suffice it to say that materialism and physicalism go hand-in-hand with atheism. There is a belief that all of existence can be reduced to physical processes, and that there exists no abstract nature to human existence. Famous scientist Francis Crick addressed the problem in his tome The Astonishing Hypothesis, where he states…
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Carl Sagan said something similar…
“I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label.”
But countering that viewpoint, J. B. S. Haldane years earlier theorized:
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.
Physicist Paul Davies wrote a New York Times op-ed admitting…
“Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview…even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us.”
Naturally such convictions don’t go over well in atheist, or even scientific circles, because they expose the philosophical presuppositions that are unavoidable.
Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel expands on Haldane’s observation in his recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
After briefly chiding Mr.N for his “hovering over evil,” Mr. R digressed with the remainder of his letter, offering a historical synopsis against the repression of human rights, which he considers “evil” as a verb.
Our Founders declared that human rights are the endowments of our Creator. Mr. R does not believe in a Creator. Ironically, as Mr. R broaches the issue of recognizing “human rights,” he commits the very reification he wants Mr. N to avoid. In addition, if Dawkin’s metanarrative of the universe, or Crick’s view of neurological materialism is correct, then Mr. R has nothing to complain about anyway. Mr. R’s remonstrations against human rights violations are thus merely convulsions of brain chemicals, that are no more cosmically significant than dropping a can of soda on the sidewalk and listening to it fizzle.
The “problem of evil” is probably the most vexing issue in the realm of Christian apologetics. But, the truth is that “evil” is more difficult for the atheist to account for, than it is for the theist to resolve.