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An Open Letter to Dr. Lawrence Krauss

[NOTE:  This is an open letter addressed to Dr. Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and director of its Origins Project.  Audio version of this letter is available HERE, as well as via the Sensus Dei podcast on iTunes.]

Dr. Krauss:

I read with great interest your recent article in the New Yorker, The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion (June 6, 2016).  I cannot fairly comment on the conversion/non-conversion of Christopher Hitchens.  Although I enjoyed listening to him, I never met the man - or Larry Taunton, author of the book claiming Mr. Hitchens explored theism in his final year(s) on earth.  Further, I can't add anything meaningful to a discussion of whether Charles Darwin and/or Oscar Wilde had similar experiences in their fleeting moments.  That said, your article brings up several points that are worthy of response.

 

You cite a 2011 survey conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation indicating that over half of U.K. self-identified Christians don't believe in much of Christian Doctrine.  You cite this in support of the claim that Evangelical desire for someone respected and admired to avoid eternal separation from God cannot alone justify the proclivity towards deathbed conversion fantasies.  This seems to be a non sequitur - what does one have to do with the other?  You seem to have an issue with what appears to be a rather obvious distinction.  "Christianity" is not the same as what any number of self-identified Christians believe, if what they believe is contrary to Christianity.  Citing a survey by the Dawkins organization - aside from the heavy appearance of impartiality - showing that many U.K. "Christians" don't believe in Christianity is not overly persuasive with respect to the substance of the Faith or the reasonable impetus for Evangelicals to pray and hope for the salvation of others.  I have no intention of starting a debate with respect to Islam in this letter, but we've learned over the past 15 years that most recognize a distinction.  Many have argued that those calling themselves followers of Islam who engage in terrorism are "hijacking" the "religion of peace."  Others disagree, going so far as to argue the opposite.  Whichever side you lean towards, the underlying reality is that there can be - and often is, in fact - a distinction between the doctrines and tenets of a faith, and the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of those who claim it for themselves.  Why does this distinction automatically vanish when Christianity is under the lens?  Not for any justifiable reason, I assure you.  An Evangelical Christian can be very concerned about the eternal relationship one has with God; the fact that many self-identified "Christians" in the U.K. or elsewhere might not see things the same way seems irrelevant to your point.

Recalling a conversation you once had with television legend Hugh Downs, you write the following:

One of the reasons people go to church, he said, is intellectual validation. People attend church for spiritual and social reasons, of course: to pray and to see friends. But they also want to hear their religious convictions affirmed—convictions that, as the Dawkins survey suggests, may seem a little dubious during the rest of the week. Could it be that evangelicals seek to convert the famous dead because they’re insecure about their own beliefs? If they can claim that people they admire as intellects—Darwin, Wilde, Hitchens—ultimately agreed with them, it validates their own faith.

I must confess I find it piquant for you to include such a motivation for the Evangelical churchgoer.  Surely, as a professor at a major institution such as Arizona State University, you are aware that a desire for intellectual validation has found no safer place to nest than today's university campus.  Why do we hear news of protests, sit-ins, walk-outs, expulsions, firings, defunding, et cetera, but for the fact that someone has dared challenge a preordained filter or the group think of our "intellectual betters"?  I can't think of an arena where speech, activities, and even thoughts are more tightly controlled to maintain only that which confirms an approved framework.  The university campus today is the epitome of ideological homogeneity.  Using the figures from the Dawkins Foundation survey would indicate that the Church isn't even in the same league.  A reasonable person might simply ask you to tend to the log in your own eye first. 

In fairness, with one hand I must extend to you credit for stepping out of this academic "safe space" and debating noted theists; however, I must take away with the other hand, insofar as the tone and intellectual honesty you bring to such events - and articles like this one - is unbecoming of a serious thinker.  It is, in a sense, to step out without really stepping out.  But I get ahead of myself.

I believe you may have a valid point that some Christians are insecure in their own faith, and thus wish to promote admired intellects as validation.  However, I don't believe this speaks for any significant portion of Christians.  The ministry of Christian Apologetics, led today by more than capable intellects, does more to assuage these doubts than a thousand deathbed conversion stories.  Further, if we are looking for some truly weighty confirmation from a powerful, intellectual, wise, influential person, we Christians can do quite well by simply looking to its source, Jesus of Nazareth.  After all, he is borrowed at least in part by virtually every major world religion, and even Time magazine (not a noted friend of the Evangelical Christian) selected him as the most influential person who has every lived.  Let's be honest: the additional support offered by conversions by the likes of Hitchens, Darwin, and Oscar Wilde doesn't sway the bar very much.

In your article, you continue:

In the end, what evangelists don’t recognize is that atheism is not a belief system like Christianity, from which one might defect after hearing some arguments or having a few sombre conversations. It is, instead, simply a rational decision not to accept the existence of God without evidence.

Can we stop it with this canard?  I have no problem with someone wanting evidence for belief in God - that is what Christian Apologetics is all about!  But putting aside the mountains of overlooked and dismissed evidence that exist today, what really irks me is this notion that atheism is somehow not a belief system.  

Dr. Krauss: Do you believe God exists?  This is a question that has only three possible answers: Yes, No, Unsure.  You have never labeled yourself an agnostic, so I would never foist that upon you.  That means that the answer is either 'Yes' or 'No', to which your answer is - by all indications - a resounding 'No.'  That is a belief.  It is not - and never will be - simply a lack of belief, let alone some lofty perch of rational superiority awaiting enlightenment, knowledge, and understanding.  Not only do you believe there is no God, you go so far as to tour the globe encouraging people to adopt this very same position!  This notion that atheism is not a belief is dishonest, and serves no purpose other than to remove any burden of proof from those espousing it.

What you say and write indicates you would find common ground with Thomas Nagel in your atheism: "It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that." (The Last Word, 1997).  Where you seem to differ is that he had the integrity to admit it not only as a belief, but also a desire.

Finishing this stream of thought, you write:

. . . extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s hard to imagine a more extraordinary claim than that some hidden intelligence created a universe of more than a hundred billion galaxies, each containing more than a hundred billion stars, and then waited more than 13.7 billion years until a planet in a remote corner of a single galaxy evolved an atmosphere sufficiently oxygenated to support life, only to then reveal his existence to an assortment of violent tribal groups before disappearing again.

How childishly simplistic, Dr. Krauss.  Could one not just as easily turn the same focus on your beliefs?  Is it not equally hard to imagine a more extraordinary claim than a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, each containing more than a hundred billion stars, perfectly tuned for the development of an orbiting planet around one such star that was perfectly situated and perfectly hospitable not only to life, but life that would randomly and without any direction develop into beings that were capable of composing music and art while exploring the vastness of their surroundings - all arising from nothing at all?  No matter, no space, no time, no causal agent?  That, to many, seems extraordinary enough to at least give one pause before so glibly dismissing the notion of a Creator.

Many of the self-described Christians referenced in the survey by the Dawkins Foundation are the product of what Chuck Colson called the "McChurch," where solid Christian doctrine is watered down, leaving little more than self-affirmations and the like.  Well, as David Glass and Graham Veale at Saints & Sceptics point out, there has emerged such a thing as "McAtheism."  I dare say you may be one of its priests.

McAtheism, in step with the McChurch before it, is the "bumper sticker" or Twitter version of its cause.  It is marked by pithy statements, insults, name calling, and the like.  What it lacks in intellectual heft, it makes up for with schoolyard immaturity.  You provide a prime example as follows:

In this regard, the saddest thing about these imagined deathbed conversions is that, even if they were real, they could hardly be seen as victories for Christ. They are stories in which the final pain of a fatal disease, or the fear of imminent death and eternal punishment, is identified as the factor necessary for otherwise rational people to believe in the supernatural. . . If mental torture is required to effect a conversion, what does that say about the reliability of the fundamental premises of Christianity to begin with? . . . Converting the deceased suggests only that [Christians] can’t convince those who can argue back.

Hopefully this doesn't, in your estimation, constitute "arguing back."  Are you actually suggesting that belief in anything beyond strict materialism is fundamentally incompatible with rational thought?  Can you honestly believe that mental torture is a necessary predicate to faith?  Have you never met a healthy Christian?  Do you believe that no one with the capacity to argue back has ever been converted by Christ's Gospel?  Perhaps you do believe these things, or perhaps it's more hyperbolic rhetoric.  If the former, then it is your rationality that must come into question; if it is the later, your priesthood in the movement of McAtheism is confirmed.

Consider, by contrast, the thoughts of fellow atheist Quentin Smith:

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.

Your dismissiveness towards all things faith related is, at best, unwarranted, undignified, and unprofessional.  Rational faith has been with us for millennia; it will survive us both - even when subjected to the highest levels of intellectual scrutiny. 

Dr. Krauss, I may have a bone to pick with many of the things you say and write.  Nevertheless, given your level of understanding in the fields of physics and cosmology, I know you are very intelligent .  I shutter to think what kind of knowledge and understanding could be unleashed if you were to use the mind God has blessed you with for His glory, rather than for digging a grave that can never hold Him.

I recall a scene towards the end of the film Field of Dreams, when Mark finally sees the old ballplayers, and understands why his sister and her husband had to destroy the crop to make room for their games.  Lousy analogy, perhaps, but imagine the qualitative difference if you were to allow God to open your eyes to see Him.  We're not talking about some old baseball ghosts in an Iowa cornfield, Dr. Krauss, but the God who not only created the universe you so love to explore, but also cherishes you so dearly as to offer an eternal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.

Near the end of your article, you advise evangelicals to concentrate on converting the living.

Duly noted, Dr. Krauss.  We'll keep at it!

 

In The Hope Of Our Risen Lord,

Sensus Dei

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All content on this site is believed to be consistent with Biblical teachings and also with historical and current understanding in the areas of science, logic, mathematics, philosophy, and history.  However, Sensus Dei encourages all readers of the information contained on this site to always test everything against the infallible Word of God.

May God richly bless you as you utilize this site to deepen your understanding and appreciation for all He has done.

-Glen Torhjelm, Executive Director