Hemant Mehta, at Friendly Atheist, posted an excerpt from a new book by Shane Hayes. The book is titled The End of Unbelief: A New Approach to the Question of God. The book discusses Hayes’s conversion from atheist to Christian and why other nonbelievers should consider belief in God. The excerpt is brief, probably 2-3 pages of a 200+ page book, but it covers what Hayes calls an agnostic argument for faith.
I would summarize Hayes’s argument as: Considering we lack certainty of knowledge, we should believe in God because believing in a universe with God is transformatively better than a universe without God. To be less kind, I would summarize my understanding of his thesis as: believing in a universe with God gives you warm fuzzies more so than believing in a universe without God, so believe in God.
The whole excerpt reads a bit pollyannaish. It reads like Hayes doesn’t think atheists have ever really thought about the social, political, and ethical implications of living in a godless universe. Mehta notes, “Shane Hayes is an [sic] Christian who believes he can reach out to atheists in a way that’s far more effective than the usual breed of apologists…in part because he used to be an atheist, too.” With full recognition that I have an incredibly small sample size, this excerpt suggests Hayes has a patronizingly myopic notion of the worldviews held by atheists.
Overviewing the Excerpt
Hayes situates the human condition when he notes, “We all grope in existential darkness.” He provides some detail of this darkness, explaining, “We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.” It is in this setting that we find the question of belief in God.
Hayes describes his experience of atheism as “…like Antarctica — glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon . . . nothing.” It was something he “endured for more than a decade.” Most notable about this description is that there seems to be nothing in atheism to address our existential darkness.
Now we have the groundwork for the argument. It may be that Hayes cannot prove God exists, but if God did exist, as Hayes notes, “…if there is a God, that reality makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life.” Life does not have to be the bleak, barren wasteland as was Hayes’s experience of atheism. Instead, as he explains, “…faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits?”
Lacking certainty of knowledge, Hayes suggests we should believe in God because a universe with a personal, loving God offers joy, love, and radiance. On the other hand, atheism is cold, devoid, and offering of nothing. However, Hayes’s account of a godless universe is myopic, and he makes this very point himself. Consider, again, his description of our condition:
“We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.”
Those first words, “we’re in this mess together….” We are together. Together means we are connected. We share. We co-own. We relate, sympathize, empathize. We join with each other. This simple acknowledgement of our togetherness has planted seeds of love, caring, connection, culture, and art in our godless universe. Far from Hayes’s barren wasteland, our togetherness means our landscape teems with joy, love, and radiance.
But, what about that horizon, beyond which is “…nothing“? Well, there isn’t nothing. There are my children, grandchildren, and so on. The kin of my friends. Since we are in this together, they are our children. They are us. We lay the foundations on which they build. We take in the wisdom of those before us, build from it, and pass it on to our children. We are in this with them, as well.
We may not know if God exists, but we can know that a godless universe is not a barren wasteland. Hayes’s myopia does not strip the universe of the existence of joy, love, and radiance. It simply means he was too short-sighted to see it.
“But, wait,” you might say. “That’s not what Hayes meant of there being nothing beyond the horizon.” And you would be correct. When Hayes discusses the nothingness beyond the atheist horizon, he means the lack of an afterlife. So what if you experience love, joy, and radiance? Once you die, that’s it. It is permanently and completely over.
That’s true. But my response is just the same. So what? In fact, it is this finitude that makes our lives and how they’re lived so precious. An afterlife that is exceedingly more grand, more important, and better than this life renders this life insignificant. At most, this life is a utility for determining one’s fate in the afterlife. Contrary to Hayes’s comments above, it is the God-filled universe that makes this life cold. This life becomes a mere tool: functional, narrow, and subservient. Certainly, a personal, loving God may share his love and beauty with you in this life. But would it matter if he didn’t? Wouldn’t the afterlife still be what’s important? A universe filled with a loving God is certainly preferable to that of an indifferent or hateful God. However, all make this life an impoverished landscape when compared to life in a godless universe.
Which brings me to why I find Hayes’s account patronizing. He asks three questions he claims that “we can’t escape”:
“1. When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not?
2. Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death?
3. If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad — or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God . . . while we’re here?”
It is the final question that tips Hayes’s hand. The conciliatory tone and appeal to agnosticism are mere pretense. Hayes reminds us that we don’t certainly know if a god exists, yet he expects us to be concerned that we may suffer in hell for the eternity of our afterlives. That’s not what he says, directly, but that’s what he means. He could have had the decency to be direct about it; however, it is hard to sell your loving God’s joy and radiance with threats of how that God will punish you with eternal suffering.
No, I do not like that I will die. I don’t like that the universe will cease being capable of supporting life. But I certainly don’t fear these things. Unfortunate as they may be, they do not erase the value of my life. They do not diminish the love and joy that I experience. They only serve as reminders that said love and joy must be cherished, for they are not forever. They are not taken from me, mind you. I cease.
Being godless, the universe isn’t going to provide me with love and joy. Remember, we’re in this together. I bring love and joy. I share love and joy. I may cease, but I can live in a manner that sustains and grows the garden of radiance that is our togetherness. In a godless universe, we plant the seeds that blossom into a valuable and fulfilling existence. We do this by the manner in which we live our lives.
To be fair, I can live my life just the same in a God-filled universe. However, it is not clear that I should. What I should do is live a life that gets me into heaven. At least, that seems to be where Hayes is directing my concern with his final question. In both universes, we can plant seeds of love, joy, and radiance. In the godless universe, we do so because it makes the universe better, because it is the right thing to do. In Hayes’s God-filled universe, we do so to garner future rewards.
So, remind me again, which universe is impoverished?