In Dialogue with Atheists: Five Things to Consider, Part 2

This entry, “It Is Reasonable to Believe,” is the second in a five-part series stemming from a debate I had with atheist and all-around good dude, Brian Govatos, who runs the website The Proud Atheist. As we debated, five observations occurred to me as useful launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic perspective of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

When considering the improbability of humanity’s existence, it is reasonable to believe that there was a creator. This most basic of all arguments for the existence of God can seem cliché. But if it does seem cliché to us, we’ve failed to understand the magnitude of that improbability. During the first second after the Big Bang, everything was set in motion for the next 13.8 billion years. In that first second, a speck of energy no larger than an atom appeared out of nowhere. There was no time, no energy, no space. There was actually no “nothing,” because even “nothing” would have been “something.” There was nothing-nothing.

This atom-sized energy exploded and if it had been a slightly stronger explosion, this universe would have been only radiation. Instead, matter and antimatter emerged. Just enough matter was released to cancel out antimatter, its mortal enemy. Then the Higgs boson particle brought mass to the matter. Beyond the strength of the explosion, if one thing would have played out differently in any of the units of “Planck time” (the smallest measurement of time, or 10-43 of a second), then the stars and galaxies that we see, observe, and measure would not be here.

If that wasn’t enough, 9 billion years later planet Earth formed in a way that could sustain life. If that wasn’t enough, life actually emerged. If that wasn’t enough, the life that did emerge was able to replicate. If that wasn’t enough, the life that did emerge and replicate was able to change and adapt by natural selection. If that wasn’t enough, the life that emerged, replicated, changed, and adapted developed consciousness and the ability to ponder the universe and beings’ relationship to the universe.

The margin for error in all of this is so great that at any point along this beautiful and elegant evolutionary journey things could have derailed. Is the improbability of our existence proof? No. But such considerations make it reasonable to believe that there is a first cause that exists outside of time and space.

In dialogue with Atheists: Part 1

I had the great honor of writing the white paper that was part of Proclaiming the Good News: Resources for Evangelizing the Young Church. It’s the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry’s document on evangelization. In the process of writing that document I learned of the high rate at which young people who grew up in the Catholic faith are leaving the Church. I also discovered the role that “the new atheists” have played in the decision to leave the Church.

I’m beginning this first in a five-part series fresh off a debate I did with an atheist. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, and I was very thankful for the opportunity to talk with Brian Govatos, who runs the website and blog The Proud Atheist, and to record a debate with him on video. During that debate, I found that there were five points that can act as launch points for a dialogue between the Catholic perspective of faith and the common atheistic views of faith: 1) There is evidence; 2) It is reasonable to believe; 3) Believing is compatible with science; 4) the desire for unity; 5) religious responses are part of our DNA.

In this and future posts, I’ll look at each of these.

1) There Is Evidence – There is an often-repeated phrase that I hear in atheistic circles: “Show me the evidence.” This phrase holds the assumption that they would believe in God if evidence is provided. It is also assumed that there is no such evidence. Yet, to put it bluntly, there is ample evidence for the existence of God. There is, on the other hand, no proof. I believe this is what atheists actually desire. They want proof. However, proof is a very high threshold, both in science and theology, and this threshold is only met in rare cases.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing two members of the Jesuit community who are scientists and are also members of the Vatican observatory. During my interview with Br. Guy Consulmagno, SJ, he provided the example of the Allen Hills 84001 Asteroid. This asteroid has peculiar markings on it that some credible and rigorous scientists believe are indicators of organic life. This group looks at evidence and concludes that the markings are fossils. On the other side, there is a group of similarly credible and rigorous scientists who believe that these markings could not possibly be fossils. Both are looking at evidence, and that evidence doesn’t provide proof for either side. The available data is inconclusive and can be used to support two logical conclusions that are directly opposed to one another.

This case serves as an example of the norm regarding factual evidence. It’s not reasonable to assume that evidence always leads to an irrefutable conclusion. In the words of Br. Guy, science disagrees with science more often than faith disagrees with science. Applying this to the existence of a Creator, we can say that the data provides reasonable evidence for a Creator. Even though this data does not provide irrefutable proof, it is not intellectually inconsistent or delusional to believe. In fact, it is reasonable to believe.