What’s the Matter?

A few centuries before Jesus was born, a Greek philosopher named Democritus took a stab at describing the nature of reality. He believed atoms are the basic building blocks that make up everything we see and correspondingly all that is. He considered atoms indivisible. The word atom itself means “that which cannot be cut or divided.”

The term comes from two Greek words: tomos means cut, and the letter a in front is a negation. The word atheist is formed the same way: the a simply negates theos, the Greek word for God, giving us literally “no God.” Many believe Democritus was both an atomist and an atheist. And according to the late atheistic author Victor Stinger, atomism equals atheism. If all that exists is the stuff that makes up the natural world, then there is certainly no room for God.

Depending on what you thought of his atomism and atheism, Democritus could be a fun guy to have around. In fact, his nickname was the “Laughing Philosopher.” If you were to go back in time to the 300s BC, you might find him at the center of social life somewhere in Athens mixing it up at a toga party and poking fun at human folly. But if you fast-forward over twenty centuries to our day, what do modern-day atheists believe about the building blocks of reality?

For starters, we now know that the atom can be divided, a scientific breakthrough with serious consequences, considering the death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What about the consequences of an atheistic view of matter?

Three things would be hard to avoid while retaining an atheistic outlook. On the assumption of atheism, it seems that matter must be eternal, impersonal, and nonrational or mindless. This would seem to flow from the atheist’s basic understanding of ultimate reality.

First, matter would have to be eternal. Lawrence Krauss, an atheistic author and theoretical physicist, has recently suggested that the universe came from nothing. If his book, aptly named A Universe from Nothing, solved the philosophical riddle of why there is something instead of nothing—as Richard Dawkins boldly claimed in his endorsement—then this would prove that matter is not eternal. It came from nothing.

Krauss admits in his writing and speaking, however, that the “nothing” he refers to isn’t really nothing, at least not the way we conventionally understand the term. He describes nothing as a “bubbling, broiling, brew of virtual particles.” He also admits that he cannot account for the physical laws that guide the nothing.

If the “nothing” Krauss is referring to includes preexisting matter, energy, or laws, then he doesn’t really explain how the universe came from nothing. Instead, he is simply theorizing about how the universe came from something (virtual particles and physical laws). Of course this would certainly make for a less provocative book title: A Universe from Something. It would also imply that this preexisting something—if not created—has been around forever.

Second, matter would have to be impersonal. Take away a personal Creator, and you have no way to account for persons within the cosmos. On the other hand, if you have an eternal, personal, intentional force behind the creation, you no longer have atheism. It’s one or the other—a personal Creator who gives the universe and its occupants a purpose and values, or eternal stuff that is impersonal and just there. If anything that makes up the cosmos qualifies as personal, purposeful, guided, or good, then you have taken a big step away from naturalism.

This dilemma can be seen clearly in an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’s book River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that 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.”

Finally, matter would have to be nonrational. You cannot hold to atheism and still have a mind as the source of all things or reasonable minds as part of the world of matter. This creates a pretty big obstacle for atheist intellectuals who are willing to consider it. The prolific author and Notre Dame University professor Alvin Plantinga has spilled a fair bit of ink on this topic in what he describes as the “The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.”

At the risk of oversimplification, let me summarize: Plantinga essentially argues that eternal, impersonal, and mindless matter cannot provide a proper foundation for proving that our minds are reliable. If our brains are just one more accident in a long string of accidents that have led to the world we live in, then why should we trust what we think? Our brains are mindless outcomes. If we are the products of unguided evolution, then there is no reason to consider our brains trustworthy. We can say they are directed at survival, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as being directed at truth or justice. (I’ll say more about this in chapter 5.)

The simplest way around this problem is to insert some kind of mind behind the creation of the world that initiates and guides the process. But if you make this move, you have taken a giant leap away from atheism. Thomas Nagel, an atheist and well-known philosophy professor at NYU, flirts with this notion in his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press). He ponders that there must be more behind reality than just eternal, impersonal, and non-rational matter. He just doesn’t come to any clear conclusions as to what it must be.

So, in sum, atheist presuppositions begin with eternal, impersonal, and mindless matter. These presuppositions must be taken on faith and cannot be proved scientifically.

Atheism is irrational—that at least is how one atheistic philosophy professor, Crispin Sartwell, describes his God-free worldview in a 2014 article published in The Atlantic:

“Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”

Crispin’s honesty is shocking. He says he has taken “a leap of atheist faith” by committing to a view of the universe as a natural and material system. And he says other atheists should own up to their faith commitments as well by calling for an atheism that displays epistemological courage.

The notion that believers rely on emotions while atheists form their worldview through rationality is simply false, Crispin says. Both require a “bold intellectual commitment” that cannot be proved with scientific data. In this way, Crispin concedes that his atheism is more of an interpretation and less of an argument.

The real question considered in Christ or Chaos is which bold intellectual commitment, which interpretation of reality, which worldview, best accounts for what it means to be human?

This is an excerpt from my new book Christ or Chaos that comes out this weekend with Crossway. You can purchase the book here