Easter in Academia
Are the claims of Jesus Christ rising from the dead trustworthy? Do Christians put critical thinking aside to make sense of Jesus' resurrection? What do leading atheist thinkers and philosophers say about it?
Lock atheist philosophers who do not specialize in religion in a room with theist philosophers who do specialize in religion (well, don't really, but if you did), and if you listened to the ensuing debates, you "would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate."(1)
Those are not my words but the words of an atheist. And not just any atheist, an atheist who is a respected professional philosopher with 12 books and over 140 articles to his name.
Despite his atheism, Quentin Smith draws the theism-friendly conclusion that "God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments."(2)
God is alive. And not only in philosophy, but in sociology as well. Fifty years ago sociology was convinced that God was on the way out. The scholars had bought into secularization theory; you know the idea: The more modern and technological the world becomes, the more secular it becomes.
Peter Berger was one of the leading proponents of this theory. Today he has completely abandoned it. At an academic conference in Miami in 2011, Berger said that he and almost everyone in the field changed their minds simply because that is what the evidence demanded. He said that if you look at the contemporary world, "The real situation is that most of the world is as religious as it ever was. You have enormous explosions of religion in the world… In fact, you can say every major religious tradition has been going through a period of resurgence in the last 30, 40 years or so… anything but secularization."(3)
Probably the most influential British philosopher of religion of the last half century is longtime Oxford professor Richard Swinburne. In 2003 he published a book entitled The Resurrection of God Incarnate, and in that book he concludes that on the available evidence today, it is 97% probable that Jesus truly—miraculously—rose from the dead, proving that he is the God he claimed to be.
Do all philosophers agree with Swinburne? Of course not. And even Swinburne recognizes that we can't take the exact percentage too seriously. He likes to work with probability theory so he plugs in numbers at each point in the argument; they are only meant to provide a rough estimate.
Still though, the fact that someone of his intellectual credibility can make that claim in print, have it published by Oxford University Press, and then ably defend it at top academic conferences all around the world speaks to the fact that the intellectual case for the Christian faith is strong.
A number of popular authors have suggested otherwise in recent years. But these New Atheists are generally not engaged with current philosophical scholarship. In fact, much of the new atheism at the popular level can be traced directly back to old scholarship at the academic level.
Richard Dawkins denies the existence of a God who can ground good and evil, right and wrong. But criticism without alternative is empty. What is his alternative?: a world in which the disturbing response to being asked whether the wrongness of rape is as arbitrary as the fact that we've evolved five fingers rather than six is, "You could say that, yeah."(4)
Quentin Smith denies the existence of a God who can raise the dead. What is his alternative?: "The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing... We should...acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvelous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being."(5)
Is this any less extraordinary than a resurrection from the dead? On second thought, is this not itself a resurrection from the dead?
If we think it is our minds that keep us from God, we may not be dealing with the arguments at the highest level.
If we think it is our minds that keep us from God, we may not be dealing with the arguments at the highest level. My own story is one of reasoning that if God really made me, and if he made me with my mind, then he would ensure that a sincere intellectual search would point in his direction.
To my surprise, that is just what I found. And when I was finally willing to open to God not only my mind but also my heart, I found so much more.(6)
Vince Vitale is Zacharias Institute Director and a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. His latest book, co-authored with Ravi Zacharias, is Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense.
(1) Quentin Smith, "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism," Philo. 4.2 (2001), 197.
(3) Peter Berger, "Six Decades as a Worldwide Religion Watcher: Observations & Lessons Learned." Ethics & Public Policy Center. n.p., n.d., accessed online on July 22, 2014 at http://eppc.org/publications/berger/.
(4) Richard Dawkins, Interview by Justin Brierley, "The John Lennox—Richard Dawkins Debate." Bethinking.org, 2008. Web. 25 April 2014. http://www.bethinking.org/atheism/the-john-lennox-richard-dawkins-debate.
(5) Quentin Smith, "The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe," in William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (1993), 135. Emphasis added.
(6) Some of the ideas expressed in this Slice are also recorded in the following video: http://bit.ly/WC1rrg
Also see Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn't Make Sense, co-authored with Ravi Zacharias. Vince Vitale wrote his PhD on the problem of suffering. He now teaches at Wycliffe Hall of Oxford University and is Senior Tutor at The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.