This article is a response to fellow screenwriter (and really cool dude) Joel Eisenberg. With his permission, I’m going to present some of my thoughts as a Gentile follower of Yeshua (Jesus) the Jewish Messiah as it relates to his article titled Was Dr. Asimov Right? Is The Bible the Most Potent Force For Atheism Ever Conceived?
Was Dr. Asimov Right? Is The Bible the Most Potent Force For Atheism Ever Conceived?
To a moralist, there is a difference between spirituality and personal judgement, and the strict dogma of religion.
If you haven’t read Joel’s article yet, I suggest you do so before continuing.
First, I’ll address each of his main sections: personal, social media, Trump, and the pandemic. Then I’ll discuss my thoughts on Asimov’s claim, and the relationship between science and faith, which is also an interest of mine. Thank you (Joel) for graciously sharing the mic with me!
Hawking & the Soul
Joel, you describe yourself as an agnostic, non-religious Jew but also as a person who is “highly spiritual.” What is your definition of spirit? Those who are spiritual often use the term to convey a variety of meanings, so I’m curious about what you mean by the term “spiritual.” If you mean that there’s something “greater than yourself” or that “immaterial things exist,” then I agree with you.
Your quote from Stephen Hawking reminds me of the Mind-Body problem, which is the disconnect observed between the physical nature of the brain and our inability to explain consciousness with mere materialism. This leads many to the conclusion that the immaterial soul exists. As philosopher Richard Swinburne points out:
“If you can’t bring ‘soul’ into the account of the world, you will not tell the full story of the world, because you will not tell who has which conscious life.”
Hawking’s denial of an afterlife shows his commitment to ontological naturalism, the concept that only the physical universe exists. This makes it seem that he did not study the evidence for the soul, or philosophy in general.
How The Princess Bride Shows Philosophy is Inescapable
I’ll prove that you are a philosopher, too.
For example, Hawking also stated that “Philosophy is dead.” Ironically, this is self-defeating, for it is itself a philosophical statement! Hawking also applied this type of illogic to his science, as pointed out by Oxford mathematician John Lennox:
“Saying philosophy is dead is very dangerous especially when you yourself engage in it. Take, for instance, Hawking’s statement: ‘Because there is a law of gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’ Clearly, he assumes that gravity (or perhaps only the law of gravity?) exists. That is not nothing. So the universe is not created from nothing. Worse still, the statement…is self-contradictory. …To presuppose the existence of the universe to account for its existence is logically incoherent.”
Therefore, I commend your questioning of such claims made by the late Dr. Hawking. The man was brilliant with physics, but not with metaphysics.
Hawking & the Big Bang
Ironically, Hawking’s scientific discoveries helped provide evidence for the existence of God, as relayed by Dr. Bill Brown:
“Not surprisingly, there was push back among many in the scientific community about the implications of the Big Bang theory. …Many thought the argument gave credence to…creation. Hawking himself admitted, ‘Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.’”
The idea that the universe came into being in the finite past — and therefore must have a cause outside of itself — forms the basis of the Kalam Cosmological Argument:
Even Asimov — though he didn’t believe in God — still thought the concept of the Kalam was sound:
“If you are willing to say that the universe began fifteen billion years ago — the exact number of billions of years is under dispute — as a tiny object that expanded rapidly and dropped in temperature, and all the other things that scientists believe happened, then you can say that God created it, and the laws of nature that controlled it, and that he then sat back and watched it develop. I would be content to have people say that.”
Joel, your desire for certain mysteries to be explicable (and accepting that some may never be) is an excellent practice in humble epistemology. I agree that what is explicable ought to come with proof — that’s why my faith is based on evidence (like the Kalam) and not mere blind belief. Surprisingly, not all miracles are “bereft of proof.” In the search for explanations of miracles which make you “flinch” — like the resurrection of Yeshua — I’d like to dispel a common misconception that there is no evidence. There is!
If a certain miracle occurred in history, then we can and should use the tools of history to investigate those claims. This is especially true of passages from the Bible since we know a great deal about the world of the ancient Mediterranean, Levant, and Hebrew culture thanks to archaeology and historiography.
To presuppose miracles are impossible is a demonstrably false position of David Hume consistent with ontological naturalism. Positions defended by storytellers like C.S. Lewis and philosophers like Gary Habermas can shed some light here:
“Habermas opines that a miracle is not a violation of natural order or laws. He argues that the process that brings about miracles does not violate the laws of nature but rather supersedes it. He redefines a miracle as a process whereby the natural law is being superseded through a supernatural agent. A miracle is an event whereby God ‘temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things, to show that God is acting.’”
Therefore, if you believe in the immaterial existence of the soul and allow for the potentiality of consciousness after death, then why not consider belief in Yahweh who could do miracles within his own creation?
Social Media Crowd:
Joel, if you want “religious” (though I dislike the term) perspectives for your future essays (which I always find enjoyable) I’ll be happy to supply them. Your article about horror films is especially fascinating:
Why “The Exorcist” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” May Be the Most Spiritual Films I’ve Seen
William Friedkin’s masterpiece is my favorite horror film. Martin Scorsese’s classic is among his finest. Both films…
I won’t respond to every comment from your social group. Still, I do lament those friends of yours who were turned away by the apparent “subjugation tools” of the Bible or were shushed for asking tough questions. In my experience, the tough questions lead to the most fruitful answers! Asimov said the same: “There is nothing that we should not be able to examine.” This coheres nicely with the ancient Jewish search for truth in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures). As it is written in Proverbs 25:2:
“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (ESV).
The Trump Effect:
I don’t get this either. I’d rather have a thoughtful leader that I can respect if not always agree with like Pres. Obama than someone like Pres. Trump who does not act like a follower of Yeshua and is not a real conservative.
I think many on the right greatly dislike Trump’s character but feel they have no other choice since he pushes the policies they prefer. The “ends justifying the means” view of politics is just a form of utilitarianism, which as I’ve written about before, is not the best ethical system:
1917: Do Sacrifices Really Matter?
The gripping WWI film wrestles with duty as it drags you through the mud.
“If God exists, why is he doing this to us?”
That’s a strong question, Joel! I like tough questions, though.
The problem of evil is an age-old dilemma. Whether it’s natural evil like a pandemic or an earthquake or it’s moral evil committed by another human, the problem remains: why evil in this world? I’ll expand on the concepts of good and evil in the next section, but for now, let’s look at one of several potential explanations for the existence of evil, called a theodicy: Free will.
According to this theory, the best possible universe for humans entails the possibility for conscious beings to love. Love requires the ability to choose, which by definition also gives the agent the ability to misuse that ability. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga developed this idea:
“God’s creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.”
Without the ability to choose love, any expression of love or personal freedom would be meaningless or illusory. Evil is a byproduct of our wrong choices and is a reminder that we’re imperfect and broken — especially me! This doesn’t mean God ignores our pain and suffering. As I’ll show, He shares in our suffering.
Bible Causes Wars
I’ve heard the “religion caused the most wars” idea before, but I’d never looked into it until now. Asimov himself espoused this view. Granted, there are some wars — like the Crusades — which were barbaric and heinous displays of hatred clothed in false religion. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Wars, religion accounts for less than 7% of all causes of war. Rabbi Alan Laurie exposits:
“An objective look at history reveals that those killed in the name of religion have, in fact, been a tiny fraction in the bloody history of human conflict. …History simply does not support the hypothesis that religion is the major cause of conflict. The wars of the ancient world were rarely, if ever, based on religion.”
Based on the statistics, some have argued that militant atheism (combined with communism or nihilism run amok) has killed far more than religion. Now, that’s not an attack on skeptics. Atheists and agnostics can of course be moral without religion. That’s a given. I just do not see how their subjective ethical framework is philosophically justified.
Here’s what I mean: What is good or evil without an objective referent outside of yourself? As the late Indian theologian Ravi Zacharias taught:
“When you say there is evil, aren’t you admitting there is good? When you accept the existence of goodness, you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit to a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver. …We can’t complain about evil without at the same time invoking the primacy of good, and to do so is to acknowledge that morality is objective.”
Life of Anarchy
Speaking of morality, I’m intrigued by your rhetorical question that those who follow the Bible can thus “live a life of anarchy” because they’ll always get forgiveness. Ironically, this position is actually refuted in said book! Rav Sha’ul (also known as the Apostle Paul, a Pharisee, and student of Rabbi Gamaliel I) argues against this “get out of jail free card” concept in a letter about the Torah:
Romans 6:1–2, 15: “So then, are we to say, ‘Let’s keep on sinning, so that there can be more grace?’ Heaven forbid! How can we, who have died to sin, still live in it? …Therefore, what conclusion should we reach? ‘Let’s go on sinning, because we’re not under legalism but under grace?’ Heaven forbid” (CJB)!
Therefore, the Bible actually teaches obedience rather than anarchy — though many “followers” hypocritically choose not to follow this imperative.
And, I agree with you; of course Yeshua isn’t white! Honestly, I don’t know why people still think this.
Asimov on Genesis
Now let’s get to the core issue: Asimov’s claim about the Bible. “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” Why did he believe this? It seems most of his ire at religion comes from the denial of science by Young Earth Creationists, a relatively new theory in our modern society which assumes that our planet is merely 6,000 years old.
Early exegetes like Augustine recognized the importance of contemporary science’s impact on scriptural interpretation, and that this wooden, literal reading of creation is not the only legitimate interpretation. Today, this anachronistic reading of Genesis is not the main view of many theists, as touted by the National Center for Science Education:
“Anglicans, Catholics, most Protestant Christians, and Conservative and Reformed Jews believe that God is the Creator, but that he works through the process of evolution, as revealed through modern science. This position is known as theistic evolutionism, and is widespread among modern theologians.
In fact, the majority of Christian seminaries do not teach a Biblical literalist [i.e., Young Earth] creation. …Religious people who struggle with the creation/evolution controversy need to understand that accepting evolution as science is not antithetical to a religious view.”
It’s mainly against this YEC view that Asimov seemed to direct his disdain, as opposed to Old Earth Creationist or Theistic Evolutionist views. Asimov even said as much:
“I am perfectly willing, for instance, to interpret the Bible allegorically and to speak of the days of creation as representing eons of indefinite length.”
This sounds an awful lot like Canadian astrophysicist Dr. Hugh Ross, who wrote the book Navigating Genesis in which he defends the day-age view and argues that millions of years in science do not conflict with the Hebrew creation myth.
This is one of many issues in the Bible which Asimov saw as opposing science. However, the Bible is concerned with God’s relationship with his chosen people Israel and the rest of humanity; it’s not a biology textbook. This concept is not new, either:
“In telling of creation, the Bible writers never undertook to teach science. The Bible tells us that God made the world, and the universe, and that he sustains it continually, but it does not tell us how he did it or how long was the process. On this matter the Bible has been misunderstood.” — William Goodell Frost, 1925
Science and Reason in Conflict?
“If there is such a thing as God’s word, it’s rationality, and I have the call to spread it.” — Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s mistake was that he apparently viewed faith as irrational. If his only view of faith was that the supernatural was magic rather than metaphysics, then I can see why he rejected faith. See, the old “either you pick science and reason or you pick faith” is a false dichotomy based on the misunderstanding of the nature of faith.
Other famous thinkers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson have fallen victim to the same fallacy. In an interview, Tyson stated that “all efforts” to reconcile faith and reason have failed. Take a look:
Just like Hawking had a poor grasp of philosophy, so does Tyson. In another interview, Tyson rightly wrestles with the problem of evil, but explains that faith is “belief in the absence of evidence.” That is one legitimate use of the word, but it’s not how I — or so many of the other Yeshua-followers I know — understand their faith.
I covered this earlier with regards to the Kalam and miracles. Heavy-weight scientists like Dr. James Tour (also Jewish) dispels the notion that faith and reason are irreconcilable:
Faith is trust in the evidence, not blind belief despite counter-evidence.
Psalm 22:17–18 states:
“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet — I can count all my bones — they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (ESV).
Not only do these verses describe what happened to Yeshua when he was executed by the Romans in the Besorot (Gospels), the psalmist accurately describes crucifixion hundreds of years before it was invented.
Isaiah 53:4–5 says:
“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our pains. Yet we esteemed Him stricken, struck by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities. The chastisement for our shalom was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (TLV).
A common title for the Messiah is the “Suffering Servant” or the “Man of Sorrows.” Lest you think this isn’t a Jewish idea, the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases of the Tanakh), the Talmud, and the Zohar (Jewish mysticism) also corroborate the concept that Isaiah 53 refers to Messiah.
Intriguing at the very least, right?
Let’s recap. In my response to Joel’s thought-provoking article, I:
- Agree that Hawking’s denial of the immaterial aspect of consciousness is troubling.
- Dispel a common myth about the inexplicability of miracles.
- Respond to Joel’s thoughts on the Bible, President Trump (whom we both dislike), and COVID.
- Explain how religion is a minor, not major, cause of wars.
- Examine the origin of Asimov’s claim about the Bible, and why it hinges on a false dichotomy.
- Provide several pieces of evidence for the existence of Yahweh, such as the Kalam, the moral law, and uncanny Jewish prophecies.
So…was Asimov right? Is the Bible the “most potent force for atheism ever conceived?” Hardly, in my opinion.
Accurately predicting the discovery of the inception of the observable universe in the finite past? Check.
Eyewitness testimony of the miraculous within historically-accurate geography and Judaean milieu? Check.
Eerily prescient prophecies about the Jewish messiah written hundreds of years before crucifixion was invented? Check.
Galileo sums up my worldview well:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”
Misreading the Bible could perhaps be a force for atheism. The Bible can seem mysterious or confusing — even to me at times, I’ll freely admit — but the most potent force for atheism? Far from it.