A Bit of Atheist Foolishness

Not all atheists are foolish of course. There are atheists who have many interests other than not believing in God and if they come across new ideas they are very interested. There are atheists that engage in rigorous arguments and may even test their ideas with surprising results. But just as there may be plenty of American tourists at places of interest who are quiet and self contained and mingling as just another person in the crowd, these are not the ones you will notice. You will notice the enormous, loud and boorish ones. Similarly with atheists, the ones you cannot ignore are the ones who seem monomaniacal in their need to tell you about atheism. If such a person is also a vegan, it must be an absolute nightmare for them to decide which to shoehorn into a conversation first, the atheism or the veganism. Online you will find them. Any article with anything conceivably God related, they will turn up in the comments to indulge in some clumsy evangelising for their dogma. Generally coming over as a pound shop version of one of their atheist idols.

In common with their idols, they may misrepresent either the topic at hand or the theology they are mocking. Apparently any stick will do to attack God, even though they often seem to have grasped it by the wrong end. You may think that these radical atheists only exist in the virtual world, like Pokémon, but I have met them in the real world too. I want to deal with a line of attack I have been confronted with on multiple occasions, not because it is a strong argument, but because the flimsiness of it demonstrates how little thinking a radical atheist will do.

In the 1980s, people investigated using magnetic fields to induce electrical currents in the brain and therefore affect brain behaviour. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been tried for a variety of disorders and may have a place in the treatment of major depression. A team was experimenting with lower power magnetic fields and found some people experienced a feeling like the presence of God. This equipment became known as the “God helmet” and got a lot of press. The fact that other investigators have struggled to reproduce these results is almost irrelevant. I have had several atheists independently tell me that this proves God is not real. That He is a hallucination, because He can be faked by magnets. Similar statements have also been made because some people have a comparable experience under the influence of psychedelic drugs. It’s just something happening in the brain so all religious experience can be dismissed.

This is so silly an argument that I can’t be bothered to refute it. I’ve invited Bruce along to explain it to you instead. You may know him better under another name.

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Robin: Ow!!!

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Robin: Ow again! That hurts.

Batman: Yes and why does it hurt?

Robin: Because you slapped me in the face.

Batman: Yes. But what happens after I slap you? Nerve fibres in your face send signals via your trigeminal nerve. They end up feeding into your somatosensory cortex on the opposite side of your brain. I could interfere with your nerves or with with your somatosensory cortex to give you a rough approximation of a slap in the face. The fact I could give your brain an experience like a fake slap to the face, does not mean real slaps don’t exist. In fact, the fact your brain has the wiring to experience slaps suggests that your body expects a real slap in the face now and then. So what does the fact that your brain can feel like God is there, actually tell you?

Robin: But if God is real, shouldn’t he just speak to your soul?

Batman:I don’t see why we would expect him to, because you are not just your soul or spirit. The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. It’s not like I’m a Hindu. I’m Batman, not atman.

Robin: OK. I get it now. Ow!!

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So there you have it. If an atheist ever tells you that the brain’s response to drugs or electricity disproves the existence of God, you know what to do.

Bubble of Bubbles

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Ecclesiastes begins with these famous words about vanity. Most English Bibles translate the Hebrew word “hebel” as vanity. Vanity is also used as the translation of several other Hebrew words into English, so can another English word be substituted which fits the intended meaning as well as vanity? Hebel can be read as a breath, vapour,or emptiness. Consider what is left when a bubble bursts. A bubble is emphemeral and filled with emptiness, yet amuses and distracts till it’s inevitable end. All vanity shall vanish. So albeit that traduttore, traditore, a bubble is an ideal vessel for the concept of vanity.

Bubble of bubbles, says the Preacher,
    bubble of bubbles! All is bubbles.

Does it work if we reverse the process? Using the word bubble in phrases in place of the word vanity demonstrates a good linguistic fit. The South Sea Bubble, a house price bubble, or any other market bubble, is a pursuit of vanity. The Westminster Bubble; well, it is appropriate that today Ecclesiastes is the first reading in church as we discover the likely recipients of David Cameron’s resignation honours.

The author of Ecclesiastes seems dismissive of the value of striving and achieving. Hebel, bubble, for all your toil and trouble? Nothing but froth. Is this an old man who has become disheartened? Are all achievements small and fleeting? Is the author’s problem one of too much perspective, that he sees the scale of our achievements minuscule compared to God?

Thomas Aquinas lived a life steeped in thought, knowledge and wisdom. His output was enormous. Requiring four scribes to keep up with his dictation. Probably the most  learned man in Christendom in his day. He had written in detail of the meaning of the Eucharist. Towards the end of his life, Domenic of Caserta observed Aquinas alone, praying before an icon of Christ crucified. Dominic heard a voice from the icon saying, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labour?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but you Lord.” After that, whatever it was he then experienced, Aquinas considered all he had written to be no better than straw.

The best we can do. The best that even the best of us like Aquinas can do, is, with that perspective, less than the clumsy daubings of a toddlers painting. And yet, if it is intended well, offered with a good heart, it is received gladly by our loving Father. Nothing can compare to God, but God changes everything.

I was going to write this piece earlier today. I was stopped as soon as I began. My daughter who had no idea what I was thinking about, asked me to come into the garden and play with her and blow bubbles.