Book Review – God’s Undertaker by John Lennox

Lennox claims that science is indeed compatible with religion and, not only that, claims that God is the best explanation for the scientific evidence accumulated over the past few centuries. The laudable aim of the book is to demonstrate this without invoking ‘gaps’ for God to fill, but unfortunately, throughout the book, Lennox brings up gap after gap after gap which he presumably fills with God.

Firstly, Lennox attempts to demonstrate that science is not incompatible with religion by observing that many scientists in the past have been religious and that “their belief in God, far from being a hindrance to this science, was often the main inspiration for it…” (p. 21). One of the main problems with this argument is that it does not show, objectively, that science and religion are compatible – it merely demonstrates that scientists who lived in a profoundly religious age were religious and, as with most religious people at the time, used it as an “inspiration”. Of course, after the Enlightenment and Darwin, atheism rose to prominence among scientists – indeed, only 7% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States (one of the most religious countries in the world) are religious.

Lennox then makes the claim that God is not an alternative to scientific explanation, and asserts that this is “an idea that is nowhere to be found in theological reflection of any depth” (p. 48); rather, “God is the ground of all explanation” – he is “the best explanation for the explanatory power of science”, and “no serious thinker” believes in a God of the gaps anyway. Nevertheless, this is making each and every explanation for natural phenomena far more complex than it needs to be: one wonders whether Lennox has ever heard of Occam’s Razor, because he even claims that the “explanatory power” of natural selection needs an explanation, when this is simply an absurd claim to make. The whole point of natural selection is that it does not need an explanation. Similarly, when we let go of a ball, it drops due to gravity – we do not need a God to be pushing it down or a God to make space-time warp.

In a later chapter, Lennox does seem to retreat from this claim, as he says that the process of evolution still requires a fine-tuned universe to occur. Indeed, Lennox invokes a number of physical constants that are supposedly fine-tuned to make this point. For instance, he cites the alleged fine-tuned process that results in the formation of carbon, an abundant supply of which is needed for life to exist in Earth. For this to happen, Lennox writes, “the nuclear ground state energy levels have to be fine-tuned with repsect to each other” in a phenomenon known as ‘resonance’ and “if the variation were more than 1 per cent either way, the universe could not sustain life” (p.70). However, this supposed fine-tuning, when looked into in more depth, is contradicted by a 1989 study pointed out by Nobel Laureate Professor Steven Weinberg, which actually found that the variation in the ‘resonance’ could be as much as 25 per cent and life would still be able to emerge! I am sure that, once we understand fine-tuning better if and when we can reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity and get a Theory of Everything, the other examples of fine-tuning that Lennox cites will turn out to be weak too. Indeed, as particle physicist Dr. Victor Stenger states in his book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, a big mistake that is made when searching for fine-tuning is changing one constant yet keeping all the others the same, despite the fact that a theory of everything would most likely depict relationships between the physical constants. Thus, a change in one constant may be compensated by a change in another.

Lennox also believes that he has found evidence for God in science when he triumphantly proclaims that, in a “remarkable consensus of opinion…[scientists believe that the] universe had a beginning” (p.69). How this is evidence for a Creator God is beyond me, yet he cites Charles Townes who wrote that seeing as “the question of origin seems to be left answered… there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation”. Firstly, this is a conspicuous example of Lennox using an argument from ignorance – or God of the gaps, argument. Just because the question of the origin of the universe has not been answered, it does not mean that we invoke a supernatural entity to explain it. However, secondly, Lennox even concedes (albeit in an endnote), that the debate over whether the universe had a beginning is not over by any means – the only reason it may be thought that the universe has a beginning is because the laws of physics that we currently have at our disposal break down at the Big Bang, and we do not yet have a Theory of Everything to go beyond that.

Both his fine-tuning arguments and his First Cause argument also don’t take into account the multiverse hypothesis, which, contrary to popular belief, has not been blindly invoked just to support an atheistic worldview: rather, as theoretical physicist Brian Greene points out in The Hidden Reality, the multiverse, in one form or another, is implied by multiple, independent scientific models. One model, based on M-theory, of particular interest has been developed by distinguished physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, and posits that we live in a “braneworld” – our universe lies on one of many branes in an eternal “braneworld”, or multiverse. It also suggests that, when these branes collide, Big Bang events will occur, thus it suggests a cycle of big bang events over eternity. This also, incidentally, gets rid of the universe having a beginning. Another well-known model, eternal inflation, also implies that we live in a multiverse in which each universe has different physical constants, and so it is not a surprise that we live in a universe which has the physical constants that it does.

It goes without saying that these models are speculative, but for Lennox to jump to the conclusion that a Creator God exists when we don’t even understand what we don’t know seems to me to be foolish.

After this, Lennox turns his attention to biology and claims that evolution is not incompatible with theism, but backs it up by quoting from scientific theists who happen to share this view with him. However, and this is where the book’s diminishes even further, he goes onto challenge macroevolution by quoting Intelligent Design advocates such as Michael Behe (p.110) and William Dembski. His lack of biological expertise shows when he mentions Behe’s irreducible complexity, a hypothesis that was refuted back in 2005. It is revealing that he attempts to challenge “macroevolution” despite there being masses of evidence coming from molecular biology and the fossil record to support “macroevolution”. One can only wonder whether his faith really is incompatible with “macroevolution”, which may be why he seeks to challenge it.

Lennox subsequently delves into fallacious statistical arguments when talking about the origin of life, and, although we haven’t explained the origin of life yet, Lennox contradicts himself yet again by using a God of the gaps argument to explain it.

Lennox concludes by saying that atheists are happy with “eternal energy” but not an “eternal Person” (p. 185). To the contrary, unfortunately for Lennox, scientific models in line with current cosmological data predict that the multiverse and/or a quantum vacuum may be eternal, therefore it is a false dichotomy to say that an eternal multiverse and an eternal Creator God are equally plausible: the former is certainly more plausible than the latter. Furthermore, even if we did have the choice between an eternal universe and an eternal God, which should we pick? Occam’s Razor would suggest the eternal universe: why add any extra assumptions?

In conclusion, Lennox fails to make a convincing case for a deistic God, and if this is the best that scientific theists have to offer, then they need to do a lot of work to improve their arguments for deistic deities first, never mind personal ones.

Positive Atheism?

It is often posited that one cannot ‘prove a negative’. To the contrary, in the case of a theistic god’s existence, this is not entirely correct. Atheists can indeed point out logical inconsistencies between theism and the universe itself. The most well-known of these arguments is the Problem of Evil, whether it is the logical argument or the evidential argument:

  1. God is said to exist
  2. God is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction)

C: Therefore, God does not exist (?)

The conclusion may, on the surface, seem reasonable. Nevertheless – as one always can with an unfalsifiable claim – theists have come up with a few objections to this argument. These are usually called theodicies. (Clearly, one could object to premise 2, but a classical monotheist would not do this). 

The best known — and the most used — objection to the Problem of Evil is the Free Will Argument. It states that evil is the price that we have to pay for our free will, and that humans can be evil as a result of our free will. However, this does not account for natural evils, such as natural disasters – it only accounts for moral evils. Therefore, proponents of the free will argument can either invoke a supremely evil entity, such as Satan, or argue that natural evil (as well as moral evil) brings out good human virtues such as compassion. 

An invocation of Satan seems unnecessary and flawed: if God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he stop Satan from inflicting evil on the world? Combining the Satan-hypothesis with the ‘greater good’ hypothesis may seem reasonable, but why would God need Satan to inflict evil on the world if the question of evil has already been answered with a combination of free will and a ‘greater good’? Therefore, it seems unreasonable to suggest that it is the work of Satan.

Thus, we are at a point where the best theistic explanation for any kind of evil and suffering is free will and greater good combined.

Firstly, I will contest the concept that we have ultimate free will in the first place. That God is unable to intervene as a result of our free will necessarily follows, and I will be alluding to this idea. Just to illustrate this idea, god cannot stop a car knocking somebody over because the person in the car has the same amount of free will as the victim. So, do we really have free will? Here are some reasons to think that we do not:

1. Human beings cannot violate the laws of physics. God, described as the creator, must have created these laws of physics. If I wanted to violate the laws of physics, I simply could not do so. Therefore, one could argue either that free will does not exist, or that God has given us limited free will, which I shall be mentioning a bit later.

2. This is again due to the laws of nature, but we cannot choose whether we sleep or not, for in the end, we will fall unconscious. 

3. In all of the monotheistic texts, did God not intervene on numerous occasions? Take the Bible, where God, without consulting almost every single living thing on the planet, unleashes a flood which wipes them off the face of the Earth. Moreover, has Jesus not already redeemed us all of our sins, before we even committed them? Did I ask for that? No, it seems that from what I’ve read of the Bible, if I do not accept it, I’ll face eternal punishment in everlasting fire. God has been said to intervene, and this is surely a violation of our free will. Why does he not intervene now when terrible suffering occurs? In any case, I find it amazing that theists continually neglect the teachings of their scriptures when in debate.

4. This follows from (3), but knowledge of God’s supposed existence, as billions on this planet claim to have, will surely influence their decisions. Do we really have free will, or guided will?

With regard to the first objection of the Free Will Argument, that we seem to have limited free will, why did God not place further limits on our free will? Why allow somebody like Hitler to come to power, who caused misery not just in his own country but in the whole world. He can be said to be the direct cause of World War 2, a war which killed millions of people. Did any greater good come from this? I think more evil than good came from it. What happened afterwards? The Cold War. It wasn’t, as they said after World War 1, ‘the war to end all wars’. Evil, suffering and murder still continued on. 

William L. Rowe had a similar thought, when he came up with this:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

He also gave this example which should remind us that other animals suffer and this goes largely unnoticed by human beings:

“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.”

Considering all of these objections to the Free Will Argument, I contend that a lack of belief in a god due to the Problem of Evil is certainly reasonable. There are, of course, other objections to the Problem of Evil, but these (such as original sin and Satan) have been dealt with many times. There is a reason that most theists resort to the Free Will Argument these days.

There are many different approaches that one can take to the Problem of Evil, this is just my take on it. The philosopher Stephen Law outlines an extremely thoughtful argument stating that the objections to the Problem of Evil can equally be applied to an evil-god, not just a good-god, and so there is not any more reason to believe in a theistic god than an evil-god.

I believe that positive atheism as justified by the Problem of Evil is just as potent as atheism justified by more scientific arguments. In fact, scientific arguments – which I’m generally more a fan of – merely say that it is unlikely that a god exists, whereas this argument – a more philosophical one – seems to demonstrate that a monotheistic god does not exist.

Defining atheism

For me, atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god. Defining atheism, for some reason, has caused a fair bit of argument, partially because it relates to who gets the burden of proof in a debate.

Nevertheless, there are those who say that most thinking atheists are actually agnostic. Indeed, upon reading or hearing my views, some would say that I am an agnostic.

I have a lack of belief in a god, but I am not saying that there definitely is no god. Similarly, I am sure that most theists wouldn’t be so arrogant (and vacuous) as to say that there definitely is a god, yet the fact remains that they believe in one and are still called theists.

Strictly, however, the terms should be as follows:

Gnostic theist – someone who is certain that there is a god.

Agnostic theist – someone who believes in a god but is not certain that there is one and is willing to concede that there may not be a god.

Agnostic atheist – someone who lacks belief in a god but is not certain that there is not a god and is willing to concede that there may be a god.

Gnostic atheist – someone who is certain that there is no god.

I, therefore, am an agnostic atheist, but I’m extremely close to being a gnostic atheist.

The fact remains, however, that those who believe in a god but are not certain about it are still called theists. I submit that the same should go for those who lack belief in a god but are not certain that there is no god – they should be called atheists.

As to which of those strict definitions is the more rational, I contend that it is the agnostic atheist position. Simply put, this is because there is no evidence for the existence of any god, although I have many other reasons not to believe in a god. As a result, the agnostic theist position is not reasonable and therefore the gnostic theist position is almost certainly not reasonable.

However, the gnostic atheist position is hardly rational either, because there exists a possibility, however small, that there is a god. Likewise, there exists a possibility that there exists a tooth fairy. Although, as we grow up, we find that the pound coin under our pillows was put there by our parents, but what if our parents’ minds were being controlled while putting the coin under the pillow, for example.

Therefore, in conclusion, I am strictly both an agnostic atheist and an agnostic a-toothfairyist.

God, Nothing and the Beginning of the Universe

Is an invocation of God necessary to explain the universe’s existence? Have scientists already found the answer to the nature of the beginning of the universe?

Let us deal with the religious god first, before moving onto a deistic god.

Does it not raise the slightest suspicion that a version of God has been fabricated time after time leading to a great number of conflicting and contradictory ideas, known as religions?

There are those who say that none of these religions are true, but there are also those who say that all of the religions are correct about at least one thing: there is a God. The former, I submit, are completely rational in saying that none of these religions are true, and the latter can be quickly dismissed if you look at the reasons that religion came about from a psychological or anthropological standpoint, which I shall not go into here. 

With that in mind, as well as other reasons not to believe in the metaphysical claims of religion, we can dismiss the theistic god and move onto a broader definition of god. This includes the deist god. Believers in a deist god may simply be astonished by the universe’s very existence, and think that there must have been some cause as to why the universe exists. Well, in response to these people, science yet again has many plausible ideas when it comes to how the universe came into existence – none of these explanations require a supernatural entity. 

For instance, take Professor Lawrence Krauss’s hypothesis of a universe from nothing, which basically states that our kind of universe was an inevitable result of the laws of quantum mechanics. This is over-simplifying it, but it shall suffice for now. If one has been intelligent and insightful enough to have got as far as asking the question ‘Why/How does the universe exist?’, then one invariably, after hearing scientific explanations, asks where the laws of physics came from. The same could apply to Stephen Hawking’s no boundary proposal.

Well, I had an idea – cosmic natural selection. This could apply to universes, but also to the laws of physics. What if, similar to evolution by natural selection, laws of physics ‘died’ out if they did not have good characteristics, such as producing a universe to operate within.

In the end, this too seems like an unsatisfactory explanation, for people would then want to know WHY there is anything for this cosmic natural selection to choose from in the first place. So, why these laws rather than any other:

1. We could invoke the strong anthropic principle along with the multiverse, and insist that there are different universes with different laws of physics. Well then, where did the multiverse come from? It may be eternal.

2. Perhaps these laws, including the laws of quantum mechanics, simply had to be. They may be eternal.

3. Or, we could recognise that the laws of physics are simply human constructs designed to  describe nature. Perhaps things just happened in this particular way and, as a consequence, we’re here to describe ‘this particular way’. Recall that Heisenberg demonstrated that things are very uncertain, so perhaps ‘this particular way’ was just random and indeterministic.

In any case, physics is most certainly not finished working on the question of the beginning of the universe. Physicists haven’t managed to get a Theory of Everything yet, which brings me to my next point.

One could always invoke a deistic god, but this deistic god would still be unfalsifiable. And what does the falsification principle tell us to do with unfalsifiable claims? Dismiss them. Furthermore, as Isaac Asimov said, ‘to surrender to ignorance and call it god has always been premature, and it remains premature today’. To invoke a deist god would be intellectually lazy, and what good would it do? It’s the equivalent of saying ‘I don’t know’. Moreover, it wouldn’t affect your life in the slightest, for it’s highly unlikely that an Aristotelian-like Prime Mover would care about whether you prayed to him, what days you prayed to him on, which foods you eat, who you look at (Jesus could commit you of facecrime, as described in the New Testament), and what you think. 

In conclusion, we should be patient and wait for the verdict of science, if there is ever going to be a verdict. Even if there isn’t, it doesn’t mean we should use a deist god to explain the universe, never mind a theist god.