Most atheists believe that they are more rational than people of faith. There are some atheists, no doubt, who just don’t care about their reasons. But ultimately if you get a thoughtful person, he or she will stand firm on the opinion that religion just doesn’t make sense. This idea comes in several flavors. One popular notion focuses on the supposed unreality of spiritual things. People who hold this viewpoint are philosophical materialists. They deny the existence of spiritual things (God, souls, miracles, the afterlife, etc.), because these things don’t consistently follow one principle of the scientific method: repeatability. Every time a person heats water to 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, it boils. But people don’t get miracles every time they pray for them. Only some of the time.
People who hold this point of view often tend to be a bit smug about it. I know, because I used to be one of them. I wore my opinion with an attitude suggesting I had figured out something clever, and isn’t it a shame that other folks weren’t as clever as me. But how clever is this idea, really?
Suppose you are out trekking on one of your high-adventure vacations in the Arctic. As you snowshoe your way across the frozen wastes, you come upon another trekker, bundled and be-hooded like yourself, but carrying a butterfly net. You might think it odd, and you might stop and ask a few questions.
“Excuse me,” you begin, a little hesitantly, “I don’t want to seem nosey, but I notice that you are carrying a butterfly net.”
The stranger grins and brandishes the incongruous item. “Ah, yes! I am indeed. You see, I am searching for butterflies. I am using the standard field techniques recommended by the so-called experts. I have flowers” – he calls attention to several pots of frostbitten blooms – “and I’ve laid out dishes of sugar water” – these have frozen solid – “all the steps that are necessary to attract the insects.” He turns back to you, still wearing his devilish grin, as though waiting for you to press him for more details.
“Well,” you ask, feeling it is the polite thing to do, “how is it going so far?”
The stranger responds with a well-pleased air, “I haven’t caught a single one.”
“I’m not surprised,” you begin, but he interrupts
“Of course not! Because it’s all nonsense! Butterflies do not exist. I am proving it with my experiments. But do people listen? Fools!”
If you decide at this point to continue on your way, we would certainly understand. And if you described him as clever, we might agree with you that he was being clever in a manic and unbalanced sort of way. Now, suppose you are assured that he is perfectly sane, notwithstanding the notable evidence to the contrary, and his odd behavior can be explained by disclosing that he is a member of a society dedicated to disproving the existence of butterflies. He has staged this icy vignette not to determine whether butterflies exist, but to demonstrate once and for all, to anyone with the courage and intellectual integrity to face the truth, that butterflies do not exist, and that it is time for humankind to throw off the shackles of superstition and ignorance.
This is the sort of logic that atheists use when they say that spiritual things exist only if they can be detected in laboratory conditions. This claim has the same logical structure as the claim that butterflies exist only if they can be found living naturally in the Arctic. Your experiments along these lines may nicely mimic the procedures of science but ultimately will prove nothing. The hypothesis incorporates some assumptions that ought to be examined more closely. The truth is, the world is full of butterflies. You have to know where to look.
An incident occurred back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union that illustrates the point. A Soviet cosmonaut was doing a victory tour after a successful flight, and the government thought it would be amusing to arrange for him to greet a Russian Orthodox priest. This meeting would provide the opportunity to contrast the backward and primitive religious person with the brave new man of science. The priest dutifully reported on the appointed day. “Well,” the cosmonaut told him cheerfully, “I have some disappointing news. I just went up into the sky, but I didn’t see God anywhere!” The priest calmly responded, “If you haven’t seen him on Earth, how can you expect to see him in the heavens?”
Dear atheist friend:
Your insistence on scientific proof is not valid refutation. It’s not the rational thing to do. It’s no more rational than hunting butterflies at the North Pole. I suggest a different inquiry: self-examination. Start to consider the real reasons for your disbelief. Maybe you resent the idea that there’s someone far greater than yourself. Maybe you’re afraid of what your friends or family might say, if they are atheists – or worse, if they are religious people. Maybe you have a bad attitude about religious institutions. None of these reasons is rational. And they are beneath you. The world needs clear-thinking people of faith, and you are just the type.