May It Please the Court

atheism on trial

While some big questions haunt the minds of many and can be fertile fields for dialogue, perhaps the most consequential questions center on faith.

Excerpted From

Atheism on Trial 

By Mark Lanier

May It Please the Court

Almost everyone desires to know and understand things beyond oneself. Humanity seems hard-wired for curiosity, but not in the same way as a cat. People seek out information, not simply stimulation. Some have termed humans as “informavores,” substituting an appetite for information into a well-known word for eating (carnivores, herbivores, etc.).

People consume information constantly, watching television, listening to news or sports, surfing web pages, reading books, and dialoguing with others. At its root, even gossip is seeking information—conversations, tabloids, and web pages are often laden with the latest on So-and-So. Of course, people readily question and seek information greater than who is dating whom, or whose marriage is falling apart. Most people readily discuss or opine on big questions of life and existence. I love to ask people if they believe in extraterrestrial life. I am frequently stunned at how many people quickly profess a belief in ETs, while others are adamantly against the concept. Or try starting a conversation about whether global warming is a human driven event or simply cyclical. Ask folks about politics and who should get one’s vote. People are informavores with opinions!

While these big questions haunt the minds of many and can be fertile fields for dialogue, perhaps the most consequential questions center on faith. Is there a God (or gods)? What religion, if any, deserves my allegiance? Is religious faith simply an opiate for the masses, à la Karl Marx?

Many aren’t as comfortable engaging in these discussions of faith or faithlessness. It is readily added to many lists of things not to discuss at the dinner table (generally along with politics and finances). Maybe this discussion is best in the isolation of a book. The key is to think through these things carefully. This information, and the decisions one makes, aren’t superficial gossip. These questions are central to reality and truth in life. These are “first importance” matters.

As I frame these discussions, and as I set up my examination of atheism and agnosticism, I embrace a familiar mantra: if the shoe fits, wear it. The mantra is at home in stories, notably Cinderella. The glass slipper that left Cinderella’s foot when fleeing the ball bespoke Cinderella as the rightful wearer because it fi t only her foot. But the mantra is also famous in courtroom lore, as Johnnie Cochran successfully defended O. J. Simpson arguing that the murderer’s gloves exonerated O. J. since they didn’t fit his hand. “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” The shoe-fit mantra applies to my views on life’s biggest questions.

I need this world to make sense. I need a view of the world that fits what I see, experience, and know in my life. If my view of the world (whether atheism, agnosticism, or belief in God) doesn’t fit with the evidence of life, then I must stand ready to jettison my view. This drives my consideration about the issues in this book.

Some of these big questions arise out of how my mind works:

• Why do I think in terms of fairness? Why do I think what is fair is a worthy goal?

• Why do I believe that right and wrong in some areas isn’t simply a matter of personal taste or opinion?

• Why do I believe that Black lives matter, Brown lives matter, women’s lives matter, poor lives matter, sick lives matter, aged lives matter—heavens, that any group being lessened or mistreated by society matters?

• Why do I value human life uniquely over that of the “other animals”?

Similar questions bother me about behavior:

• Why do I do things I don’t want to do, even when they are destructive?

• Why do I fail to do things I want to do, even when they are clearly best?

For me these answers need to be part of a consistent worldview. My answers to one question can’t be invalidated by my answer to another. On a simplified level, if you ask me why I ordered a turkey burger for lunch, it is okay for me to answer, “I don’t eat red meat!” But then if the next meal you ask me why I ordered a ribeye steak for dinner, I better not answer, “Because I hate turkey.” Those answers, each on its own, are fine. But when you put the two together, you find inconsistency. In the same way, I am compelled to find answers to big questions that harmonize. I expect consistency. Consistency is a bedrock of logic, science, and sound thinking. I must have that consistency.

So as I examine the opinions of others for answers to life’s questions, I am looking for uniformity of thought and logic. I am not satisfied when someone tells me something that doesn’t make sense. Common sense may not always be right, but it should never be underrated.

The answers to big questions of faith rightly break down into a multitude of other questions. These are questions of reality. What is truly real? That which is truly real should satisfactorily answer my big questions rooted in why I am the way I am, and why you are the way you are. 

With unbelief on trial, let court commence. 

Excerpted from Atheism on Trial by Mark Lanier. Copyright (c) 2022 by William Mark Lanier. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.


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