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The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter Two)
The effort of Christian apologists, traditionally, is twofold. The first is to apologize for the wrongdoings of the church and anything that might scare away would-be Christians. The second, which has become the most common in modern times, is to offer an intellectual or rational defense of the faith. Apologetics is most commonly effective on those who already harbor some semblance of belief in God and yet many Christian authors target their books at skeptics or, at least, at Christians attempting to address skeptics.
In the last installment of this series I began my examination and rebuttal of the book The Questions Christians Hope No One Asks (With Answers) by popular Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg. Mittelberg is a Christian speaker, evangelist, apologist and best-selling author. In the first chapter he went over some of the basic arguments for God's existence that one can level at the would-be skeptics but as an atheist and skeptic I found those arguments less than convincing.
In this hub I will continue on to Chapter Two of the book and keep my fingers crossed that Mark will be able to present some good answers to the tough objections his book addresses. As always any excerpts used are credited to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers and are used for critique and criticism.
Question 2 - It's Evolution Baby
For those who didn't read the first installment the basic premise of the book is that they surveyed 1000 Christians asking them what they found to be the toughest objections or questions about their faith in God and Christianity. They then took the top 10 most common questions and it is those 10 questions that form the content of Mittelberg's book as he gives his answers in hopes that young Christians will minister to their more skeptical friends.
While question 1 was about why God was so hard to prove and was, in fact, impossible to detect using our senses question 2 is about where God can possibly fit into modern science when evolution has already explained the origin of species. As the book says isn't God “out of a job” due to the discovery of evolution? Well, according to Mark Mittelberg, not exactly.
The Origin of Life
Mark starts out the chapter illustrating that there is a distinction between evolution, the explanation for how life diverged from a common ancestor in the vast array of species we have today, and the actual origin of life. Some Creationists and Christians out there would do well to take Mark's example here and understand that while evolution explains how we can get from birds to dinosaurs and apes to man evolution does not offer an explanation for how those first early organisms from which all of us are descended got their start.
This gap in our knowledge, this simmering primordial pool of human ignorance, is where Mark believes his God can offer an explanation that science cannot.
The Recipe for Life
So Mark, it seems, has grasped that the origin of life and the origin of species are two different things. However Mark seems to not even have a high school level understanding of chemistry or evolution because he seems confused about where the ingredients for life came from. I hate to break this to you Mark but the ingredients for life happen to be the same elements that the Earth is made of.
If life developed naturally, as someone like myself believes, then it should be adapted to its environment and should be made of ingredients that are readily available at the time. It should also be no surprise that lifeforms that originate on Earth eat and breathe things that are abundantly available here (and that is exactly what we see).
None of the major components to life are super-rare and all of the ingredients that go to make up life were easily available on the early Earth. Perhaps if we were made of titanium or platinum and our brains were solid gold Mark would be able to remark on how utterly impossible a natural origin for us would seem, after all those elements don't make up a large percentage of the Earth. Instead we are made primarily of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
As for the origin of DNA and the very first organisms experiments have shown that using the same sorts of ingredients that would have been there on early Earth it is possible for amino acids to form. Even RNA, a more simple molecule than DNA through which life may have started, have been produced in experiments going all the way back to the 1960s. RNA is one of the basic building blocks of life and we know that it can form through chemical interactions with no supernatural influence. All life, at its base, is about self-replicating molecules – NATURAL CHEMISTRY.
If Mark had taken the time to research some of the scientific work done in the field of abiogenesis he would understand that the origin of the first very primitive organisms is not the insoluble obstacle in the way of evolution that he seems to think it is. Something tells me that no matter the evidence he would still want to hold God up as the one and only possible explanation for life. I can't be sure but I get the feeling that Mark's loyalty doesn't rest with the truth wherever the evidence might lead but rests solely with the faith and ministry that provides his livelihood.
Yes there is still a lot of work to be done in pinpointing how exactly life came together in those early years billions of years ago however experiments have shown time and time again that it could happen. Invoking the supernatural simply is not necessary, and isn't a satisfying or scientifically rigorous answer.
Mark also suffers from the common Creationist misconception about micro and macroevolution being two different things. For some reason that I still do not understand Creationists and certain types of Christians cannot or will not wrap their heads around this. I think perhaps educating themselves on evolution would probably clear up the problem but they have a vested interest in not doing that.
Instead they concede, due to constant observation, that the small incremental changes of evolution do occur BUT invoke some unexplained obstacle that prevents these changes from adding up over time. They will admit to the affects of evolution in the diverging breeds of dogs but refuse to admit that those exact sort of changes, if they continued on for enough generations, would have a cumulative effect resulting in one or more new species.
In other words Mark seems to accept the basic biological mechanism of evolution, that is genetic variation over time through artificial or natural selection BUT rejects that these changes would or could ever add up to anything more than slight variations WITHIN a species. This can only be based on a misunderstanding of how evolution works. One would hope that if an apologist is going to tell Christians how to argue with the scientifically literate, the atheists, and the skeptics, that he would at least gain a high school level understanding of the subject he's talking about.
Mark doesn't strike me as the type who believes in a 6,000 year old Earth as thus far he has been willing to entertain mainstream science up to a point. It seems to me that he should be able to wrap his head around the fact that if breeds of dogs can diverge the way they have in a few thousand years then obviously life can change drastically in a matter of a few million years. Yet Mark acts as if this is some great challenge to Darwin's theory when actually Speciation, the emergence of new species through evolution, is both an observable reality and the natural conclusion of accepting that the minor changes can occur.
Each major change, like say from a land animal to a whale, is itself made up of millions of changes, changes that transition a foot into a fin, nostrils into blowholes and which slowly shrink the hip bones until nothing but vestigial remnants are left.
If you take the fossil record regarding whales into account you get one piece of the picture. Now compare whales genetically to other animals, another piece of where they fit evolutionarily speaking. Now compare their behavior, morphology, reproduction and so on. Once you have all your findings put it together to serve as the big picture.
Every piece of information about whales confirms that whales evolved from ancient land mammals. When each line of evidence from every different angle of study points toward descent from a common ancestor - one that walked on land rather than swimming in the sea – there is no reason to deny that macroevolution is going on.
Of course all Mark has to do to correct his ignorance on the subject of evolution is a little research, a few hours of self-education would erase his misconceptions. In his position he would probably benefit from the extra education rather than continue to misinform his Christian audience into embarrassing themselves in front of skeptics.
Mark's Main Three Objections
Mark's three main obstacles to set up in front of Darwin's theory are: the origin of the Universe, the origin of life and the encoding of all the information (DNA) required to make a lifeform. In order for evolution to ever have a chance in the first place all three of these things must be possible without a God. Unfortunately for Mark all three of these are possible without God and actually, in my opinion, make far more sense without adding in an all powerful supernatural agent.
We'll deal with Mark's first objection where he once again misunderstands how science works and how scientists think by stating this.
The Big Bang
Wow, Mark sure does seem to have an anti-science chip on his shoulder in this excerpt doesn't he? How dare those arrogant scientists discount his God as a possible explanation for the Big Bang! I also find it funny that he presumes to understand the Big Bang better than scientists do calling it a metaphysical and physical event as if scientists don't consider the full depth surrounding the very origin of our entire Universe. I have to wonder if Mark had just come back from a debate with a particularly arrogant atheist scientist to throw science under the bus in this way.
Mark seems very confused about the Big Bang and the way scientists go about investigating things. He seems to think that scientists posted up the Big Bang as a Godless alternative to creation and have just neglected to try to explain the how and why it took place.
The Big Bang being accepted was the result of observations and evidence, something Mark himself pointed out in the first chapter, we know that billions of years ago everything in the Universe expanded out of a singularity. What we don't know is where that singularity of roiling energy came from and what, if anything, caused it to expand into our present Universe.
Of course modern science is still investigating the origin of the Universe and there is no definitive answer. Mark accepts the evidence that exists for the Big Bang so he agrees that it happened but he is sad that science does not take the God hypothesis seriously.
Surely Mark should understand that the same observation and evidence required to establish that the Big Bang happened at all would be needed to establish his God as well right? After all one cannot simply assert that God exists and is the cause of the Universe without having something to back it up.
All Mark has presented us with is a flawed tired old First Cause argument. Logical arguments are the purview of philosophers, not scientists. In science you need more than mere logic because you need evidence (not that the logic of the first cause argument is sound anyway).
We don't actually know what sort of cause our Universe needs, if it needs one to begin with. The idea of causation breaks down, as does our basic understanding of reality, the moment we try to figure out what went on BEFORE the Big Bang. You see the very idea of BEFORE the Big Bang is itself problematic because time and space as we know them did not exist. Rather than being evidence of his God if anything the Big Bang is an obstacle to his God and not because it provides us with a godless origin to the Universe. Saying that something, ANYTHING, existed before there was a Universe is highly speculative at best and incoherent at worst.
To say that a LIVING being could exist without time, without space simply makes no sense. As far as I know to fit the criteria of existing something has to take up space for an amount of time and be detectable. It makes no sense to say that this God could have power without anything to act upon - could have moral goodness without any other beings to interact with - could have omniscience without anything outside of itself to know - could have omnipresence when space and time do not exist yet.
Like it or not the Big Bang is the curtain beyond which we currently cannot peer and asserting a timeless, spaceless God does nothing to get us any closer to the answer.
Mark accuses science of bias but presents us with no evidence. He asserts, for no good reason, that science has it out for God. Perhaps science does have it out for the cherished myths and superstitions we once held dear as a species. Science stole the lightning bolt from the clenched fist of Zeus and stole the rainbow from the apologetic genocidal God of the Bible because science is in the business of discovery. Mark seems happy to acknowledge science up to a point but once science begins poking in areas that threaten his cherished beliefs in some way suddenly science is the tool of atheists to deny God.
Funnily enough if we were to take Mark's words from earlier and turn them around we could easily use this same paragraph to argue against his position.
Naturalism for Dummies
Mark asserts, falsely, that science functions under philosophical naturalism. What he appears to be attempting to do here is smear the character of scientists making them out to be godless atheists with an agenda to keep God out. In actuality he is just revealing his own ignorance of how science works. Science functions under METHODOLOGICAL Naturalism not Philosophical Naturalism. Philosophical Naturalism is the belief that the natural world is all there is and that there is no supernatural realm while methodological naturalism is just an admission that supernatural claims are difficult to prove with the scientific method.
For example someone could test the efficacy of praying to a certain God and find a positive result however this would not definitively prove that it was that God who answered the prayers. You could measure and detect the effect that the supernatural had, provided it has a measurable effect, but the causes are nearly impossible to determine. Because the supernatural can break all the typically observed laws of nature it is difficult if not impossible to definitely prove or disprove supernatural claims. Of course no scientific test has ever confirmed an actual supernatural effect.
Methodological naturalism is the default way in which science investigates things because science deals with empirical data, physical evidence, measurable phenomenon, objectively verifiable results, repetition, practical application and predictions, etc.
Mark's anti-science diatribe is nothing more than him misunderstanding the way in which science works and how difficult it is for there to be any reliable epistemological rules for investigating something as nebulous and ill-defined as the supernatural or God. To be taken seriously the God hypothesis must have some evidence behind it, some observations or data confirming it, some reason to assume that it is the best explanation - not just flawed arguments and poorly justified assertions.
The Origin of Stuff
Mark spends the remainder of this small section, which is dedicated to his first objection about the origin of the Universe, claiming that the lack of an explanation for the origin of matter and energy is the perfect sort of gap in which to stick the God of the Bible. Never mind that Genesis, and indeed all the information about nature contained in the Bible, are wrong on almost every single point they mention, the Bible says there was a beginning and so does science so therefore God!
The whole thing amounts to one pathetic Argument from Ignorance along with a few mentions that there are indeed scientists who believe in God. Well that settles it then → Some scientists believe, two billion Christians believe, so there you go (argument from popularity). Plus scientists haven't explained everything about the Universe yet, so there's plenty of intellectual wiggle room to shove down a flag and claim that pocket of ignorance for Yahweh!
The Origin of Life (sigh, again)
The next section is dedicated to Mark trying to make the origin of life sound more implausible by casting doubt on the idea that natural chemistry alone can explain the natural chemical interactions that got life started. Never mind that every last component that makes up life was, and is still, present on Earth. Never mind that every single biological process that goes on today is a derivative of the chemistry of early life all of which functions perfectly naturally without any spookiness or supernatural intervention. Disregard attempts by scientists which have yielded stunning results including the fact that RNA and amino acids could have formed without miracles or divine intervention.
Nope, God is the best answer and Darwin's theory is helpless without God to, at the very least, explain that first formation of life.
Mark's entire argument here is an argument from ignorance that amounts to nothing more than "science doesn't have an explanation for x therefore I am justified in believing God is the explanation for x". His best "evidence" is that there are no fossils that show the building blocks of life forming as our earliest fossils show early single-celled organisms after they had formed.
Human DNA is mostly made up of junk. In fact there are organisms far more “simple” than us that contain more DNA than we have. I say that to preface this section because it is another misunderstanding from Mark on how biology works. The whole sections is dedicated to making DNA sound super complex and full of information that is highly specialized and therefore clearly the sort of thing that we would say is designed.
In my research for this series most of the sources I've come across agree that, just going by the 3 billion or so base pairs in the average human genome, the genome could fit within less than a gigabyte of storage. Most USB flash drives these days are probably 4 gigabytes at minimum, meaning that a human genome could fit on a flash drive with room for at least three others.
Yes as naturally forming molecules go DNA is fairly complex but the information it carries isn't something spooky or in need of supernatural answers because the information it carries is CHEMICAL in nature. Life is, on a basic biological level, genes trying to replicate which is why one of our deepest biological drives is to have sex and thus reproduce our genes. Mark doesn't understand the difference between “information” conveyed between interacting chemicals and actual complex communication between intelligent lifeforms.
Conflating chemical information of DNA with all other forms of information in order to imply that DNA must have an artificial origin is a desperate grasping at straws at best and purposefully misleading at worst.
The only problem for Mark is that DNA does bear all the characteristics of having originated naturally (not RANDOMLY however) in the same way that stars are birthed from stellar nebulae, whole galaxies coalesce or the Giant's Causeway of Ireland formed.
Many of us have mentally grown beyond groping for supernatural or superstitious answers for things in the natural world around us. When we look for an explanation of the Grand Canyon, for example, most of us don't go grasping for folklore or mythology about how Paul Bunyan carved it in an afternoon while dragging his axe behind him.
For something as complex as DNA suddenly the supernatural can seem tempting to fill that gulf in our understanding of reality. The question, 'How and why did this come into existence' can very easily be patted over by the 'God' answer, it's just that easy. But for those of us who value reliable knowledge and truth it is not satisfying to just stick God in wherever something is complicated or unknown.
Unlike Mark I don't cherish any myths to the point of believing that they are literally true because I like to base as many of my beliefs as possible on a reasoned consideration of the evidence. So where Mark sees science as intrusive, intimidating and arrogant I see it as a necessary and fascinating pursuit that enriches our lives. Science results in advances in technology and medicine as well as providing a constantly updating body of knowledge that we do our best to correct as new more accurate information is available.
The kind of information Mark is talking about in his example is not the same. DNA, like I said, is full of junk. At least 8% of our DNA is actually viral genetic code that has sewed itself into our genetic make-up. So looking at DNA and thinking you have found some meaningful message delivered from a divine source is like looking at the fluffy shape of a cloud and drawing words or pictures. The patterns and information of DNA are chemical ones, natural ones, and there is no good reason to think otherwise (certainly none coming from Mark at this point).
Playing his Hand
At the end of each chapter Mark directs his Christian audience in how exactly to approach skeptics and atheists with his answers. In the last chapter we saw how he thinks many atheists are just angry or emotionally damaged or have made a “lifestyle choice” that separates them from their faith. Here Mark plays his hand about his lack of criticism for evolution itself.
You Gotta Know When to Fold Em
On the one hand I could commend Mark for admitting that he has very little to say on evolution and in directing his troops to avoid directly addressing the topic he is saving those Christians the embarrassment. From what little Mark said about evolution he appears to suffer from the same misconceptions that most Creationists do and thus I can only imagine his education on the subject of evolution is incomplete.
On the other hand I could condemn him for his absurd GOTCHYA style rebuttal to evolution where he rejects the observations and evidence for evolution by demanding that science first explain where the Universe came from. This amounts to someone arguing with Isaac Newton that gravity can't be true because he hasn't explained how birds can fly - seriously it is that stupid.
Mark talks in this chapter as if Darwin himself is still alive and well and defending evolution as solely his theory. Yes Darwin was the first to propose and publish findings regarding evolution but other scientists of the day were discovering evidence that was leading them toward similar conclusions. Furthermore since his death we have acquired mountains and mountains of evidence for evolution the strongest of which is the very DNA that Mark seems to think is evidence of God.
That same DNA proves that all life on Earth is related, that is to say related genetically. The same DNA that exonerates or convicts prisoners on death row. The same DNA that proves paternity on your favorite daytime “who is the Father” show is the DNA that proves that human beings share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and all other apes and indeed all other life on Earth.
Claiming that one must first explain the Universe and where matter and energy came from in order to do biology, is absurd. It's like saying that before you can prove that the Earth goes around the sun you have to explain where the sun came from to begin with. This is nothing more than a bullshit red herring fallacy.
It isn't like Mark is redirecting the argument using these red herrings in order to funnel it toward a subject he has good arguments for. He brings up the same flawed First Cause argument and Fine Tuning argument here as well as his attempts to conflate the chemical information of DNA with obvious human creations (human creations which fit perfectly within naturalism since humans are part of the natural world). His arguments are very weak overall and bring absolutely nothing new or clever to the realm of Christian apologetics.
Later on in the chapter, as Mark begins to repeat himself, Mark says this:
The Tree of Life
Sorry Mark but you should have at least brushed up a little on your science before writing this book. I assume by hard evidence Mark either means fossils or he means he wants to see a bird turn into a dog right in front of him (or some other asinine nonsense). Of course I can't tell what Mark means here only he could answer that. What I can say is that DNA proves that all life on this planet is related. This isn't something you can wish away by clicking your heels together and repeating “Common Design, Common Designer” this is the FACT that all creatures on Earth are genetically related.
Every living thing on this planet is part of one family all stemming back to the same origin. No we haven't worked out all the details of evolution but the DNA proves it, we're all related. Whether a God was involved in directing our evolution who can say? Whether a God sparked that first organism? NO ONE KNOWS FOR SURE. One thing seems clear, you should read up on a subject before you put ink to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Why would a Christian not want to look at this beautiful world, which they believe God ordained to be here, and look at the beautiful organisms on it, and accept that we are related to them? Why do they fear evolution as if it erases God? Even the question this chapter is meant to answer asks whether or not evolution has put God out of a job. If your belief in God is important to you, than go ahead and keep it, but don't oppose science or have a chip on your shoulder about its discoveries. Don't shove your God into gaps in our understanding just because some part of your mythology turned out not to be literally true.
There is great beauty in accepting what the DNA proves, that we are all one family, that the Earth is alive with organisms that all share a common ancestry and a common fate.
For the remainder of the chapter Mark simply outlines various forms of creationism, from those who accept evolution like William Lane Craig, to those who believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old. Mark doesn't cast too much judgment on any of these and uses them simply to illustrate that no matter which direction you take you can still maintain your faith.
And that is where Mark is correct. In face of the facts presented by science and the mysteries science has left to solve (and there are many) plenty of believers hold tight to their faith. But too many seem afraid of science, seem to see it as an enemy to cherished beliefs and myths, instead of seeing it as enriching their knowledge of God's Universe.
Science is not there to put God out of a job, it's there to explore the NATURAL world and that is why the supernatural is so often left out of science.
As an atheist I am awed by the truths that science has uncovered and the beauties the Universe holds. While I do believe that the world would be a better place if believers gave up their faith in God I do not see such a thing as necessary. As long as a believer is willing to stand beside me in awe of the Cosmos and let the investigations of science continue to unravel the mysteries it holds they have earned my respect. But those who stand in opposition to inquiry, those who brainwash their kids with anti-science beliefs and those who willfully misrepresent how science works and what science does have lost that respect.
Where Mark Mittelberg fits on that spectrum I don't know.
If you've made it this far I thank you for reading. I hope you will come back next week when I tackle Chapter Three where Mark attempts to answer a question about the validity and reliability of the Bible.