03 March 2010

Redneck Atheism: is Christianity really polytheism?

by Frank Turk

There are so many things about the list Phil provided already that I enjoyed that it’s hard to start in the middle like this and not want to go back. But a lot of the principles carry over from one thing to the next, so I’ll just enjoy talking about this nifty little aphorism and be content with my 3 pages of joy. They say you might be an unquestioning Christian if you laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity God.

Now, a basic defense of the Trinity seems to be the straightforward approach to this reproach, but let me be honest: I’ve never met any Atheists converted to robust Christian faith by a sudden dawning of the truth of the Nicean Creed. If you have, please line it out in the meta as it will undoubtedly be instructive.

Instead, I want to talk about Physics for a minute. Physics is a brilliant thing – because it deals with things as the actually exist in nature. People who are really good at physics tend to be good at other stuff, too – like chemistry and engineering. They make things work, and who can’t actually admire that?

Physics is something that, frankly, is sort of the king of sciences (in my humble and ignorant opinion). It’s because of physics that we can take a gallon of a smelly liquid, set it on fire one drop at a time, and convert the force that comes out of the tiny explosion over and over again into enough kinetic energy to drive to work in the morning. It’s one of those things where you know for a fact that the amount of force that comes from setting two drops of gasoline isn’t anything at all, and the force of dropping a match on a gallon of gas is enough to probably kill you if you’re standing close enough, but if you manage the drop-sized explosions closely enough, you can drive 20 or 30 or 50 miles with the air conditioner on. And while there are a lot of things in play there, one which is necessary is the law of the conservation of energy.

Anyway, the people who figure that kind of stuff out will enjoy without any end of the glee this article from Scientific American from 09 Oct 2006. The most of the rest of you would rather read about supralapsarian reprobation and God’s hidden will, and the flabby-bottom rest of you can follow me to the comic book shop to discuss the recent apparent death of the Red Skull.

Ahem.

My point in linking to the SA article is this gem:
Quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy, so one particle can become a pair of heavier particles (the so-called virtual particles), which quickly rejoin into the original particle as if they had never been there. If that were all that occurred we would still be confident that it was a real effect because it is an intrinsic part of quantum mechanics, which is extremely well tested, and is a complete and tightly woven theory--if any part of it were wrong the whole structure would collapse.

But while the virtual particles are briefly part of our world they can interact with other particles, and that leads to a number of tests of the quantum-mechanical predictions about virtual particles. The first test was understood in the late 1940s. In a hydrogen atom an electron and a proton are bound together by photons (the quanta of the electromagnetic field). Every photon will spend some time as a virtual electron plus its antiparticle, the virtual positron, since this is allowed by quantum mechanics as described above.
Now, before anyone starts blustering about the way this is phrased, these are the words of Gordon Kane, director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who probably knows something about this. Probably more than you. So if this doesn’t meet your critical assessment of the issues, please do yourself a favor and take it up with him.

BTW, what I’m about to say here next is not attributable to Dr. Kane, and I have no idea if he’s a Christian or not.

What I’m about to say is this: I think we should believe our friends the philosophical naturalists when they put it to us that quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy. We should trust them. This is what they do.

But is it reasonable to trust them? Do we actually know for a fact – a fact almost as old as physics itself – that the energy is a closed system cannot increase or decrease – only change state? Should we have a massive “AHA!” when we find ourselves listening to otherwise-reasonable men who say, “well, yeah, usually, but in this case we know it for a fact because we saw it ourselves. I probably can’t show you, but I can show you the guys who wrote all this down. And some of it might not make any sense because they’re had to invent new words to really describe what’s happening. Maybe you would just take my word for it and enjoy your radio and your snake-egg magnets and your computer and leave the rest to me.”

I mean: I can be honest and say that I really don’t know anything about solid-state electronics and magnetic fields, so the idea that an electron is sometimes not an electron makes me a little woozy. It doesn’t actually make any sense to me – but you know what? Making fun of it will not make the Physicist change his mind.

Which brings us back to the statement of our atheist friends: aren’t you an unquestioning Christ if you laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity God?

Well, I think the answer is “NO.”



Because let’s face it: first of all, Trinitarianism isn’t polytheism any more than virtual particles are some sort of pixie dust. Polytheism is always a system which describes the world as a place where chaos reigns due to the capricious nature of the urges of beings who are generally much greater than men, but under some sort of inexplicable hierarchical rule which requires them to quibble without actually overthrowing the order of things. And in these systems, the “gods” are either completely apathetic toward mankind, or somehow aligned with mankind in order to divide mankind – and often the gods did not even create mankind.

But the Bible speaks to something different. The essence of Trinitarianism is the unity of God. That is to say, in the act of creation, all of the Godhead were in agreement. In the act of judging man’s sins, all agreed. In promising to redeem or correct man’s error, all agreed. And in counting the cost and setting forth the price in grace and love, all agreed.

Yet in this unity, there is diversity. What the Son has done, the Father agreed with – but the person of the Son accomplished it. What the Spirit did and does the Son agrees with and requires – but the Spirit accomplishes it. And in this, we say rightly, God is unique.

Secondly, the unique attribute of the Triune God is his call of all men to himself. All men are qualified and indeed obligated to be his unique possession.

But there is a final fact which must be true: whatever it is that God is, He cannot be anything else. It seems a little less than candid to listen to Dr. Kane say with certainty and authority, “Quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy,” without abandoning all hope for reasonability or comprehensibility – let alone the hope that your car will go when you press the gas pedal – but to demand of God – whom even the atheist must agree is in some way greater than us -- that there be no moments when we have to admit: it is what it is, even if it looks like a logical contradiction or an absurdity. Those of us who know God must confess that He is what He is, and nothing less, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if it seems to be some kind of contradiction.

So for a laymen to point and laugh at Dr. Kane’s description of virtual particles and what happens to them even though that description has a seeming contradiction is unwarranted – and to frame it as something it is not (insert your own punchline here) is simply dishonest. In the same way, to frame Trinitarian descriptions of God as somehow another kind of polytheism is itself simply a crass and reductionistic approach to something someone simply doesn’t want to understand, and doesn’t want to have confidence in. (there's an interesting hypothesis for why this is true, and a book recently published which explicates this. Remind me to tell you about it some time.)

God is what he is. We have an obligation to say he is what he is. And to hear someone rebuff that by saying, “well, you’re a little foolish to reject what he is not since I say all these other things look suspiciously like him,” sounds ill-considered to me. You wouldn’t do that to Dr. Kane, so have a little consideration for the maker of Dr. Kane.






37 comments:

witness said...

Frank I give God glory for your understanding, logic, reasoning, and communication skill.

Thanks for moving stuff (at least for me) to the lower shelf.

Paul D said...

"Those of us who know God must confess that He is what He is, and nothing less, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if it seems to be some kind of contradiction."

thanks - great response. I'm relieved to see nothing of cubes or father/son/brother analogies. I suppose these can be helpful in their own ways, but I think your response does the truth much more justice - that we know it but can't understand it entirely.

Frank Turk said...

love it when, in theology, the analogy is quantum physics, and that gets classed as the "lower shelf".

that's better than payday.

stratagem said...

Yes at some point we are just called to believe in the Christ. I'm not sure we can figure out why it makes sense entirely even for ourselves, much less for someone else, even less than that for someone else who doesn't want to understand it.

I wonder if atheists would ever "get" theoretical physics if they approached it with the same stubborn hostility that many of them approach Christianity with? I doubt it.

Scott Weldon said...

The parts of this I understood, I really enjoyed. I guess I've spent too much time as a "flabby bottomed" individual to get the rest. (I just enjoy it when the car starts in the morning!)

What you've shown is the reality that most people who question Christianity as "unthinking" use analogies and arguments that are just as "unthinking" themselves. If we apply their logic to other things, including their own arguments, it always breaks down. Thanks for pointing this out so intelligently.

olan strickland said...

My version of "Redneck Christianity": Try to explain the trinity den-mad you will go. Den is how a redneck like me pronounces "then."

Deny the trinity and dam-ned you will be.

Great post Frank! I didn't understand a word of it but it was good :)

Sir Brass said...

Brilliant analogy, Frank. Much appreciated :). I'm with witness here, it was a moving of stuff to the lower shelf. Higher shelf would be philosophic musings, and that always confuses the daylights out of me, but things which are plain fact (like Physics) clicks pretty easily.

witness said...

There is only one thing above theology and quantum physics ain't it. The one thing above theology is the Theo.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Actually, it may not be wise to "laugh" at polytheists at all. It's the whole do unto others as you would have have them do unto you thing.

Jugulum said...

Adam,

Sure. I singled out the "laugh at" part when Phil posted the original list, too.

The "you laugh at" phrasing is part of the gratuitous rhetoric of the atheist meme-list. The item loses it's rhetorical force if you change "laugh at" to "disagree with".

Frank was focusing on the substance of the point--distinguishing between Trinitarianism and polytheism.

Merlin said...

What is interesting about physics, is that there is always the next equation, the next particle, the next something, because what we have derived so far doesn't quite fit our observations. Quantum mechanics comes along with a statement that it is OK to not be certain about a particle's location, its absolute mass, its energy state. It's OK to discuss things in terms of average locations, but we must keep this uncertainty in mind. So now we have to violate one of the oldest "Laws" of thermodynamics.

What is implicit in this discussion by Dr. Kane is that all of physics is just a house of cards. When we take away one element, the rest collapses under its own weight. As a scientist myself, I remain skeptical of this uncertainty. There must be a better system for describing the universe if we have to keep modifying the existing system. We did this to Newtonian physics and now it is occurring to Quantum physics.

BTW, I love this analogy of the treatment of the physicist to the treatment of the Christian. I wonder if Dr. Kane experiences the same level of impassioned objection on his blog as the Pyro team does here.

David said...

You've got me singing the Doxology, Frank.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the nature of the universe is conscious and personal. If it isn't, then science itself is hoist on its own petard.

Excellent post.

stratagem said...

That is a really good point Merlin. The heisenberg uncertainty principle has always struck me as a huge cop-out, although I never articulated it as consciously as you did. I have many of the same feelings about when science names a phenomenon they can't explain, just to make it seem like they understand it (although I recognize there is nothing wrong per se with naming a phenomenon of unknown origin). I think about hawking's p-branes and while I "understand" what he is saying with those, they are only constructs or props used to explain a phenomenon, they are not the phenomenon itself.

There is a lot we don't understand. My view is that as a Christian, I'm mature enough to realize that I don't understand the universe. Many atheists, I believe, are afraid to admit that they can't explain the universe, and retreat behind quasi-theories to make it seem to themselves and to others as though they do.

Frank Turk said...

Just to keep things likely, I'd be careful saying what Merlin has said here for two reasons. The first one is that the Heavens declare the glory of God -- even if we're talking about the subatomic heavens. That science is describing something fantastic and amazing which we have to observe in order to understand should not cause us to be scientific agnostics. We're blogging on the internet for pete's sake -- the Bible didn't reveal how to make the bandwidth, did it? Science is ueful, helpful, meaningful work.

It's simply not the the same kind of work special revelation gives us.

And this leads to the second point: as the JW's say, the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible. This fact has been always at the feet and on the minds of the fathers who, before us, labored hard to discern the false teachings about God, Father-Son-Spirit, and the true teachings which the Scripture demands from us. In that, when the concept "Trinity" is used, we have to be especially careful not to say more than Scripture says about the subject, and not doubt one iota of what it actually teaches us.

So as we pooh-pooh the Physicist for his evolving theories and equations, let's remember that it took 300 years for the church to define with a small-set definition what the Bible has always taught -- and that changing us to match what is actually revealed -- whether by Scripture or in creation (which, when rightly understood, will not cotradict each other) -- is the right-minded humility of orthodoxy.

misty said...

Thank you, Frank! I'm going to have to read your article again (and again), because I didn't do that well in my high school physics class. Your analogy is very helpful, however.

"You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity God."

How unsophisticated of the atheist to see the Trinity as something as simplistic and crude as polytheism. Polytheism is easy. Just make up a god of water, god of fire, god of plants, god of animals...doesn't take much brainpower.

But try explaining the Trinity! One God in essence, but 3 persons. Not 3 manifestations of the same God (like the modalists believe), not 3 separate gods (like the polytheists believe), but one God in 3 persons. 1 but 3, 3 but 1.

If I think about it too long, my head will explode! Just more proof Christianity isn't made up. If we made it up, we could easily explain it.

stratagem said...

Frank
I certainly didn't take Merlin's comments to be a dismissal of science. Rather, I view them as a balanced view of the limitations of science, stated in the context of a world that increasingly views science as not just "useful," but all-knowing.

David Wayne said...

Whew, I didn't think I was going to be able to stick with you through all of the physics and quantum whatchamacallits, but glad I hung in there. I've fallen in love with the Trinity anew and afresh in recent days and you have added a little fuel to my fire. I'm one of these guys who knows just enough about philosophy to be dangerous, but I was dabbling in that whole "one and many" problem the other day and was delighted again to see how the Trinity resolves this and is the basis for so much of our lives.
BTW - I have always prided myself (in a humble Christian way of being proud) on having the biggest Swiss Army knife of anyone I know, but you've got me beat with the one in the pic - where can I get me one of those?

lawrence said...

excellent

Jim Pemberton said...

This is why most of the theologians in the science building are found in the physics department.

Actually, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle isn't a cop-out. The fact is that we use small particles to measure things. There's just a problem with measuring the small particles themselves - what do you measure them with? You have to capture one to measure it, but the act of capturing it causes it to lose the kind of information you were trying to gain about it.

In any case, while we know that matter and energy are at some point interchangeable and can actually cause some matter to become energy, we don't have a firm grasp on the principle by which this happens any more than we understand precisely how gravity works. So we didn't replace Newtonian physics with relativity - we simply refined Newtonian physics with relativity. As such, physics continues to be refined. And we can be amazed by the fact that there seems to be no end to the intricacies, even to concluding that matter is merely a function of form and the most fundamental reality.

On the other hand, if we can accept the fact that time does not pass uniformly based on the relative movement of matter, then we should be able to understand how this makes quantum physics behave quite strangely to the point where we should expect the important distinction between the trinity and polytheism to be a trifling thing to understand.

Larre Sloan said...

Frank:

I truly appreciate the thought and effort that you and Phil are putting into this. I have learned a lot and look forward to learning more in future posts.

However, it seems that the thought and effort betray the premise. The ten signs being addressed are directed to "unquestioning christians." From what I've learned here, it's my understanding that atheists or unquestioning christians simply don't exist as valid Biblical categories.

If so, isn't the real answer to these "signs" simply that , "There's no such thing as an unquestioning christian."?

Frank Turk said...

Larre --

That's a great question.

Here's one way to think about the answer:

It seems to me that, in the first place, the categories you mention or of two different kinds. The category "atheist" is a category that a person self-selects into -- it's what one wants to be. Most atheists are people who don't wnat to believe in God, and they have erected a fairly-ornate fortress around that for themselves to see to it that this is who they are.

The other category -- the "unquestioning christians" -- are really a conflation of two groups. The first is the group of Christians who really are unthinking and unquestioning. I'm not going to name names here because that will undoubtedly derail this discussion, but there's no question that there are christian sects which suppress the image of God in people to the place that people rebel; they lay on the law so thick that people are simply taught to hate God for being just but unloving. Those sects cause some people to want out -- and becuase those sects have an a-systematic view of the faith, stuff like the Trinity and the Cross and the Incarnation simply make no sense, and they are just an excuse to leave what seems like a cult intent on making people into robots.

The other group is the Christian in the imagination of atheists. It's the Christianity which is somehow always oppressing the world through slavery and torture. There are certainly bad people in the Christian household, but what the atheist cannot and will not concede is that they are the small minority -- and they use the false stereotype of Christianity to bolster their own biases against the Gospel.

So I think it's worth thinking about these things and these categories -- if for no other reason than these are categories the atheist will use.

Make sense?

Larre Sloan said...

Got it. Thanks so much for defining terms.

Would it then be fair to say that in addition to refuting redneck atheism, you're more importantly refuting a form of "redneck christianity"?

Frank Turk said...

Perfect.

jigawatt said...

In the documentary "Collision", featuring atheist Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Doug Wilson (Full Disclosure: Pastor Wilson says a wordy-dirty at the end), Hitchens talks about black holes as things that are awe-inspiring and beautiful, over against the miracles of the Bible, which he describes as sorcery and cheap magic. Wilson's response is classic. He says he's astonished when atheistic physicists describe things like black holes and quantum mechanics as awe-inspiring, and then turn around and reject the doctrine of the Trinity because it doesn't make sense. "Does it make sense to you that you could see the past and the future at the same time, provided you were headed toward a big black hole of nothing?"

Frank Turk said...

I think what's funny about Hitches' complaint there is that if it was his lame foot that Jesus healed, he'd probably not call it a parlor trick, or even cheap.

Justin said...

I think my comment got left off of Phil's original post, but this hits the issue that I would be most concerned with from his list.

Were I asked about the Trinity by an atheist or agnostic friend, would I be right to say that the Trinity is something that must be accepted on the basis of special revelation? The concept of three yet one is logically hard to grasp, even with the common "one essence, three persons" explanation.

Rick Potter said...

I absolutely love this from the article: "But when the atom is in one of those levels it interacts differently with the virtual electron and positron than when it is in the other, so their energies are shifted a tiny bit because of those interactions. That shift was measured by Willis Lamb and the Lamb shift was born...."

Rachael Starke said...

This was great.

I'd say it made me really regret zoning out in physics class in high school,

but why do I have the funny feeling that might make you mad that I missed the theological forest for the physic-al trees? :)

CR said...

Frank: Physics is something that, frankly, is sort of the king of sciences (in my humble and ignorant opinion).

Very true, actually.

Frank's post made me think of something. If I go to most people and ask them to give a defense of some of things Kane mentions, they'll say, well, ahem, uh, I'm not a physicst and I really don't know much, uh, physics (not physic or psychic - inside joke), I really couldn't really speak to this matter.

And then you'll get these people who speak about the things of God who haven't really opened the Bible much and speak like experts. Interesting, they won't speak about physics, differential equations, complex analysis (negative square root stuff), but they are experts in the things of God.

Another interesting thing: do we know why atheists work so hard proving something they don't believe exists? I mean I don't lose sleep in proving there are no green men on Mars? Oh, yeah, okay Romans 1:32.

brett said...

It's not what you know but who you know! The Gospel invites everyone into God's company (Kingdom). The New Testament writers were not concerned with an idea called the Trinity. Father and Son and even later Holy Spirit the Jewish Christian writers believed in one God not three. It's all about relationship not abstract thinking about God's nature. It is about being right with God and feeling clean without sin(shame)before God. The problem with many Atheists is not that they don't believe in God but they become Gods in their own right. Starlin one of histories greatest Atheists denied any God but made images of himself, had giant portraits made of himself and demand the praise of his people.

Jim Pemberton said...

Brett,
I disagree. Relationship between God and his people was indeed important to the NT writers, but this relationship is derived explicitly from the relationship between the persons of the Trinity (Christ spoke of his relationship to the Father for example: "My Father", "Your Father", "Our Father") and expressed in our relationship with each other (Eph 5). More importantly, the very gospel is based on the deity of Christ as a person distinct from the Father. This is clear throughout the NT. Christ spoke explicitly of the Holy Spirit and Paul especially elaborated on how the Holy Spirit guides us. So while the term "Trinity" doesn't show up, the idea is inextricable from the core teachings of the NT writers. It's like saying that the book of Esther has nothing to do with God because God is never mentioned.

However, you are right that atheists worship other gods, including and especially themselves. That's one reason why I say I don't believe in atheists. I don't think they exist. Not to mention the irony of placing them in the same position of doubt that they place the true God. But it's instructive to know what atheists really do worship because too often we as believers fall into the same sin of idolatry making us practical atheists professing God with our mouths but worshiping other gods. And it's a difficult sin to mortify.

SamWise said...

One thing that I have been learning in my PhD program in Science Education (writing disseration even now) is that "Science is not a fixed body of knowledge!" Do not be too taken by any expert speaking arogantly as "Physics = A-B-C...Z"

Atomic theory, which started with the Greek Democritus, has been continually revised by Christians and not so ever since. Even Quantum Physics is under constant revision...shall I say "Quarks?"

A parallel is philosophy, which started with other Greeks, and has been continually revised by Christians and not so ever since...Shall I say "Post-Modernism?"

General Revelation (or "natural theology" or "natural philosophy as the pre-Darwinians referred to it) has always had a lurking philosophical trap for "naturalism." If one unwisely excludes Special Revelation (see Psalm 14:1; 53:1)they will never get to the history of sin and the solution in redemption provided in Christ!

BTW: The term "science" was coined by the Pro-Darwinists (e.g., Herbert Spencer, etc.)to avoid the obvious connotations of the older terms of "natural theology" or "natural philosophy."

Aimee said...

Thanks very much for this series. I'm a high school student very interested in apologetics, and the two posts so far have helped to answer a lot of questions for me. I love this blog, and last night discovered your "PoMotivators". Great fun.

After all of these highly intellectual people have commented, I feel sort of silly, but I have a question. Why are you calling this series "*Redneck* Atheism"? I am not technically a redneck myself, but I think that you might be misusing the term "redneck". Having been raised in the South, using "atheism" and "redneck" together sounds like an oxymoron to me. All of the rednecks I've ever met were kind, smart, hard-working people, and many were sincere believers. I get that you're not trying to paint all rednecks as atheists or vice versa, but I am honestly confused and would love to hear an explanation. I hope I haven't been disrespectful.

Thanks again for your wonderful post!

Citizen Grim said...

Frank said: "I think what's funny about Hitches' complaint there is that if it was his lame foot that Jesus healed, he'd probably not call it a parlor trick, or even cheap."

Indeed, I've heard the point made elsewhere that there's a good reason Jesus didn't come and instantly prove his divinity by summoning black holes, gigantic unicorns, or Michael-Bay-style-explosions. They wanted to see fireworks, Jesus showed sacrifice. They wanted to see power, Jesus showed humility. They wanted another Mount Carmel, Jesus gave the Mount of Olives instead.

Jesus' response in Matt 16 could practically be speaking directly to Hitchens:

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

Citizen Grim said...

(...cont)

I mean... resurrection, Hitchens? Coming back from the dead? Seriously? That's cheap magic?

Frank Turk said...

Aimee:

Thanks for asking. Here's the right answer.

jigawatt said...

To his credit, and I'm not one to go out of my way to defend him, Hitchens' example of "sorcery and cheap magic" is the account of Jesus allowing the demons to enter the herd of pigs (this seems to be a favorite of atheists). But I don't doubt that he'd say the same thing or worse about other miracles like the resurrection.