Atheism is A Fancy Word for Polytheism.

Here is a failed essay I wrote for First Things magazine. I can only suppose you have higher standards, so I’m offering it to you for your enjoyment. It is in response to a 1997 essay by Harvard scientist Dr. Richard Lewontin, which you can read here. 

Two brick statuettes stood side by side, each holding a pair of inlet lights and, had I not known better, a nose. They looked at me like stolid sentinels, but their ruddy cheeks gave them away: they were cheery old uncles, trying to get a rise out of me. They were located at the intersection of Twelve Mile Road and Alycekay drive, the two Gentle Giants who guarded the fairy land I called “Grandma’s House”.

In truth, they were only two pillars attached to a gate. I’ve searched for the faces on Google maps – they’ve long been pillaged by some devilish machine. But for years, to me, I could not think of them as anything but faces. In fact they belonged to some unknown corporate entity. It never occurred to me that these had any pragmatic purpose, or rather, the purpose to me seemed sufficiently pragmatic: to stand, winking at curious passersby. That they would receive monthly renumeration, I only assumed.

I suppose this is the sort of useless sentimentality Dr. Lewontin means to critique, when he writes in his 1997 essay Billions and Billions of Demons: “The problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” But does he indeed see Science as the only arbiter of truth? I doubt it. He believes in the hidden giants as much as I do – only he calls them by a cruder name.

This is because looked at squarely, Lewontin’s claim to materialism has as much rhetorical power as mine to being Secretary of State. The claim can be accepted only insofar as it is untried. The psalmist declares, “the fools says in his heart, there is no god”. But what makes him a fool is his not saying the same with his hands. He is not consistent. The fool, in truth, is a customer of bad credit, borrowing from theism as needed without interest. Lewontin may claim to believe he is only $1.85 worth of chemical compounds. In that case Lewontin’s mortician will one day know more of him than his wife. But I doubt he will have the mortician give the eulogy: “He was 10 cents worth of magnesium. Now that is very useful.” The materialist is only a partial materialist, or put positively, a fair-weather theist. The Psalmist’s fool is spurned not so much for being an atheist as for thinking himself one. He is indicted not as a heathen, but a schizophrenic. The same applies to Lewontin’s claims above.

This is evident for two reasons.

First, there is a kind of religious fervor to Lewontin’s worldview which compels him – convicts him, even – that somehow the world could be made better. For him this means treating Scientific inquiry as the omnibus of truth, the sole begetter of practical reason. That we fail to do this, in his words, is “the problem”. But the true materialist would not say such things. The eminent mathematician Blaise Pascal noted that the idea of “problem” is loaded: it implies both an ideal and a Fall, two concepts which the materialist has smuggled in from the Christian narrative. The true materialist refuses to say “problem” because she can only shrug her shoulders at the universe. Why should it be one shape and not the other? Why should we corral to make my head squarer, or my skin blue? Eat, drink and be merry – tomorrow we die. The true materialist is out carousing, not postulating. The materialist doesn’t see problems, only opportunities.

Second, the true materialist is not interested in truth as a Solution or anything else. This is because, first, he recognizes that “truth” is merely a randomly firing synapse in his brain, a chemical compound useful to his species. It is not a thing out there – it was what must be believed to spear the Mammoth. His conclusions are as chemical as mine, and his assertion of them is only one of power.

But this is where Lewontin’s interest in the Beyond betrays him. The hidden dagger of Lewontin’s own methodology is the hypothesis of science itself: the presupposition that there is a hidden order – a secret Providence – which underlies and orchestrates the bedlam. His utter faith in its existence impels the pursuit. Science rejects the materialistic conclusion. It stubbornly insists that truth is outside us. Sagan entreats pastors to tackle the God hypothesis with an even hand. He fails to recognize that science is the God hypothesis.

Let’s take, for example, scientific law.

The original scientific practitioners saw Divinity as the source of their inquiry. They aimed to “think God’s thoughts after him,” and rightly so. The materialists had no reason to look for Laws, only to sit back and laugh at a fool’s errand. Laws are not properly things, but thoughts. We all know the type of person who would go to war and hide in the bunker, but nevertheless claim the credit by procession in the victory lap. As a Christian, it’s my duty to walk alongside that man. But if during the course of things he begins to accuse us all of cowardice, it is my Christian duty to ask him what the deuce he’s thinking. The materialist is that man. He is coming up to say he led the charge, when in truth, the Christian – both historically and philosophically speaking – is the one with claims to having done so. The very idea of science is the that of an orderly and discoverable Mind orchestrating a like world. Now, having discovered the Theist to be correct, the materialists like Lewontin would take the reigns, not to mention the credit.

The materialist’s current pursuit of science is an accidental concession of the theist’s premise. They, too, are convinced of the conspiratorial order of the world, and are only hazarding our mutual cause – that of Science – by denying its theistic foundation. They are carving out their porterhouse, cowing belief in cattle. That is not very good for the cow, but it is worse for the porterhouse. If we disbelieve in cows, after all, they will go on existing. It is the porterhouse which will go extinct. And that is the destiny we prescribe for science by hyping materialism to the helm. The peddlers of materialism set us on a course that will not strip us of laws, only of their enjoyment. We will, after all, have no foundation for seeking them out, having cut the branch of theism out from under the leaves of science.

So why do materialists like Dr. Lewontin make this move?

According to Lewontin’s essay, taking his cue from Newton and LaPlace, the idea of Laws has replaced the God hypothesis. But this is as compelling as my claim that no one baked my chocolate cake because I’ve parsed out the recipe. All this proves is that you’re too far in the details, and having had your cake it’s time you ate it, which would at least recall its purpose. A cake is more than its components. Where we find recipes, we find chefs. And where we find Thoughts, we find Thinkers. It’s true that Newton wrongly inserted God in the gaps, but he also rightly – necessarily, even – assumed him in the webbing. He could hardly conceive of a world where, having discovered God’s thoughts, we denied his existence. The very idea of an explainable world – a world with a Mind, an Order, a Logos, a Principle – has only one explanation. God is compelling not where explanations fail, but where they succeed. One expects regularity only of a Deity.

“But,” the scientist might object, “The order is only in our explanations.” The key word here, however, is explanations, not concoctions. Einstein did not invent E=mc2. It had always been there – eternally, even. Einstein is not the law, he is merely a genius. The beauty, simplicity, regularity, sublimity and universality of the law belong to itself. It was present before him, and it is omnipresent without him. If we would test it, we would find that it really exists. He is not the law, only its arbiter. But the materialist must deny this, since to see the law as “out there” would require him to admit – to my own surprise and certainly to his – that he is not an atheist, but a polytheist. Or, if you like, a PolyAtheist.

How so?

When the scientist asserts a law, unhappily or no, he asserts something of the Divine. The laws of the universe do not have material qualities. Logic, for example, is omnipresent. Material never can be. In every conceivable universe, 2+2=4: “If I go down to Sheol, you are there.” Laws are omnipotent. One cannot disobey Kirchhoff’s circuit laws without brutal penalty: “for who can resist His will?” Laws are immutable. The law of non-contradiction can never be contradicted: “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Laws are personal, accessible through observation and speech: “speak, for your servant is listening.” They are self-existent, not “dwelling in temples made by human hands.” They are simple and sublime: “the perfection of beauty.” God has laid out the God hypothesis on a table before His enemies. His cup overflows. The materialist has come to the same conclusions as the Theist, only in the crudest form. In the name of progress, he has found paganism: here is the god of gravity, there the second god of thermodynamics. Over against One Mind, he has constructed an Olympia of self-existent deities. They call them laws, we call them thoughts. They call him Mother Nature, we call him Father.

The wager, then, is not between a universe of God and no-God. The question is, “Whose gods are superior?“ Here I think one point should end it: the rules of science itself dictate that its gods are subject to conquest. Only a few centuries ago, Galileo’s gods supplanted those of Aristotle. Last century, Einstein’s gods quite literally put Newton’s in their place. If we are looking for a “social apparatus of truth”, I can’t see why we should commend the fluctuating realm of science. Its demons are always springing up and dying off. The Christian God, by definition, is Eternal Stability. The Christian admits at times he has not traced out God’s thoughts properly, but is always left with the same Deity. The PolyAtheist must continually scrap his whole system. If the monotheist is wrong, he merely cuts away the dead branch. The scientist must uproot the whole tree, for which he’s missed the forest in the first place.

So here is my two-fold solution. First, let’s take Lewontin’s prescription of scientific law as a basis for society, with the slight caveat that these laws belong to one Mind. This, in the end, will invite us into the other disciplines. In the meantime it will prevent us from cleaning house for each new scientific revolution. It will save the Intelligentsia the embarrassment, and the rest of us the headache.

Second, let us each look at these laws – these Specters – as I did the Giants in my brick statuettes. Perhaps they are only friendly old uncles, cajoling us into the universe’s Secret. Why, then, should we not listen further? There can only be one reason. It is the same as the cause for Lewontin’s a priori materialism, and of the wood and stone worshiping PolyAtheists before him. I see the attraction myself: these gods are mutes. They have no demands, they stake no claims. Do nothing – or do what you will – and you have complied. The materialist is not anti-Principle, only anti-Personality. Admission of a Person invites us to comport with graver laws than gravity. As materialist Aldous Huxley once wrote: “The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world…is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants.” The civilians of Germany denied Auschwitz not as a matter of calculation, but of conscience. The same is true in this case: the materialist writhes under the scrutiny of a Divine mind. Thus, the a priori commitment – not to materialism – but to autonomy.

There is a time in every toddler’s life when he will try to zip his pants not for want of need, but pride of place. We are each of us in need of Revelation beyond our horizons, but few of us admit with Lewontin’s candor our own helplessness. I only wish he would admit more. I will pray to that end, since it may be that prayer is a yet undiscovered law in his world. Perhaps someday he will look up with me at his serendipitously titled “billions and billions of demons”, and we will say, in chorus: “They might be Giants.”

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Posted in Apologetics.

Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.