Wall Street Journal


Faith That Upholds Humanity—and Liberty

If a person is simply a chemistry set crossed with a computer, then morals are empty

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Dec. 29, 2016 6:23 p.m. ET

The Obama administration’s failure to beat back the rise of radical Islam reflects a greater failure of thinking elites.  Steeped in an intellectual culture of secularism, Western leaders have consistently denied both the Koranic motives of America’s enemies, and the Christian underpinnings of the U.S. system of values.  They look for economic and social reasons for this clash of cultures and dismiss the far more terrible possibility that humanity is actually at war over the nature of God.

This estrangement from the sacred continues a trend begun during the Enlightenment of the 18th century.  But its roots are in the 17th century’s rise of science.  The scientific method transformed a world of miracles into a world of material.  Its successes, in time, made atheism seem the default setting of true reason.  But is it?

The physicist Stephen Hawking, who publicly confirmed his atheism in 2014, doesn’t believe that God is needed to explain creation.  “The laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing,” he explained.  The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in this newspaper, thoroughly undid this argument simply by asking, “But what created the laws of physics?”  Such an obvious flaw in Mr. Hawking’s reasoning should have been clear to anyone who wasn’t being carried off on the skeptical tide of the times.

As a former secular Jew who converted to Christianity, I understand the temptation of such skepticism.  My baptism in 2004 was an act of transgression.  I sensed it at the time and know it all the more certainly today.  I was nearly 50 then.  I had lived my adulthood as a postmodern man, a worldling of the coasts and cities.  For me to accept the truth of God and his incarnation in Jesus Christ was to defy the culture of the age.

Perhaps instead of dismissing the religious beliefs of those who oppose liberty, more elites should reconsider the faith that upholds it.  Thinkers from John Adams to Marcello Pera have cited specifically Christian principles as the foundation of the West’s freedoms.  A materialist worldview leaves formerly Christian cultures philosophically weak when those freedoms come under attack.  Materialism strips humans of the logic of their humanity—the whole point of Western liberty.

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost in the machine, a spirit or soul,” says the psychologist Steven Pinker.  “I think our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain.”

Such increasingly common dismissals of spiritual existence trickle into popular thought and even into everyday language.  People say they experienced an “adrenaline rush,” not that they were excited.  Affirmation does not invigorate, it creates a “dopamine high.”  People say they are “hard-wired” for certain behaviors and “programmed” for others.  The underlying message?  A human being is a cross between a chemistry set and a computer, his actions governed solely by a series of discharges and sparks.

This implies that there is no authority to man’s moral sense, no objective reality underneath subjective experiences like faith and love.  Emotional states are not to be examined for truth content, merely adjusted to taste with various medications.

To break this materialist spell and set oneself free for faith requires rebelling not against scientific facts but against flawed scientistic logic.  Materialism is a fine idea, but what’s it made of?  An idea is neither the words that express it nor the brainwork that conceives it:  These are only the vehicles that transport the immaterial thought into the material world.

So it is with the human spirit.  It is not a ghost in a machine.  It is an idea expressed in the medium of matter.  A person doesn’t make a choice because of processes in the brain.  Those processes simply express the choice in the material world.   That’s true across the spectrum of human experience:  Even if every impulse and every emotion is eventually mapped in the brain, there will still be not one iota of evidence that they originated there.  It seems far more in keeping with what we know to assume that experience is spiritual and that the body expresses it the same way words express, but do not constitute, ideas.

Whether it is true that each of us is an idea of God’s expressed in flesh, and whether God once expressed himself in flesh as well, these are questions of faith.  But we should not allow them to be decided by cultural fiat.  In more ways than one, our lives depend on getting the answers right.

Mr. Klavan is the author of “The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ” (HarperCollins, 2016).