The recently deceased Martin Gardner (1914-2010) (Wikipedia) was a noted skeptic, perhaps best known for his many columns in magazines such as Scientific American. He also authored a number of science popularizations, such as The Ambidextrous Universe (Wikipedia) which was probably one of the first physics-related books I read in junior high school.
One of the interesting things about Mr. Gardner is that he was NOT an atheist. It is a statement which I had heard over the years in passing, but had never read any of his work dealing with theology until recently.
Per the recommendation of a coworker, I read “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”, which is a collection of essays by Gardner with an emphasis on philosophical and theological issues. Sections in the book describe a lot of Gardner's philosophical and theological thinking and how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his skepticism and critical thinking skills.
One of the sections I found particularly interesting was “Evil: Why We Don't Know Why”, which explores “The Problem of Evil” (Wikipedia). This is the theological problem of understanding how evil can exist in a world with an omnipotent, benificent diety. One of the most compelling solutions to the problem was presented on pages 263-264. The history of this problem goes back a number of years, but the explanation in the book mirrored some of my more recent thinking on the topic. The short answer is that how a Christian deals with evil is part of the key test of being Christian.
I find the simplest way to explain it is by an analogy from Star Trek:
The Theology of the Kobayashi Maru
The opening of the second Star Trek movie, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (link), presents a test for a group of StarFleet cadets, the Kobayashi Maru scenario (Wikipedia). The scenario places cadets in a situation where all their decisions have bad consequences. It is a test for how potential command officers, deal with a 'no-win scenario', a situation where all your available choices have significantly less than ideal outcomes. This is a situation that anyone in a command position might eventually have to face. It's goal is to determine the character of the cadets, especially in tough command positions.
Consider the parallel of Christianity in a Naturalistic Universe...
- There is no physical evidence of the existence of an afterlife
- There is no physical evidence for the existence of the soul
- If you take the most basic interpretation of naturalistic evolution of the selfish gene, the 'best strategy' in this situation would be an eye-for-an-eye approach to life. I'll call this Strategy 1.
But consider a wiser interpretation...
More altruistic strategies in life are much more long-term best strategies. It opens the door to cooperative, rather than winner-take-all competitive enterprises. I'll call this Strategy 2.
The first commandment of Christianity is the Golden Rule, to do unto others as they do unto you. This is a cooperative strategy. The Golden Rule is NOT exclusive to Christianity and even predates Christianity (Wikipedia).
Altruistic strategies, and the Golden Rule, are the opposite of Strategy 1, but it is not an obvious strategy. It depends on a 'leap of faith', that the other side will not exploit what could be interpreted as weakness, to their advantage. From game theory, we know that these types of cooperative strategies have evolutionary value. This may be why the Golden Rule appears in a number of non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures as well.
The true test of Christianity, the First Commandment, asks believers to adopt Strategy 2. (Matthew 5:38-39)
We live in a Universe that is set up as a No-Win scenario.
All the physical evidence says that when you die, that is it. Even while we are alive, no invisible being will rescue us if we do something stupid. While flukes may rescue us from bad decisions, no divine entity will.
On top of that, we see a first-order evolutionary strategy that is dog-eat-dog.
So how does one deal with this apparently hopeless situation?
Christians are asked, in spite of all the physical evidence to the contrary, to adopt Strategy 2. Yet if we look at many of the high profile 'christians', many adopt the militant view of Strategy 1.
Which demonstrates the stronger faith, the Christians who live by Strategy 1, or those who live by Strategy 2?
Which choice is a better test of character?
Creationism, and other theologies that rely on a Diety that will actively intervene in the physical world, like Captain Kirk, tries to change the conditions of the test. You can only get away with that so far...
Creationists try to fool you into thinking there is an easy way out instead of Strategy 2. They try to sell you that their pseudo-science is part of the package - you can't believe any of it if you don't believe their claims as well.
This isn't to say that someone can't be a Creationist AND live according to Strategy 2. It just distorts one's priorities.
Something to think about, when Gathering for Gardner...