How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
It seems that every few weeks, the popular, long-running game show Jeopardy! finds itself in the news again. By Jeopardy! I of course mean that trivia show where the contestants get money for providing questions to the answers given by host Alex Trebek, that show where people can increase their winnings through randomly placed “Daily Doubles,” that show where a little tune plays while competitors write down their high-stakes last question in “Final Jeopardy!”
Jeopardy! celebrates knowledge but not gnosis.In the closing weeks of December, Jeopardy! was once more a topic of cultural conversation when it was revealed that the episodes being shown featured a winning contestant named Cindy Stowell, who had died at age 41 of colon cancer just days before the episodes aired. At the close of 2016, a year widely reviled, this sad story was also inspirational—a soft-spoken, intelligent woman who quietly persevered to achieve her dream even in her last days.
Why was competing on Jeopardy! her dream, and not just hers but the dream of so many others as well? How has a show with such a simple premise become so successful, especially one whose glorification of seemingly insignificant knowledge could so easily seem pretentious or elitist? There are doubtless many reasons for the longstanding series’ success and cultural impact, but I think that one of the most important is also one of the simplest: humans love knowledge. And while one could argue that this love has gotten our species in trouble from time to time, I believe the desire for knowledge is, in principle, a good thing, born out of our very nature as created beings.
In the early years of Christianity, a heresy (or variety of heresies) generally referred to as Gnosticism began to spread through the faith. Proto-gnostic teachings may already have been evident in quarters of the first-century churches, informing, for instance, the letters of Paul or John; but it was clearly a significant issue by the second century, when Irenaeus of Lyons penned vivid descriptions of certain strands of this false teaching in his work Against the Heresies. Doing so could be a bit difficult, because the very nature of gnostic beliefs made them convoluted, inconsistent, and hard to pin down.
Gnosticism derives its name from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge” (and, indeed, a linguistic relative of the English word “know”). For advocates of these teachings, their doctrine consisted of a secret knowledge that was generally passed down orally to the select few who were “mature” enough to hear and apprehend it. For this reason, gnostic systems varied widely between sects, but certain common elements become evident. Influenced by Eastern religions, Neo-Platonism, Persian Zoroastrianism, or some combination, Gnostics elevated the status of the spiritual world, so much so that all material creation tended to be regarded as intrinsically evil, possibly the production of a lesser god or “demiurge.” Human earthly existence consisted of trying to attain gnosis, understood as a pure spiritual knowledge that would allow acolytes to find their way toward release from the dungeon of materiality.
Some Gnostics may have given themselves up to an indulgent lifestyle under the assumption that there could be little harm in doing so, since their bodies were evil regardless of how they behaved. Most often, however, devotees of such heresies thought the best way to achieve gnosis included a radical separation from all apparent goods of material existence. Gnostic teachers advocated strict, austere lives. In this context, such leaders would see gnosis not as knowledge in a general sense but as a mysterious and secretive doctrine that was entirely “spiritual” (based on their dualistic understanding of spirituality).
Many patristic Christians could stand toe-to-toe with Gnostics in world-renouncing asceticism—this was the age of desert fathers like Antony and Simeon Stylites, leading up to monastic communities like those planned out by Benedict. But while early Christian practice may stray on the harsh side by twenty-first-century evangelical standards, the orthodox faithful held two principles that stood in sharp contradistinction to their gnostic counterparts: knowledge ought not be the provenance of a select few, and the physical world was created good by God Himself.
In these regards, Jeopardy! celebrates knowledge but not gnosis. Perhaps one reason the show retains its popularity is that, in principle, almost anyone can compete. Sure, the series has its fair share of university professors; but it is also populated by secretaries, social workers, and stay-at-home moms. Ken Jennings, who held the show’s longest winning streak, worked previously as a software engineer. All those with access to a wide spectrum of knowledge and the fine motor skills to work the buzzer (and the fortitude to risk being wrong in front of millions of people) have a shot.
And while some might label the knowledge celebrated by the show as esoteric, it is not the ascetic and “spiritual” mystery gnosis of the early heresies. Jeopardy! categories, from “Potent Potables” to “Science” to “Before and After,” positively exult in their earthiness, drawing from every realm of learning available. If nerdy contestants may seem like they have their heads in the clouds, the atoms of those clouds are still very much a part of the concrete, physical cosmos that gnostic teachers so readily scorned.
In the vicinity of the constellation Sagittarius, one can find the star currently known as SWEEPS J175853.92−291120.6. Orbiting this star, over 27,000 light years from our solar system, appears to be at least one rather Jupiter-sized world, SWEEPS-04, which as of the time I am writing this piece represents one of the most distant known exoplanets. Barring some bizarre science-fictional occurrence, you and I will never lay eyes on this planet, nor will anyone else in our generation; indeed, it is very possible that no human ever will.
Yet as a Christian, I can and must affirm that the God I worship created SWEEPS-04. It has been common in some Christian theological circles to understand as a “Cultural Mandate” God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” As I have explored earlier, this has led to the charge, perhaps not always unfounded, that Christians see the earth as merely a set of resources to be exploited for the sake of human advancement. But clearly such views of the cosmos (and such an understanding of the Mandate) are deeply inadequate. SWEEPS-04 was not made for us; it was made out of the gratuitous invention of an all-powerful Creator. Scripture is a document of special revelation designed primarily to stake out the human role in the created order, but even the Bible at times gives a nod to the fact that creation is far greater than most humans—Christian or otherwise—give it credit for. Psalm 104 represents a paean to God’s providential role in sustaining all He has made; and God’s response to Job largely details the ways in which He rules over a natural world that holds little regard for humanity. Our own place in this world, and certainly in this cosmos, is ultimately very small.
Like our Father among the daisies, we occasionally just want to run through the field shouting, “Encore!” and “Do it again!”Christianity has always been on some level a hands-on religion, one whose central book “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Because of this, there is a longstanding emphasis among Christians on application—on how we can “use” biblical passages. This may account somewhat for the Christian tendency to treat nature in a similar way. And such a tendency should not be disregarded—the practicality of the church living out its love has always been at the heart of its God-ordained mission, and the Bible makes it clear that humanity as a species is set apart distinctively from the rest of the biological sphere.
However, this insistence on application, on “use,” will often prove misguided if it does not proceed from a deep and intrinsic love for the objects in question themselves. Dorothy L. Sayers advocates strongly for this “love of the creature” for its own sake in her classic work The Mind of the Maker. In this book, which explores the ties between creedal Christian doctrine and the human creative impulse, Sayers notes that our contemporary utilitarian society can learn a thing or two from the artist/creator temperament, among them “that the only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant” (186). She exemplifies this approach in her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who can solve crimes that baffle the police precisely because his head is filled with “worthless” knowledge—with trivia. (Indeed, one Lord Peter story even requires the characters to solve a crossword puzzle!)
In his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton brings his protagonist Gabriel Syme through a series of increasingly bizarre experiences, at first seemingly centered on a cadre of anarchists but in truth, more metaphysically, about the human relationship to creation and providence. When Syme wakes up from his nightmare after an (oblique but beautiful) revelation of the gospel, Chesterton tells us that his main character “felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality” (264). This dovetails with a passage from his classic work Orthodoxy, which, like The Man Who Was Thursday, was published in 1908:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. (65-66)
The evangel, the gospel, the “impossible good news” that God has provided redemption to humanity in Jesus Christ, is indeed the central fact of Christianity, the axis upon which all believers’ lives must turn. But unlike the Gnostics, who hoarded their purported truths, Christians proclaim a mystery revealed, a knowledge accessible to all. One of the foundations of the faith is that God deliberately and lovingly crafted material creation, not out of need or incompleteness but from a pure superabundance of love. And one of the most important teachings of this mystery, this knowledge, is that of incarnation, that God chose to dignify the space and time he made by entering into it.
So while nothing ought to dilute Christian zeal for faithful witness, one aspect of that witness might be a positive delight in that “adorable triviality” of a universe that was made for more than our own paltry purposes. If a botanist is asked why he studies a flower or a paleontologist why she examines a fossil, on what ground should we require any answer other than, “God made it”? Must every act of human ingenuity be “useful,” a “solution” to some predefined “problem”—has not God declared that the “glory and honor” of the nations shall be found in the New Heavens and New Earth?
Whether you believe Alex Trebek is the quintessence of arrogance or the last bastion of civilization against the barbarian Sean Connerys, we can all agree that Jeopardy! is not perfect. Pursuing Jeopardy!–style knowledge should never be a substitute for the incarnational presence of God’s church on mission. Former contestant Talia Lavin, whose Final Jeopardy! response went famously viral, has written about the harassment she and other women on the show experienced in its aftermath. Yet despite this ordeal, she notes, “[n]ot one of the women I spoke with regretted their decision to appear on Jeopardy!, fulfilling childhood dreams in some cases, paying off student debt in others.” This was Cindy Stowell’s dream, and the dream of countless others, male and female. No matter how often voices in society might deride fans of Jeopardy! or other forms of trivia, millions still love them.
And while the reasons are myriad—perhaps as many as there are contestants—I cannot help but believe that one reason is that, on some fundamental level, most of us retain some semblance of curiosity simply to know. Like our Father among the daisies, we occasionally just want to run through the field shouting, “Encore!” and “Do it again!”
This “adorable triviality” cannot help but charm us.
What is God’s Creation?
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.