Nothing from Nothing Leaves Nothing


One of the intellectual problems encountered by atheism, though not one that is frequently mentioned, is its tendency to reductionism. If the universe is closed, then ultimately the story of things is much less complex than they might otherwise be and far more predictable. Indeed, the atheist account of reality is frequently boring. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s now famous description of the stars: “Billions and billions” (no one else could do as much with the letter “b” as Carl). The sadness of his account was that bigness somehow was made to substitute for the wonder of everything. In the end, finite is still just finite.

Most recently, one of the new champions of atheism (and they are getting a bit bolder these days), Daniel Dennett, has offered a book: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It is devastatingly reviewed in last January’s First Things by David Hart, an Orthodox lay theologian. Hart is among the more deft of contemporary writers with an insight into both theology and contemporary culture that is masterful, to say the least. I only hope that if I ever write a book, and it were reviewed by Hart, that it would be a book he liked. When he dismantles something, it is pretty much done for.

Dennett’s thesis is to put forward the idea that religion is merely a natural phenomenon that evolved like everything else. Hart deconstructs Dennett’s thesis as thoroughly as I could imagine. I offer a short quote:

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer (the “cui bono? question,” as Dennett likes to say) is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.

Hart is a masterful writer, occasionally dense to the reader – but always worth spending the time to follow the paths he makes. The entire article may be read here. I heartily (no pun intended) recommend it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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29 responses to “Nothing from Nothing Leaves Nothing”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Stonehenge as captured by my son last summer. He readily acknowledges a certain debt to Monty Python.

  2. mrh Avatar

    Thank you for pointing out this review, Father.

    The paragraph about how “Dennett is himself a cargo cultist” is priceless. It could be applied to many other targets.

  3. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen — Are you sure he’s not acknowledging a debt to Spinal Tap?

  4. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    Thank you for the excerpt and link, Father. I’ll read more when (if) there is time. And thanks for your blog. I read it with great interest. As another commenter said recently, it always surprises me how you hit topics or say things apropos for the moment. I find myself thinking or worrying about something, and there you put up a post, a quote, or a reflection which speaks directly to me.

    I’ll have to try to read Hart more thoroughly (he is always fascinating, but also a rather exasperating writer), but I will probably beg to differ. Speaking of long-ago PhD work, I wrote a dissertation on the “evolution of moral agency” using some of the best evolutionary theory then available, including theories about how culture evolves (that was more than ten years ago). No doubt it was not the most successful project. However, there is nothing wrong with science or its methods or even its findings, IF they are used as well as we humans can hope to use them in an honest search. There is no need to fear good science, or whatever genuine (if partial) truths about creation good science is able to discover.

    Science is not only empirical and quantitative. It is also theoretical and speculative, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if it weren’t, it would be highly unsuccessful as science — and irrelevant to the human desire to know and to understand. Theologians should be wary of reducing science (for their convenience — or out of their own arrogance) as much as they worry about science trying to reduce theology. Can God be reduced?

    Dennett himself is a thoughtful guy. He is in fact great fun to read and argue with, which is no doubt why Hart chooses to do so. I read several of his books and articles with profit while a grad student. (Haven’t read this latest, and in fact I haven’t read anything by him in years, having moved on to better things.)

    There is nothing wrong with the finity of creation. God manifests Himself through finite creation, the physical and the biological, as well as the cultural and the immaterial. Thank God He does! There is nothing wrong with the finity of human minds, either — except when they begin to think that they aren’t finite, i.e. that they have Answers. That was Adam and Eve’s fault (fall).

    So the problem with some speculative, “naturalistic” science is not its search, not its speculation, not even its atheism (although that is false), but if it should arrive at what it thinks are Answers, in short, its pride. No surprise there. But, then, it would be bad science also.

    Part of the job of the good theologian would be to call the scientist to better science.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think to a large extent this is what Hart does. Science is not at all the problem. Evolutionary science is not necessarily a problem either. But as a metaphor for everything it falls short. There is nothing about evolution that should privilege as a metaphor for projects that are not say DNA based, etc. I would probably argue against evolutionary metaphors in moral thought, simply because I see no evidence that man has changed morally, unless you read history in a very narrow, modern American reading, which masks the fact that, for instance, though we abhor slavery, we practice and tolerate any number of economic practices that are potentially as bad. We seem as capable of murder in its most heinous forms and only the last two generations or so have actually contemplated the end of life on the planet. That’s not moral evolution.

    As I’ve written in other places, metaphors interest me. The metaphors of science are as interesting to me as those of religion. The metaphors of quantum mechanics, for instance, are a world away from those of traditional physics.

    Interestingly, Hart did not necessarily have a problem with using evolutionary metaphor in religious thought or practice, precisely because we have no trouble with God’s use of “natural” things. We’re the ones who believe in the incarnation.

    Largely, his review finds Dennet’s understanding and treatment of religion to be shallow, uninformed and filled with caricature. It’s not good science or theology.

    But Hart is always a good read – regardless of how taxing he is. I think he makes me work a little harder than I’m used to and I need that.

  6. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Hart illustrates Dennett’s thesis with this: “…if most human beings believe in God, this has nothing to do with any sort of rational interpretation on their parts of their experience of reality. Nor is it even simply the influence of traditions that illuminate or confine their reasoning. Rather, the meme for God has implanted itself in their minds and has replicated itself through adaptation while successfully eliminating any number of rival memetic codes. ”

    I haven’t read Dennett’s book, and if Hart is accurately portraying his thesis, I doubt that I will. There is no factual basis for this hypothesis. It is a hypothesis that, when translated into comparative linguistics and cultural anthropology, finds no supporting evidence. Humans appear suddenly in the fossil record and from the beginning human communities have been easily distinguishable from primate communities. (For example, apes don’t share their food so you won’t find depositories of bones as when ancient humans ate together.) Further no missing links have been found (Sorry, Richard Leakey). That change takes place in nature is an observable phenomena, but does not require the theory of Neo-Darwinian evolution. When we come to linguistics and cultural anthropology one finds little basis for Dennett’s idea that God is a notion that somehow survived because of a random selection process.

    I guess I’ll have to read the book though. Just to find out how he answers the question: “If the notion of God somehow survives does that mean that God in human thought contributes to human survival?” If so, he is providing evidence for a “saving” God.

  7. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    =) I shall resist the temptation to go back and read any more Dennett. From Hart’s review, it sounds like Dennett is about where one might have predicted he would be given where he was at ten years ago. Yes, I agree, Hart’s main criticism seems to be that Dennett has taken religion “as such” or “in the abstract” as his object of study, and, therefore, that his evolutionary “narrative of the genesis of religion,” amounts to nothing more than “an impossible science devoted to an intrinsicaly indeterminate object.”

    And yet, indeterminacy aside, in the end Hart wholesale grants all or most of what Dennett (I’m guessing) would have desired to convince his reader of:

    “Dennett need not have made such an effort to argue his point in the first place. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals.”


    “Regarding ‘religion’ as such, though, it is in keeping with theological tradition to see it as something common to all societies, many of whose manifestations are violent, idiotic, despotic, superstitious, amoral, degrading, and false. The most one can say about religion in the abstract is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the ‘natural desire for God,’ and to a human openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace. Dennett may imagine that, by gravely informing us that this natural desire for God is in fact a desire for God that is natural, he is confronting us with a conceptual revolution, but, in fact, all he has produced is a minor modification of syntax.”

    I.e. Dennett has merely discovered what Christian tradition has known all along. Shouldn’t this be cause for some cheering?

    Ah, but here’s the kicker, and Hart nails it:

    “it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality.”

    He even brings it home to Dennett personally. There are inescapable empirical realities to be reckoned with:

    “If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, … As a first step, he should certainly-purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor-begin praying.”


    Of all the sciences, evolutionary biology — and its offshoots into anthropology, psychology, linguistics, medicine, and so on — is indeed strongly metaphor driven. Perhaps it’s the metaphor that drives so persistently the evolutionist’s investigations, speculations, and storytelling. The root metaphor is this: Wherever there is heritable variation from one generation to the next; and wherever some variants are more adaptive than others (i.e. more likely to be passed on to the next generation), then there will be evolutionary change (in terms of the proportion of variants in the population), and that change will favor the more adaptive variants. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re talking about genes or memes, eye color or religious belief.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Evolutionary biologists believe, in some form or another, in the pre-existence of matter and, more or less, it is eternal nature.

    Christians, if we are true to our faith, believe in creation ex-nihilo.

    As David Hart as aptly pointed out in another essary when it comes to matters of anthroplogy there is not any real common ground.

    One cannot be both a Christian and a materialist. When we allow ourselves to give creedance to “science” that is founded upon and advances an anthropic understanding that is a complete denial of revealed Christian truth, we are treading on dangerous ground.

    Archmandrite Zacharias (spiritual father of the St. John the Baptist monastary in England) in a lecture given in 2001 made the observation that the whole development of modern science in the west is owed to the akedia, spiritual despondancy, of the medieval monks. They gave up the path of salvation for that of natural observation and experiment. Obvioulsy a praxis that is based in the material and is fundamentally material phiosophically will produce material innovation.

    We must also be cognizant of the fact that the early evolutionary biologists were specifically looking for a system of thought to replace the Christian world view, especially with regard to Christian morals.

    Obviously, I reap the benefits of the materialistic world, but I am also drowning in too many “things”. I think that it is an appropriate ascesis to rid ourselves of the the fruits of what I consider to be a dangerous tree to play around with.

    I’m not sure what a science founded upon Christian anthropology and cosmology would look like, but it would be vastly different than the science of today. While the actual practice of much of science today is not specifically opposed to Christianity, the scientism and the polticial populism attached to it is not at all friendly.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tracy says: “As another commenter said recently, it always surprises me how you hit topics or say things apropos for the moment.” I too have oft made that observation to myself, but I think Fr. Stephen has given us the reason that is so it a recent post. He practices “real theology”

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Well said. It also begs the question in transfer the evolutionary metaphor as to is an advance when it comes to certain ideas. Or even (and here I am at least an intelligent design guy) if all this stuff is headed somewhere, who’s doing the driving?

    I appreciate St. Paul’s “God has purposed to gather together into one all things in Christ Jesus.” This, I believe, is the flow of the universe. We can either be gathered into Christ, or gather ourselves into hell – but everything is and can only be defined in relationship to Christ – for there is no other ground of reality. “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

    The atheist challenge to Christianity is not found in finding an alternate purpose in the universe – the true atheist challenge, I think, is the bold claim that there is no purpose to the universe. That despair, I think, is the only claim against Christianity that has ever held much value – and as a claim it gets quickly swallowed in its own despair. But for an atheist to work on alternative claims that have meaning and purpose is just whistling past the grave yard.

    There are Orthodox writers who deal with modern atheism seriously – both Fr. Sophrony and Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh confronted such thought with great seriousness – perhaps it is their common experience of post-war (WWI) Paris. Though I am a believer the despairing atheism that they describe is understandable to me, and even garners my concern and prayerful sympathy. Not that I don’t or won’t pray for other atheists – I do and I will – it’s just that the other forms seem silly when compared to the starkness of despair.

    Gee…was that too dark a paragraph?

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. No, it is not too dark. It is the truth. I am seemingly a rare individual. I came to Christ because I study Nietzche intently. (If you want a shock sometime, look at how close Emerson is to Nietzche and consider what a profound effect Emerson has had on American arts and letters).

    One either courts and succumbs to the darkness or allows the Victory of Christ to work in one’s heart. In my experience it is all too easy to seek a non-existent “middle ground” It is a world of false dichotomies that vainly tries to plaster over the only real dicotomy: Christ or nothing. That is why Jesus tells us He vomits the luke-warm out of His mouth. Those who despair in atheism do so because they have a genuine knowledge of the existential (fallen) reality of man without Jesus Christ.

    As followers of the Incarnate God/Man we are called to pnemonological state which only exists in communion with God. We either enter into the Church and the life of the Risen Christ or we wallow in darkness and nihlistic despair.

    I’m old enough and lost enough that I had put as a replacement in my life for Christ, I’m just about ready to try it His way.

    By your prayers, Father!

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    That should be studied Nietzche. I do so no longer.

  13. Coroebus Avatar

    “One either courts and succumbs to the darkness or allows the Victory of Christ to work in one’s heart. In my experience it is all too easy to seek a non-existent “middle ground” It is a world of false dichotomies that vainly tries to plaster over the only real dichotomy: Christ or nothing.”

    Thanks for this, Michael. This is so very apt. And is it not the grace of the Holy Spirit within our Orthodox Church that helps you, helps us to see this clearly, while elsewhere in the Christian world so much is so clouded? The risen Christ or nothing, indeed.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Coroebus, This is the Sunday of the Samaritan woman. She was faced with the same choice: Christ or nothing. As our priest aptly pointed out today, it is not theological knowledge that saves. The Samaritan woman had theological knowledge. It was not, however, until she was actually confronted with the choice of The Life and accepted the living water that her life changed.

    Whether we are titularly Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant unless we actually enter into the experience of the living God in repentance we are not alive. The Church makes that possible in a way that is easily explicable but, for me, hard to do. There are those who are not Orthodox who are far more alive in Christ than am I. Nevertheless, we do have the reponsibility to speak to them as Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know, salvation if of the Jews (The Church). For course, we can only do that if we are doing real theology and if we are doing real theology we will be united and our prophetic voice to this country will be unmistakable.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Your priest and I must have taken a similar line on today’s gospel. Indeed.

    The choice you put so well is probably what attracts me so to Dostoevsky. No other modern writer has placed this option as clearly as he. For whatever strange reason I think I knew by about age 10 or 11 the nature of the choice. My childhood had a couple of very dark years – tragedies in the family and such. I continue to be drawn most by those who delineate that choice most clearly. Thus my love for St. Silouan and others.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems as if tragedy is what it takes for most of us to wake up to the reality. Even though I have known the choice intellecutally since college it has only be tragedy in my own life and others of the last two years that have begun to waken my heart just a little. Most recent, the Kansas town of Greensburg, over a hundred years old an hour away from where I live wiped out by one tornado. There is not a frame building in town left standing. The 19th century stone courthouse made it through, but little else. Fortunately, only a handful dead thanks to modern electronics. It is the third time in my lifetime here in Kansas that such a devastation has occured.

  17. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    “Man’s greatness is only in God-that is the motto of Theanthropic culture. Man without God is 70 kg of bloody clay, a sepulchre prior to the grave. European man has condemned to death both God and the soul, but has he not thereby also condemned himself to that death following which there is no resurrection? Try dispassionately to grasp the essence of European philosophy, of European science, politics, culture, civilization, and you will see that in European man they have killed God and the immortality of the soul. And if one seriously ponders the tragedy of human history, then it is possible to see that Deicide always ends with suicide. Remember Judas: first he killed God, and then he destroyed himself, such is the inevitable law of the history of our planet.”

    ~ Archimandrite Justin Popovich, from an article entitled “Whither does humanistic culture lead?”

    Father, you have often discussed atheism on this blog as the rejection of a false god. “Tell me who your God is, and I’ll tell you if I believe in him.” Fr. Popovich’s observation applies to those who kill God while knowing Who He is. Dennett and those of his ilk kill God not knowing who He is. That’s Hart’s main criticism. They kill Him — or rather, do not permit Him to live — because they are obsessed with one metaphor to the exclusion of all others. How familiar a trap that is.

    If one kills God knowing Who He is, then that is indeed an act of true despair.

    Christ is able to pray on the Cross for those who kill Him, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

    Hart argues in “Christ and Nothing” that once you know, once paganism is no longer an option, once the old gods are dead, they cannot be revived. Kill Him, and there is nothing left.

  18. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    I, too, was drawn to Christ by encounter with death. Perhaps there is no other way. Otherwise, it’s all just playing a game. If one is nominally Christian or nominally atheist — either one — what else is there to do?
    Tracy (also in Kansas)

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. Thank you for the note. I have read a fair amount of Fr. Justin Popovich and recommend him as well. What I see in Dostoevsky, for instance, is precisely that moment in which true despair is identified – and – at least for Dostoevsky – he chooses God. This is salvation.

    There is, I think, sometimes a failure to see the nature of the choice before us, in which case we risk falling into some lukewarm version of the faith which both fails to save us, and proclaims something less than the Gospel at the same time.

    Most atheists that I have encountered, as you cited, are not at a point of despair, but simply at the point of having rejected a false God. It’s a different conversation.

    One who stands at that point of despair stands both at the cusp of salvation and at the cusp of damnation. It is a fearful place indeed. I can count only a few occasions that I have had opportunity to be part of that conversation. Some to good effect some to yet more fervent prayer.

  20. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    My priest today for the Samaritan woman focused not on the fatefulness of her choice, but on how she seeks to avoid encounters that would be too challenging — by going to the well in the middle of the day. And yet… how Christ finds her anyway.

    The choice is stark, but God is always, always good.

    Whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. Even in hell, despair not.

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tracy, I’m in a little burg 60 miles SW of Wichita, Attica. Where in Kansas are you?

    A really good friend of mine reposed recently. I bring it up because after his funeral as we were filing into the hall to pay our respects to his wife and family, one of his co-workers who has a hearing problem remarked: “I’ve never been to a service like this one before. I couldn’t really hear a lot that was said, but it seems like they DO something!”

    Yes, the Church does something. The invocation of mercy is a palpable force. To my knowledge no other Christian tradition or communion has the courage to say the following when burying people: “May all those things which have proceeded from the weakness of his mortal nature be consigned to oblivion, and be remitted unto him…”

    Repentance is the key to receiving this blessing, but the prayers of the Church are effectual.
    Forgiveness is life and forgiveness comes to us through the Cross.

  22. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    Amen, Michael. Memory eternal to your friend. I live in Kansas City.

  23. Visibilium Avatar

    Hart’s review is entertaining, and it’s nice that he sticks up for the Four Causes, although I’m not sure that he’s made them more useful.

    I’d hesitate to talk so much about atheists’ despair or nihilism, especially when some atheists insist on talking about reason and evidence.

    If we suppose that the endgame of atheism is eternal recurrence, is that the same as despair or nihilism?

    P.S., I like Nietzsche, too.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar


    Help me out here, what is eternal recurrence. I’m not well trained in philosophy.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Visibilium, I did not say I liked Nietzsche. Genuine Christianity is the answer to all of Nietzche’s questions and one gets to by pass all of the stupidity of arrogance that he exudes. Where Nietzche destroys, Christ builds. What I saw, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, in Nietzche was in order for his world to be even conceived, the world of Christ had to be real.

    Eternal recurrance, which if memory serves me, is the idea that the material world is constantly being born, dispersed, and reborn. I suppose some of the expansion/contraction/expansion cosmology out there is sort of an analog, but the myth of the eternal recurrence still assumes a purpose and meaning that modern cosmology explictly denies. It is more pantheistic in character than it is atheistic. However, I studied this stuff so long ago my memory may be off.

  26. Fatherstephen Avatar

    So then, eternal recurrence would be another way of saying, “Stuff happens?” Yep. That would be short of meaning.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    From Wikepedia: Eternal return (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in the exact same self-similar form an incomprehensible and unfathomable number of times. The concept has roots in ancient Egypt, and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse, though Friedrich Nietzsche briefly resurrected it.

  28. […] 7th, 2007 · No Comments Father Stephen writes, in a comment to this post: The atheist challenge to Christianity is not found in finding an alternate purpose in the universe […]

  29. Visibilium Avatar

    Sorry, Fr. Stephen, I didn’t mean to become obscure, and I’m glad that another commenter provided you with the idea of eternal recurrence. The strict view of eternal recurrence would involve the recurring of the same events again and again.

    Now I understand your position. Thanks.

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