Tag Archives: new atheism

Ignorance is More Blissful than Theism

ignorance-is-blissIn his article, Believe it or Not, David Bentley Hart eloquently points out the moral and intellectual superficiality of the New Atheism:

“[Nietzsche’s] famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.”

As different as their views are, Hart and Nietzsche agree on the simple fact that any worldview worth taking seriously is one that answers life’s greatest questions, rather than simply dismissing them or arrogantly declaring that one (safe in the suburban bubble of economic stability and a set of unquestioned cultural values) is strong enough to live without such answers.

The latter approach, for all its bluster, results only in drifting through one’s life without any clear idea what it is about.

And refusing to see the tragedy in that does nothing to make it less tragic.

Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

3tscekThe London School of Economics is facing a controversy this week over it’s insistence that an secularist group not sport offensive t-shirts and signs. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins has voiced his support for the group, calling the school officials “sanctimonious little prigs”.

I have no idea if Dawkins realized that he was demonstrating the exact sort of mean-spirited behavior the atheist group was accused of stooping to. If not, he can rightly claim to be as ignorant of basic courtesy as he is of theology (and, if so, it is not a compliment to say that he has no problem being mean-spirited).

In fact, the New Atheism (always taking its cues from Richard Dawkins) seems to have a long track record of garnering attention by specifically putting their message in offensive terms–then acting shocked and crying oppression when offense is taken.

And this was the issue with the group: not that the position of atheism (or even of close-minded, ranting atheism that confuses cheap slogans for reason) was unwelcome at the event, but that public discourse requires a certain level of civility in order to function.

The group complains “Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others”. But this is simply false. Rights to expression and participation were never taken away. The group was neither banned from participating nor hindered from distributing their literature. They were merely asked to remove offensive signs and t-shirts and present their case in a civil way–the exact thing that is expected of every group at the event.

Needless to say, this was not “for no other reason” than their disbelief. It was for the unnecessarily rude methods that characterize the New Atheism. But it seems that the movement, having made incivility its calling card, has trouble understanding the difference between offering reasons for disagreeing and resorting to ridicule.

All this reminds me rather of the behavior of Lawrence Krauss–who recently insisted on an informal debate format with William Lane Craig in order to “have a conversation”, then used that format to shout down and talk over Craig rather than listen to or address his points. This group, following the example of their leaders, seems far less interested in actual conversation or fairness than in using the rhetoric of civil society in order to excuse behavior more appropriate to the Jr. High playground than civil debate.

For all its claims of intellectual superiority, the New Atheism behaves far more like an angry mob than a coalition of thoughtful individuals. Atheists in general should be rushing to distance themselves from this group in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of the stereotype that atheists are a sophisticated lot.

If they’ve failed at dismantling theism, Dawkins, Krauss, and their fans have blown the lid off of the myth that an atheist can be expected to be particularly reasonable.

It’s All Over?

they_think_its_all_over_1999a-smallThe Spectator has published an article, proclaiming the end of the New Atheist movement, and the rise of a group of atheist thinkers who see religion in a much more nuanced way.

As much as I’d like to believe this, I’m not convinced.

Yes, I’d say that the New Atheism, like any movement, must always face the choice between adaptation or death. And, yes, they will eventually need to acknowledge the complex realities of life, and transition out of this simple atheism-good/religion-bad narrative that they hammer so tirelessly if they want people to keep listening.

But it is a bit premature to say that the movement is dead. Some are starting to realize that its treatment of religion has been unfair to the point of propagandistic, and journalists do seem to feel that the novelty of hearing someone proclaim “the world would simply be better without religion” has worn off (as Coyne laments in his response to the article). But I think we still have a couple of years before taking a sophisticated view of religion is seen as more desirable than declaring one’s self too intelligent to study the matter.

Setting aside the strangeness of using (a claim of) intelligence as an excuse to remain ignorant, I agree with Hobson’s analysis to a point. The shift may not have happened, but it does seem to be starting. If journalists and writers are beginning to declare themselves too sophisticated to side with the simple narrative of the New Atheists, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that many of their readers will follow suit. This hardly justifies “Dawkins has lost”, of course, but is worth noting.

In fact, I noticed that Coyne couldn’t get through his response without reference to the inane “courtier’s reply”. If the choice is ultimately between appearing sophisticated and defending a self-imposed ignorance of the details, it’s obvious what people will favor. Eventually, this will happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s happened yet.

And, from my perspective, the longer the New Atheism lasts, the easier it will be to convince people that unreconstructed materialism is a philosophy for the simple-minded.

As such, I find myself rather ambivalent. I very much prefer my encounters with thoughtful atheists, but the New Atheists make my job quite a bit easier, and it is always tempting to play up the idea that all atheists are like Dawkins.

Apologies in advance, then, if I end up doing that.

Moving on to the Beginning

science-cosmology-revolution-astrophysicist-13.7-cosmos-culture-blog-multiverse-big-bangThere usually comes a time, when pointing out that materialism is based on a self-contradiction and otherwise unsupported enough to be called a superstition, when some defenders of materialism drop the issue and start to complain that this doesn’t prove the existence of God.

I suppose that’s true, though it should be obvious that it is an important step in the reasoning that will get us there. One is left fighting the temptation to respond with “patience, Grasshopper”.

Though these complaints strike me as entirely weird non-sequiturs, they are probably the closest thing to a concession one is likely to get from a hostile debater. Therefore, I usually take that as my sign that it is time to move on to the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

There are actually several cosmological arguments, only one of which requires the beginning of the universe. As it is the easiest for modern people to understand, I’ll start there:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument takes the intuitively reasonable position the universe had a cause which brought it into existence. Traditionally, it has been dismissed on the grounds that the universe was simply eternal. Now that modern cosmology is closing off that route, many are trying to deny the principle that things require a cause in order to come into existence.

Of course, that last position is a denial of the very foundation of science (the idea that things have causes). If one is willing to go that route, simply denying cosmic expansion seems trivial.

I’m always surprised that some spend so much time arguing that there wasn’t a cause to the beginning of the universe. It is a reasonable conclusion, and we still need to examine what that cause is. Perhaps some have the sense that, in agreeing that there was a cause of the universe’s beginning, they are already starting to let their materialism slip away.

But, whatever the motivation, there’s no good reason to deny that the universe has a cause. And I’ll discuss what that cause might be next time.

“These are Not the Atheists You’re Looking For”

these_are_not_the_droidsIn past entries, I’ve been very critical of the New Atheists. There’s good reason for that; they represent something of a (far too large) fundamentalist fringe of atheism. Much of the response to my comments was essentially what I’d expected, but there are two elements to it that I find interesting:

First is the frequency with which some challenge the idea that the New Atheism even exists. Some even seem to think that I’m discussing all atheists (and, otherwise rightly, think I’ve been unreasonable toward atheism in general).

I find this astonishing. While I agree that the name is very misleading, it is entirely valid to point out that the recent popularity of atheist groups, meetings, books, and activism centered around a small set of individuals is deeply out of step with many other atheists. Yes, social groups are never tightly defined, but to say that there is no such thing as the New Atheism is to say that there is no difference, for example, between Richard Dawkins’ fans and atheists who have a positive view of religion.

Saying that there is no difference is, in effect, saying that a few writers speak for all atheists, which strikes me as entirely strange.

Second is the fact that none of the writers I’ve mentioned as being New Atheists have been defended by the same people who deny the existence of New Atheism. To me, this would only underline the fact that there are different kinds of atheists, and that those I’m criticizing under the ill-conceived moniker “New Atheism” are indeed consistently saying things that not all atheists believe.

I’d think that most atheists would be eager to distance themselves from such people. As a Christian, I’m eager to distance myself from the lunatic fringe. I’m left assuming that those who want atheism treated monolithically simply aren’t aware of what these people are saying–or with what vitriol they’re saying it.

But I hope that more people see this. The New Atheists have managed to avoid a great deal of well-deserved criticism by insisting that we cannot speak about them unless our words also apply to the genteel and thoughtful atheist. They seem never to tire of trying to avoid being defined in order to avoid being held up to scrutiny.

And open-mined atheists should be at least as bothered by the lumping of them together with the New Atheists as I am.

The Mindless Defender of Reason?

cartoon-zombie-scientist copyThere is a reason that the philosopher Rosenberg asserts that he has no mind: He knows that claiming to have one would contradict his atheism.

I find it more than a little ironic that, in the wake of so much insistence that there is no evidence for anything other than the physical, the things making the demands are themselves such evidence.

That is to say, minds.

Science has been unable to explain the mind. Meaning, purpose, subjective impressions, and the like are simply impossible to nail down with the tools of science. Of course, many insist that these are all simply brain states. And, while these things may all be correlated with brain states, there is a very simple reason why neurology (or any other science) isn’t going to explain them fully:

Because science forbids it from doing so.

Many keep making the argument that everything else has been made to submit to the investigation techniques of science, so it is only a matter of time before the mind is quantified and analyzed in the same way. Now, I’m not convinced that the first half of this statement is true. It would be more accurate to say everything else that the naturalist is willing to admit exists has submitted to this technique (or will in the future). But the real problem lies elsewhere.

One of the most useful tricks of science is to ignore anything it can’t quantify. It simply dismisses these things as “subjective”. That is well and good when one is doing science, but to call something subjective is, in part, to call it mental. Science has, in effect, been using the mind as the dumping bin for everything it can’t investigate. And it has been doing this for the last four centuries. It would be too much, I think, to say that the mind is defined in science as “everything science can’t investigate”, but it isn’t so far off the mark, either.

So, to say that the mind will eventually submit to scientific investigation because “everything else” has done so is like saying that, since we got rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under the kitchen rug, we can get rid of the dirt under the kitchen rug in the same way.

This means that science cannot, even in principle, fully explain the mind. It can explain brain states. And test subjects can report to us which mental events are correlated with those brain states. As amazing as that is, it isn’t a scientific explanation of the mind.

But, unless one is willing to agree with Alex Rosenberg that the mind doesn’t exist, and thoughts aren’t about things, this means concluding that naturalism is false.

Tough Guys from Quiet Suburbia

-Pretty-Fly-For-a-White-Guy-the-offspringBertrand Russell, I think, almost perfectly enshrines the rallying cry behind the New Atheism:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.

This is what would today be called a “shout out”. It is a rhetorical appeal to the hubris of his listeners–declaring that embracing atheism is a badge of intellectual, moral, and emotional strength.

And this is why the idea will never spread beyond those who live comfortable lives.

Christianity is not a message for the elite, for those who consider themselves as essentially good and in control of their lives. It is a message for those who have suffered enough to know that human frailties aren’t simply going to go away when we commit ourselves to science and make some inspirational speeches. A savior, after all, is of no use to those who think themselves too good to need saving.

No one, perhaps, saw this more clearly than Nietzsche, who called Christianity “a slave revolt in morality”. He hated Christ’s regard for the weak and impoverished, and felt the strong should take control to run the world correctly. But even the spoiled child from a safe neighborhood can grab for control and refuse to believe that his elders have any wisdom to give.

But Christ, when confronted with revolutionaries who were ready to overthrow Roman power (or die trying), simply spoke until they were too weak from hunger to make the trip home. He brought them to see their own weakness before offering them salvation in the form of bread.

And this, I think, is the real value of science to Russell and his intended listeners. It gives them physical bread, which makes them feel strong enough to avoid this lesson of Christ’s.

Missing a Target as Big as God

ignorance3After (erroneously) insisting that science vindicates atheism, Bertrand Russell goes on to rally his troops for a strike against a strange vision of Christian despotism:

Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

This is the sort of statement that could easily have been lifted from a communist propaganda pamphlet. There is a form of science-worship going on here, where technology will save us from all the problems of the world. At this point in history, it shouldn’t be necessary to argue that it is human nature, and not belief in God, that is the source of these problems.

But, apparently it is necessary. And that so many are eager to ignore lessons which cost more than a hundred million lives is, at best, deeply tragic.

This is at least partially because neither Russell nor the New Atheists can envision God as anything more than an “ally in the sky”. They seem oblivious to the fact that the entire concept of classical theism, of transcendence, or the metaphysical concept of pure actuality are completely beyond their objections. Consequently, they seem to think that they need only argue that there is no bearded man floating through the physical cosmos in order to refute Christianity.

That is roughly on par with claiming that all one needs to do to disprove atheism is to show that a kindergartener’s understanding of Richard Dawkins is silly.

We can’t find test for God’s presence with science any more than Hamlet can find Shakespeare by looking into a telescope. Simply demanding that naturalism is true, and therefore all propositions (including God) can be investigated with science, is simply arrogant dogmatism.

This should be obvious to anyone willing to listen to theologians, but Dawkins and others have spilled a fair amount of ink arguing that they don’t need to understand theology in order to reject belief in (what they think of as) God.

And the white-knuckled grip that many from this group keep on their own ignorance can’t be called anything other than prejudice.

Personal Feelings Trump Divine Revelation

6_satan-cast-outThough Bertrand Russell makes very standard  (if extremely overstated) accusations of Christianity’s past, he also makes a comment about the present that I find at least as strange.

I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together”.

Russell promises us that there are many more examples that he could have named. Of course, this really does nothing to prove that the negative examples outweigh the positive ones. Rather, this is simply a case of anecdotal evidence. Russell would be right to dismiss my argument if I claimed that Richard Dawkins’ rather callous position on the sexual abuse of children proves that secularism is evil, and his claim here is no different.

The New Atheists, for all their professed commitment to science, are even more prone to this mistake than Russell. In fact, they rarely seem at all interested in actual studies on the matter of religion. After all, these studies contradict, rather than support, their position.

Of course, this all assumes that the Catholic church is clearly in the wrong. While I can empathize with Russell’s concern, his objection seems to be based on a few assumptions, the most pertinent of which is the idea that a marriage relationship is based on sex, rather than the sex being based on the relationship. At least, singling this out as his choice example of the “principle enemy of progress in the world” seems to imply that a celibate marriage is an affront to basic human rights–even more, apparently than the subjugation of impoverished nations by wealthy countries (which seems to bother neither him nor the New Atheists).

Even if one disagrees with the Catholic position, then, he has hardly made a case that religion is the greatest force of evil in the world. Rather, it seems simply a complaint that religious institutions don’t agree with Russell’s personal scruples.

In fact, he says so almost directly:

There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.

On what grounds, one wonders, can Russell claim to judge the morality of a religion? What is considered “unnecessary” depends on what one accepts as moral. While it is obvious that some things are unnecessary from a secular, western, caucasian, post-enlightenment cultural view of reality, no religious group is obligated to agree with that position. And it seems entirely odd that Russell should think his culture should trump all other views.

As such, it isn’t possible to even make this complaint without being guilty of what one accuses the church: declaring that everyone should accept one’s own moral system.

Thank God for the New Atheists

study-hardSome might not believe me when I say that I’m grateful for the New Atheist movement, but I am. This is not to say that I agree with their position, or even find it reasonable. In this blog, I’ve been hard on them, and they deserve it. The confidence and scorn with which they attack all religion is wildly out of proportion with the (lack of) evidence and logical rigor they provide as support for their claims.

Still, I’ve come to disagree with David Bentley Hart’s sentiments:

The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike.

I, too, feel a sense of loss when I think about the shallowness of the modern discussion on religion. But I don’t think the New Atheists can be viewed simply as the most recent chapter in a tale of intellectual regression. They can, just as easily, be seen as the first chapter in the return to a more robust understanding of spirituality.

The church has been wading in shallow intellectual waters for some time. And the New Atheists, for all their sloppiness of thought, their commitment to rhetoric over rationality, and their refusal to understand the subject being discussed, have forced the Church to think.

That is, a group of raging atheists calling Christians moronic, while using arguments that just a little study could overcome, was probably the perfect motivator for Christians to engage their minds in their faith. For the first time in far too long, Christians en masse are starting to take seriously the idea that every Christian should be intellectually engaged.

This has not only meant more intellectual honesty, but also the opening up of an entirely new dimension of faith. I, for one, have been amazed at how much deeper an intellectually engaged faith can go than the basically emotional faith I had as a teenager. I think many are feeling this difference, and hope that many more will follow.

While it was the last thing they intended, the New Atheists have done a lot to bring this change about. They may well have set in motion events which will lead to theism being stereotyped as the intellectual position. Thus, while it wouldn’t be polite to thank them for it, I am grateful for what God is doing through them.