"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Response to Ten Atheist Myths

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Link to Mr. Kirk's blog on the atheist Dawkins":
What say you, Rap, of these atheist myths?

“1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

“On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.”

1. Both atheists and believers may live in fear of meaninglessness or in the conviction of meaning. Some believers believe in eternal life after death out of fear, some out of faith. Some believers believe meaning is eternal whether there is life after death or not. Some atheists believe the question of meaning is meaningless, some that there can be meaning without a metaphysical context for physical life. In short, it takes all kinds to make a world. In my view, the meaning of the word “meaning” is “participation in a reality larger or more complete or more real than that which is perceived by limited beings with limited perceptions and intellects.”

The resort to words like “really and fully lived” alters the vocabulary but not the essence. The phrase “really and fully lived” is simply a synonym for “meaningfully.” If my definition is a good one, then the atheist commenter remains a believer in metaphysical significance, whether he believes in God or not. If my definition is rejected, the burden is on him to define “really and fully lived.”

“2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.”

“People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

2. It is true that no society has suffered because people became too reasonable, if “reasonable” means what Aristotle or Maimonides or St. Thomas Aquinas or Kant means by reasonable. But then some people think Jeremy Bentham or Nietzsche or Sartre are the best exemplars of reason, and I think it can be shown that any attempt to set up a society upon their principles would cause plenty of suffering. To place Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot in the same category with Moses and Jesus and Buddha is the height of unreason. The commenter seems to have no idea how much his image of a society based on reason owes to believers in God or in the Ens Perfectissimum or in the Idea of the Good, and how little to radical atheism.

“3) Atheism is dogmatic.

“Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: ‘I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.’”

3. The idea that the atheist “doesn't have to take anything on faith” is simply absurd. He takes on faith that his reason is the only trustworthy absolute. He takes on faith that nothing ought to be believed that cannot be proven to his reason through his senses. And yet that belief itself cannot be proved to his reason through his senses. He treats religious belief as the kind of thing that can be or fail to be “justified” in the court of his own reason, yet his own perfect faith in his own reason and observations is never asked to justify itself in the same court. And for good reason: it could not possibly do so. I don’t ask the atheist to believe what he cannot believe. But if he’s going to treat every “unjustified” belief as folly, he ought to include his own.

“4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

“No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

“The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, ‘The God Delusion,’ this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.”

4. A false argument based on false logic. No one is saying that every atheist asserts that everything is created by chance as the atheist defines chance (totally random accident). That natural selection is not purely random is not the point. The point is that it is not directed by any higher mind or purpose than the natural process itself. To put it another way, either the lower produces the higher (natural process without divine purpose eventually results in us, human beings, who think and ask questions and study science and believe things) or the higher is the source of the being of the lower. More simply, either spirit purposefully gives rise to the physical universe or the physical universe purposelessly gives rise to spirit.

Dawkins is in the latter camp, and hates those in the former. His books are not “marvelous” but characteristically angry and nastily accusatory. As might be said about the Bible-thumpers that he hates because he fears them, the evolutionary biologist doth protest too much, methinks. If believers are deluded, why bother to write a book denouncing us. He ought to pity us. But wait, pity cannot be an “ought” in the universe as Dawkins conceives it. I take it back. There are no grounds on which to appeal to Dawkins to be more just, or more honest. For even the truth presumably pursued by scientists like Dawkins is a value whose worth arises from an act of faith. And how can he prove to me that truth is any more worth pursuing than God or salvation or eternal life?

“5) Atheism has no connection to science.

“Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.”

5. I pretty much agree with #5, though my conclusion would be different. I would say science only seems to be uncongenial to religious faith because it IS, for many, a religious faith, at least as much so as the commenter would accuse communism or fascism of being. The people we ought to be getting to know are those who are both scientists and believers in God. They might have some real authority to speak on this matter.

“6) Atheists are arrogant.

“When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.”

6. I certainly do not think that all atheists are arrogant, and I don’t know who does think that. But the statement that “pretending to know things one doesn’t know . . . is the life-blood of faith-based religion” is pure calumny. Religious faith is not about the knowledge of unknowable facts. The language of religion is perforce metaphorical, using imagery from the created universe in order to talk about the invisible divine because there is no other way for human beings, bound by time and space, to talk about anything. But to say God created the universe is not to pretend to know some pseudo-scientific fact inaccessible to science. It is a way of talking about the admittedly unknowable, of trying to relate to the source from which, and the context in which, time and space have their being.

As for “people of faith praising themselves for their humility,” this is pure nonsense. There are arrogant believers in God as in science, and there are humble ones. But what truly religious people praise is the value of humility itself, not themselves for being humble. And if the commenter didn’t agree with them that humility is to be valued, how could he consider praising oneself for humility to be a fault?

“7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

“There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.”

7. “What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences.” This is hilarious! The atheist’s faith in his own profound experience of human reason, observation, experiment, and proof leads to claims precisely as unjustified and unjustifiable as any made by religion, the most extreme being that there is no “justification” for religious faith and that, in the absence of such justification, faith is folly.

All fundamental acts of faith are equally justifiable or unjustifiable because there are no underlying terms in which they can be justified. If you believe in human reason as the deepest reality there is, you will not allow that there is any court in which reason itself may be called to the bar to justify its validity. As with religious faith so with faith in human reason: axioms cannot be proven. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Abolition of Man, they are premises, not conclusions. The argument is not between those who do not think religion is reasonable and those who do. It is between those who believe in human reason and those who believe in God as the more fundamental reality. And where is the court in which such a case could be impartially tried?

“8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

“Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

“From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.”

8. Once again “our best understanding” is offered as the only goal of all human discourse. It is a great and noble goal, but it is not the only one and may not be the most important. The existence of extra-terrestrial beings, smarter or dumber than we are, would not need in any way to undermine faith in God for a believer, though certainly such a discovery would call everyone, atheist and believer alike, to rethink our place in the created universe. But once again the atheist is stuck in the realm of factual knowledge with no inkling that the Bible is about more than worldly knowledge. It is equally imaginable that extra-terrestrials might benefit from and be grateful for exposure to the moral laws and spiritual insights of the sacred texts of human religion as that they might be indifferent to them.

“9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

“Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

“In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?”

9. No rational believer thinks that “good effects” PROVE the validity of religion. This is another false accusation based on ignorance of what real believers really believe. The validity of religion is a matter of faith, not proof or demonstration. Again, premises must not be mistaken for conclusions. The question posed is based on a false dichotomy: “which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?” Helping the poor out of concern for their suffering is precisely what is willed by the creator, and if there weren’t a long religious tradition that has taught that truth to our culture, the atheist could never have thought of using the value of concern for the suffering of the poor as an argument.

It is true that some people do good deeds merely out of self-interest, as some scientists do what they do out of selfish desire for a government grant. But as the existence of government grants does not prevent the devoted lover of truth from doing good science, so belief in the existence of divine reward and punishment does not prevent the believer from loving his neighbor for the right reasons, reasons which only religion and not science can have shown us to be right.

“10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

“If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

“We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.”

10. It is true that the Bible and other sacred books tell stories in which cruelty appears, even the cruelty of the supposed exemplars of the good. But the commenter is making two significant errors: first, he is equating the religion with the book, and second he is ignoring the context of the stories within the books themselves.

In his wording, however, the commenter gives his real faith away: “If a person doesn’t already understand that cruelty is wrong . . .” tells us that, knowingly or not, the writer is himself a believer in a book, or rather in the ragtag leftovers of several books, written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He believes, without questioning it, that man is good by nature, that his naturally evolved reason demonstrates the self-evident good of concern for the poor and the self-evident evil of cruelty. And this is a faith that no amount of observation of human beings and no amount of rational thought could have instilled in him. Once again it is a premise, adopted because it seems to be true to one who believes it to be true, susceptible of no proof and no demonstration to the rational faculty.

His example of slavery is a smokescreen. Slavery in the Bible was never, except among the Egyptians, what it was in America in the 19th century, and it is the Bible’s assertion of the obligations of the master to the servant and of the brotherhood of man that formed the moral foundations for the abolition of slavery in modern times. The abolitionists were fueled not by some natural recognition arising from a natural progress but by the universalizing of their religious faith in justice, love, and the fatherhood of the creator. Belief in man’s natural progress leading necessarily away from religion to an ideal world of reasonable and virtuous human beings is at least as unfounded as, and far more wild than, anyone’s belief in hell, purgatory, or heaven.

The atheist is living, without admitting it, on the capital of several thousand years of religious teaching and moralizing. He believes that moral man springs whole from the bosom of nature and that religion (as Enlightenment philosophes like Condorcet believed) is the enemy of knowledge, upon which alone virtue is founded. It is perhaps the greatest example of wishful thinking that modern history has exhibited, a far greater leap, because history offers so much contrary evidence, than belief in an afterlife, for which there is no more negative evidence than positive.

The atheist and the believer agree that the golden rule is built into the nature of things and that its value is, or ought to be, self-evident. The difference is that the former believes it is there arbitrarily, as a function of natural process naturally unfolding, while the latter believes it was meant to be there from the beginning and that in obeying it we come into touch with the foundations of reality. As I’ve said before, neither will ever convince the other by argument. But, as the atheist would I hope agree, it pays for neither to be reductive or stupid about what the other believes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Link to Mr. Kirk's blog on the atheist Dawkins

On the subject of atheism, check out Mr. Kirk's blog for his critique of Richard Dawkins' new book called The God Delusion.