I decided to write about this because it makes Twitter much less of a burden. It’s too imprecise to express real ideas on a micro-blogging service more amenable to smart ass comments than smart ones, so I do so here. I borrowed heavily from John F. Haught’s book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Great read. He summarizes my intellectual critique of The New Atheism or as I like to call it, The Church of No-God, quite nicely. Generally when I use the word “atheist” in this post, I’m referring to this group.
Let me make clear that this post is not written to make the case that atheists should be believers nor is it an attempt to denigrate them, their personal beliefs (unbeliefs?), or choices in life. It is neither an apologetic for my spirituality nor an attempt at evangelism. I’m writing to explain why atheism has proven problematic for me, nothing more, nothing less. Take it or leave it.
Finally, this post has been edited multiple times as my discussions with saner, less ideological atheist tweeples and further reading have informed my thinking.
- I can’t with integrity subscribe to a professed rational philosophy that is based on a self-refuting principle, i.e. the Verification Principle.
- I have never believed religion and science are enemies or even incompatible. Even as a child, I saw their easy compatibility and complementary natures. Militant atheists aren’t going to fare any better than strongly opinionated believers/science deniers.
- I strive for consistency in my beliefs. Being an atheist would require I subscribe to moral nihilism: the logical result of “facing up to reality” or “growing up” to face of an indifferent universe devoid of meaning. I can’t abide by that because it produces evil.
- Finally, atheism is unable to give me meaning in life. Science and reason alone are painfully inadequate for assessing the important things in life and of being human: Love, Justice, Wisdom, Knowledge, and Truth. Avoiding error at all costs just isn’t worth that sacrifice.
If you care for an explanation, please, read on.
Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
–Morpheus, The Matrix
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Atheist critics of Religion often define faith as the straw man of “belief without evidence.” Such a narrow definition is reductive and conveniently disregards faith’s truer, deeper meaning in the actual lives of believers. I’ve asked some of my fellow believers if they have believe “without evidence” in Jesus. To a man, I get looks like I just claimed the moon is made of green cheese. (And some of these folks, the so-called credulous “Dims,” take the Gospels as history.) The definition itself is pretty ridiculous.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines faith thus:
- complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one’s faith in politicians.
- strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
- a system of religious belief: the Christian faith.
- a strongly held belief or theory: the faith that life will expand until it fills the universe.
For a believer, faith is first and foremost trust: in God, in truths you hold dear, in Church, and so on. It is an act of will not a mere intellectual assent for “even the demons believe—and shudder.” This kind of faith is common and eminently reasonable. Trust is part of our lives. Now “belief without evidence” sounds unreasonable, gullible and all the rest which is why I suspect that’s the preferred definition employed by atheist critics of religion. It fits the narrative and you never spoil a narrative when you have a story to sell.
Atheists who insist on the Verification Principle, that belief must have a basis in evidence, are demonstrating faith in materialism, that their sense perception corresponds with reality. Problem is, asserting the Verification Principle is necessary to arrive at truth is itself a belief that must be accepted without evidence which I find not a little ironic. To wit:
In the late 1960s the noted biochemist and atheist Jacques Monod claimed that the “ethic of knowledge” must be the foundation of all moral and intellectual claims. He declared that it is unethical to accept any ideas that fail to adhere to the “postulate of objectivity.” In other words it is morally wrong to accept any claims that cannot be verified in principle by “objective” scientific knowing. But, then, what about that precept itself? Can anyone prove objectively that the postulate of objectivity is true? Here Monod was much more honest than the new atheists [e.g. Dawkins]. He admitted that an exception must be made for the postulate of objectivity. The ethic of knowledge is itself an “arbitrary” choice, not a claim for which there could ever be sufficient scientific evidence. Faith, it seems, makes an opening wide enough for atheism too.
–Haught, John F. (2010-11-05). God and the New Atheism (p. 5). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
The upshot is the requirement for atheist orthodoxy that the VP must be believed is self-refuting. We must never believe without evidence because we believe the Verification Principle is true…without evidence. I can chuckle at that and regard such as a self-sabotaging contradiction. And this self-contradiction is sustained when these atheists extrapolate from the principle to science or more accurately scientism.
Why self-contradictory? Because scientism tells us to take nothing on faith, and yet faith is required to accept scientism. What is remarkable is that none of the new atheists seems remotely prepared to admit that his scientism is a self-sabotaging confession of faith. Listen to Hitchens: “If one must have faith in order to believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished” (71). But this statement invalidates itself since it too arises out of faith in things unseen. There is no set of tangible experiments or visible demonstrations that could ever scientifically prove the statement to be true.
–Haught, John F. (2010-11-05). God and the New Atheism (p. 17). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
It’s a simple matter to prove that the Verification Principle can be quite wrong both in theory and practice. We know that facts are not always provable. Ask any lawyer. But scientism has even more problems than just the VP. Any attempt to support it via experiment is by definition circular. So Monod’s “ethic of knowledge” rests on a false and self-contradictory claim. Now I don’t know about you, but I tend to be skeptical of the logic of any system of belief that depends on such “reason.” It is simply too weak a system to replace my own, if I can so handily dismiss it by it’s own lights.
Cut Shaving with Occam’s Razor
Occam’s razor (also written as Ockham’s razor) is the English equivalent of the Latin lex parsimoniae—the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness. It is a principle urging one to select among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect.
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
I used to think the razor was all the “proof” atheists needed. In my ignorance, I found it hard to argue against since Occam’s Razor is a guiding principle in science and thus something I tend to trust. But it is an assumption, a mere rule of thumb, not a law of truth names notwithstanding. The problem isn’t with science of course; the problem is that life is not a set of competing hypotheses to be explained by simplest one possible. Haught uses the example of a published book that can be explained on many different levels all independent and true but noncompeting. The common sense of it blew me away.
Consequently, when the new atheists examine phenomena as labyrinthine as religion and morality, they are fully satisfied if they can pare their explanation down to purely physical or biological terms. The outcome is about as illuminating as my telling you, the reader, that in order to understand this page it is enough to know that it came from a printing press. After all, doesn’t Occam’s razor specify that there is no point in looking for deeper explanations if simpler ones are available?
–Haught, John F. (2010-11-05). God and the New Atheism (p. 86). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
I think there’s more to it than a printing press! It’s worth noting that the existence of an author would be deemed unnecessary to explaining the existence of the book never mind the meaning and significance of the writing. The printing press would be “sufficient” to explain the page. Sound familiar? This reductive myopia is what you get when you abuse the razor. And if Twitter and Facebook are any indication, it is abused readily and frequently.
Now You be a Good Boy
So, having first tried to convince us that the main point of biblical religion is to provide moral edification, and, second, having demonstrated that it has failed miserably in doing so, Dawkins’s third and main task is to point out that in fact most of us do not stoop so low as to make the Bible the source and inspiration of our moral lives anyway. In this way he intends to emancipate morality completely from religion. In fact, however, Dawkins strays off course on all three counts, starting with his opening premise. Even though many theists may agree with Dawkins that morality is the main point of biblical religion, it is not. The main point is to have faith, trust, and hope in God. Morality is secondary, and the principle underlying biblical ethics is that our conduct should be shaped with respect to others by the trust that God’s promise of ultimate liberation will eventually come to pass. When we fail to trust in a compelling and noble vision of human and cosmic destiny, we then make conduct the main point of religion. The result is hypocrisy, self-salvation, perfectionism, and the crushing of life out of people. These attitudes and actions come under severe criticism by the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and most Christian theologians.
Because he is wrong on the first claim in his argument, Dawkins cannot defend his second and third points either. Having acquired his most striking theological comments from the likes of comedian George Carlin, humorist writer Douglas Adams, and The Skeptic Magazine, Dawkins’s discussion of morality and the Bible is a remarkable display of ignorance and foolish sarcasm. I do not enjoy speaking in such a blunt manner about any writer, but not to do so here would be evasive. What is most lamentable about Dawkins’s discussion is that it completely misses the moral core of Judaism and Christianity, the emphasis on justice and what has come to be known as God’s preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged. To maintain that we can understand modern and contemporary social justice, civil rights, and liberation movements without any reference to Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jesus, and other biblical prophets makes Dawkins’s treatment of morality and faith almost unworthy of comment.
–Haught, John F. (2010-11-05). God and the New Atheism (pp. 67-68). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Almost. Dawkins and his ilk display remarkably selective ignorance of the Bible and of history. Consider the struggle against slavery, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements deep religious roots. Black people have persevered through centuries of slavery and social and civil terrorism because of our faith. To claim being a Christian is akin to slavery and immoral is profoundly ignorant to both history and the facts and represents a towering disrespect for the hard earned yet still incomplete human dignity we have fought for in this country. And this is just black humanity, let’s not mention the Catholic Worker movement or even the dissension and debate believers are currently having about the LBGT community’s humanity.
This isn’t to say that atheists have no justified complaints. Plenty of popes have done and said dirty. Plenty of Christians (so-called) have apostatized the faith in all manner of evil. I echo these complaints with vigor. They are justified to spit vituperations on such evil. My contention is that these atheists are conflating institutional and human evils with a system of beliefs and ideals that wholly rebuke those evils. And they compound the error by contending that the ascribing to that system causes the evil. If that were indeed true, then all politics, political institutions and governments are inherently evil. War and oppression are political acts after all.
Just to give you a taste of that ignorance, I’ll quote from the prophets Isaiah and Amos. Both are prophesying against the wickedness of social injustice and reprobate sacrilege in their society. But they didn’t stop there. They prophesy against the very the observances required by the Jewish Law to absolve sin and maintain righteousness by these wicked people. (NOTE: Contrary to popular belief, prophets didn’t have crystal balls. They predicted a future military downfall or setback for Israel. That was how they saw God’s judgment no matter how it was described metaphorically in Scripture. For a modern example, see MLK’s predictions of ruin for America if she didn’t heal from the “sickness” of racism. Also note that women and children had little to no status in this patriarchal society.)
Isaiah Ch 1:1-5, 11-17, 21-24
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
The Wickedness of Judah
2 Hear, O heavens,
and listen, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
4 Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the LORD,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!…
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves;
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow…
The Degenerate City
21 How the faithful city has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
The selection below from Amos is a favorite ever since Martin Luther King quoted it. (NOTE: People sold themselves into slavery to repay debt.)
Amos Ch 2:6-8
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
Amos Ch 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well- being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.
And to think these men wrote centuries before Jesus walked the earth.
Now, let’s look back at the Law of the Israelites concerning slavery. Remember this is a society where unmarried women and children are little more than property. In the wider world slaves were often nothing more than chattel. In that light, this passage is nothing short of amazing:
1 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them: 2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
The Bible is awash in passages such as these. The prophets were not shy about injustice or spitting fire on those who perpetrated it. Not bad for Bronze/Iron Age primitives.
But lest one think religion is merely a morality checklist, consider St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, the first Jesus freaks and the order of Pope Francis. He speaks of The Principle and Foundation of Jesuit spirituality. A spirituality of which I’m an ardent student.
The First Principle and Foundation
The goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into
us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God,
presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all of these gifts of God
insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
they displace God
and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better
leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.
—St. Ignatius, from the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises
So What the Hell is the Point?
One of my core values is consistency, especially in my beliefs. The following passage from Haught is challenging and a bit hard to hear but ultimately necessary when thinking atheism through “to the bitter end.”
In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its mousiness in facing up to what the absence of God should really mean. If you’re going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end; before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator [not simply a holder, but creator] of the values you live by, an intolerable burden from which most people would seek an escape. Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview, you would have to experience the Nietzschean Madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You would be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist. Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Apart from the intolerance of tolerance, which we noted earlier, and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new soft-core atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Claus without having to witness the complete collapse of Western culture—including our sense of what is rational and moral. At least the hard-core atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism the whole web of meanings and values that had clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center. Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, and perhaps several of their postmodern descendants, would have nothing to do with the vapid skepticism that fails to think atheism through with perfect consistency. “If anyone has written a book more critical of religious faith than I have, I’m not aware of it,” declares Sam Harris. My students might not be so sure. Has Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist’s belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people had the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments? Would a good science education make everyone simply decide to be good if the universe is inherently valueless and purposeless? At least the hardcore atheists tried to prepare their readers for the pointless world they would encounter if the death of God were ever taken seriously. They did not form a project to kill God since they assumed that deicide had already taken place at the hands of scientism and secularism. But they wanted people to face up honestly to the logical, ethical, and cultural implications of a godless world.
–Haught, John F. (2010-11-05). God and the New Atheism (pp. 21-23). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Harsh, but true. I should be clear that I am not saying one must be nihilist in order to be an atheist. I’m saying that if I were an atheist I would also be a nihilist because that’s where reason leads. And as the above demonstrates, it leads to a dark place. If the universe is indeed pointless and without meaning, then it is in fact without meaning. Abstract concepts like Good and Evil or “subjective personal meaning” are like infinity. They don’t exist in the real world. I assume most contemporary atheists take ethics and morals as givens, but if it’s really just matter and energy then ethics and morals are the equivalent of unicorns and leprechauns. Nice ideas that are pleasing to us but are not real. There is no evidence or experiment that can prove their existence. Hitchens often quipped that things without evidence of their existence can be dismissed without evidence. So why not dismiss the morals or ethics of others, especially when others can’t compel you to accept them? Aren’t I the author of what’s ethical and good? (Corollary: If compulsion is necessary then does might make right?)
So then the recriminations of Hitchens and Dawkins on religion are absolute nonsense, hypocritical nonsense at that. There is no experimental evidence that religion is evil. There are only events in a billions of years old causal chain of events that are deemed evil. And mutual agreement among persons is no measure of objectivity nor is it a substitute. (Plenty of believers mutually agree there is a God, for example. I have yet to meet an atheist that considers that proof.) There’s only “evidence” for Hitchens’ view from Hitchens’ perspective and yours if you agree. But I’m under no moral or logical compunction to agree with him or you. I can claim the slaughter of millions is “good” even “natural” and be on equivalent objective moral footing with Mr. Dawkins. What objective moral standard would make such a claim morally wrong? Who died and made Richard Dawkins God?
And this is why I am not an atheist.