Monday, November 29, 2010

Testing the Eyesight of the New Atheists

There have been many worthy responses to the spate of New Atheist books which sold in the millions a few years back. (I have reviewed a few of these responses here, and here, and here.) But perhaps the most succinct response I've read recently was written by an atheist, the conservative social commentator, Anthony (A.M.) Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple. Below are a few excerpts from his regular City Journal (Fall, 2007) column, "Oh, to Be in England", entitled "What the New Atheists Don't See".

Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.


...however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.


Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.


For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

________________ can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?


Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”


It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.


The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.


Read the full article, here, in which Dalrymple takes each of the popular New Atheist authors to task. No doubt Dalrymple could build a case for his own atheism which might be worthy of consideration. But, as others have noted, the case built by the popular authors (including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) is at times poorly constructed, and at times completely fatuous. Were they merely catching a wave of unsophisticated public sentiment, and thus scoring big in book sales? Or were they really giving it their best shot?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do Atheists Possess Special Courage?

Well, it happened again this week. Another of my atheist friends (Nick, this time), claimed the high ground with regard to courage. “It takes courage to abandon faith,” I hear over and over. “Atheists must face reality with courage!” I’m not not impressed.

Atheists insist that belief in God is commensurate with belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or in Leprechauns. So let me see if I have this straight: denying the existence of soaring pasta or fantasy imps requires courage? Really? How can atheists, with straight face, tell us that belief in God is vanishingly trivial, and then speak of the abundance of courage necessary for their denial?

No. Atheism requires no courage at all. Walking into a lions den, suppressing your natural fears by pretending lions do not exist, now that requires a semblance of courage (mixed with extreme folly). But atheist are careful to claim that they are doing no such thing. Their “courage” is the kind required to acknowledge that the sky is blue, that fish swim, or that 2 + 2 = 4. Courage?

I responded to my friend’s claims of courage on facebook with this comment:

Nick, I've been thinking a lot lately about that oft repeated mantra, "it takes courage to be an atheistic materialist." I'm not so sure. I often feel it would be much easier for me to let my naturally skeptical mind drift into complete unbelief. And for me, quite honestly, holding on to faith requires the greater effort, and the greater courage.

I'm not saying atheists have wimped out. But I am saying that continuing to believe, maintaining hope that our existence is not futile, that there will be ultimate justice, that there is profound meaning and purpose threaded throughout this universe—for me, this involves determination and courage.

.... How is courage involved in a world-view that has abandoned hope? Sometimes I fear unbelievers mistake "whistling in the dark" for courage.

The Pragmatist, William James, understood (as do I) that faith is a choice. And likewise, for the atheist: disbelief is a choice. Atheists like to assert that non-belief is the default position for an empirically non-verifiable claim. But this assertion holds no water; it begs the question: for the very notion of faith acknowledges the absence of the sort of evidence they consider necessary. James comments,

"To preach scepticism to us as a duty until "sufficient evidence" for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what ... is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?"

So this is how James saw it: Unbelief is grounded less in courage than fear. Fear of making the mistake of believing without “sufficient evidence”. We can derive from James that faith is grounded in fearlessness, courage, as well as hope.

So the next time an atheist asks me how I can believe what I cannot empirically prove, I will respond, “It takes a lot of courage! do you have enough courage? or have you settled for the safety of resignation?”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Still Your Soul in Silence

It is not often I encounter an artist whose faith walk parallels my own such that similar experiences create several significant touch points. For me, such an artist is Don Francisco. The lyrical artistry of his songs has delighted me for over 25 years. He is an inventive wordsmith, but he is also a troubadour to my soul. There have been particular times in my life when the poignancy of his music, especially his autobiographical songs, gives profound expression to my own heart. Such has been the case recently, as I have been enjoying a personal revival of Don Francisco music. I've chased back a few tears when I listen to ...

Still Your Soul in Silence

Don Francisco

In the lives of those that follow there is going to come a time

When rhythm starts to stumble and singsong swallows rhyme

When imaginations crumble, false foundations turn to dust

Towers fall to piles of stones and girders into rust

Til you let the blood of Jesus wash the rubble from your mind

And your eyes again can see the one you almost left behind

When theology's in tatters and reason is absurd

Still your soul in silence and listen for His word

So many turns, so many ways, so many voices cry

Standing at the crossroads watching time go flashing by

Indecision paralyzes, it's the fear of choosing wrong

But waiting is a step itself, and your wondering too long

So again you search the scripture, and again you ask your friends

But last of all the One who knows the beginning from the end

In the clamor and confusion and the blindness of your choice

Still your soul in silence, and listen for His voice

Rome is full of ruins, Babylon is gone

The temple's just a memory that some still dwell upon

But deep within a place that sword and veil had once denied

A tree of life is growing, living waters flow beside

Far beyond all human reason and words upon a page

His glory lightens all who fret their hour upon this stage

To know Him is our freedom, to hear Him is release

To fix your heart and soul on Him is rest and perfect peace