The timidity of New Atheists

I’m disappointed by New Atheist writers.

Not specifically with their conclusions, although I think their investigative methods to reach said conclusions are remarkable sloppy. No, I’m more disappointed with their timidity. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. are very happy to make grand and sweeping claims, but they seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through. In the midst of their tireless self-promotion as evangelists of the bright atheist future, there is a marked unwillingess to be honest about the details of where exactly their ideals would lead humanity.

Morality is an interesting case in point here. Dawkins is happy to propose secular humanism as an alternative moral compass, despite its unfortunate tendency to promote eugenics and infanticide. This philosophy maintains that ethics and morality can be derived from human rationality (“ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”, as the humanist articles of faith put it), despite the dearth of evidence for such rationality in human affairs.

The biggest problem with the humanist approach is that it requires staunch adherence to beliefs which are insupportable in the absence of God. “All people are created equal” is a wonderful basis for a just society, but without the Creator it makes no sense. People are not equal. They have unequal distribution of intellect, of athletic ability, of attractiveness. Unless there is independent justification for such a concept, an intellectually honest atheist should scrap it.

So let’s see where this level of honesty might lead. Friedrich Nietzsche – perhaps best known for his statement “God is dead” – believed that human behaviour was ultimately based on individual people’s “will to power”. Nietzsche claimed that the “death of God” would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective and any coherent sense of objective truth. Power is the whole of the law. His philosophy is startlingly echoed in Mao Tse-Tung’s description of his own ethics:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . [People like me want to] satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. . . . I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Writing in The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day comments on this worldview:

“This philosophy is rational, but it is literally psychopathic in the sense described by Dr. Robert Hare, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a clinical scale used to diagnose psychopathy. He describes psychopaths as predators who use intimidation and violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. ‘Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.’

“While it is not possible to diagnose the mental health of a dead man, the tens of millions of Chinese murdered by the Mao regime tend to indicate that the close correspondence between the words of the twenty-four-year-old philosophy student and Dr. Hare’s description of psychopathy is not entirely coincidental.”

I don’t for a minute claim that this worldview is shared by all atheists, but I question what basis there is for an atheist to hold any different view. Why should the happiness of others be any kind of moral imperative?

Dawkins seems particularly content to close his eyes and ignore implications of his own arguments. Hence we see such foolishness as this:

“I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” (The God Delusion)

The well-documented destruction of 41 000 of Russia’s 48 000 churches by Soviet atheists between 1917 and 1969 would seem to be a glaring rebuttal to this belief. And we needn’t limit ourselves to a single example – the atheist regime in North Korea has destroyed 440 of country’s 500 Buddhist temples, and atheists in China have destroyed some 7000 temples and monasteries in Tibet.

The question, though, is why Dawkins would object to such destruction. If religion is abusive and freeing the religious masses from their delusions is his avowed aim, why not bulldoze all the places of worship? Unweave that rainbow, burn those books and start fresh! Show some guts and take your beliefs all the way!

Sam Harris, despite his overwhelming tendency towards illogical idiocy, comes closer to displaying the courage of his convictions. In The End of Faith he states that:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

He seems to be willing to accept that his vision of a global atheist utopia will require a lot of genocide to attain – although he’s not quite honest enough to phrase it that baldly. In his Afterword, he attempts to dispute the connection between atheism and the widespread atrocities which seem to be so characteristic of atheist governments:

“This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter… While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational.”

Again – why should it matter? I’d love to hear Harris (or any other public advocate of atheism) say, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

Because if you don’t believe that, why do you keep trying to bring about the New Enlightenment?

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Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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Children of God?

Note: In response to some comments that have come in, I should clarify that in this post I am not referring to agnosticism or even “passive” atheism. I am not talking about someone who is earnestly evaluating the evidence, but is unconvinced that faith in God is justified.

I am rather referring to an angry and aggressive denial of the Divine, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenager slamming the door and screaming that they hate their parents.

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I recently read an article on “Motives for Atheism” by David Carlin. Among the various motives suggested (libertinism, intellectual laziness, etc) I was struck by one in particular:

Conspicuous Nonconformity

Some people like to be “different.” If they are teenage girls, they may color their hair orange or wear a ring through their nose. Prior to the sexual revolution, a teenage girl could differentiate herself from her peers by losing her virginity at an early age, an age at which almost nobody else would think of doing such a thing. But losing one’s virginity at an early age is too common an event to make a girl different nowadays … If they are teenage boys, they may talk very loud in inappropriate places or freely use obscenities in public. The point is to give offense to respectable opinion. In a cultural milieu in which everyone, or at least nearly everyone, takes it for granted that God exists, you can shock respectable opinion by openly announcing your atheism.

I find this interesting in light of the stage of life at which several prominent figures among the more militant atheists made their commitments to their creed:

  • Richard Dawkins rebelled against his “normal Anglican upbringing” as a teenager, and decided that God didn’t exist.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche dropped out of his theology studies at age 20 and became an atheist.
  • Bertrand Russell discarded his Christian faith at 18.

As Vox Day points out:

“The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged by the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age that combines a tendency toward mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires that collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.” (The Irrational Atheist)

I present, as food for thought, accounts of three men who went the same direction in their teenage years, but later changed their views:

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Francis Collins was formerly head of the Human Genome Project, and now serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health. A brillinat geneticist, he has been described as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Collins was brought up as a “nominal Christian” but regarded himself as an atheist by graduate school. He came to Christianity aged 27, after mature reflection and an investigation of several faiths.

He described his experiences in an interview for Salon.com :

“I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn’t see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

“… So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn’t understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, “You know, I think you’d learn a lot if you’d read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path — a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion.” The book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

“… As I read his arguments about the Moral Law — the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God — I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.

“After I had struggled with this for a couple of years … I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”

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C. S. Lewis also departed from his Christian upbringing in his rebellious teenage years. Born into a church-going family in Belfast, he became an atheist at the age of 15, mostly due to his struggles to reconcile a benevolent Creator God with the broken and wicked Creation which he saw. He was fond of quoting Lucretius (De rerum natura, 5.198–9):

“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”

But by 31, after years of wrestling with his philosophical demons, he described his acceptance of God in Surprised by Joy:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Lewis was possibly the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century. In addition to his masterpiece of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he continued to contend with the existence of evil. The Problem of Pain ranks among the finest works ever written on this difficult issue.

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Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) was born in 354 in Thagaste (in what is now Algeria). Although raised as a Christian, Augustine left the Church (much to the despair of his mother) and spent most of his teenage years as a wild and reckless delinquent. He hung around with the the euersores (or “wreckers”), who encouraged extreme sexual promiscuity (and were thus understandably popular with teenage boys).

In 384, at age 30, Augustine was awarded the most prestigious academic position in the Roman world, the Professor of Rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan. Three years later he underwent a profound personal transformation and converted to Christianity:

“Eagerly then I returned to the place where … I laid the volume of the Apostle … I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, Book VIII)

More than 1600 years later his astoundingly deep understanding of the Christian faith and the nature of human psychology remains just as relevant. He was among the first to clearly articulate the interpretation of Genesis as a logical framework rather than a scientific treatise, and also a profound writer on the doctrines of Grace and of human frailty.

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Christopher Hitchens abandoned religion aged 9. His brother Peter recalls burning his own Bible at 15, but Peter returned to faith when he was 30.

We are all children of God, and we all go through our rebellious teenage years. Thank God that some of us grow out of them.