(or “Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris are shallow twats no better than ranting fundamentalists.”)
In The Laws, in a passage known as “The Athenian Stranger,” the great philosopher Plato (yes, that Plato) speaks to a stranger most sources agree was obviously a stand-in for Socrates. The stranger says he does not believe in the gods or one God. Plato’s response, translated by a friend of mine who is a philosophy professor, was:
“You are still young, my friend, and as time goes on you will come to have beliefs diametrically opposed to those you have now. So do not make up your mind too soon. The weightiest matter, however lightly you take it now, is to think correctly…and here is a crucial and irrefutable point, this, that you are not unique. Neither you nor your friends are the first to have held this opinion…It is a disease from which the world is never free, though the number of sufferers varies from time to time.”
Notably, the real Socrates actually believed in one God who came before all the others. So did Plato. So did Socrates’s other famous pupil, Aristotle. All agreed that for the universe to make much sense at all, there has to have been a first cause, an ultimate source, for not much else made sense if it did not. They recognized that they might be wrong, surely–just as any person who disagreed with them would be wise to acknowledge the same. Either way, you have taken a logical position, and there are consequences to whatever you decide to believe.
Countless religious thinkers, within the Abrahamic traditions and without, noted that what these ancient pagan philosophers describe matched their own descriptions of God and/or what they considered the ultimate source of all, and accepted that these pagan thinkers had great insights worth exploring. Indeed, Plato’s reasoning, including but not limited to the necessary existence of God, has informed Christendom, East and West, for most of the last two thousand years. Aristotle’s had at least as powerful an influence on the Western world since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. These philosophers continue to influence orthodox religious thinkers—and some nonreligious thinkers!–to this day.
I like to tell people I gave up atheism for Lent. It’s a bit of a joke, but true enough. I am no longer an atheist. I chose something I find far more grounded in logic, careful thought, and rational examination of the universe—and more open to the kind of exploration that makes science, my favorite subject, possible.
But let’s be clear about something: Most atheists want simply to be left alone to what they believe, or don’t believe, and have no particular hostility or resentment of those who disagree with them. They also, quite reasonably, don’t want people dictating what is or isn’t reality to them based on some obnoxious and stupid religious person (of which the world has no shortage) ranting out of a holy book. Beyond simply wanting to live and let live, most atheists ask for no particular special consideration in society. They can and do get along great with theists as scientific collaborators, political collaborators, business collaborators, casual friendly acquaintances, or deep lifelong friends.
Furthermore, there is nothing new about atheism. Atheist philosophers go back in the Western tradition at least as far as the great Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Nietzsche is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the last few hundred years, and you can’t get more atheist than Nietzche.
The only people who were ever particularly dogmatic and intolerant about their atheism were members of atheist cults: some of the space alien zealots, the Marxists, Ayn Rand’s Objectivists, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, and other exotics with strange beliefs that never went beyond a small part of the population in the English-speaking world (until recent years anyway).
But then much was made around the turn of the 21st Century (in the English-speaking world) of a group of men of minor scientific, literary, and political achievement whom became known as the “Four Horsemen” of this “New Atheism.”
This “New” atheism was different from what we had seen throughout most of the 19th and 20th Centuries. These “New Atheists” were on a Crusade, a Jihad, to attack religion as an endless source of violence, radicalism, irrationality, and intolerance. They wanted religion not just separated from government function but to have what they called “freedom from religion”—meaning they sought not to be annoyed by hearing ideas they didn’t agree with at school or at work or in almost any public space.
These days, I semi-regularly encounter atheists (mostly young ones) who will, unironically, state that all or most religion is dangerous and irrational. I made a joke to a young doctor recently and said, approvingly, that she was rather religious in her careful medical diligence about certain things—and she reacted as if I’d told her she was fat and ugly and stupid (although she is perfectly competent and a lovely person).
I’ve been told by people 20 or 30 years younger than me that embracing religion is throwing away rationality. The dogma of the young followers of the New Atheists today is not to be contradicted: If bad people do bad things and are influenced by theistic beliefs, theism is to blame. But when atheists and secularists do bad things, their atheism and their secularism were no part of it at all.
I call it the Immaculate Conception of Atheism: Theism can commit crimes, but Atheism is forever blameless, perfect, and untouched by corruption.
A group of insane Muslim ideologues murders thousands of people? That is, ipso facto, proof of either the religion of Islam or even religion in general as violently evil. Stalin, by comparison, murdered nearly 13 million Orthodox Christians in Russia for refusing to give up their faith in the name of science and progress. But, even though this is indisputably true (and not the only example), it is apparently blasphemy against Holy Atheism to suggest that there could possibly be a connection. Indeed, we must be evil if we suggest there might be consequences to elevating individual conscience to the ultimate moral authority.
Not long ago I had a a young atheist friend simply stop talking to me when I brought this up. He accused me of flinging insults at innocent people because I noted the bloodshed by dogmatic, militant atheists who talked exactly like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris do about religion. He was incensed I would even suggest this. Yet he was perfectly free to blather about every crime, real or imagined, of religious people throughout history, as reason to reject theism.
The towering rage I see whenever I point to horrible oppression and crimes by atheists and dogmatic secularists is rather fearsome to behold. It appears that atheists these days, particularly young ones, simply can’t take what they dish out. They won’t hold themselves or their fellows to the same standards they have for others. They’ll dodge and evade and say “the atheism had nothing to do with it!” even when you can quote the atheists saying, point blank, that the religious “superstitions” were harming science and progress, just exactly as the New Atheists and their adoring disciples say now.
Indeed, if you can find much difference between what Joseph Stalin and any of the Horsemen had to say on the matter of religion, I’d like to see it. But just so you know, “He was a Communist and they are not” is no more a response than “He wore medals on his chest and they do not.” Did his dogmatic atheism, his contempt for religious faith, and his views of “science” and “rationality,” have something to do with his decisions or did it not?
Would that make the New Atheist ideologues and their advocates potential mass murderers? No. Of course not, any more than being Catholic means you ever supported the vile terrorism committed by the (undeniably Catholic) Irish Republican Army. But it’s rather worrisome to note that I, as a Catholic, can acknowledge such crimes without fear, as I can acknowledge the crimes of other Catholics—but it is apparently horrific blasphemy if I look calmly at the atheist and say, “Yes, but then: what about this?”
A shallow man of minor achievement, Sam Harris, even forwarded the ludicrous argument that not-believing in God was no different than not-believing in fairies or unicorns, and so “atheism” shouldn’t even be a term, any more than we need a term for people who do not believe that Queen Elizabeth II is a space lizard. This is a man who considers himself a philosopher (apparently a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a neuroscience degree makes him a deep thinker), yet he has never answered Aristotle’s own basic argument from contingency, which I will state as simply as I can manage here:
Do you believe in cause and effect? If you do, then you must believe that if things happen, something caused them to happen. What made the laws of physics, and what keeps them going? The physicist attempts to test these laws but he can’t tell you exactly what makes them work. Though he’s certainly welcome to try, I think he’ll have taken on a task that was too big for Einstein or Heisenberg,
At the ultimate level, then, you are faced with two choices: either the universe of time and space as we currently perceive it was started by something beyond time and space, something beyond it—yes, no matter how very very big the universe is, we all understand that it’s very very big–or, the universe has existed forever in a sort of endless shifting about of ultimately causeless causes. Either it all starts with and runs due to something, or, the universe is an infinite series of events with no root cause to anything. You can believe one or the other, but you cannot believe both, and Aristotle, along with Plato and many of the other great philosophers, along with mathematicians (like Pascal and Descartes) and scientists (like Newton and Heisenberg) believed a universe with a first cause, a prime mover, made far more sense than a universe without.
It makes more sense to me too. It also makes sense to any number of working scientists I’ve known who don’t talk about it because they don’t particularly want to debate it with their dogmatic brethren, and it doesn’t affect their work either way.
There is no good reason to believe that modern working scientists are any smarter or wiser overall than these ancient (and not so ancient) philosophers and mathematicians and scientists. Yes sometimes the ancients were wrong about some things they observed in the physical universe, just as scientists today are almost always wrong about something or other sooner or later as one hypothesis is discarded in favor of another. And nothing in the history of science, all the way to this writing in late 2015, has changed that ultimate question of the existence, or nonexistence, of a first cause.
It appears to be something science can’t address, for science was a creation of philosophy and logic, both of which are its true building blocks. Those who think they can divorce science from philosophy and metaphysics are fooling themselves.
Many like to leap to things like The Big Bang. They even note that Stephen Hawking has declared that we cannot speak meaningfully of a time before the Big Bang. That’s a rather silly thing for Professor Hawking to say; what he means is that his math breaks if you try. But I’m sorry Professor, can you falsify the idea that everything that ever has been; or can be, fits within your mathematical scope?
Every major world faith going back thousands of years, including the polytheistic Hindus, as well as the Buddhists that many modern atheists seem so fond of, see this problem. All acknowledge the logical necessity of a being or force that is beyond time and space, eternal, uncreated…infinite. This concept has been understood and acknowledged by great scientists, mathematicians like Descartes and Pascal, and physicists like Heisenberg and Einstein, as well as by ancient Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and countless other faith based traditions, Abrahamic or non-, and countless other thinkers for thousands of years–with no “new” revelations from science, of any kind, altering that question in the slightest.
Some may say, “What about alternate universes? Maybe those exist.” To which the answer is, yes they might. Or might not. Why would that change the question? Nothing in Einsteinian physics can answer this question. Nothing in quantum physics can answer this question. Nothing in abstract theories of alternate universes or extra dimensions can answer it. Neither can anything in evolutionary theory. Nothing in mathematics can answer this question either–although Descartes did produce not one but three proofs to show the logical necessity of God, the same God that people like Plato and Aristotle had argued thousands of years before.
God by this orthodox understanding is infinite. Beyond time and space, infinite in every direction we know of and almost certainly directions we don’t. God would be what makes the laws of physics work. God would be what makes math work—and so being the reality on which all else relies, isn’t going to be directly detectable with the best man-made tools. Or it doesn’t seem likely. There’s no way you’re going to bounce an electron or photon off of it anyway.
Asserting that something is so “because science” is no more coherent than saying something is so “because Jesus.” In this way, many a fulminating atheist who insists that what he calls science is the way—not one way, but the way–to know if things are true or not looks no different from a ranting fundamentalist trying to prove the Earth was built in 6 days by reading out of the book of Genesis.
The witty and clever Christopher Hitchens gave us the New Atheism’s greatest doctrinal statement of faith and thought-terminating cliché: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence,” which sounds clever until you figure out that he meant “evidence that I and people who think like me find convincing.” It also allowed him to dismiss uncomfortable questions he and his modern disciples and apostles can’t answer and therefore want us to think are irrelevant.
In other words, the New Atheists jumped over some of the biggest questions in human history, declared victory, and then began berating everyone who didn’t think like them as fools. They popularized ignorance of ancient ideas, and bigotry by the non-religious toward the religious, and tried to make that the respectable and somehow brave face of modern atheism.
Atheists shouldn’t be thanking them for that, and neither should anyone else.
And now, a decade later, a generation of young people “educated” by just this sort of dogmatic, “correct because something we call science says so” thinking now regularly tell everyone they know that religion is evil. I suggest that most of these people don’t even understand how to do science, or how science works, or where it came from, entirely aside from their often proud ignorance about religious thinking.
Indeed, I don’t think they can falsify their own premise on religion without running a measure against something else, and I suggest that if they run it against their fellow atheists, it’s not going to look very good for them.
What if there is something that happened before the Big Bang. Was it God? I didn’t say that. Maybe it was super intelligent space aliens. Maybe it was the death of another universe. Maybe there was nothing we can comprehend. Maybe it’s a jumping plumber and his brother. I couldn’t say. Maybe one day physicists or others will. But in the end, that begs the ultimate question: what made all that “before the Big Bang” stuff, those theoretical other universes, the extra dimensions the string theorists are sure are there, and so on? Is it still ultimately created and held up by something that makes reality go, or not? Is it still just an infinite series of events with no cause at all? Is everything ultimately the result of and dependent on a first cause, or not? You can spin out a multiverse with an indefinite, arbitrary number of “other universes” and you still have not touched this question of contingency.
It’s popular today to say that religious reasoning creates “God in the gaps” thinking—ascribing everything we don’t understand to God working magic in every bit we don’t understand. Such thinking certainly might be a cheap way to stop scientific thinking, which seems to be the outspoken atheist’s biggest fear.
But the atheist whom angrily fulminates that science Has Spoken has done the same thing, he has closed off further investigations… he has precluded further investigation.
To think we need “God in the gaps,” invoking a magic spell any time we see something we don’t understand, is to assume that God needs to be a constant fixer-upper of his own work. The better assumption is when we see something we can’t explain, it’s because we don’t understand it yet. Being curious, we can try to find out. But if you really understand science, you must also accept that some things we may never fully understand, though we can try. And why shouldn’t we try?
When Stephen Hawking declared we cannot meaningfully speak of anything being “before the Big Bang,” I suggest to you that all he did was make a dogmatic declaration of faith in his own mathematical skill and the skills of his scientific peers. By rendering their pronouncements unassailable, he and physicists like him closed minds, closed imaginations, and closed a channel of thought.
That’s science, huh? I don’t think so. Hawking was talking parochially, and completely outside his own competence. He and the Horsemen and their ideological brethren are Holy Men within an Atheist Church they’ve constructed for themselves. Fortunately, all anyone need do is walk out the door and keep doing science, logic, philosophy and yes; religion, all without their permission or approval.
There can be no doubt that religion, especially religious fundamentalism, has done enormous damage to individuals, communities, groups, and nations. But then again, dogmatic, intolerant people acting in the name of science, reason, and human Progress butchered tens of millions of people in the 20th Century—and no, we don’t need to argue whether Hitler was a Christian or not, for he was certainly a believer in religion and the supernatural regardless. But Stalin and Mao, both committed atheists running dogmatically atheist regimes, butchered 10s of millions of people. Stalin alone killed 13 million Russian Orthodox Christians for the crime of not giving up their faith, for the reason that they were allegedly getting in the way of scientific and social “progress”.
Stalin, who as head of the Soviet Union murdered significantly more people than Hitler, proudly boasted of his government and party’s ongoing opposition to religion of any form because they stood for science, because “all religion is something opposite to Science.”
It’s considered rude by atheists for us to notice this. Tough. It’s the truth. Richard Dawkins has floated the idea that bringing children up in faith is “child abuse” and Dennett has suggested that in the future some religious believers might be preserved in “cultural zoos.” I guess we’re supposed to not take such remarks seriously though, because… well because reasons I guess.
Hardline secularism and atheism are now dominant in our universities, our systems of government, and most of our popular entertainment. These atheists, ascendant now, are facing problems within their own ranks with Social Justice nutbags, Feminist nutbags, Objectivist nutbags, Marxist nutbags, and more. It turns out that atheist cults are as easy to start and run as theistic cults. Whatever is a thoughtful atheist to do?
Perhaps the answer lies in a little more humility, and in starting to talk, once more, to philosophers and theologians, and to each other, like we’re all limited creatures with limited understandings of things, and we can all be just a little more gracious and open-minded with each other.
It’s a thought anyway. ∞