Friday, March 21, 2008

Amateur atheism: Best leave it to the pros?

Catholic philosopher John Haught recently had an article in Christian Century entitled "Amateur Atheists: Why the new atheism isn't serious"

It's well done and suggests his new book, God and the New Atheism , from which it is adapted, will be worthwhile.

For example,

For many years I taught an introductory theology course for undergraduates titled "The Problem of God." My fellow instructors and I were convinced that our students should be exposed to the most erudite of the unbelievers. Our rationale was that any mature commitment that intelligent young people might make to a religious faith should be critically tested by the very best opponents.

The recent books by Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris and Christopher Hitchens would never have made the required-reading list. Their tirades would simply reinforce students' ignorance not only of religion but also of atheism. The new atheists do little more than provide a fresh catalogue of the evils wrought by members of the theistic faiths.

Similarly, Time Immortal responds to The Rational Responders, an amateur bunch of atheists if ever there was one:
I don't usually cruise atheist websites all that much — few enough of them are designed well enough for my tastes, and at any rate I don't much enjoy having to switch off large portions of my brain just to be able to successfully navigate through one irrational tirade after another. That said, for some reason I decided to check out theRational Responders website. Their byline reads: "Believe in God? We can fix that." And yet, reading through their list of ‘frequently asked questions' (and some of the rest of the site), I was tempted to think instead of Chesterton's remark regarding Ingersol: "almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

(Note: Chesterton did NOT invent that phrase. Check out Acts 26:26-29, written two thousand years ago, where something similar was happening.)

Some people might think that Haught, Time Imm, (and me) are a bit hard on the New Atheists. But their widely noticed complete lack of any new ideas in atheism (as opposed to new books) is troubling for several reasons:

1. When people seek more influence in society without having new ideas to offer, it's hard to see the benefit to the society. The reason they didn't have much influence before is that we'd heard it all before and were not persuaded. Is that our fault or theirs?

(2) I believe that displaced anxiety about politicized Islamic extremism drives some of this anti-religious stuff. The extremists are clever, determined, and dangerous opponents. Whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, or an atheist, if you wish to oppose them, you will need a carefully thought out strategy.

Some people hide out from this problem by attacking Christian fundamentalists and promoting a mostly meaningless scare about people who believe in God in general.

As we pointed out in The Spiritual Brain, the born-agains have widely disparate views, as Zogby Poll recently discovered when they enterprisingly asked Democrats, not Republicans, if they considered themselves born again, and sure enough, lots of them did.

Anyway, more from Haught, comparing the great atheists of the past to their current dwarfish representatives:

The classical atheists, by contrast, demanded a much more radical transformation of human culture and consciousness. This is most evident when we consider works by Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. To them atheism not only should make all the difference in the world; it would take a superhuman effort to embrace it. "Atheism," as Sartre remarked, "is a cruel and long-range affair." Like Nietzsche and Camus, Sartre thought that most people would be too weak to accept the terrifying consequences of the death of God.

By contrast, the recent atheist authors want atheism to prevail at the least possible expense to the agreeable socioeconomic circumstances out of which they sermonize. They would have the God-religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—simply disappear, after which we should be able go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before.

Nope. That won't happen. My neighbours routinely mention God when they want to explain why they do something that is not obviously rewarded in some self-centred or family-centred way.

Actually, I was giving a talk last night and found myself saying,

If you go by science evidence, there was never a worse time to be an
atheist than the last 100 years.

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is essentially a creationist theory. BANG!! And there it is. A universe

Quantum mechanics put an end to the idea that everything could be controlled by iron laws of nature. The human brain, as well as many other systems, is at bottom a quantum system. These systems are not governed by iron determinist laws.

Antony Flew, the world's best respected academic atheist, decided that there is a God in 2004, on account of the language of the human genome.

Shouldn't genome mapping have confirmed atheism, rather than killing it? Shouldn't it have found the fabled "God gene" (that doesn't really exist)?

Look, be an atheist if you must. I wouldn't want anyone sitting in a church who honestly doesn't want to be there. I have enough respect for religion not to force it on anyone.

But don't try telling me that your convictions are based on evidence from science.