Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Atheism Is Born Again

(c)2009 Connell J. Maguire

    Recently attacks were directed at religion and faith in God. Two books in particular have become best sellers, "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, and "God Is Not Great," ambitiously subtitled "How Religion Poisons Everything," by Christopher Hitchens.
    What is it that propelled these books to a best seller status? Why do people buy them? Patently, a desire is abroad for relief from a God perceived as a hit man, a God of fire and brimstone, who makes and enforces regulations. Such an idea of God is painful to live with, and is far from a concept of a God who is infinitely merciful and loving. Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium touched on this modern perception of God, saying "Our most urgent task is to communicate the joy of faith and the experience of God's love." His first encyclical was "God is love." The same desire to get rid of this frightening God permeates the two best sellers and other atheistic books, with one exception. From the God who is a terrifying ogre to Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to the dismissal of God by Daniel Dennett, this depressing concept of God dominates. Since all atheists admit that science and logic cannot prove the non-existence of God, they search history for abuses and evils done by religious people and institutions, and blame the evils on faith in God. This process totally ignores the great contributions of religion, day in and day out, over some three millennia.
   Also, they do not take into account the progressive history of Judeo-Christian morality as people advanced from a primitive outlook and behavior, and implicit morality gradually became explicit. Paradoxically, atheists accept the present day Judeo-Christian morality as a given, and use it to condemn past abuses. They do nothing, however, to advance us to the higher phase of "love your enemies."
   Their assumption that this is the only life also skews their thinking of how the creator should have created.
   Richard Dawkins, whose book is described on the jacket as "hard-hitting" and "impassioned," believes that, despite the inability of logic and science to disprove God's existence, faith is vulnerable to "chipping away" by science. He bristles at Stephen Jay Gould for saying "science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it, we simply can't comment on it as scientists." The title of Dawkins' main chapter, "Why There Is Almost Certainly No God," reveals that his "chipping away" efforts fall short.
   It is understandable that some ask, "Why does God not reveal Himself more clearly?" There are good reasons. First of all, the dignity with which God endowed us, including our freedom, must be respected in our approach to Him. There has to be more involved in faith than a logical syllogism, a mathematical formula or a scientific finding which compels our mind. However, God gives us enough evidence to believe. Daily life reveals that people of both low and high intelligence find that evidence and have faith. This is remarkable considering the possible hurdles.
   The human mind itself can be an obstacle to faith. Even great ones can be confused. Since Dawkins considers that great scientists who believe are confused, including Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, he should concede that atheists too are prone to error. Neuroscientists tell us that the limbic area of the brain, the center of emotions, can sway the functioning of the neo-cortex, the area for language and reasoning, more recently evolved. Atheists are not immune to this influence.
   Qualities of heart and character, such as courage and generosity, are also necessary for belief. However, it would be rash judgment to assume that bad character is the cause of any person's lack of faith. St. Augustine opposed Christianity for a long time before professing, "Late have I loved you, O beauty, ever old, ever new, Late have I loved you."
   The culture in which one is embedded may debilitate proper consideration of evidence of God. There are many cultures in our world, some friendly to religious belief and some less so.
   In Western civilization, people who are non-practicing Jews or Christians borrow morality today from an inherited Judeo-Christian tradition. The atheist Andre Comte-Sponville openly admits doing so. Hitchens' moral criteria for condemning past sins are no different than those of his present-day Christian neighbors, poisoned though he may consider them.
   Dawkins states that "Darwinian evolution, specifically natural selection, shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology." Most consider evolution a unifying principle that shatters nothing. Darwin himself, quoted in Hitchens' book, had a more open mind than his followers about natural selection. Whether it is too simplistic to explain "gaps" such as irreducible complexities, in which two parts of an organ evolve separately and later form to fulfill its purpose, is not yet known.
   Dawkins takes a vulgar shot at a great person of history, saying "St. Teresa of Avila's famously orgasmic vision is too notorious to need quoting again." This low blow reveals a man writing about religion who knows nothing about religious experience. Many have had an experience such as mine.
   I returned to LaSalle University because my emotional and intellectual being was obsessed with becoming an actor and dramatist, partly to create beauty, but mostly to be accepted and admired. One day I was listening to a sermon by a priest who had a crucifix in the sash of his cassock. I do not remember a word he said, but while he was speaking, a tender feeling directing me to the priesthood engulfed me. It's amazing how something so tender can be so strong. I opposed this reversal of my life's direction for months, but finally said yes. I remember a classmate was puzzled that I stopped gaping at pretty girls. The feeling that pervaded me was qualitatively different from anything orgiastic.
   A quest for a basis of morality is the Achilles heel of the materialistic atheists. There can be no true moral distinction between material things. Moral worth can be assigned, figuratively only, to a car or a physical process. Some trust an enlightened self-interest as the basis for a code of morality. Dawkins finds a source in the side effects of evolution, such as an altruism "misdirected" from its original motive. Other materialists base a moral code on "the greatest good for the greatest number." But where is the deterrent from evil if an act has no intrinsic value or lack of value of its own? Unless there is a spiritual element in human nature and human acts, any ascribed morality is fictitious and is subject to logical undermining. Bertrand Russell conceded that the most he could say of the Holocaust was that it made him feel bad.
   On opening the introduction to "The Portable Atheist," edited by Mr. Hitchens, I expected a scholarly work of deep thought. Instead, I was confronted with an emotional diatribe about the evils done by the followers of God, by religious people and their institutions and by nations with religious leaders. These were cited as arguments against God and the value of religion. The disobedience of humans to any command of God, such as "love your neighbor as yourself," is sad, but does not argue against God.
   Mr. Hitchens promises to reveal "How Religion Poisons Everything." We wonder, even smile, at such an outburst from a scholar, when we recall our religous instruction. We were taught in religion classes to respect our parents, help our neighbor in sickness or poverty, to be honest, truthful, to avoid injuring people and to be faithful in marriage. We had no idea we were being poisoned.
   Mr. Hitchens' personal motives for relief from God are evident. He reveals a terror of a God whom he describes as "a permanent, unalterable, celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime and who regarded us as its private property even after we died." He exclaims how happy we should be to be rid of such a "horrible hypothesis." What a contrast to the concept of an infinitely tender, merciful and loving God who is always with us to comfort and inspire us.
   Mr. Hitchens' frightening concept of God enables us to understand his atheism, and his frustration, and that of other atheists, with the impossibility of disproving God's existence.
   It is the "in thing" to scoff at intelligent design these days. Unfortunately, the proponents of intelligent design recently provided Mr. Hitchens and others with a straw man. Intelligent design was presented as suggesting that divine interference was necessary to explain the operation of "gaps" in evolution, such as irreducible complexities. It would be a poor designer of evolution indeed who would need to tinker with its operation to make it work. However, these complexities are valuable in adding to the wonder of evolution, and point to an intelligent designer, but not an interference in nature.
   No divine plan is necessary for our origins according to Mr. Hitchens. "Everything works without that assumption." Evolution explains our origins. But how about an explanation of the origin of evolution? What happened before it started? Our evolution has a relatively short history. The universe was billions of years old and the potential for evolution was latent in matter before earth came on the scene. Evolution can be seen as the execution of God's plan, designed billions of years before earth came to be. It's significant that to date, evolution, which produced our DNA, is smarter than our minds, smarter than the brain it produced.
   "Religion has run out of justifications," we are told by Mr. Hitchens. "Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important." The instruments in question are good but we cannot expect the telescope and microscope to teach us moral values. Without guidance, science could destroy us all.
   The "Atheist Manifesto," by Michel Onfray, a French philosopher, follows the same method as Dawkins and Hitchens by pointing out the sins of religion. He makes a claim that religion disregards "the real, hence the willful neglect of the only world there is." Religions, however, are in the forefront of protecting our planet home, promoting civil and human rights, teaching and healing the Third World, to mention just a few real-life contributions.
   George H. Smith, an American, takes up the cause of anti-religion in his book "Atheism, the Case Against God," with a vengeance. "As a human being," he writes, "I am appalled by the psychological damage caused by religious teaching." We went to Church on Sunday and to Catholic schools. Again, we were taught to respect our parents, to reach out to the needy, the sick, the homeless. We received an advanced education, and laughter had the right-of-way in our home. But we were, for Mr. Smith, an example of a damaged family.
   He states that religious morality "serves the purpose of god (sic) not man." He ignores the commands to honor father and mother, not to steal, not to commit adultery or kill or bear false witness against another.
   Sam Harris is on a similar path as Hitchens and others in muckraking history for religous sinners. In his book "End of Faith" he states, "My purpose in this chapter has been to intimate, in as concise a manner as possible, some of the terrible consequences that have arisen, logically and inevitably, out of Christian faith." In contrast, the atheist Andre Comte-Sponville, in his book "The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality," says, "I owe much of what I am, or what I try to be, to the Christian religion." He states further, "The Inquisition, for example, or Islamic terrorism clearly prove beyone the shadow of a doubt that religion can be dangerous, but they prove nothing as to the existence of God. By definition, all religions are human. The fact that they all have blood on their hands could justifiably turn me into a misanthrope, but it is not an argument in favor of atheism -- which, indeed, has itself committed a fair number of crimes, particularly in the twentieth century." He adds, "Also, this tells us more about humanity than it does about religion." His problem with religion is in finding evidence of God's existence.
   Daniel C. Dennett is less "impassioned" against religion than Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfray, Smith and Harris. However, his definition of religion as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought," diminishes religion to a branch of sociology. He admits that religion has widespread respect because of "the sense that those who are religious are well-intentioned, trying to lead morally good lives, earnest in their desire not to do evil, and to make amends for their transgressions."
   When I was a student of philosophy, I was convinced, and others agreed, that a psychoanalysis of the authors should preface their work, so that we could see what personality traits might be influencing their opinions. How valuable it would be now to be able to examine the life experiences, the hurts, and other psychological influences on the new atheists which are not revealed in their books. That could more clearly show us whence they come.
   Since logic and science cannot prove the non-existence of God as the atheists concede, of necessity the matter is in the area of psychology. Their distorted survey of history is a flimsy refuge, unworthy of any scholar, from the real cause of atheism which patently is lodged, for whatever reason, in emotion, in their "impassioned" state.

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