November 15, 2006

The New Atheism

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:48 pm

Now that the election is over, I can turn to more theological topics, like this article in Wired on The Crusade Against Religion on the part of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett among others. (Hat tip to Chris at Even the Devils Believe, with his own cogent comments on the article and several follow-up posts.) I found this article both extremely interesting and extremely maddening. Dawkins’ and Harris’s statements have so much of the certainty I rebel against with the religious right. They leave no room for doubt, which as I’ve said, is a fundamental part of my intellectual and spiritual make-up.

This isn’t to say that I doubt the results of the scientific method — in fact, my undergraduate degree is in Physics (while I have no formal training in Theology). So of course I accept the Big Bang, the Theory of Evolution and all the rest as true. Where I depart dramatically from Dawkins et al is the belief that all truth is attainable through the scientific method. While science is very effective at arriving at a subset of the truth, there is no reason to suspect that the truth accessible to science is exhaustive. Science relies upon repeatable experiments, but there may be a class of truths that can’t be demonstrated experimentally and can’t be repeated. (For more, take a look at Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.)

But Dawkins’ rejection of extra-scientific truth isn’t as ironclad as it might seem. Time has excerpts from a debate between Dawkins and Francis Collins where Dawkins brings up the idea of a “multiverse” to explain the fact that the fundamental constants of our universe are tuned precisely to allow life to form (what is called the Anthropic Principle).

That says that maybe the universe we are in is one of a very large number of universes. The vast majority will not contain life because they have the wrong gravitational constant or the wrong this constant or that constant. But as the number of universes climbs, the odds mount that a tiny minority of universes will have the right fine-tuning.

Of course the existence of any universe outside our own is impossible to detect through scientific means, and hence is not science but must be accepted on faith. But this theory does point out a problem with the Anthropic Principle, that it can’t prove the existence of God, but can only point the way to God. In fact, God has clearly designed our world such that proof of God is impossible. Faith is clearly very important to God, and faith would end with proof. Chris quotes Barth on this point:

Note well: in the whole Bible of the Old and New Testaments not the slightest attempt is ever made to prove God. This attempt has always been made only outside the biblical view of God, and only where it has been forgotten with whom we have to do, when we speak of God. […] I will not enter into these ‘proofs’ of God. I don’t know if you can at once see the humour and the fragility of these proofs. These proofs may avail for the alleged gods; if it were my task to make you acquainted with these allegedly supreme beings, I would occupy myself with the five famous proofs of God. In the Bible there is no such argumentation; the Bible speaks of God simply as of One who needs no proof.

But what really floors me about Dawkins, Harris and Dennett is their idea that religion must be stamped out because it causes so much evil in the world. It’s not bad religion they deplore, but any religion. So I am as much their enemy as is Osama bin Laden, because somehow I am enabling ObL’s violent jihad against the West. Since I don’t accept their rejection of anything metaphysical, I am allowing Islamofascists and Christian theocrats to maintain their illogical beliefs. Their answer is to stamp out religion of any kind:

But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

“How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?” Dawkins asks. “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

This is a fundamentalism that would make Richard Land blush. As Chris notes, this is starting to sound like a Soviet-style totalitarianism, and of course the atheistic Soviets put a lie to the idea that religion is to blame for all the immorality in the world.

As much as I respect the scientific accomplishments of Dawkins and Dennett (Harris, not so much), I have to regard them the same way I regard the most intolerant of the Christian right. It’s not that science is bad, but that when science is thought to be all there is, all that there can be, it becomes another religion. And it isn’t a tolerant, compassionate, or uplifting religion. It’s just arrogant.


  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. Of course when it comes to recognizing the log of arrogance and intolerance in their own eyes, these radical atheists are in the same boat with the rest of us sinners 🙂

    It’s worrying to me that the political and social climate seems to be ripe for supporting this kind of movement

    There was an interesting article in my German newspaper just yesterday. In an interview covering a range of topics, the Physics Nobel Prize winner (2005) Theodor Hänsch spoke out unmistakably on the side of a created universe, with room for both God and science, including evolution.

    Comment by Debbie — November 16, 2006 @ 9:12 am

  2. Dawkins’s dogmatic attacks on all religion really don’t serve him well. He seems to have a vendetta against religion that goes way beyond simply choosing not to believe himself, and it is this intolerance that really doesn’t serve him well. The impression I get of Dawkins is that he doesn’t really understand religion, so his arguments against it are largely attacks on straw men. Your point about the diversity of religion, for good and bad, is a good one. Religion inspired Quakers to support abolitionism in the 1800s, it inspired Martin Luther King to fight for Civil Rights, it inspired all sorts of social justice ministries. Religion can be a force for good or for bad. Dawkins’s attitude really contributes nothing and is simply another form of bigotry and intolerance.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — November 16, 2006 @ 9:17 am

  3. I am reading Sam Harris’ book at the moment. I agree with you completely, the level of arrogance is (so far) scary. Harris does make a point to declare that spirituality can be a positive and essential component of human life if divorced from religion. This sounds a interesting position but don’t know the context as I have not got through to his argument on his point yet.

    Comment by Richard — November 18, 2006 @ 11:17 am

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