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Friday, March 20, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: The New Atheists are Scared (or Angry)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

A faith-free church is as sensible
as a food-free restaurant.
Scared or angry, take your pick. Far be it from us to put words in their mouths: the New Atheists are saying it themselves.

The former opinion comes from the writer of this piece in The Guardian, the latter from an atheist in its comments section. What scares (or angers) the Champions of Unbelief is the dawning recognition that while their anti-faith was briefly trendy in the middle of this century’s first decade, it is not quite as intuitive as they thought and it doesn’t seem to be catching on quite the way they’d like. In fact, things seem to be trending the other way.

Tom: Immanuel Can, it seems to me that total indifference to God has rarely been more prevalent (except perhaps in the days of Noah), but active, thoughtful rejection of God may be less common. Some religions (the so-called Religion of Peace, for instance), seem to be growing by leaps and bounds right in the middle of liberal, secularized western societies.

For the Christian that’s not really a problem: a Muslim going to hell and an atheist going to hell are equally in need of our message. For atheists, though, this is apparently a major issue.

IC: Yes. I’ve met this phenomenon a lot. 

Dwindling Enthusiasm for Aggressive Unbelief

I think it plays like this: back in the 1950s, the prevalent view among secular academics was a thing called “Positivism”. They had the idea that what they called “religion” (specifically Christianity) was in real trouble intellectually as a result of the accumulating body of evidence against it. It would only be a few short years and religion would disappear altogether from the landscape of western modernity, and the reign of atheism, secularism and progress would be sure to fall upon us all.

It didn’t work out the way they planned at all. So they’re very annoyed — their secular faith, their millennial hopes have been dashed by present events. And they are desperately trying to put us all back on the trajectory to the ideal future they envisioned.

Tom: I wish them luck with their Muslim friends on that count, since atheists seem to have almost as many issues with them as they do with us. Of course, Christians are less likely to respond with loaded weapons when they write nasty things about us.

The Quest for a Universal Moral Standard

This topic came out of an article by John Gray that you sent to me, and I found Gray’s take quite reasonable for a man who is an atheist himself. He seems to grasp pretty well the concept that once you remove God from the equation, a universal moral standard no longer follows. And of course many atheists desperately want one. Gray points out where his fellow atheists have fallen down on that front.

IC: They want it and they don’t want it. Those with any brains at all realize that you can’t run any kind of a society based on letting everyone run amok — they need some kind of common moral base, or “constitution” at the very least, and some basic beliefs about human rights, etc.

At the same time, a great many of them are also for keeping the moral latitude on personal conduct as wide as possible. They tend to evoke the “do no harm” rule, and after that claim any sort of immoral conduct is permissible. So on the question of objective morals they are entirely confused, since they cannot have any grounding for their society without constriction of individual freedoms. Normally, they just beg off this issue with something like, “Well, we all know what good behaviour is …"

Searching for a Definition of “Good”

Tom: Speaking of “good”, Bernie passed on an article from a liberal Toronto paper on the subject of a local “church” “pastored” by an atheist. Think that’s enough scare quotes in one sentence?

Gretta Vosper clearly thinks she knows what “good” is. “Her services make no mention of a deity, and she certainly doesn’t read from the Bible,” The Star tells us, but it would seem no cognitive dissonance ensues for Gretta. It does seem tough for her former flock to reconcile though — she’s currently down to a congregation of less than 50 people and still trying to brazen it out.

Now lots of people define “good” for themselves without making a big deal of it. Others, like the New Atheists, want to preach faith-free goodness without defining it too specifically, and without any evidence of authority for their position.

But a faith-free church? That’s a new one on me.

IC: A bit like a “food-free” restaurant, isn’t it?

But actually, the idea of an atheist church has a kind of sense to it. For atheists occupy a position they hold on faith. They do not have adequate evidence for their view, but they have a lot of personal reasons and incentives to want it to be true. Maybe they want to get together and sing hymns like this one.

Tom: Maybe they need the immoral support …

IC: Ha! Well said. Speaking of morals, I have no idea what kind of a moral code an atheist church could devise so as to give their members confidence of being “good” people, since moral concepts are entirely outside of atheism itself. And as for their ritual, service, giving, community life and, for that matter, purpose, I suppose they’d have to work some things out. But hey, since they’re making it all up anyway …

Tom: Well, it sounds as if this lady is certainly flying by the seat of her pants. Apparently they do have their own “hymns” already, with lyrics about as deep and memorable as you’d expect, things like: “May our world be a world, be a world of love,” culminating in “In this, our time of need, may love abound” as the atheist substitute for “amen”.

But as you say, there’s no clear concept of what “love” entails in the first place, even as they sing about it, nor is there any logical reason in their non-theology that they should embrace it, share it, seek it or feel any entitlement to it. They may as well break into a chorus of “The Greatest Love of All”. It would be equally edifying and similarly profound.

Varieties of Atheism

But let’s get back to The Guardian. What do you think of Mr. Gray’s reminder that the New Atheists are not the only atheists out there?

IC: I think it’s a move that saves nothing. Atheism itself is irrational. As I’ve shown in earlier posts, it’s irrational on its own terms — it can’t even “keep faith” with its own demands.

Even a person of the limited philosophical sophistication of a Richard Dawkins has grasped that, so he avoids calling himself an atheist in debate. If the news has arrived at Mr. Gray a little late, well, that’s a bit surprising. I have hitherto found Mr. Gray somewhat quicker to the point. But atheism comes in two kinds: values-bankrupt and faith-based. The kind that seeks a churchy experience is probably the faith-based atheism.

Tom: Yes, based on this article I suspect John Gray is an above-average atheist thinker, and he does a neat job of pointing out where his fellow atheists fail, which I’m sure will not endear him to them. He speaks of a type of atheist who, unlike Dawkins and the other NAs, sees religion as having “human value”. Then he says this about the New Atheists:
“Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience — in this case, conversion to unbelief.”

Atheism and “Human Value”

He almost seems here to close the door on the atheism of the “evangelical” sort that seeks to trash all religions and make unbelief universal. But in standing aloof from all this “evangelical” fervor on the part of his fellows, I wonder what position he is actually taking, because he seems to take none at all. It’s like all of his thinking has led him to the place where he’s prepared to live with a little doubt rather than claim to know something he can’t possibly be sure of.

IC: And yet again, what is this “human value” that he thinks atheism (the negation of the idea of any God) will bring to us? What value is there in being a dust speck accidentally projected out of a cosmic accident? I think he too is talking out of both sides of his mouth there. He is trying to save atheism — even if not the “evangelical” kind. But he’s really only plugging for the values-bankrupt alternative there.

Tom: I agree about talking out both sides of his mouth, but for maybe a little different reason. By the end of the article, I’m not convinced he’s actually plugging for anything. He’s adopted this sort of aloof, fence-sitting position from which he judges the various atheisms: evangelical atheism, racist atheism, tolerant-of-religion atheism and values-bankrupt atheism, and finds them all wanting for various reasons. And at the end of it all, it seems to me that there he sits: still an atheist, still unwilling to pursue any option that involves God or revelation, having summarily dismissed all arguments for his own position, but feeling clever — not crassly smug, but scholarly and knowledgeable for having seen through them all.

In this he reminds me of many, many agnostics I know who are simply content to live life and regard all arguments for and against God as ultimately inconclusive and therefore not worth the investment of their time. Do you think I’m misreading his conclusion?

The Value of Truth and Reason

IC: Well, there’s a fair bit I like about John Gray, especially his criticisms of humanism and the myth of moral progress. And for an atheist, he seems remarkably unimpressed with liberal utopianism. He seems to have a sort of instinctive dedication to concepts like “truth” and “reason” and taking things to their logical conclusions regardless of the consequences. But I want to ask him why, granted atheism, there would be any value in truth or reason at all. Both would rather seem to be merely accidental options in an accidental universe. Why be honest in an accidental universe? Why not just opt for pleasing or useful delusions — of whatever kind you please?

Now, if he were an agnostic of the kind you suppose, would he not simply declare himself that? I think he’s rather drifting in the direction of nihilism, perhaps, which is really where any honest, rationally-consistent atheist has to end up. Otherwise, he has to fake up some values to serve him in a universe that actually has none.

Tom: For a thinker, nihilism is a pretty sad place to end up.

Love and the Word of God

What can we get out of all this scripturally? Gretta Vosper’s “church” makes gods out of the concepts of “good” and “love”. But the Christian knows that there is no agreed-upon meaning for love, no capacity to fully appreciate it and no power to experience or project it consistently apart from God. I was reading this afternoon that “love is from God” and that “we love because he first loved us”. But this sort of love — a love both derived from and empowered by God, and reflective of his own nature rather than worked up from within ourselves for the purpose of perpetuating society — is not countenanced by Gretta Vosper. She doesn’t even believe in a historical Jesus, let alone a God of love who sent him. And the whole idea seems completely foreign to John Gray.

In their shoes I’d be scared, angry or in denial too. Or is that too simplistic?

IC: I don’t know if “scared” is the word, but it’s not far wrong.

Tom: Well, I’m using it because John Gray does. Other atheists are probably less likely to concede fear or concern.

IC: Maybe “presumptuous” is better. What, in my experience, the atheist set does in such cases is to presume — to take for granted — that whatever they personally happen to understand by the word “love” is essentially the same as what the rest of the world understands; so that all that remains to be done is for us all to embrace “love” (or “justice” or “empathy” or some other such vanilla virtue), and the world will all turn out right. Meanwhile, anyone who fails to embrace their personal definition of “love” is simply obstinate, dishonest or criminal, in their view, for such people impede the natural flow of progress guided by “love” (or whatever). Such retrograde individuals can be treated with contempt, with prosecution, with demonization, or in any way at all, so far as they are concerned.

Am I making it up? No. Look at the history of every atheist state that has existed in the last 100 years. The atheists killed 148 million people who had the temerity not to fit in with their vision of “love” or “the common good” or whatever.

Tom: But “love” in the sense the Christian knows it is an alien concept.

IC: When it comes to the love of God, they have no frame of reference. Love for enemies? Why? Loving the sinner? What is sin? Love as an action? Doesn’t everyone know it’s a feeling? You see, their understanding of the concept is far different from the biblical one: and serving their concept will never bring one to understanding God’s.

Nothing More to Say

Tom: We’re talking our way around a bunch of different things today. Want to try to sum it all up?

IC: The main point, I think, is quite simple: being “evangelical” about atheism makes no sense. (But then, neither does being any kind of atheist.) The problem is that atheism has no positive contribution to make. It’s merely the negation of whatever other people happen to believe.

"Not-that, not-that,” says the atheist — but then has nothing more to say. And then, in order to be able to keep speaking anyway, the atheist has to turn evangelical, and to start start piling imaginary positive values onto his atheism (what Gray calls “human values,” I suppose) — but these are values he knows are not consonant with his basic position and for which he has not a stitch of logical support. Or if he’s honest, having allegedly killed off God, the atheist must accept his values-bankruptcy and fall silent. But then it becomes painfully obvious how devoid of content atheism really is.

Atheism has nothing to offer the world except the escape from truth.

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