You know, I’m getting really tired of taking apart atheist-bashing articles. The assertions about the flaws of atheism never change, the apologists won’t ever change their minds, and the articles will just keep on coming—perhaps even more frequently as the world becomes less religious and believers and faitheists get more defensive. And does anybody here really need to see another atheist-basher taken apart? So I’m going to ratchet back on these analyses; besides, Jeffrey Tayler does them so much better than I (see his latest attack on David Brooks in Salon). I’m doing this today to appease my Canadian readers.
Several incensed Canadian atheists sent me a link to a truly execrable piece by Conrad Black in the National Post, “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist.” I didn’t really know who Conrad Black was, but many Canadians seem to, for all the readers mentioned his criminal past. Born in Montreal, Black rose to control a chain of newspapers, acquiring titles and huge wealth along the way, but was then extradited to the U.S. to stand charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. He served three years in Federal prison, was deported back to Canada (and can’t re-enter the U.S. for 30 years), but still retains his enormous wealth and his title: “Baron Black of Crossharbour, of Crossharbour in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.”
I believe Black turned Catholic in prison, and for some reason the National Post gave him a lot of space in this piece to affirm his faith and bash atheists. I don’t have the heart to take apart his shopworn arguments in detail—beginning with the title, since almost no atheists are “militant”. Here are a few tropes, probably lifted from his readings:
1. The old atheists were so much better than the new ones—wittier, better writers, more cogent, and less militant. This argument can be made only by those who have never really read Russell, Mencken, Ingersoll, and Mill; the claim is based on pure ignorance. But Black makes it anyway.
. . . it has come back to me what a shabby level of mockery and sophistical evasion many of the militant atheists are reduced to, in comparison even with the famous skeptics of earlier times. People like Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud, wrote and spoke well, and were more able than is rigorously admissible now to cloak themselves in the inexorable march of science and reason. Their witty if gratuitous disparagements of Christianity were much more effective than the coarse blunderbuss of my late quasi-friendly and frequent adversary, Christopher Hitchens.
Seriously: Shaw, Russell, and Freud cloaked themselves more heavily in science than, say, Dawkins and Sam Harris? That’s just crazy, for many of the developments of science that have further whittled away at faith, like cosmology and new findings of evolution, were not known to the earlier atheists. And, as far as I remember, Freud never availed himself of science in his arguments against God, but simply fobbed off religion as a collective neurosis (correct) and a longing for a father figure (dubious).
2. Without religion we wouldn’t have a good source of morality. Seriously? Is Black ignorant of the long tradition of secular ethics beginning with the ancient Greeks? Or does he think that that morality is dubious if it doesn’t come from God? If that’s the case, does he know about Plato’s Euthyphro argument—to my mind one of the great triumphs of philosophy? Black says this:
. . . without some notion of a divine intelligence and its influence on the culture of the world through the various religions (though the principal religions are not interchangeably benign or influential) there would be no serious ethical conceptions. Communities untouched by religious influences have been unalloyed barbarism, whatever the ethical shortcomings of some of those who carried the evangelizing mission among them. Without God, “good” and “evil” are just pallid formulations of like and dislike. As Professor Lennox reminded me, Dostoyevsky, scarcely a naive and superstitiously credulous adherent to ecclesiastical flimflam, said “without God, everything is permissible.”
That’s palpably wrong. Atheists are no more immoral than religionists, and we don’t engage in killing other people in the name of our nonbelief, nor do we try to force ridiculous strictures about sex, diet, and genital-cutting on everyone else. The more atheistic countries like those in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe are, if anything, more “moral” (and less socially dysfunctional) than highly religious nations like America, Saudi Arabia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
3. Atheism is a “faith.” You can’t get much more wrong than the following, in which Black dissects a debate between Richard Dawkins and mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox:
[Dawkins] entertained, until he became unbearably repetitive, but no one with an IQ in triple figures was shocked by him. Dawkins almost raves about the extremes that “faith” can drive people to, but was struck dumb like Zachariah in the temple when Lennox pointed out, in a very lengthy debate at the University of Alabama in 2009, that atheism is a faith — clearly one that Dawkins holds and tries to propagate with considerable fervour. In general, something a person believes and can’t prove is supported by some measure of faith.
I refuse to believe that Dawkins was “dumbstruck” at Lennox’s claim that atheism is based on “faith”—unless “dumbstruck” refers to Dawkins’s incredulity at such stupidity. How can not believing in something for which there’s no evidence be a faith, given that faith means “belief in something without substantial (or any) evidence”? Is it “faith” to argue that there’s no evidence that humans have two hearts, or that Nessie swims in the deep waters of her Loch? As Black should know, no claim about reality is ever “proven” in the purely scientific sense, so if that’s his take, it must be a “faith” that humans have but one heart, since there might be some organ that we’ve missed! What most atheists “believe” is that “there is no good reason to believe in God”. If that’s a “faith,” then so are the claims that “There is no good reason to believe that Barack Obama was born in Yemen” or “There is no evidence that humans have been abducted by aliens in flying saucers.” To Black, any well-founded doubt is a “faith”!
And then Black claims that there is indeed some evidence for God, to wit:
The atheists purport to disprove the theistic case, but they have never got past their inability to dispute that spiritual forces and perceptions exist or that unexplained developments that are in fact miraculous sometimes occur, and they are reduced to imputing falsely to believers the view that anything they can’t explain is in the “gap”: God’s secret work. Of course no serious person espouses anything of the kind. . .
What? We can’t dispute that spiritual forces exist? Of course we can: we’ve no evidence for them. And yes, of course perceptions of those forces exist, but perceptions are not realities: if that were true, then there would be a plethora of Napoleons and Jesuses (Jesi?) in today’s world. It’s certainly true that we haven’t explained everything, but we have discovered that a lot of miracles turn out to be bogus. The fact is that if God wanted us to know of His existence (if he existed), he could do it ways far more convincing ways than making the “blood” of saints liquify when a Pope touches a vial of it, or making water appear on the face of a Jesus statue.
As for no serious people arguing for Gods of the gaps, has Black, perchance, heard of intelligent design? I guess not, for that whole area rests on the god-of-the-gaps arguments. Even scientists like Francis Collins make those arguments—in Collins’s case, he argues that because we can’t explain the origin of human moral sentiments, they must be a product of God. I have a huge section in Faith versus Fact about what I call “The New Natural Theology,” the claim that some phenomena—like consciousness and “fine tuning” of physical law—can’t be explained by science and therefore require invoking God. If that’s not a god-of-the-gaps tactic, I don’t know what is.
4. Science isn’t leading to progress, just to more mysteries. This is a really, really dumb argument, but has gained surprising traction. It’s a way of religionists to denigrate science in a futile attempt to elevate religion, which truly does fail to progress. John Gray is one of those “anti-progressives” for both science and religion (see one of his pieces here, and Steve Pinker’s rebuttal here). Here’s what Black says, continuing directly from his previous quote:
. . .much more frequent is the swift recourse of atheistic scientists to the worm-eaten chestnut that there is a finite amount of knowledge in the world and that every day the lights of pioneering science are leading us closer to a plenitude of knowledge.
In fact, that is not our experience: All great scientific discoveries demonstrate man’s genius, but also reveal that the extent of the unknown was greater than had been realized. Freud’s discovery that man could not control his subconscious; the discovery of the potential of the atom including for human self-destruction; Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler’s discovery that the world revolved around the sun; all expanded the vastness of the unknown still to be explored.
I don’t want to think that Black is here contending that we actually know less about the Universe than we did 500 years ago, but that seems to be his implication. But does he take antibiotics, perchance, or use a cellphone? Does he know that we’ve unravelled the mysteries of heredity: we now know that genes in most species are made of double-helical DNA, and that this DNA specifies the sequence of proteins? Does he realize that Einstein explained the bending of light by gravity, something completely unknown in the 19th century? Of course new mysteries arise regularly, like the existence of dark matter and energy, but to claim that science isn’t advancing our understanding of nature is to claim that “I am a moron.” And Black really is. He reveals that even more nakedly when he says this:
5. The idea of a multiverse is “diaphanous piffle.”:
Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.
Clearly Black knows nothing of physics, for the idea of a multiverse falls naturally out of certain theories of physics, and is certainly not diaphanous piffle. Many physicists take it seriously, and not because they want to get rid of the notion of God. It may well be true that the laws of physics in our universe don’t hold in other universes, so if those laws permitted evolution in our cosmos, then we’re just holders of a lucky cosmic lottery ticket. And of course the multiverse idea does have something to do with whether God exists, because, whether Black likes it or not, the idea of the “fine tuning” of the physics of our universe constitutes strong evidence for God to many sophisticated believers. If there’s a natural explanation, then the evidence for God recedes yet further.
6. Religion is the repository of right and wrong, and that, rather than the truth of scripture, is its value.
Religious practice can certainly be targeted as a pursuit of the hopeful, the faith-based and the uncertain. But they badly overreach when they attack the intellectual underpinnings of Judeo-Christianity, from the ancient Judaic scholars and the Apostles to Augustine to Aquinas to Newman; deny the existence of any spiritual phenomena at all; debunk the good works and cultural creativity and conservation of the major religion; and deny that the general religious message of trying conscientiously to distinguish right from wrong as a matter of duty and social desirability is the supreme criterion of civilization. The theists defend their basic position fairly easily and only get into heavy weather when they over-invest in the literal truth of all the scriptures — though the evidence for veracity of the New Testament is stronger than the skeptics admit, including of Christ’s citations of God himself: “And God said …” [Black’s ellipses]
This is coming from a Catholic! Has he never run into “heavy weather” when investing in ideas of Jesus as God’s son/God, of the Resurrection, the return of Jesus, the transubstantiation, the notion of a soul, the miracles of the Bible—or anything of that ilk? And it’s dubious about whether the general religious message of his Christianity is “to distinguish right from wrong”, at least not in the way Black means. The general message of Christianity, “How should we behave so we can win God’s approval and have a comfy afterlife?” The Big Answer is, of course, simple: just accept Jesus as savior, no matter how many bad things you’ve done in your life.
I can write no more; my brain hurts. You Canadians who forced me to spend 1.5 hours writing this—you go spread this message on the Post website and to Blackophiles. I can barely stand to write this same rebuttal over and over, and I’m loath to do it any more.