1st in a blog series.
Blogging has caused me on occasion to cross paths with some atheist – both on my blog and on theirs. This has produced a few exchanges of ideas as well as exchanging barbs at times. Often these communications are related to evolution which is one point at which the interest of atheists and believers do intersect. This meeting point is actually a crowded city intersection because the spectrum of beliefs held by “faithists” (as some atheists like to label believers) and scientists is diverse. There are of course atheist and biblical literalist/creationist ideologues who are the ones who draw the most media attention because their extreme views make for easier and more entertaining contrasts. But there also are a wide variety of those who are agnostic, theistic scientists, deists, intelligent design adherents, and the indifferent. The ideological atheists have no sympathy for the theistic scientists as they feel they just muddy the waters, but their real enemies are the biblical literalists/creationists. Often when the ideological atheists attack religion they are referring only to biblical literalists and creationists, though admittedly they don’t distinguish between believers (see for example Jerry Coyne’s webpage Why Evolution is True which to some extent is devoted to refuting creationist claims that evolution is unproven). Their attacks however often do not take into account the wide spectrum of beliefs held by “faithists” or that people believe for many different reasons, some much more logical and even factually determined than others. While all creationists and biblical literalists are believers, not all believers are biblically literalistic creationists.
David Bentley Hart in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES offers a rebuttal to some of the common attacks on religion offered by “the new Atheists.” (You can see a short video interview of Hart on the same topic: The New Atheists and the Ugly God). Part of the basis of his polemics is that the new atheists’ attacks on religion are so broad in their claims as to be easily refuted by simply studying history (something many biblical literalists and “bible alone” believers are unwilling to do) and offering historical examples which refute the atheists’ claims. For example in dealing with a favorite historical event for atheists – the Galileo affair in which the scientist having truth on his side is oppressed by the superstitious religionists, Hart points out:
“And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent—to a model that was wrong.” (p 66)
Galileo couldn’t prove his theory as he still lacked the means to prove it, but he was asking the church to accept his theory as he felt certain it would be proven eventually. The Church refused to accept his ideas without proof. As Hart notes, ironically, the very model Galileo was proffering at that moment later proved to be inaccurate. Thus to say the church always opposed scientific truth is simply not supported by historical example. Hart offers several instances which refute the popular claims of “the new atheists.”
“This would, at any rate, be in keeping with one of the rhetorical strategies especially favored in New Atheist circles: one labels anything one dislikes – even if it is found in a purely secular setting—‘religion’ (thus, for example, all the twentieth-century totalitarianisms are ‘political religions’ for which secularists need take no responsibility), while simultaneously claiming that everything good, in the arts, morality, or any other sphere—even if it emerges with an entirely religious setting—has only an accidental association with religious belief and is really, in fact, common human property; (so, for example, the impulse toward charity will doubtless spring up wherever an ‘enlightened’ society takes root). By the same token, every injustice that seems to follow from a secularist principle is obviously an abuse of that principle, while any evil that comes wrapped in a cassock is unquestionably an undiluted expression of religion’s every essence.” (p 220)
Hart’s point is one that I have noted myself in conversations with atheists – if one points out that 20th Century Fascism and Communism were ideas both born of the scientific skepticism of the Enlightenment and both were profoundly anti-religious and based in absolute adherence to human reason and secular rationalism, the atheists immediately say that is because those anti-religionists followed religiously based thinking for how to solve problems. Thus they claim 20th Century militant atheism is just another form of religion and not at all what real atheism is about. However, if a believer points out that much evil that has happened in the name of religion was in fact a denial of that religion’s core values, the atheists simply scoff and say the two cannot be separated. Hart’s contention is that much that happened in terms of religious warfare in Europe leading up to the Enlightenment’s separation of church and state was every bit if not more so guided by political realities than by religious claims. As states asserted themselves as independent of church control, their tendency toward relying on violence, abuse and warfare grew because they were freed from Christian moral constraints to do what was politically expedient – for which they always could find some religious support. Certainly this is part of philosophical support that was given to Fascism in Germany – it was Christianity which was crippling Germany from being the dominating world power and which had to be overthrown. Communistic Bolshevism made the same claim about Christianity in Russia.
Next: Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology?