This is the 3rd blog in a series, the first blog is entitled Atheism: Luminous or Delusion? The blog preceding this one is Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (1). 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.” Below are a few quotes from Hart regarding the philosophical assumptions which atheists make. The atheists want others to believe that atheism is based in scientific fact, but Hart says their unproven assumptions are neither based in experience nor in logical deductions and so must be debunked as somehow representing a scientifically proven reality.
“There is, after all, nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes, without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other. … The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. ” (p 103)
Hart places the greater question of the existence of anything as at the heart of the debate between atheistic materialists and those who believe in God as the creator of all things. What he contends that materialism cannot do is explain why anything exists. That is a legitimate question which humans are capable of posing, but materialists cannot answer the question because they are limited in their answers to empirical reality – they must search for answers “from causes already internal to the world.” Hart’s point is that this in itself is a belief not based in logic or experience but in a “metaphysical prejudice” – they say it is so, cannot prove it, but then act as if it is the unquestionable truth of the universe.
Hart’s insistence is that without some basis for beliefs in a transcendent truth, everything really is reduced to opinion, even if an educated one. Every opinion can simply be refuted by anyone who disagrees with the opinion. Thus a civic morality will not emerge from a completely atheistic society – they may imitate the moral precepts of the religious societies they reject, but they will not be able to sustain a morality because they cannot lay claim to any ethical truth above personal opinion, democratic rule by the majority, or the tyranny of those in power.
“A culture could remain quite contentedly Christian in all its convictions and still achieve space travel. The mass manufacture of nerve toxins and nuclear weaponry, court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies, the miscegenation of human and porcine genetic materials, experimentation on prison populations, clinical studies of untreated syphilis in poor black men, and so on: all of this required the scientific mind to move outside or ‘beyond’ Christian superstitions regarding the soul and the image of God within it.” (p 232)
Hart’s contention is that precisely as societies have freed themselves from religious constraint have we witnessed the growth of mass murders, ethnic cleansing, racial extermination, on a level that no religious society was ever capable of doing. Watch the UTube video on the Japanese Unit 731 during WW II. Their emperor, thought of as a god, was trained in biological science, and it is to science that he turns to conduct some of the worst cases of mass human torture and murder under the guise of science ever conceived. Some claim more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason, but it was science in the 20th Century that enabled the killing of more people than ever had been previously possible. More Christians were known to have been killed under the Fascists and Communists than were killed in the first 300 years of Christian history – a time period in which the Church was outlawed by the Roman Empire and persecuted. Rome lacked the scientific means to kill the Christians on a massive scale.
In the end, Hart waxes philosophical about what happens to human beings when scientific progress makes life easier and enables homo sapiens to have more leisure time and not to have to worry about the difficulties of life which used to cause people to turn to religion and gods for help:
“… perhaps that is simply what happens when human beings are liberated from want and worry, and we should therefore gratefully embrace the triviality of a world that revolves around television, shopping, and the Internet as a kind of blessedness that our ancestors, oppressed by miseries we can scarcely now imagine, never even hoped to enjoy in this world. … When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape, and then become contented with his lot, and ultimately even rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment.” (p 230)
Some of us cannot imagine what difference it makes whether we can calculate let alone use in math the concept of “the square root of negative one” nor are we impressed that it helps solve certain algebraic formulae. Some of us are hostile to let alone cannot believe in the existence of a God, nor can we see any purpose served by such an imaginary being. The fact that our imaginations do not permit us to appreciate certain concepts does not mean the concepts themselves are unreal or unimportant. One of the greatest evolutionary gifts to humans is the ability to think and to know abstractly – this has made possible an understanding of the universe which goes beyond what we can normally perceive or experience. Or as Hart contends perhaps we really will cease to aspire for things beyond our human limits and will settle for an ape’s contentment in life.
Next: Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (3)