Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (2)

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)

The Big Bang

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)

Crematorium at Dachau

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)

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10 thoughts on “Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (2)

  1. Pingback: Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (1) « Fr. Ted’s Blog

  2. 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.

    This is bad logic. Even if there were no hypotheses for the origin of the universe (there are – see Smolin Selection Theory for instance) this lends no credence to the unfalsifiable and unverifiable idea that there was a god that created everything for which there is a total paucity of evidence. Saying that god created everything has no more information content than saying “I don’t know”, the latter being far more honest.

    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.

    Are you trying to say that the Holocaust could at all have happened in the absence of Christian anti-Semitism? The “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia was a result of a decrease in religiosity? Christians in the US are far more likely to support the use of torture in information gathering than nonbelievers. The Russian Orthodox Church even supported Stalin throughout his horrific reign of terror.

    It is impossible to get to communism or fasicism or anything else for that matter from atheism. Atheism leads to no ideology. It must be atheism plus. Hart is simply wrong. Religion simply does not lead to better behavior and is often an excuse for bad.

    Sure, Christians were persecuted when they were the minority and powerless. And not just by Romans. Jews also persecuted them. But guess what happened the moment Christianity became politically powerful. Christians became the oppressors. Indeed, atheists were a favorite target of Christian oppression throughout history, and we are still looked upon as pariahs. What is it about us atheists that frightens you Christians so much?

    1. Fr. Ted

      1) Having a theory based on causality may account for how things came into existence, but that is still not quite the same as answering the philosophical question as to why there is anything to begin with,including first causes. It is a slightly different question. One perhaps could argue the question is unanswerable, and an “I don’t know” is one possible answer, but imagining that the first cause is a god, is no more dishonest than imagining a big bang or collapsing Black Holes. None of that can answer why is there anything? Rather it postulates perpetual existence – the universe is in perpetual motion, but that seems to be an assumption/belief, nothing we could ever prove. That is Hart’s point.
      2) Holocaust type events – ethnic cleansings – do not need Christianity to exist. Humans have found plenty of reasons to exterminate or enslave other humans throughout history. I am saying that humans are and will continue to be humans. Eliminating religion will not eliminate human proclivities.
      3) “Atheism leads to no ideology.” I guess I am not sure how that statement can be verified. Certainly there were militant atheists in the Soviet union. All ideas are subject to creating ideologues who are willing to do anything to promote “the Idea.” When atheists are in power somewhere they will use human means and justifications to stay in power. It’s a human issue, not a religious one. You are correct that “religious” people have resorted to violence to promote their ideals. Sometimes they abandoned the teachings/ideals and just used religion as a justification for anything they were doing. That too is human – atheists in power will do the same.
      4) Not all Christians are frightened by atheism – that is something that suits your imagination. Hart is hardly fearful of atheists – dismissive, but not fearful. One doesn’t have to be fearful to believe an ideology is bad for the world. Christians disagree with atheists and so are willing to offer an apology for Christianity and willing to intellectually debate with atheists.
      Do keep in mind that while all creationist/biblical literalists are believers, not all believers embrace creation science or biblical literalism. Much atheist anti-religious argument is geared toward a particular segment of believers (biblical literalists). The disagreement some believers have with atheists is not over whether Genesis 1-3 is science or not, but rather is about whether materialism can answer the questions most important to humanity: What does it mean to be human? Certainly a human’s chemical composition can be determined to the last atom, but is that all it takes to understand humans? Does that really account for what humans are and do?

  3. Pingback: Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (3) « Fr. Ted’s Blog

  4. Hi, Ted, I just ran across your blog and though I’d jump into the discussion.

    Hart: “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.”

    But surely existence is an observable fact. If we know anything about the universe, it is that it exists. To declare that this fact needs an explanation is the prejudice.

    Ted: “…imagining that the first cause is a god, is no more dishonest than imagining a big bang or collapsing Black Holes.”

    I disagree. A physical explanation provides testable experimental predictions (if it’s any good). The God hypothesis provides none that I know of. For example, what should the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background look like if God was the cause of the Big Bang? “God did it” provides the illusion of an explanation without providing any actual explanatory power.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Thanks for the comments. If I understand the current physics, only about 4.5% of the universe is observable to us – the rest, dark matter (23% of the universe) and dark energy (72% of the universe) can only be theorized or conjectured. So is it science or a prejudice which conjectures something we cannot see or detect and may never be able to see or detect? The prejudice is only that an assumption is made that everything must be explained by a materialistic universe and when we note things that cannot be explained by the empirical universe, we conjecture there must be more to the “material” universe. But this does not eliminate the possibility that there may be even more to the universe than dark matter and dark energy – other forces which we have no way of detecting because they are beyond our instrumentation. Offering dark matter or dark energy (and not being a scientist, I am totally OK with scientists offering these “explanations” of the material universe) still exists in the realm of a possible explanation, but it is conjecturing something we cannot detect but can only conjecture it “must” exist. No?

      The notion of the existence of God is a faith issue – one can assume, decide there are no explanations for anything beyond the physical, but because we do have complex brains, it is possible for us to envision that the empirical universe does not explain everything about itself. That dark matter and energye exist, suggest to me other forces may exsist also. But faith in God does not rest completely on empirical proofs, since we are talking about something not limited to the empirical universe but outside it.

  5. Hi again,

    “Thanks for the comments.”
    Thanks for your response.
    “If I understand the current physics, only about 4.5% of the universe is observable to us – the rest, dark matter (23% of the universe) and dark energy (72% of the universe) can only be theorized or conjectured. So is it science or a prejudice which conjectures something we cannot see or detect and may never be able to see or detect?”

    Of course we CAN detect it, or we would have no way of knowing that it makes up 23%/72% of the universe. It is because we can detect it that it requires an explanation. The usual procedure in science is to take a guess at the answer, and work out experimental tests to see if the guess works. So we have various competing hypotheses for dark matter: small “dead” stars, neutrinos, chunks of rock, dust, unknown particles, etc. One could add “God” to that list, but how would that help? Since God can do anything, there’s no way to test the God hypothesis. So we stick with material explanations and try to find one that fits pretty well.

    I have no justification for this procedure (of looking only for material explanations) other than – it has worked in the past. I don’t think it’s a prejudice so much as a preference, born from long (collective) experience. Think about when non-material explanations have been tried in the past: spirits as the source of Ouija board messages, or spirit medium messages, or ghosts. These explanations have not been very successful.

    “That dark matter and energye exist, suggest to me other forces may exsist also.”

    Of course, but what is the evidence for these other forces?

    “But faith in God does not rest completely on empirical proofs, since we are talking about something not limited to the empirical universe but outside it.”

    What bugs me about cosmological arguments for God is that they just define God into existence. They start with the idea that there must be a cause for the universe. Then that cause must not be in the universe, because that would make it part of the universe. So it must be outside the universe. So let’s call it “God”.

    Bingo! God exists. No need for evidence of any kind.

    What’s dishonest about this is that using the word “God” here smuggles in a lot of assumptions that aren’t warranted by the argument. There’s absolutely no reason to think that this first-cause God intervenes in the universe, or is a person, or had a son, or any of the other things that go along with the Christian God.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I appreciate your taking time to respond.
      With dark matter and dark energy – we can detect it in the sense that what we know to be true about the empirical universe suggests that there must exist something “other” in the universe as well. We have named it dark matter and energy because we are applying to it names/metaphors/descriptions based upon what we already know about the universe, but this is risky in the sense that it might cause us to see it in that certain way, whereas certainly Heisenberg, quantum mechanics and the like also tell us that things tend to behave in the way we were looking for them to behave, and that because of certain assumptions or choices we make there are some things we cannot know. So it would seem to me reasonable to approach “dark” matter or energy with caution and not make it to be like things we know when our models are inadequate. Newtonian physics was adequate to get a man to the moon and back but isn’t an exact model for the entire universe.

      For me, as perhaps for other believers in God, the unknowns in the universe are real, and my guess is there always will be mystery in the universe, which also leaves open the possibility of unknown forces or even for us undecipherable logic in the universe which none the less is real even if we can’t detect it. You might say this is simply “god of the gaps” and eventually science will fill all the gaps, but I think current efforts in physics suggest mystery is part of the empirical universe. Heisenberg is right, there are some things we cannont know.

      When I read John Derbyshire’s UNKNOWN QUANTITY: A REAL AND IMAGINARY HISTORY OF ALGEBRA I was very much struck by the increasing levels of abstract thinking required to solve increasing complex problems. Certain problems could not be solved until mathematians allowed 0 to be a real number in solving equations. Then other equations were deemed unsolvable but eventually negative numbers were allowed, then the square root of negative one, and so on. But at each level of abstraction there always was a time when many felt the next series of equations were unsolvable, and not only that but they resisted the next level of abstraction as not being the solution.

      I mention this, because it seems possible to me that the concept of God also requires a level of abstraction tht some would deny is possible or useful. It also seems to me that when you ask about “evidence for other forces in the universe” you are again asking for materialistic explanations of things that may not conform to materialism’s assumptions. It for me is like the levels of abstraction in algebra’s history – nobody at an early date imagined the existence of or evidence for these increasingly abstract mathematical concepts, and yet they helped solve equations and make modern physics possible.

      I appreciate your honesty in saying you have no justification for the scientific method other than it works (so Newtonian physics worked too, but proved itself inadequate for the universe as it is). It is a pragmatic, though not imaginary, approach. But I concede that non-material explanations of science have failed. But then I would point out that science is limited in its study to the material universe and can say nothing about non-material existence or non-material logic.

      What bugs you about cosmological arguments for God is in truth annoying. That there is a “cause”is a metaphysical assumption, not based in scientific proofs but in the fact that humans can frame questions about the universe in a certain way. And truthfully the questions about the universe can be framed in other ways, thus the existence of atheism or materialism. I can only say that it is within human thinking to frame the questions in a particular way, and to seek out meaning for humans and in purely empirical events. Humans have evolved with a brain capable of abstract thinking (doing algebraic equations and theology!). We are capable of pondering deep, even unanswerable questions.

      But the existence of God is also based in a certain logic (which you might disagree with) with starts with the same empirical universe and then asks why is there anything, and though the process works backwards from what is to some final cause, the evidence is still the same: the universe exists, we can observe it, we can know it has a prior history, and even if we accept ideas from physics we know it has an origin because space and time show evidence of growth so there must have been a beginning (big bang or some such thing). Believers simply ask different questions than materialists about the universe. And the different lines of reasoning lead to different conclusions, not unlike some experiments in quantum physics.

      But then again, you are right in your last paragraphy, that even if one allows for a First Cause or a God, it is a leap to then say this First Cause is YHWH or Allah or has a Son. But that is where faith comes in, and religion is based in faith. That is more the issue of taking the belief that there is a God and then asking, what is this God like? What can we know about God?

      There is one set of evidence that is trickier to evaluate – all the major religions still base themselves in the claimed experiences of adherents to the religion past and present. For Christianity, it is not only a matter of believing in God, but also do you believe the witness of the apostles/the church? People have claimed through history to know or to have experienced certain things. Are any of these people reliable witnesses? That is a question that puts believers on the line – our lives will be looked at and evaluated. Do we really seem to live according to the faith we claim to have? It is evidence of sorts, though not the scientific evidence materialists demand for proving God exists.
      I find the question, “what does it mean to be human?”, to be one of the most important questions we can ask. And I don’t find satisfactory answers which can offer the perfectly scientific chemical composition of a human. That chemical composition is a totally true answer I am sure, but it is sufficient to explain what it is to be human.
      Sorry for the long response!

  6. I agree with most of what you write. I’m fairly sure Heisenberg was indeed right – I hope so, because without mysteries there would be nothing for us scientists to do!

    “I mention this, because it seems possible to me that the concept of God also requires a level of abstraction tht some would deny is possible or useful. It also seems to me that when you ask about “evidence for other forces in the universe” you are again asking for materialistic explanations of things that may not conform to materialism’s assumptions. It for me is like the levels of abstraction in algebra’s history – nobody at an early date imagined the existence of or evidence for these increasingly abstract mathematical concepts, and yet they helped solve equations and make modern physics possible.”

    By a strange coincidence, I just finished reading this book myself. Are you suggesting that we (collectively as a species) have not yet reached a level of understanding where we can grasp the concept of God? Or that some have reached this level of understanding and others haven’t?

    “I find the question, “what does it mean to be human?”, to be one of the most important questions we can ask. ”

    I agree. I also agree that science doesn’t (yet) provide much help in answering it – not in the deeper sense of how we should live our lives. Maybe someday psychology and sociology will have developed to a point where they can provide guidance, but for now, at least, each person is pretty much on their own.

    This is where I think some of the “New Atheists” miss the mark. Religion provides something of great value to a great many people. Some of the things I see of value in religion: community, sense of identity, guidance on how to treat others, support in hard times. Some of these strengths are also weaknesses. For example, “sense of identity” can develop into and “us vs. them” mentality that becomes the excuse for violent conflict. But apart from that, I find the superstitious elements – gods, afterlife, etc. – distracting and ultimately harmful.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I feel the same way you do about Heisenberg, though I am not a scientist. But as a priest, I marvel at the mysteries of the universe – I am thankful for those mysteries that science has afforded explanations, but I am ever intrigued by what we do not yet know.

      You wrote: “By a strange coincidence, I just finished reading this book myself. Are you suggesting that we (collectively as a species) have not yet reached a level of understanding where we can grasp the concept of God? Or that some have reached this level of understanding and others haven’t?”

      I would say yes to both questions. In the 4th Century, the Christian Bishop known as Basil the Great wrote that a God who can be comprehended is no God at all. God remained for many early Christian thinkers the greatest mystery of the universe, and they thought it risky to keep trying to describe God in human language and metaphors as it is misleading. The same St. Basil once said something to the effect, “If I say that I exist, then existence is something which describes humans and the created order and therefore I must say that God does not exist because existence is an inappropriate category for the divine. On the other hand, if I say that God exists, then I must admit that I do not exist for then existence is something connected with the divine but not with the created.” The great thinkers of early Christianity were actively engaged with the philosophers and scientists of their day. They did believe Christianity was a superior way of understanding the universe, but they did not reject all science and philosophy (which in their day was basically the same thing). I think unfortunately in recent times that many believers aren’t willing to struggle with issues of faith, philosophy and truth, and so opt for the simplistic understanding of God which leads those who have more analytical, scientific and skeptical minds to easily dismiss theology as unthinking nonsense. Also, believers allowed themselves to be drawn into a faith vs. reason debate that pushed some into a total literalistic reading of the bible trying to defend the bible as science, whereas the bible was not written to answer the questions of modern science. The bible asks the question, “What is man?” (Psalm 8:4; Job 7:17, for examples) but its answer is theological not scientific.

      You wrote: “I find the question, “what does it mean to be human?”, to be one of the most important questions we can ask. ” I agree. I also agree that science doesn’t (yet) provide much help in answering it – not in the deeper sense of how we should live our lives. Maybe someday psychology and sociology will have developed to a point where they can provide guidance, but for now, at least, each person is pretty much on their own.

      That is exactly why I feel that science not only does not, but probably cannot answer this question. The question is philosophical and theological and science can only give us the materialist answer which is not satisfying to me. On one occasion (I think this is a real quote and not urban legend) Einstein said something like, “Science can tell us what we can do. It cannot tell us what we ought to do.” That seems to me to be one of the limits of science. Science can tell us whether or not an atomic weapon can be built. But whether it should be built is not a question science can answer. Science can tell us whether or not we can send humans to Mars. It cannot tell us whether in fact this is the best or right use of limited human resources or tax payers’ dollars. Science can tell us what is possible with genetic engineering, but it cannot tell us whether in fact such engineering is moral or what morality should guide what genetic/social engineering is allowed. We need more than just science to help us deal with these issues. So whereas I have great respect for scientific discoveries, knowledge and methods, I feel the limits of science cannot help us deal with some of the most important questions of life.

      I truly appreciate your comments and also find much to agree with in what you wrote. I too find superstitious elements to be distracting and harmful, though my list of what is superstitious would be different from yours.

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