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)

Truth and Meaning, Science and Theology

questioning-genesisIn the Christian world there is much discussion about what the Scientific Theory of Evolution represents to theology:  a challenge, a denial, disproof of God, bad science, truth, or an alternative way of seeing the universe.  For my part having read a fair amount of literature on the topic I place myself in the realm of scientific theism or theistic science.  I believe in God but I do not read the Bible as a scientific text.   I think of science and theology looking at the origins of humanity in the same way that I think of a botanist or chemist considering a rose as versus a poet or lover.   The scientists can give us an exact and absolutely true analysis of creation from a materialist point of view.  However, their truthful analysis does not tell us at all what a rose means to people, or that a rose can have great symbolic meaning, or that there can be a truth behind how the rose is used (a sign of love, appreciation, victory, remembrance), or that beauty itself has value.

As for those Orthodox who like to point out that the Patristic writers tended to read Genesis 1-3 rather literally, I also point out they were not materialistic scientists like we have today.  If we want to read the Patristic fathers as scientists then we have to embrace the science that everything in the universe is composed of fire, water, air and earth and that the human body consists of the four humors, for that is exactly what the Patristic writers believed scientifically – they accepted uncritically the ideas of science, all derived from pagan sources, as absolute truth.  I have to think that they would have equally accepted the ideas of modern science as uncritically because they weren’t writing as scientists but as theologians.

The limits of modern science – since it is based in atheistic materialism – have been noted by many different writers.   One such comment I read recently comes from Mark Schwehn  in his book  EXILES FROM EDEN subtitled “Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.”    Schwehn writes:

atomicbomb“The natural sciences can teach us what we must do if we wish to master life technically, but they cannot and hence should not consider the question of whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.  Jurisprudence can teach us which legal rule or procedure is best for attaining a given purpose but it cannot and should not consider whether there should be such purposes and procedures.  The historical and cultural sciences teach us to understand and interpret literary and social phenomenon but they dare not ask whether any given phenomena is worthwhile.  In sum academicians may clarify values but they dare not promulgate them within the walls of the academy.  They may teach you that if you believe x you must believe y and that if you want a given end you must also want certain inevitable means to it but they may never engage in ultimate questions of meaning without violating their vocational obligations.” 

doublehelixHuman reason can carry us only so far in gaining an understanding of the universe.  At some point pure facts and pure reason fail us in that they cannot convey with absolute certainty meaning, value, right and wrong, or good and bad.  Then humans have to turn their reason to other considerations in how to measure and evaluate the universe.   Some embrace religion.  Of course some then confuse religion with science.  They are not he same thing and do not give us the same sense of true, good and right.   DNA is factual and true but cannot be measured in and of itself in terms of right or wrong, good or evil.  Genetic engineering on the other hand raises questions about the meaning of life, good and evil, right and wrong for now we are using the facts for purposes and these purposes and uses are not mere facts and are not value neutral.  They have implications for all of life, for the future of humanity, for who survives and who doesn’t, for who rules and who is made subject, of who is valued and who isn’t. 

For me the bottom line is that God is true whether or not the Theory of Evolution is true.  Evolution cannot undo the truth about God.   Conversely if Evolution is true it is true whether or not there is a God.  God’s existence cannot undo the truth about the created world.   Science can tell us many things about what we can do in this world, but it cannot tell us whether or not we should do them.  That requires understanding the meaning of life and the truth about good and evil, right or wrong.   We cannot learn that solely from science.

The Open Mindedness Required to Believe in God

Some atheists and agnostics today ask why do believers continue to persist in believing in God, or even introduce God into discussions about the universe when the advances of science have time and time again managed to explain the universe in natural terms without having to introduce God into the picture/equation?  

One reason is that mystery still exists.   There are still a countless number of things that we do not understand about our world, our universe, our selves – on the cosmic scale and on the micro scale.  Even when science can offer explanations of how things work, there remains the question of why?  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why are we aware of our existence?  Why do things happen in the natural world that defy human logic? 

“Kamerlingh Omnes discovered the totally unsuspected property of superconductivity in 1911.  More than fifty years elapsed before it was explained.  It could not have been understood in 1911, since it is an intrinsically quantum mechanical phenomenon and modern quantum theory was then unknown.  It would have been foolish to have taken its mysterious character as a reason for denying its existence.”    (John Polkinghorne,  THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST)

The fact that there is mystery in the universe prompts the believer to use his or her creativity and aspirations to seek to understand the universe beyond the limits of science.  Scientific inquiry puts over us a ceiling and says we cannot understand anything beyond the empirical universe.  It is a ceiling that involves space, time, temperature, velocity, beyond which science cannot see.   Believers are not so limited because above that ceiling, the limits of scientific inquiry, and beyond space and time, we think there is more to the universe than can meet the eye.  We believe human aspiration is not leading  us to nothing but to something greater than ourselves and the empirical universe.

And just because our experience of the Divine leaves us with the sense of God’s mysteriousness, we do think it foolish to therefore deny the existence of a Creator.   Humanity has grown through history an ever increased capacity for abstract thinking.   This is obvious in the realm of algebra but also in physics.  Our worldview has changed and we have realized that things we thought were absolute truths which could not be transcended, have in fact been proven limited by further reflection and discovery.  Algebraic equations which at one time humans were sure could not be resolved, have in fact been resolved by the increased capacity for abstract thinking that has emerged in history.   The Newtonian science which allowed us to accomplish many great things has been shown to be limited and has been eclipsed by quantum mechanics.   And so, the believer, seeing this truth about human creativity and the growing capacity for abstract thinking, can imagine that even beyond our most sophisticated understanding, there is a logic in the universe which we have yet to grasp, and a Logician who said, “Let there be light” and what resulted was our ability to think beyond the limits of space and time. 

To be a believer in God requires one to be a lot more creative and open minded than being an atheist.  It requires embracing human aspiration and a level of abstract thinking which is not limited by the current theories of science.  Like Omnes, we see and experience that which humanity is not yet capable of comprehending.

Knowing God – St. Hilary of Poitiers

A quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers (4th Century AD), quoted by Olivier Clement in THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM ( a book I would highly recommend to everyone).

 “I began the search for the meaning of life.  At first I was attracted by riches and leisure… But most people discover that human nature wants something better to do than just gormandize and kill time.  They have been given life in order to achieve something worthwhile, to make use of their talents.  It could not have been given them without some benefit in eternity.  How otherwise could one regard as a gift from God a life so eaten away by anguish, so riddled with vexation, which left to itself would simply wear out, from the prattle of the cradle to the drivel of senility?  Look at people who have practiced patience, chastity and forgiveness.  The good life for them meant good deeds and good thoughts.  Could the immortal God have given us life with no other horizon than death?  Could he have inspired us with such a desire to live, if the only outcome would be the horror of death?   ….  Then I sought to know God better… I discovered the books which the Jewish religion says were composed by Moses and the prophets.  There I discovered that God bears witness to himself in these terms:   ‘I am who I am,’ and ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”‘ (Exodus 3:14).  I was filled with wonder at this perfect definition which translates into intelligible words the incomprehensible knowledge of God.  Nothing better suggest God than Being.  ‘He who is’ can have neither end nor beginning… and since God’s eternity cannot contradict itself, in order to assert his unapproachable eternity, God needed only to assert solemnly that he is.”