Monday, July 16, 2007

Atheism Is Important

From Opinion Journal:

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, in less than 12 months atheism's newest champions have sold close to a million books. Some 500,000 hardcover copies are in print of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" (2006); 296,000 copies of Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (2007); 185,000 copies of Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation" (2006); 64,100 copies of Daniel C. Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"; and 60,000 copies of Victor J. Stenger's "God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does not Exist" (2007).

How heartening to see that the atheist push is so worrisome to religionists that they are trying to deflect the blow.

And unlike the anti-modern atheism of Nietzsche and Heidegger, which regarded the death of God as a catastrophe for the human spirit, the new new atheism sees the loss of religious faith in the modern world as an unqualified good, lamenting only the perverse and widespread resistance to shedding once and for all the hopelessly backward belief in a divine presence in history.

So Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the rest have some fair claim to novelty. But not where it really counts. They contend that from the vantage point of the 21st century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and the achievements of natural science, we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud.

I'm not exactly sure how this works logically--my husband could explain the true basis for it. The existence of a supernatural power that cannot be detected through human perception is impossible to prove or disprove. Logically, I believe, positing the existence of an 'unknowable' god, is an arbitrary assertion. The new knowledge of science helps us to understand that things a previous generation believed had no other explanation than a super-natural one are now scientific and knowable to humans. Based on that experience, there is no reason to believe that everything previously ascribed to supernatural motives is scientifically based.

At the same time, Mr. Hitchens has next to nothing to say about the historical role of religion, particularly Christianity, particularly in America, in nourishing the soil in which our widely and deeply shared beliefs in liberty, democracy and equality took root and grew strong....

Actually, I've always believed that the founding fathers relied a great deal on the ancient philosophers. Religion, as was practiced by the founding fathers, had been around for a long time and yet no other government was so well conceived.

Nor is his case bolstered by his observation that 20th-century totalitarianism
took on many features of religion. That only brings home the need to distinguish, as Mr. Hitchens resolutely refuses to do, between authentic and corrupt, and just and unjust, religious teachings. And it begs the question of why the 20th-century embrace of secularism unleashed human depravity of unprecedented proportions.

Of course, here Hitchens is right. The secular totalitarian beliefs are like a religion--in that they are both forms of philosophy. Of course, there are good and bad philosophies! Both religion, communism, and fascism require sacrifice of the self--i.e. altruism--for god, the so-called common good, and the state, in that order. That all sounds pretty bad to me. In denying the individual, all of these philosophies (or religions) fail to provide a life worth living for instead of a death worth living for, other people worth living for, or a government worth living for!

As for his claim that the Bible abounds in falsehood and contradiction, Mr. Hitchens makes great sport with an old straw man.

Because you're not a fundamentalist, your general belief system cannot be challenged in challenging the bible. Hmm. That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Where did your religious beliefs come from, then? Let's face it, all judeo-christian religious beliefs should be based in the bible. If they are not based in the bible, they are just sprouting from someone's head with no authority (except for the number of people who believe it--and numbers do not equal truth). Certainly, if the ideas are not based in the bible, then they are truly arbitrary and easily dismissed. If your belief systems ARE based in the bible, then attacking any part of the bible easily attacks all of your religious beliefs. There would be no reasonable way of distinguishing your preferred part of the bible from the stuff you're dismissing.

In making his case that reason must regard faith as an enemy to be wiped out, Mr. Hitchens declares Socrates's teaching that knowledge consists in knowing one's ignorance to be "the definition of an educated person." And yet Mr. Hitchens shows no awareness that his atheism, far from resulting from skeptical inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise from which his inquiries proceed, and that it colors all his observations and determines his conclusions.

This is a very astute point by Mr. Berkowitz. One either knows things through one's perceptions and use of reason or one knows things by faith. Once one claims faith is the epistemology, then reason is thrown out the window. You can't claim reason occasionally (for the things that you think are OK) and faith for every other thing. If reason is the appropriate epistemology, then faith is invalid. You can either know things through reason, or be fed them through religion. The two are incompatible. Thus reason is not dogmatic--it is proved through it's own use. It is only faith, which cannot be contradicted or backed up by evidence, that is truly dogmatic.

At the same time, by treating all religion as one great evil pathology, today's bestselling atheists suppress crucial distinctions between the forms of faith embraced by the vast majority of American citizens and the militant Islam that at this very moment is pledged to America's destruction.

When using faith for determining knowledge, there is no distinction--only what faith one has decided one likes best. Only the use of reason and most people's half-hearted religious belief (they cannot be true believers of faith when reason has showed how wrong it can be, but cling to faith like a security blanket for anything else they like), thanks to the rennaisance, have kept most Americans from literal belief in the bible. There is no ability to 'reason with' a person who's epistemology is faith-based. That is why people who use reason are aghast to discover whole segments of the population eschew it. How ironic that the only way to defend religion is to point out how much of it has already been moderated by reason.

Like philosophy, religion, rightly understood, has a beginning in wonder. The most wonderful of creatures are human beings themselves. Of all the Bible's sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings--woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes--are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

One does not need religion to feel great about being human. I am an atheist and I believe that man's rational mind has allowed us great progress and wonderful experiences.

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women--a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation--is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

Ayn Rand offered a truly compelling alternative in Objectivism. Dignity of men was not the sole purview of Christian religion. One can trace such thoughts back to ancient times.

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