The debate between believers and unbelievers has been going on for centuries now. Of late, however, as Adam Gopnik argues in a brilliant essay, atheism has become an organized and “articulate movement.” In so doing it has been gaining pride of place in the minds of the cognoscenti.
So much so that it is nearly impossible, in such circles, to declare one’s faith in God.
Among the tools in atheism’s rhetorical armamentarium is the withering contempt it exhibits toward those who refuse to join its cause.
Gopnik sets the scene:
Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?
Gopnik is correct to see that atheists are strident. Clearly, they disrespect anyone who does not hew to their party line. He might have added that this rhetorical strategy is not only designed to stiffen the spines of those who might waver in their faithlessness. It intends to recruit people to militant atheism. It does not believe in or respect free will or the free expression of ideas.
Surely, Sigmund Freud was an unbeliever. Peter Gay labeled him a “godless Jew.” Yet, Jacques Lacan, also presumably an unbeliever, showed great respect for religious thinkers. He was right to do so. If you eliminate theologically based thinkers you have essentially erased all the greatest thinkers between, let’s say, Aristotle and Descartes. That’s nearly two millennia.
You cannot consider yourself to be a serious intellectual if you reject out of hand many of the greatest minds of Western Civilization.
In any case, Lacan once offered the following argument… for God. One day, Lacan said, Kepler discovered the formula that described the planetary orbits. He wrote it down and demonstrated its scientific accuracy.
And yet, Lacan continued, the planets were following that law before Kepler discovered it. They followed it after Kepler discovered it. The fact that Kepler wrote down a formula had no real impact on the law.
But then, if the law has an existence that is perfectly independent of whether any human mind can think it, where is it and who is thinking it?
You might well disagree with Lacan’s argument. You might believe that the planets move as they move … end of story. Yet, clearly they move in a specific and intelligible order, one that, as Lacan said, was following a rule.
It should be obvious that you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God by using the scientific method. Like ideas, God is metaphysical. As such, He does not belong to the domain of empirical realities that preoccupy scientists.
Philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn once opined that, after all is said and done, no one has ever seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea. When you or anyone else is not thinking about an idea the idea does not magically cease to exist.
We can measure what happens to the brain when it is thinking about this or that. We cannot measure or test the idea itself. If ideas exist when no human beings are thinking them, then they seem to have another type of existence, one that we normally call metaphysical.
You might find this to be slightly pie-in-the-sky, but, as I have posting for the past few days, if you eliminate metaphysical subjects and if you reduce all human behavior to brain activities, you also eliminate free will and responsibility.
As it happens, God’s most recent defenders have argued that a beautiful object could not have been produced by the random motion of molecules. You might ask yourself whether a computer program, given an infinite amount of time and an infinite number of random keystrokes, could produce Hamlet?
In principle, it would appear that it could do so. In practice, it does not feel quite so clear.
Or else, ask yourself whether nature can produce a work of art? Can you, walking along the beach, pick up a rock that would be a work of art? If this has never happened, why has it never happened? What is there about the human mind, exercising freedom, that can produce something that nature cannot produce?
Of course, we do not exclude that nature might never want or need to produce art.
Gopnik summarizes this argument:
It’s perfectly possible to believe that there are many things that will never be subjects of science without thinking that they are therefore objects of faith. Human beings are unpredictable. We can’t know what songs they will sing, what new ideas they will come up with, how beautifully they will act or how badly. But their subjective sensations do not supply them with souls. They just make them people. Since Darwin’s starting premise is that individual variation is the rule of nature, it isn’t surprising that the living things that are able to have experiences have them in varied and individual ways. The plausible opposite of “permanent scientific explanation” is “singular poetic description,” not “miraculous magical intercession.”
All of this is interesting, even compelling. It appeals to those who like to spend their time engaging in abstract philosophical arguments.
And yet, Gopnik is on firmer ground when he emphasizes the salient fact that the new atheism holds the faithful in contempt. One suspects that they adopt a shrill tone because they are trying to hide something.
Put aside for the moment the question of whether God exists. Forget about whether He was murdered by a syphilitic German philosopher a little over a century ago.
Now, recast the question in terms of track record. Look it pragmatically.
Western civilization goes back for millennia. Over the time that it has been extant it has accrued a track record. It has produced both good and bad. It is possible, though for now I will leave it to your imagination, to make up a tally of the good and bad that was produced by cultures that derived from Western civilization. That is, from Judeo-Christianity and its philosophical avatars. (We exclude pagan death cults like Nazism that were designed to destroy Judeo-Christianity.)
Were we to do so, we would probably agree that, in terms of protecting and providing for its human charges, Western civilization has produced more good than bad.
And now, try the same thought experiment for atheism. You will find, strangely enough, that however tough minded and pragmatic atheists think they are, they refuse to accept that it be judged by the results produced by militantly atheistic cultures.
After all, the track record of atheism is inescapably ugly… to the point of being horrific.
This suggests that militant atheists adopt a strident tone because they do not want you to think of what atheistic governments and cultures have wrought. Because, when it comes to atheism, the results are far more bad than good. They are very close to being all bad.
Gopnik lights on this point:
There do seem to be three distinct peaks of modern disbelief, moments when, however hard it is to count precise numbers, we can sense that it was cool to be a scoffer, trendy to vote “No!” One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own. A reactionary would point out, with justice, that each high point preceded a revolution that turned ugly enough to make nonbelief look bad. Very much like the Christians in the Roman Empire, the noes have had it most often less through numbers than through discipline and self-confidence and an ambition for power, even claiming, like Christians, the assent of a state: first Republican France, then the Soviet Union.
Does it matter that the American Revolution was directed people who had faith— perhaps a Deist faith, but faith nonetheless? For all we know, it does.
Did it matter that the French Revolution was directed by people who had proudly dispensed with the vulgar and ignorant superstitions of religious faith? For all you and I know, it did.
If religion can place America on the plus side of its ledger, we must give atheism credit for the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror.
But, how could such “rational” thinkers unleash the irrational passions of the Reign of Terror? Why did France need Napoleon to restore a semblance of order? For reason that are yet to be explained, the gauzy dreams of the supposedly rational atheists, when put into practice, produced something that was far, far different from what they had promised.
Are they still responsible for the practical consequences of their policies? You bet they are.
In more recent times, the greatest attempts to produce an atheist culture were undertaken in the Soviet Union and Communist China. How did that work out? It’s not just that the body count runs into nine figures—check out the Black Book of Communism—but, when placed next to the calamities and catastrophes that communism unleashed, its achievements are slim indeed. If the best you can offer is the Cuban medical system, you ought to hang it up.
Let’s not forget that the impetus for the overthrow of the Soviet Empire came from a shipyard worker in Poland. If we are giving Lech Walesa credit for his achievement, we must also hold up the shining example of Pope John Paul II. He is commonly and correctly given credit for inspiring people to turn away from the atheist culture of Communism.
Whatever you think of religion, it wasn’t an atheist who brought down the Soviet Union.
For now these are the most striking examples of the track record of atheism. Atheists have good reason to hide the record. But, you cannot just dissociate yourself from the consequences of your cultural policies because you say so. Surely, Mao Zedong did not intend for his Great Leap Forward to cause tens of millions of people to starve to death, but, indeed it did.
Mao tried to hide the truth with an insanely destructive Cultural Revolution, but eventually cooler heads prevailed and China returned to more traditional values and greater respect for religion, even for Confucianism.