To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Dec 21, 2014
For the next two blogs, I look at the fascinating Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan, by turns an interesting and a frustrating guide to one aspect of the topic – the embrace of atheism by those fleeing fundamentalism.
Before I get to McGowan’s book, I want to offer some criticisms of modern atheism. It seems to me that it is a combination of materialism, anti-intellectualism and science-writing treated as if it were religious doctrine.
And before I describe the positive things in McGowan’s book, I want to say some critical things about his reasoning, his anti-intellectualism, and the approach he uses. I think it hides the true reasons why people turn to McGowan’s type of fundamentalist atheism.
Atheism and Unreason
It has been said that humans were born to believe – evolution made us so.
Clearly, there is something to such a view. But there is a rub: to the extent that it is true, it applies equally well to beliefs about in materialism and to an embrace of secularism as it does to religion.
It we look at atheism and materialism as a faith, then we can also look at it from the perspective of the history of a faith. And it looks something like this: The 19th century was the heady age of the dawning of atheism and materialism, the 20th century was the age of its fruition (communism, logical positivism, Arabic socialism, and all that), and the 21st century is the age of disillusionment, the age of the loss of faith. (Simplistic? Yes, but helpful nonetheless.)
And accompanying this loss of faith? Could it be a stubborn, unreasoned grasping at creeds that once seemed so clear and solid? Is this why modern atheism is so irrational, so unfriendly to objectivity, so at odds with the scientific spirit it claims to embrace?
Consider the writings of A.C. Grayling, Stephen Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, their methodology “consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” This isn’t a sign of strength, confidence, or certainty – it is a failure to engage or to cope.
In contrast, those who embrace both science and religion seem confident and comfortable with scientific ways of thinking and comfortable with religion, combining a ready awareness of religion’s foibles with an embrace of its strengths and an acknowledgement of its extraordinary diversity. Something happens when science and religion come together.
Perhaps a diagram conveys more than words.
Consider the traditional physicist’s vision of reality as diagrammed to the left. Newton would be comfortable seeing things this way. At the bottom of the diagram, there is the reality of matter – the stuff of stars, of interstellar space, of minerals, of rocks, and of the ocean. Next and above there is the reality of living things, something that includes the reality of organic things – which are made of matter – and the reality of various types of plants and organisms. Higher in complexity are animals. They incorporate the reality of matter, organisms below animals, as well as the realities of the animal kingdom. Above that – incorporating the human, animal, plant, and material realities – is the world of human reality. And above that? The superhuman reality (super means above). It includes the realities of the material world, the plant world, the animal world, the human world, and in addition, a reality that transcends the human world. [Note: This is only a picture, so don’t worry if the details are a bit off according to modern biology].
The materialist’s world – the atheist’s reality – is a truncated version of this larger picture embraced by those who admit to both science and religion. For the materialist, the superhuman world is out of bounds – it is inadmissible. (If you’re a materialist, this raises some interesting questions. Does money, something often without a material reality, actually exist? If so, where?)
Contrast this truncated perspective with the views of the science and religion crowd. This crowd willingly entertains the idea that there may be a reality above the human or animal kingdom – they aspire to a larger and much grander picture of reality. There is, of course, no money-back guarantee that every resulting vision is going to be better or more wonderful than any given materialist’s vision, but it is clear that the materialist’s views are necessarily much more limited in scope.
And there are implications to this. Materialists aren’t open to a bigger picture of things. One effect is that they are forced by their belief system into viewing religion in a cynical way – they must see it as a story, as an invention, as a lie, as a primitive grasping at scientific facts, or at best as a convenient fiction.
But the other side of the coin is that if materialism is indeed a belief system, then it is likely to be embraced and defended in the same way that religious belief systems are defended. What this means is that all the bad things – the lack of reasonableness, blind adherence to outmoded creeds, the whole body of accusations thrown at the religious and the religions be it justly or unjustly – also applies to those embracing materialism as a belief system. And indeed, the history of 19th and 20th centuries, especially the tragic experiences of Germany, Russia, and China, strongly suggest that materialism is such a belief system, one much more terrible in its consequences than anything the modern religious terrorist can implement. All religious-inspired tragedies pale into insignificance when confronted with the immensity of the horrors wrought in the 19th and 20th centuries by materialist faiths.
Dale McGowan, as an atheist and a materialist, holds to this mold – I describe some of the ways below. But the interesting thing about McGowan’s book is not his philosophical expositions – which are uniformly flippant and unpersuasive – but rather his discussion of the need for community for those who find themselves embracing the atheist creed. But that is the topic for next week’s blog.
What Atheists Do and Don’t Believe
Atheism for Dummies is part of the renowned Dummies series. It’s author, Dale McGowan, is a former professor of music now active as an inspirational speaker for atheist and humanist organizations, a writer, and the director of a charitable organization.
McGowan paints atheists as open and questioning people who have freed themselves from blind belief. In Chapter 3, he explains why people are attracted to atheism. Promisingly, he starts out by invoking Santa Claus:
As the child grows and learns more about the world, the answers become less satisfying, and the urge to know the truth starts to overtake the will to believe. That’s when the direct question comes at last: Is Santa real?
By offering a universe that cares for everyone after all, and by canceling death, the idea of a loving God solves many of the deepest human problem. When it comes to God, the will to believe can be so overwhelming that most people never cross the threshold into the will to actually find out. Whatever doubts they have are easily shooed away by the religious equivalents « magic corn.
This, of course, sounds convincing. It is true that ideologies – and religious belief systems that have collapsed into ideologies – do serve as a way to avoid thinking. He continues:
Those who are able to cross that threshold find that they’re able to revisit the many questions they had shooed away so easily while their will to believe was strongest — questions about good and evil, meaning and purpose, life and death — and to see them in a whole new light. Many end up coming to the conclusion that the God hypothesis just doesn’t fare well in that light, and that it’s much more likely that humanity lives in a natural universe without gods.
But notice the ideological flourishes – “the God hypothesis”, “a natural universe without gods.” And it is striking that he doesn’t mention – and perhaps fails to understand – that many have gone or will go through the reverse process – i.e., starting from an atheistic childhood in the Soviet bloc, China, and other like-minded parts of the world, and coming to realize that religion is not what sometimes all-powerful authorities decreed it to be.
His discussion of confirmation bias, and his failure to recognize that the concept applies equally well to those under the spell of materialism, brings the point home:
Confirmation bias is the human tendency to see things the way you prefer, and it’s the single biggest obstacle to getting at the truth in any area of life. It leads people to notice and accept evidence that seems to support their beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.
That’s one of the central problems many people notice when they first begin to look closely at religion — that the claims and conclusions of the faith so often play to the preferences of the faithful in a really big way.
Confirmation bias – of course – is a two-way street, and it can also cause both atheists and religionists to see only what they want to see. And very often what atheists see is very simplistic. I notice it again and again: a writer’s view of religion becomes frozen in time at a certain point, typically in their youth, when they see religion a certain way and reject it. From then on, they absolutely refuse to learn anything more about religion except derogatory or negative things.
McGowan’s take on the Hebrew Bible provides an excellent illustration of how simplistic beliefs can strongly color the way atheists see things. Read the Bible, he urges, and
… in the middle of Genesis, you’ll encounter the stories of two fathers and their children. Both fathers behave with astonishing cruelty toward their kids and – here’s the thing – both are immediately praised and awarded by God. Worse than that, God even ordered one of those cruel acts.
He then argues, on the basis of some extraordinarily labored interpretations, that the new Testament “commands to kill homosexuals, disobedient children, and nonbelievers, and to enslave and kill the people of neighboring countries.” It, of course, does no such thing.
Given that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of stories written down by priests over a period of hundreds of years that tell about the evolution of God’s relationship with the Jewish people through extremely troubled and cruel times, why does McGowan insist on such an uninformed and extremist literalist reading and thus such skewered interpretations? It’s hard not to conclude that he is in thrall to confirmation bias.
Atheist for Dummies on Evolution
When McGowan comes to evolution, things don’t get any better. After a really short explanation of natural selection, he then concludes that it proves that belief in God can be abandoned. Here is his argument:
Evolution uprooted the tree of traditional religion in several ways. But perhaps the strongest blow was to the argument from design. For thousands of years, everyone from theologians to the person in the street found the complexity of life to be the strongest argument for the existence of God. Now a powerful, simple, natural explanation was available, one that presented fewer problems than an uncreated Creator.
In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins described the importance of evolution to atheism. Before Darwin, an atheist may have said, “God’s a poor explanation for complex biology, but I don’t have a better one.” That’s a pretty unsatisfying position to be in. But Darwin’s theory made it possible to be what Dawkins called “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The single most compelling reason to believe in God could finally be set aside with confidence.
The logic of this argument is straight-forward:
A. People believe in God because of the argument from design.
B. Darwin found an argument that doesn’t require design
C. Therefore there is no need to believe in God.
And knocking it down is even more straight-forward:
Counterargument A. There is little or no evidence that the argument from design was meaningful for anybody outside a few educated folks in early 19th century England, so people, generally-speaking, don’t believe in God because of the argument from design.
Counterargument B. Contrary to what many people think, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism – random variation and natural selection – is indeed a design argument. Ask any modern internet entrepreneur – or even an economist – and they will tell you that if you want to design a phenomenally successful system like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a capitalist economy, create one that use large numbers (of people, things, stocks in your mutual fund) and then introduce selection processes. It’s an extremely effective way to design certain types of systems.
Variation and selection using large populations is not only an extraordinarily successful way to design things, its essential to our modern economies. So, evolution is indeed an argument from design, just not a Newtonian argument for design.
Counterargument C. So if neither A nor B is true, C doesn’t follow. And unfortunately, we can’t say that two negatives add up to a positive. You can believe if you want, but there is no logic, philosophy, or science that supports your belief.
And of course, the idea that a natural explanation – evolutionary or otherwise – of how life and humanity came into being somehow undermines belief in God is simply not true – nor is it all that informed or even rational. Indeed, the ready availability of rational natural explanation of things – the Book of Nature as opposed to the Book of God – has long been a bulwark of religious belief.
But, as I said, McGowan’s arguments for atheism are unconvincing. His real strength is in addressing the needs of people who have left the social network provided by religious communities and have found that they are missing something very important.
In the next blog, we talk about some of the positive features of Atheism for Dummies.
This is the 28th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.