TCS Daily

What's Good About Atheism

By Frederick Turner - November 2, 2006 12:00 AM

The recent small spate of atheist writings by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, noticed in the pages of Wired and The Guardian, revives an old and rather quaint controversy. It is one which, I believe, is good for religion; but to unearth the genuine value of atheist beliefs we need first to dispose of the clutter of illogic and absurd claims that have washed up around them over the years.

The figure of the village atheist is a rather comic one. He proves his superior intelligence by mocking the sheeplike conformity of the poor benighted believers. The old word "enlightened" has now been replaced by the word "bright" as the self-description of this sort of atheist. He is a variant of the "Cliffie the mailman" wonk who knows it all, or Sportin' Life the cynic in Porgy and Bess. An older version is Flaubert's character Homais the bourgeois anticlerical pharmacist in Madame Bovary, and an even older one is Thersites the scurrilous doubter in Shakespeare and Homer. Much pleased by their own originality, they take their mishaps as the martyrdom of the bold intellectual pioneer, and they have produced a group of arguments that should probably be taken apart.

One is that religious ideology is a unique inspirer of terrible wars. In the current perspective, such an opinion sounds plausible. But anyone with an historical sense will recognize that the few hundred people who die each month in religious conflicts are absurdly dwarfed by the tens of millions, almost all of them religious believers, who died, within living memory, under the savage atheistic regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and the various dialectical materialist dictators of eastern Europe. We have seen what atheism looks like on the large scale, and it is not pretty: the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields. Religion has indeed been a cause of appalling slaughter during the course of human history; but it must take fifth place behind atheist ideology, nation-state aggression, mercantile colonialist expansion, and tribal war in the carnage sweepstakes.

Another argument brought by the village atheist type is that to base one's life on faith is intellectual suicide. This argument might be persuasive if there were any alternative, but there is not. Reason is not a basis for thought, but a method of thought. Kurt Gödel showed conclusively that every system of reasoning contains self-referential statements of the form of "This statement is unprovable", which are correctly formed propositions that must be true or false, and must, if reason is fundamental, be provably one or the other. Analysis quickly shows that the statement must be true, but cannot be proved to be true. Reason is a process of proof, but reason is incapable of proving a certain true proposition, one that must take its place among the axioms of any logical system. Rationality cannot prove itself. The fundamental validity of reason therefore must be taken on faith; the only difference from a purely logical point of view between an atheist who believes in reason and a religious person who makes a primary act of faith is that the religious person recognizes the pre-logical basis of his beliefs, while the atheist does not.

If the village atheist dismisses this sort of thing as logic-chopping and takes his stand on the empirical down-to-earth evidence of the senses, the ground similarly disappears from under his feet. David Hume is rightly hailed as a hero of atheism, for his dismissal of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. But what his atheistic admirers miss is that his argument against empirical knowledge is even more devastating. Hume showed that the concept of cause has no logical necessity—that just because one event has often followed another, that does not mean that the same sequence must necessarily happen again, or that there is any necessary causal connection between them. Our expectation of causal connections in general, not just those that attribute the cause of events to God—is at best an emotional and practical habit. The religious person, by this logic, is actually more aware of the shaky basis of his commonsense than is the confident atheist.

Hume's insight has actually proved remarkably prescient. In Hume's time cause—courtesy of Newton's magnificent discovery of the predictability of matter in motion—was seen by the scientific-minded as the only true relationship among events. In questioning cause, Hume anticipated the current multitude of relations now known to obtain among physical happenings. Quantum events, such as the emission of a particle by a piece of radioactive matter, are to a large extent purely random. Quantum coherence is different from cause—it is more like the existence of a harmonic between two vibrating violin-strings than like anything we would call cause. Nonlinear dynamical systems are so tangled and often so autonomous in their interrelations that any assignment of cause becomes virtually theological. For the initial conditions of the current state of turbulence are irrecoverable and irrelevant, and the outcome is, beyond the immediate future, increasingly unpredictable even if we had perfect knowledge, a condition impossible in this universe. And since the assignment of cause is in empiricist terms provable only by successful prediction, whatever cannot be predicted cannot be proved to be caused. And even prediction is tainted in some parts of the universe by second-guessing, rational expectations, theories of mind and self-fulfilling prophecy. Living social organisms are always involved in wildly idiosyncratic predicting contests with each other whose results are ecosystems that are both influences of their own and freely reinvented year by year. Human minds are causes of their own causes, or else the whole structure of legal and moral responsibility, which has built societies that have greatly altered the surface of the planet, is an illusion. And if something can be a cause of its own cause, the meaning of the word "cause" has evaporated. So cause, which is the basis of any empirical understanding of the world, must in itself be taken on faith.

The village atheist might still retreat to the pragmatist position, that though the rationalist and empiricist arguments for a basis in reason may be perversely twisted to question themselves, nevertheless the practical application of reason in the real world actually works and maintains our survival. We may never know exactly what electricity is, or what causes it, but when we turn the car key the engine starts. True enough, but even the pragmatist argument falls down in its own terms. For if in the absence of logical or evidence-based proofs of reason, usefulness and survival are adopted as the basic criteria of what is reasonable, religion actually comes off looking much more practical than unbelief. Almost the whole of the human race for all of its history has had some kind of religion or other, and has, triumphantly, survived and prevailed. As I pointed out in an earlier essay about demographics, societies with strong religious beliefs tend to reproduce themselves more robustly than societies without the hope and faith to sacrifice for the future. Societies that have developed sophisticated theological systems have tended to develop sciences and advanced technologies as well, because of a fundamental theological belief that things make sense and that there is an underlying order to the world. Thus from a strictly Darwinian perspective—the ultimate practical expression of pragmatism (and one to which I subscribe), religion is a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, survival strategy. One can even set aside the statistics that show that religious people tend to be happier, more long-lived, richer, and get better sex. If, pragmatically, by their fruits ye shall know them, and truth is whatever gets you the goodies and continues your germ line, the atheist should try to hypnotize himself into being a believer.

But this is shooting fish in a barrel. There are, actually, many valuable correctives and important questions that are offered by the atheist perspective. One of them is an implication of one of Dawkins' favorite arguments against the rather feeble theist objection that you can't prove that God doesn't exist—you can't prove a negative. Dawkins triumphantly retorts that

"There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove, You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."

This argument actually isn't an argument against religious belief as such, any more than the presence of thousands of myths about the invention of fire or the succession of the seasons or the phases of the moon casts doubt on the existence of a fire-inventer or the terrestrial or lunar orbits. In fact the multitude of divine myths could be taken as weak evidence that something divine must be going on, or else all those people wouldn't have thought there was. There were thousands of beliefs about the healing powers of mosses and lichens and certain soils before penicillin and the antibiotic virtues of soil molds were discovered.

But Dawkins' argument does cogently address the great scandal of religious differences, especially the fanatical clinging to one particular metaphor of mysterious unseen powers. What the atheist critique implies is that the religions had better seriously get together on their stories, because their insistence on the factual certainty of their own versions is both a cause of justifiable skepticism and a justification at the extreme of suicide bombers and the massacre of innocents.

Valuable also is the moral lesson of atheism. Virtuous atheists actually have a stronger claim to real goodness than virtuous Christians, Jews, or Muslims, because there can be no taint of cupboard love in their obedience to the moral law. They do not believe in a reward for goodness, and thus must love goodness for its own sake. The challenge to religious people is that they ought to do the good as if there were no afterlife, no heaven, no reward. God does not get a reward for all the good things he does, and if we are supposed to become as much the image of God as we can, as we are told in the scriptures, then we should seek out that life of love and service that is its own reward.

Atheism also challenges religious people to take nature seriously. Atheists like to point out that religious accounts of the creation and maintenance of the universe are often wretchedly totalitarian, and they find it easy to refute the idea of the first cause. If something ordered always needs a creator, and if God is ordered, they say, who created God? Was it gods all the way down? Can something reasonably create itself? Cosmological physics, as I pointed out some time ago in a piece on evolution here, has rather taken the wind out of the sails of this argument, because it is now forced to postulate trillions of universes with every possible set of initial conditions before the Big Bang—a mess perhaps even more in need of Occam's Razor than the postulation of a self-creating creator. If indeed every possible configuration of universes must have coexisted with this one, presumably at least one of them must have been so put together as to constitute, by sheer chance, a gigantic beneficent Intelligence capable of manipulating all of its own constituents and creating from them an ordered universe like our own. So the only current viable non-theistic theory of the origin of the cosmos virtually mandates a beneficent creator somewhere that would look an awful lot like God.

But setting aside such rhetorical fun with our atheist friends, there is an imaginative delight in the naturalism of the atheists that has been lost to Christians, Jews and Muslims at least since the renaissance, and which maybe ought to be brought back. If religious people genuinely believe that God is responsible for the existence of the universe, then they must take into their religious consciousness and conscience, as the renaissance did, those aspects of nature that attract atheists away from any parochial little set of tribal myths. Religious people must undergo the shock of Job, who after those sophistical little squabbles about sin and blame and justification must suddenly see the universe in all its terrifying glory, the grandeur of Leviathan and Behemoth, the mysteries of the womb, the joy of the horse and the ostrich, the glitter of the Pleiades. We know now that there are millions of planets circling alien suns out there. Some, perhaps many, harbor forests, oceans where their own leviathan swims, perhaps even alien civilizations with histories and stories and religions of their own. Beyond the old question--What is man that thou art mindful of him?—there is the further implication that God has let everything go its own way, that the universe is free to create and generate itself, and that God values this wild autonomy. Evolution is not a disproof of God, but it may be an indication of the lengths to which he will go to let his creation live out its own genius and destiny. What generosity, to so delegate his creative power, to relish diversity and strangeness and above all freedom so very highly!

Frederick Turner is a TCS Contributing Editor and the author of Natural Religion.


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