Vic Reppert on Misconceptions about Atheism

Vic Reppert sent me a link to his Dangerous Idea Blog where he discusses Sam Harris’s effort to debunk misconceptions about atheism:

Vic’s comments are generally even-handed. He often takes heat from some of his nuttier correspondents for not being mean enough to us atheists, and I admire his commitment to fairness. I do have a few bones to pick, though. Below are listed some of the assertions that Harris argues are myths about atheism and atheists, followed by Vic’s comments. I have interpolated my own responses:

1) Atheists believe life is meaningless.

Reppert: Well, it depends which atheist you talk to. Sartre and Camus seemed to look at atheism as the basis for believing in the absurdity of life. It seems to me that atheism, or rather a full-blown naturalism, removes the possibility of finding the correct meaning to life. Whether this is a biggie or not, I suppose, depends on the person. The trouble with meaninglessness of life arguments on the part of theists is that you don’t want to be telling someone who finds life meaningful by, say, doing evolutionary biology, that their life only appears meaningful to them but really isn’t. Other people, however, might be psychologically disposed to be unable to find meaning in a godless world. It is natural, and not unhealthy, to crave the kind of ultimate meaning that Christianity, for example provides. It may be unfortunate, however, if it turns out that God does not exist. However, I do have trouble seeing the kind of reforming moral energy found in people like Gandhi, King, or Mother Teresa, without religion.

Parsons: Vic says that “it is natural, and not unhealthy, to crave the kind of ultimate meaning that Christianity…provides.” It what sense does Christianity provide a kind of “ultimate” meaning unavailable to the naturalist? Is it that Christianity assures the believer of salvation and eternal life? The fear of death is natural, and so, perhaps, is the desire to escape death by passing into a different kind of life (e.g., Valhalla, Elysium, heaven). Such desires are as natural as a child’s wish to be instantly grown up or a computer geek’s yearning to have sex with Angelina Jolie. Unfulfillable desires are often natural and not unhealthy, provided that they do not become obsessive. What happens, though, when you begin to “crave” (Vic’s word) what you cannot have? Either, (a) you will experience intense frustration, or (b) you will mislead yourself into thinking that, after all, you can have what you cannot. Atheists, of course, hold that Christians opt for (b) and comfort themselves with anodyne delusions of eternal bliss. Atheists hold that it is far healthier to admit the finality of our mortality and therefore to commit ourselves to making the most of this one life. It merely begs the question against atheism to fault it with failure to cater to people’s natural craving for an afterlife. If atheists are right that there is no life after death, then people need to follow atheist’s advice and courageously accept the facts of mortality.

Further, a great deal of the craving for Christianity’s “blessed assurance” is artificially created—not a product of natural desire, but of Christian preaching and teaching. Ardor for Christian salvation is best achieved by painting the torments of hell in the most lurid lights and by vigorously inculcating an exaggerated feeling of sinfulness. Today, even some TV preachers eschew hell-and-damnation preaching, preferring the Feel Good Gospel (Christianity Lite. e.g. Joel Osteen). Hell-and-damnation really works, though, as James Joyce attests in his devastating exposé of an Irish Catholic education, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You set impossibly high standards (No dirty thoughts!) and make people feel terribly guilty about failing to meet those standards. You also represent the consequences of unredeemed sinfulness in the most terrifying light (One of the Jesuit fathers in Portrait of the Artist preaches a sermon on hell that surpasses Stephen King’s talent for horrific depiction). Then you teach that the ONLY way to relieve yourself of the awful burden of guilt and fear is to go to the priest and get absolution. For a while life is wonderful, until, inevitably, those nasty thoughts and the concomitant guilt creep back in, and then you have to go back to the priest for another forgiveness fix. By these means a lifelong dependency is created. Martin Luther called the Church a whore; a pusher would be a better comparison. Protestants, of course, use variations of the same trick. The atheist, on the other hand, decides to go cold turkey. By foregoing both the fear of hell and the exaggerated sense of sinfulness, the atheist does not crave the drug the Church offers.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in history.

Repppert: No, atheism doesn’t kill people, people kill people. And some of the killers are atheists. Others are not. It is true that atheists do not believe in the sort of deity who disapproves of these crimes and will hold them accountable if they are not punished for them in this life.Harris says that these regimes are bad because they are too dogmatic. But religion doesn’t have a monopoly on dogmatism. There are dogmatic Christians, not so dogmatic Christians, dogmatic atheists, and not so dogmatic atheists. The desire to employ the power of the state to support either religion on anti-religion is what puts you in danger of abusing that power. That can happen to you if you are a believer or an unbeliever.

Parsons: Vic is right that any ideology, secular or religious, is dangerous when it employs the power of the state to impose its dogmas and stifle dissent. I would add that Eric Hoffer was right in The True Believer when he said that extremist ideologies adopt a 100% mentality: Either you are with us 100% or you are evil and must be eliminated. When such an extremist ideology acquires political power, you have a formula for genocide and other crimes against humanity. The greatest crimes of history were committed by followers of the various totalitarianisms of the 20th Century—Nazism, Soviet Communism, and Maoism. It is this fact, and the fact that some of these ideologies were militantly atheistic, that leads some religious apologists (like Alister McGrath) to make charges against atheism. Yet atheism per se is no more responsible for Stalinist terror than theism per se is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the historical template for 20th Century secular totalitarianism was the 16th and 17th Century Church. The Church at the time of Galileo had a Gestapo that imprisoned and tortured suspected dissidents (the Holy Inquisition), an elite, fanatical SS guard (the Jesuits), book burning and strict censorship of dissenting ideas (the Index of Prohibited Books), demonized, persecuted minorities (Jews, “witches,” “heretics”), a highly centralized governing body (the Pope and the Curia), and a policy of militant expansionism. Given this paradigm, 20th Century totalitarians had only to “improve” on the model.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Reppert: No, it isn’t dogmatic. But atheists can be. As I tried to argue on an evolution forum once, I think it’s absurd to make the sort of claim that atheists often make, that there is no evidence for theism. There are a lot of things in our world that are more likely given theism than atheism, and therefore there are things that you can set in the scale on the side of theism. Now I can see someone saying, when all the Bayesian calculations are done, that atheism is better confirmed than theism. But to say there is nothing to be said for theism evidentially? That’s dogmatic.We might want to ask Harris the question I once asked Keith P

arsons. “Suppose I were God, and I wanted to get you, Keith, to have a justified belief in me. What would I have to do?” Keith, memorably, replied by saying “If the stars in the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words ‘Turn or Burn, This Means You Parsons,’ I’d turn.” If Harris says he wouldn’t turn, maybe we have reason to suspect dogmantism.

Parsons: Actually, it was all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster, not the stars, but that is a pedantic point. Are atheists being dogmatic when they deny that there is any evidence for theism? Not if they carefully examine the best arguments and the purported evidence and conclude, after a conscientious investigation, that it does not amount to anything. This is what atheists like J.L. Mackie, Michael Martin, Graham Oppy, and Nicholas Everitt do. They examine what they take to be the best arguments for theism, and find that they are without merit. But to state blithely that “There are a lot of things in our world that are more likely given theism than atheism…” either dismisses or disagrees with the arguments of these atheists. If their arguments are dismissed, that is being dogmatic. If Vic disagrees with the atheists, as I’m sure he does, then tacitly admits that these are arguable points, as indeed they are. If it is arguable that there is no evidence for God, then to make that assertion, and back it with argument, is not being dogmatic.

4) Atheists think everything arose by chance.

Reppert: If by that you mean that this is a world without design, then that is what they do believe. However, is it just chance that your heart is in the right place, meaning that in an atheist universe it could just as easily be in your rear end or just beside your nose? No atheists don’t have to believe that.

Parsons: Ditto.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Reppert: Again, it depends on what you mean. If you mean to say that atheism follows necessarily from anything science might have discovered, then the statement is true. If you mean that there are no arguments from science to atheism, of course not. But before we start comparing polls, as Harris does, we’ve first got to understand if the conception of God in both polls is the same. Also, science groups are just as subject to intellectual peer pressure as anyone else. It’s not clear that members of the National Academy of Sciences are more reliable than the rest of us humans when they are operating “off the clock.”

Parsons: Had you polled the members of the most prestigious scientific bodies of 200 years ago, practically every member would have been a theist. Why the shift from, say, 93% theists in 1809 to 93% nontheists in 2009 among the most prestigious scientists? To attribute the shift to “peer pressure” only prompts the further question of the source or grounds of that pressure. Of course, Philip Johnson and the ID crowd say that a cabal of militantly naturalistic ideologues has imposed its metaphysical dogmas on science. Conspiracy theories are always fun. In reality, if you look at discussions of scientific methodology in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, you see that even devout scientists recommended a methodological naturalism. They emphasized that science (or “natural philosophy” as it was still known) have recourse only to “secondary,” i.e., natural causes, and leave discussion of the “primary” cause, i.e., God, to the theologians. The disappearance of vitalism in biology in the early 20th Century was the extinction of the last spark of supernaturalism in respectable science. I had a professor of chemistry in college who was a terrific chemist by day and a fundamentalist zealot the rest of the time. In the lab or classroom, he was the perfectly serious scientist. If you had suggested that your equation did not balance because of a miraculous suspension of the laws of conservation, he would have laughed heartily while marking you wrong. Once he took off the lab coat, however, he entered a magical, mythical, miraculous realm where snakes could talk, seas would part on command, and 5000 could be fed with a few loaves and fishes (so much for conservation laws!). I once asked him whether he actually believed in evil spirits and he affirmed that Satan and his imps hovered about all the time, seeking to tempt and ensnare us, and that, if we could see them, we would be terrified by their presence. Somehow he managed the trick of living in scientific reality half of the time and in fundamentalist cloud-cuckoo-land the other half of the time. I think that most people would have a very hard time maintaining such an extreme mental bifurcation, and maybe this is why scientists tend towards naturalism in their personal as in their professional lives.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

Reppert: They can be. I’ve met some arrogant ones, and some that aren’t nearly so arrogant. They don’t recognize the existence of anyone superior to themselves to whom they are accountable. Harris’s arguments here assume Russell’s maxim that “What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” Why science provides us with the only way of knowing anything is not at all clear to me. Whether science is, as Sellars said, the measure of all things, or as C. S. Lewis said, a truncated mode of thinking, is the subject of epistemological and metaphysical debate.

Parsons: I’m always curious when I hear people saying that there are “other ways of knowing” besides science (broadly construed, I assume, to incorporate both mathematical and natural sciences). What are these “other ways of knowing”? Perhaps our aesthetic or ethical judgments are of a different sort than the inferences we make in science. Philosophers often make appeals to intuition, something scientists seldom do. While I regard intuitions as having some prima facie evidential value, I think philosophers tend to put far too much stock in them. Our intuitions are a good place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a terrible place to end one. Generally, when people loudly deny that science is the “measure of all things,” or say that science is a “truncated mode of reasoning,” they are grinding an ax for some form of revelation. What are the credentials of revelation? The sheer multiplicity and diversity of purported revelations makes them all suspect. As Mark Twain said, “Mankind has discovered the One True Religion—lots of ‘em.” Therefore when someone asserts with ringing assurance that his purported revelation is the one true one, and that all others are false and their adherents deluded chumps, I have to wonder who is really being arrogant here.