Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Hubris of Atheism?

Rod Dreher, writing at Beliefnet, relays Daniel Larison's critique of Heather MacDonald's claim of being a conservative atheist. Although that juxtaposition of religious and political beliefs isn't terribly interesting to me, I do find interesting the explanation he gives to explain his surprise that someone otherwise so correct-thinking could be an atheist.

According to Rod:

When I was in college, I noticed something annoying: that the writers and thinkers throughout history that seemed wisest about life and how to live it were men who believed in God. They didn't believe in God in the same way -- Kierkegaard's God is not the same as Dostoevsky's, if you follow me -- but they all believed in God. At the time, I counted myself an agnostic, and I couldn't get away from the feeling that I was missing something. If Kierkegaard believed in God -- indeed, if most educated men throughout history have believed in God -- then maybe I was the one with the unsustainable presumption. Eventually this nagging thought helped drive me toward reconsidering theism, and ultimately to Christianity.

That two famous existentialists believed in a god... I'm not sure of the relevance. Was Satre any less wise because he didn't? Or for that matter, why is Rod so preoccupied with Western thinkers? Surely he's aware of the vast schools of thought founded by Lao Tzu and Siddhartha Gautama, both without any conception of a god? Oh well, let's grant him his Western preoccupation- the tradition of atheism began with great thinkers like Socrates and Epicurus, but was soundly squashed by the growing political influence of the Christian church. During this period of complete political domination by Christian influence, is it any wonder that so few thinkers felt intellectually free enough to investigate atheism? It was only during the Enlightenment that people became liberated enough to challenge Christianity, with thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Hobbes, and Marlowe, which spawned the first glimmers of atheism in America in men such as Jefferson and Franklin.

But ultimately the listing of names on either side is a futile endeavor, predicated on the false assumption that "If Smart Person X believes Y, then Y must be true." This is an obvious appeal to authority, and can easily be turned on its head by pointing out the many stupid people throughout history that have believed X. And yet Christianity, as a memetically-propelled belief, takes this tack foundationally to assert itself time and time again. As Daniel Larison explains:

Perhaps the most stunning thing about atheism is the sheer presumption of it. I don’t mean simply the presumption against God, which would be enough in itself, but the presumption that you and a few other adventurous souls have figured out something that the vast majority of mankind has never known about a subject for which the atheist can obviously have no empirical evidence one way or the other.

Notice the sheer amazement in which he reels, trying to grasp the audacity of an atheist to disagree with others. Maybe this is why scientists tend to be atheistic more than the general population- the nature of science makes us relatively less reluctant to draw an unpopular conclusion. But I also find the last line fascinating- that he points out the lack of empirical evidence for or against the existence of a deity. I'll grant him that point, only to explore the obvious rebuttal: why is it any less shocking for a Christian, who is also without empirical evidence, to believe?

To which Daniel has a handy (and overused) answer:

If man does not flourish in a godless regime, and if godless regimes have a record of unusually great barbarity and human cruelty, it does at the very least suggest that religion aids in human flourishing and probably has some moderating effect on the use of political power.

The implication here is, of course, Soviet Russia or China as an example of "godless regimes." And I don't think that I need to make the point here that there is little practical difference between a totalitarian regime like Stalin's and a theocracy (in the latter, other people speak for the leader), but I should point out the resounding success of America. America was founded without any official religion, with a Constitution devoid of any deference to a deity's power or influence, and has developed as a country where its citizens are (supposed to be) free of any official influence of religion. If America isn't a success story of the values of the Enlightenment, I don't know what is.

So, I would suggest that perhaps a closer, more subtle reading of history is in order for all who think that religion can be proved correct strictly on pragmatic grounds, and a better understanding of logic is in order for all who think that others can do their thinking for them.

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At 1/19/2007 12:26 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

Good one! "Smart person X believes the Earth is flat. Therefore, the Earth is flat."



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