Warm, cuddly atheists

The Knife likes to argue a bit, like most people, in the sense of debating a position, rather than having a fight. One of the regular arguments, over a very long time, has been in relation to both the existence, or otherwise, of God, and the associated issue of religious belief. Nothing new in that, it is of course, one of the biggies.

As it happens, the views of  Richard Dawkins, while they’ve made him a very rich man, seem to be losing their appeal in the media, partly because of a certain emptiness and fudging, and partly because of the screechy, strident and abusive techniques which he and his acolytes employ. I met a Professor of Theology not long ago, who had extended an open invitation – at a very prestigious institution – to Dawkins to debate his thing, but ever since he got burnt by the American,  William Lane Craig, Dicky has been very wary of being put on the spot, coming out with lame excuses along the lines of “I’m washing my hair that night”.

Anyway, my main point is that there are numerous threads in arguments of this kind, and it is pretty difficult to bring them all together concisely. The Knife would therefore like to recommend Melanie Phillips’ superb article in the excellent Standpoint magazine, which is brimming with intellectual rigour and superb prose. It is taken from a recent lecture to a Jewish audience, and is the subject of her book A World Turned Upside Down.

Ms Phillips made the classic journey from left to right quite a while ago, and is an unashamed defender of Israel, whilst not blind to the faults of that state. As a consequence, while she appeals to The Knife, she gets the proverbial bucket of shit poured on her by the Guardian crowd and the audience, when she nobly appears on Question Time on the BBC, but she does it anyway. As a precise, highly intelligent and well informed speaker, she is very difficult to beat intellectually, hence the bucket.

I recommend the whole article, which is online, but a few chunks:

This assumption is based on a further given: that in the West this is the age of reason. And we think this, in large measure, because we have put religion, or faith, in a box labelled in very large letters, “Un-reason”. Faith and reason, religion and science are supposedly inimical to each other. There is no overlap. They knock each other out.

So it follows that people who are intelligent can have no religious faith; those who are religious are either imbeciles or insane. Not only that, religious people are narrow, dogmatic, intolerant and unpleasant. Those with no religious faith are broad-minded, open, liberal and thoroughly splendid people whom you’d be delighted to meet at a dinner party. Little casts a chill over a fashionable table more than the disclosure that a guest believes in God. 

I have a rather different take on this great division of our age. My view is that while we may be in a post-biblical — and post-moral — age, we have not disposed of belief. Far from it. We have just changed what we believe in. Our society may have junked the Judaeo-Christian foundations of the West for secularism. But this has given rise to a set of other religions. Secular religions. Anti-religion religions.  

These are also based on a set of dogmas. They proselytise. They involve faith. But unlike the Judaeo-Christian thinking they usurp, these secular anti-religions suspend truth and reason. What’s more, I would say that it was the Judaic foundations of the West which, far from denying reason, gave the world both reason and science in the first place.

God has been pronounced dead, and in his place have come man-made ideologies — in which people worship not a divine presence but an idea.

These ideas, which brook no dissent, give rise inescapably to intolerance and indeed to tyranny. Indeed, they are far more tyrannical in their effect than the God of the Hebrew Bible who gets such a bad press for being so authoritarian. In fact, he has a truly terrible time getting his way. His people are always complaining, refusing to do what he tells them, blaming him for everything and always, always arguing with him. But ideologies which represent the will of man bend everything to the governing idea, which cannot be gainsaid. There can be no argument with them.  

Rather than being rational, I suggest these are irrational; not tolerant at all, but deeply illiberal; not open to other ideas, but as dogmatic as any medieval pope. Indeed, these atheistic ideologies are reminiscent not just of religion but of medieval persecutions, witch-hunts and inquisitions….

….It is atheism, in fact, that is innately hostile to reason. Instead of worshipping God, man worshipped man. To be more precise, man’s ideas became the articles of faith. But instead of wrestling with God, man’s ideas brook no dissent, no argument. That’s because they are not actually ways of making sense of the world, of asking the great questions of why am I here, what is the purpose to my life, how should I behave in ways that give my life meaning. The ideas that man worships are instead ideas he invents to gain power over his fellow human beings. They are ways not of explaining the world but of controlling the world. Therefore they cannot be resisted or argued against. There cannot be any alternative set of propositions. There cannot be any debate. They are a doctrinal belief system of power.

Indeed, atheism has given us through such ideologies a faith which repels reason. Ideologies such as environmentalism, or the belief in the innate harmony of the natural world; scientism, or the belief that everything in the universe has a scientific explanation; moral relativism, or the belief that everyone’s value system is equal to everyone else’s; multiculturalism, or the belief that no culture can take precedence over any other; egalitarianism, or the belief that everyone is entitled to identical outcomes regardless of their behaviour. These all repel reason because, instead of looking at evidence to reach a conclusion, they start with the governing idea and force the evidence to fit it….

…”Scientism” is the belief that there is a material explanation for everything in the Universe and beyond. Of course, there are — and always have been — many scientists who are also religious believers and see no conflict in these two parallel spheres of science and religion. Indeed, they think that each informs and deepens the other. By contrast, scientism holds that there is no place for religious faith at all because everything has an empirical explanation. Thus Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins has claimed: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.”

But there are clearly many aspects of existence which lie beyond the province of science — love, appreciation of beauty, belief in right and wrong. Only dogmatism gives rise to the belief that there is no such thing as understanding aesthetic phenomena. Nevertheless, such dogmatism is precisely what is on display amongst scientists for whom science defines the world.  

Since they don’t accept that there can possibly be any questions science can’t answer, the fact that it cannot answer such questions only proves that they should not be asked at all. The fact that science can’t answer questions of ultimate purpose proves that there is no such thing as any ultimate purpose. The fact that science cannot prove the existence of God merely proves that God does not exist.

Yet as the theoretical particle physicist Stephen Barr observed, “materialism” is not actually science at all but a school of philosophy defined by the belief that nothing exists except matter. And this was also a “passionately held ideology” — with a purpose…

And there’s lots more. Whether you go along with it or not, it’s very stimulating, and startlingly erudite. And it is Sunday.

Dawkins! Over here, now.
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