My Personal and Professional Stance on “The New Atheism” Part I

My Personal and Professional Stance on “The New Atheism” Part I

Albert E+

Impact on Contemporary Perceptions of Science and Religion

Hi.  I apologize for the delay in writing this blog entry, but matters have gotten busy for me lately with my research papers to work on, preparation for upcoming conferences and research visits, and other related activities.  Though I may not be able to make contributions on a weekly basis as I would like, I hope that what I do put together over the next few months or so is worth the wait.

Unlike some of the other bloggers, my contributions may not follow some well-defined narrative, but will rather appear in a more “organic” fashion, either in response to statements on the Internet with potential implications for atheism, etc., or due to interesting statements made by fellow contributors to Common Ground.  I also aim for a more conversational writing style to state my honestly held opinions, especially on topics for which I don’t claim any special expertise, such as philosophy or modern language usage.

Whenever I may make comments that intersect these types of disciplines, I will always defer to the expertise of people like Ian Kluge and Maya Bohnhoff for the insights they offer from within their knowledge base. All that stated, I would strive very hard for a simultaneous level of evidence-based scientific precision as required, and make comment on where ambiguities may also occur.

On the topic at hand, let me begin by giving you my overall conclusion concerning whether we can convincingly proclaim the existence of God, in light of opposition from the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, et al.  Because the question: “Does God exist?” has been posed by intelligent human beings over the ages—with many thoughtful approaches documented and debated upon ad nauseam—the fact that we still face this question today without an airtight answer leaves me to conclude that it will remain a fundamentally unanswerable question for all time.

In other words, while I’m convinced that God exists, based on my day-to-day life experiences, my affiliation with the  Bahá’í Faith, and my understandings of modern science, there will always be enough ambiguity present to leave us at a perpetual stalemate. Since it’s clear to me that hardline atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others will always find cause to object to whatever arguments are put forward in support of the existence of God—no matter how cogent they may be—the question speaks much more to the receptivity of the individual to accept the validity of an affirmative answer to this question in the first place.

As a Baha’i, I may claim, for example, that God knows what’s in the hearts (i.e. the inner consciences) of the New Atheists and whether they will ever be receptive to accepting His existence in the course of time.  However, I’m convinced that such a claim about God’s existence—let alone His capacities—can never be “proven” as true, and it’s very easy to see that such people will think that my posing such an idea is “nonsense.”

Now, a literal treatment of the word “non-sense” to mean “not of the senses” suggests to me that a truth claim about God’s existence and innate qualities is forever outside the domain of what can be gained by the “senses.”  Using “non-sense” in that context is, then, merely a statement of the obvious and is not a negation of the truth claim.  Of course, if the New Atheists use the word “nonsense” to describe my position, they really mean it as a synonym for “unreasonable,” “delusional,” “wrong,” or some other pejorative term.

I refer you to Ian Kluge’s very impressive recent blog about ontological naturalism to better appreciate the New Atheists’ level of disdain that someone like myself—a scientist—accepts the claim that God has consciousness, intelligence, personality, and the capacity to know the inner essence of everything and everyone who has ever lived or will live.  If I or someone like John Polkinghorne (a respected mathematical physicist from Cambridge University, who resigned his academic position to become an ordained Anglican priest), make statements about things that can’t be “sensed” physically, does the fact that these concepts can’t be probed by experimental analysis imply that such things necessarily don’t exist?  Of course not!  In point of fact, a comment attributed to Polkinghorne found on his Wikipedia page  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Polkinghorne)  makes the point that “debating with Dawkins is hopeless, because there’s no give and take.  He doesn’t give you an inch.  He just says no when you say yes.”

When dealing with this level of obstinacy, I completely agree with Polkinghorne’s perspective.  For example, can you imagine some time traveller meeting with Isaac Newton and telling him some fanciful story that matter is composed of “atoms” with a nucleus of “protons” and “neutrons”—each of which are composed of “quarks”, all bound together by “gluons” that pop in and out of existence following the laws of “quantum mechanics,” and surrounded by “electrons” that do not have well-defined orbits due to the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle?”

What would be Newton’s reaction to hearing this story from such a time traveller, at a time when the existence of atoms in Nature is considered only at a philosophical level and with “no evidence” whatsoever to justify the time traveller’s claim?  Most people might imagine Newton saying that this person was either on drugs, possessed by demons, or under some mental delusion that should result in his/her hanging. I doubt very much that any of them would think he said:  “Wow!  This time traveller is absolutely right!  Why didn’t I think of that before!?”  It should be obvious that Isaac Newton or his contemporaries would have never come to our modern-day conclusion about matter, even though we have compelling evidence that it makes sense.
So, why believe in God in the face of modern science, if we have no physical way of identifying His existence in the Universe?  People like Dawkins and others claim that there is “no evidence” for God’s existence, but are very quick to discount the personal experiences of people who affirm His presence in their lives and see their lives transformed. They deny the possibility that there may be Holy Scriptures that have been divinely inspired.

To be clear, there are certainly “false religions” out there that result in nothing but misery, abuse, and violations of all forms against the people who follow them, with some charismatic and exploitative person in charge of the operation.  However, does the fact that at least some organized religions are run by abusive people necessarily imply that God doesn’t exist or that religion “poisons everything,” as Hitchens claims in his book, God is Not Great?

This line of argument does not logically follow, but are the New Atheists willing to make emotional or intellectual space for themselves to acknowledge this point?  From what I’ve read in their books or heard from statements posted online, I think the answer is “no”.

I have a good physicist friend who explained in moving detail how he became a Bahá’í while doing his postdoctoral studies, after having declared himself an atheist since early childhood. This person made it clear to me that it was the station of Bahá’u’lláh, Himself, and His impact on the people who were to become His followers, that allowed  him to overcome his atheism and believe in God as a dedicated Bahá’í.  Would the New Atheists be willing to accept this person’s testimonial as “evidence” in favour of God’s existence, or would they instead suggest that he had some latent psychological disorder that manifested itself as a belief in God?

This leads me to my second and final point for this posting as it concerns science and religion: My basic conclusion is that both science and religion are fundamentally interpretive in nature, in that as human beings who study science and/or follow religion or do neither, we are compelled to interpret whatever sensory or thought-driven information we absorb about our environment or our scientific/religious studies.   Otherwise, how is it that two equally well-trained scientists looking at the same data sets for some experiment can come up with completely different conclusions?  This scenario happens all the time!  In the absence of physical evidence, how is it that we can have downright nasty fights akin to a quasi-religious warfare between theoretical physicists who either believe in string theory or reject it?

I’m sure to write more about this in the near future, but though I have no belief in string theory as a viable scientific pursuit, my disbelief is not “proof” that the theory’s claims about the physical Universe are untrue.  Furthermore, despite the growing opposition within the theoretical physics community to string theory, its proponents still continue to believe in it very fervently, especially given that it appears to be “permanently safe” from being tested in a laboratory setting.

Can one then draw an equivalence between “God” and “string theory” as concepts that people believe in without “evidence?”  Depending on how one uses the word “evidence” in describing both topics, it’s hard to say for sure.  So far, however, the analogy makes sense to me.

More to come!

Albert E+

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One thought on “My Personal and Professional Stance on “The New Atheism” Part I

  1. I’m no expert on string theory (though I like many ideas that seem to come from it) but I think the commonality of problem of “God” and “string theory” is that if you have a system that is true throughout the system it becomes untestable because you can never find an exception or failure. All you can say is that if you ever do come to a valid test it will never fail – but not that it can’t fail. If it reaches the point of “can’t fail” then it becomes replaceable, equivalent, for God.

    Isn’t that part of the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem? It’s kind of like the relativity speed limit – you can’t get there by acceleration. You can’t enumerate a list of laws that explain everything. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to “travel” FTL (cf entanglement) or just because we can’t prove God that God doesn’t exist (though I understand William S. Hatcher wrote a proof that a belief in God is at least not itself inherently illogical.)

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