To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Feb 15, 2015
There is website called You May Be a Fundamentalist Atheist If… that is both funny and disheartening. It has a list of entries that capture much of the flavor of online conversations about religion, atheism, science and religion. Personally, I’ve been on chat groups where even the slightest indication that you are in favor of religion can lead to furious attacks on your character, your integrity, and your mental capacities. (Of course, it goes without saying that atheists have found themselves in similar positions on some strongly pro-religious sites.)
You say things like, “I can’t tolerate religion because religion is intolerant. And no type of intolerance should be tolerated.”
You believe the astronomical size of the universe somehow disproves God, as if God needed a tiny universe in order to exist.
You think you arrived at your position because you are a free-thinker who rationally weighed the evidence, and then freely chose atheism over theism. YET, you also believe that your thinking and actions are nothing more than the FIXED reactions of the atoms in your brain that are governed by the Laws of Chemistry and Physics.
You think that religious wars have killed more people than any other kind of war, even though the largest wars of the last 200 years (World War I and II, Civil War, etc.) had no discernible religious causes.
The distinguished British philosopher and educator A. C. Grayling takes strong objection to the characterization of some atheists as fundamentalist. In “Can an atheist be a fundamentalist,” he writes that atheism is “a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology” and that therefore it cannot be fundamentalist because it isn’t a religion. Fair enough. But he ruins the effect by following up with an intemperate attack on religion that seems to be the very personification of what people mean by fundamental atheism:
What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? .. one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?
Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology – think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell’s torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism.
These views are basically the same those advanced by d’Holbach and other anti-religious atheists France 250 years. And they are completely out of touch with the findings of historical and religious studies. Grayling even claims that “no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.” Astrophysics, no, but is he uninformed about social Darwinism, communism, fascism, and colonialism and the extraordinary loss of life – in the tens or hundred’s of millions of men, women, and innocent children – that it has entailed?
Why are these “fundamental atheist” views, views both profoundly anti-intellectual and at odds with what we know about the world, so often voiced with such extraordinary vitriol? Certainly, it is easy to become incensed about Islamic terrorism – provided that you don’t know much about the last two hundred years of history of colonialism, the extraordinary history European occupation of Islamic countries, and Western military campaigns during the last twenty years. But the antagonism to religion seen in many “fundamentalist atheists” is far beyond what a reasoning observer of the current scene would expect.
- One is a rearguard response to the failure of irreligion and materialism to transform the world, a failure now apparent everywhere.This is a response of anger and frustration over failure of a system of thought that seemed foundational to many. It strikes me that it is much the same as that which inspires modern Islamic anti-western theologies and appeals so strongly to disenfranchised Muslim youth.
- The other is the failure to follow the systematic methods of science, a failure that was characteristic of the rise of modern scientism and that still characterizes its approach. Science in the 19th century enjoyed such incredible prestige that pronouncements in its name – often on very vague and speculative grounds – were accepted as if they were proven scientific fact. The failure to distinguish between scientific fact and scientific fiction is at the basis of much “fundamentalist” atheist belief.
A Legacy of Distrust
It seems to me that those who rail so strongly against religion – the new Atheists, angry secular humanists like Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling, and their equally impassioned co-workers – are part of an intellectual rearguard action stemming from the leftover dreams of the enlightenment and powerful 19th and early 20th century visions of the world as a secular paradise free of the baneful effects of religion. (Whereas once the devil reigned as the king of evil, religion is now deemed his modern replacement – this upgrade seems to have struck some thinkers as more intellectually respectable.)
Their opposition – a legacy of a time when the rise of modern industrialization, the rapid growth of technology, and a veritable explosion of scientific creativity was accompanied by a widespread rejection of religion – now comes across as dogmatic, ill-informed, lacking in logic, and unobjective. And it is derisively scornful and dismissive of religion, its history, its core beliefs, and the multifold forms it takes.
Again and again, what strikes me is the unwillingness to recognize the near-universal role of religion in the affairs of the world throughout all of history. And they fail to see the extent to which their own perspectives and views fall into the category of blind belief and religious fanaticism. Yes, among these thinkers there are some apparent exceptions to the rule. Daniel Dennett, many say, wishes to study and understand religion. But he writes with the same scorn and derision about religion as used by French ancien regime philosophes accustomed to veiling their hatreds and antagonisms.
Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, describes their approach too well:
Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.
Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly … But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
The critics of new Atheism, even the moderate “old” atheists, are coming around to the same point of view. Some too are calling the new, populist, best-selling versions of atheism fundamentalist atheism or evangelical atheism and see it as following the same methodologies, the same spirit of intolerance, the same lack of openness to reason, and the same ideological fixedness that they see in religious fundamentalism.
And this stands to reason. Atheism and materialism – world dominating creeds and ideologies that came of age in the 19th century – have run through both their rise and fall. The later, thanks to the information age, is plain to see. Yes, on one hand, atheism and materialism has played a major role in the shaping the modern world, especially the European and American versions of it. And this role has included seminally important contributions in all aspects of human life. But on the other hand, the “moral vacuum” of the 20th century, and the untold deaths, disruption, and misery that make up the century’s death toll is no longer veiled by history. Thanks to the television and internet, all can see the results.
I’m puzzled and alarmed by how the materialists, atheists, secular savants, and the like-minded we have been reading or reading about have ignored the basic fundamentals of science, especially the need for empirical validation of hypotheses. Rather than recognizing that most of the inferences they had drawn about the social world – the world of day-to-day life – are speculative theses, not scientific facts of proven validity, they ignore the need for test and confirmation.
Social Darwinists – from Darwin’s time to E.O. Wilson and the 21st century evolutionary psychologists – have been among the worst of the offenders. (Communism, of course, was the very worst.) By social Darwinism, I mean the application of ideas derived from evolutionary science to social phenomena – national policy, health, economics, and so no.
By no means is social Darwinism automatically a bad thing. Think of the extraordinary progress made in medicine and health care that derives from an understanding of evolution and the related areas of genomics, ideas inspired by evolutions.
But, social Darwinism also means things like scientific racism – some of the greatest scientists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century believed that there were distinct subspecies of humankind that had evolved competitively, Amazingly, shockingly, and certainly altogether unscientifically, they believed that Northern European – the British, Germans, French, and white Anglo-Saxon Americans – were shown by science to be the superior breed. And this morphed into eugenics – the idea that undesirables (meaning the weak, the infirm, the mentally handicapped, and those who were non-Northern European races such as southern European, Jewish, Slavic, and other non-northern European races and nationalities) had to be prevented from having children (or in the case of German eugenics, just prevented).
Clearly, these were conclusions unsupported by any scientific evidence or any empirical results. My guess is that much that pertains to materialism, atheism, and the like are just surmises, wild-eyed guesses, prejudiced enthusiasms, bigotry, or ideas concocted for political or material gain. If they were to be investigated scientifically – if standards of scientific proof were to be applied rigorously – many of them would just dry up and blow away.
In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism.
This is the 34th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.