Maybe it’s just me. But having kept my finger for years on the pulse of the steady drumbeat of apologetics for organized religion, I’m getting the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the theists are starting to sound a little more desperate.The release of several bestselling books on atheism this year, including “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett, and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris, has prompted a slew of articles and editorials.
Some of them attempt to show balance in their treatment of the subject. But most have a clear bias from the outset. Wired magazine ran a particularly loaded cover story, with the title “The New Atheism: No Heaven, No Hell, Just Science. Inside the crusade against religion.” Do we even need to read the article? A crusade? And they’re supposed to be a science magazine. I’ve never been closer to canceling my subscription.
Dinesh D’Souza mounted a defense called “God Knows Why Faith is Thriving” in the San Francisco Chronicle.
What was striking about both these articles, is not that they rehashed some of the same old arguments, they did. But that they actually seemed to concede on the facts! Both articles tacitly admitted the evidence was not good for the existence of a deity. But their argument turned away from the factual, toward which result people like better. D’Souza gave his readers a choice between two world views, and wondered which one was more pleasing:
In the secular account, “You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.”
In the Christian view, by contrast, “You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him.”
Never mind that he states the case in a completely one-sided manner, and then proceeds to equate atheism with low birth rates and demographic ossification. In a particularly racist outburst, he chortles: “we have met Nietzsche’s ‘last man,’ and his name is Sven.” He portrays the fecundity of the developing world as a by-product of religious belief, a questionable assertion at best. (While we’re arguing from consequence, let’s look at how such indiscriminate reproduction impacts a planet of limited resources.)
D’Souza’s argument boils down to cultural relativism, which raises the value of preference and tradition over facts. If we like the sound of something, if it makes us feel good, if our parents believed it, if it animates our culture, we should consider it to be true. This is intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt. Such relativism is one of the primary human cognitive flaws. It underlies apathy and detachment, a jaded approach to knowledge, the questioning of causality and empiricism, the idea that we can’t trust our senses or instruments–that all is opinion and belief, and “nothing can be known.” This is foundationally a bigger problem than organized religion. It is the ocean in which all bad arguments swim.
Wired takes a similar tack, at first seeming to discuss New Atheism at face value. Then author Gary Wolf makes an aesthetic comparison between the practice of religion (vibrant, youth-filled) with that of organized atheism (bitter, aging). He concludes that he cannot go along with atheism, basically because atheists are not nice people. (In a passing reference to Pascal’s wager, he laments we ‘can’t be sure,’ we ‘can’t prove god doesn’t exist,’ and ‘what if we’re wrong’–that’s original.) He sums up his opposition to New Atheist thought thusly:
Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'” This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
So let me get this straight: The truth of one of the most fundamental questions we humans ever face comes down to whether or not we want to offend people?
I welcome the renewed interest in the subject. Because the one ‘ace in the hole’ religions have is their continued success at keeping the discussion off the table. The notion of “respect” for beliefs, no matter how absurd, is one of the primary reasons most people don’t often discuss religion in polite company. This favors the established (religious) order. A few bestselling books have shaken things up, and that’s great.
On the facts, religion has all but conceded intellectually. If they hadn’t, their best defense wouldn’t be that atheists are “mean.”
Note: If only, Dinesh D’Souza would have stuck with making terrible religious arguments. Since this post was written, he turned into a veritable one-man industry of right-wing grift, and was convicted of campaign finance fraud. He received a full pardon for those crimes, from none other than Donald Trump. –Sean Prophet, August 2022