Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The New Atheists: On A Mission For Rationalism

On (Non)Religion

The Fall of the Titans [1588-90]: John Gray writes for New Statesman: “For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide,a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.”
Image Credit: Cornelis van Haarlem [1562-1638]; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen 
SourceNew Statesman

An article, by John Gray, in the New Statesman says in a precise way why religion and religious faith will always be a part of human experience, much to the dismay of the New Atheists who as a group have cloaked atheism with religious fervor. Their desire to replace religion with rationalism will fail for the reason that it denies the reality of what religions, notably ancient organized ones, present to humans.

Science’s narrative is in the main too complex and filled with arcane language (typically mathematical symbols), which can be apprehended by only a few, to gain as secure a place in people’s minds as religion does, with its mystery and a narrative that can be apprehended by all at some level or another. This is a simple dichotomy, but it explains one of the chief differences between religion and science as it applies to accessibility. That religion is more accessible to humans might have evolutionary reasons, an idea worth exploring, if only to provide scientists with some reasons why religion and human existence go hand in hand.

What is also true is that when it comes to the larger questions of life, science does a masterful job of explaining how, and religion a masterful job of why. When science tries to explain why, it becomes as lame as when religion tries to explain how. Or as Albert Einstein once put it in an article, “Science and religion,” published in 1954: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” This is illuminated in Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria), his 1997  model of the science-religion relationship, each representing a dedicated view or way of inquiry.

Moreover, there might be solid evolutionary reasons why a belief in the supernatural might be natural and normal for humans across the globe and across the span of time. In “Why human find it hard to do away with religion” (January 20, 2016), Gray, an English political philosopher, writes in a book review article on Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human about the human desire for a moral order:
Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.
It’s a conclusion that is anathema to the current generation of atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others – for whom religion is a poisonous concoction of lies and delusion. These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.
I would not know if the “new atheists” are simple souls, but they do seem determined to make people think. Combined with an unimpeachable unquestioning faith in science and you have men on a mission: to convert others to their way of thinking, which essentially is to turn people away from any belief in God and toward secularism and a belief in Rationalism. Do they not see the irony? I doubt that they have had great success, but not for lack of trying. They might be as successful as Christian missionaries today trying to convert Jews.

As many of you know, but it bears repeating, there exists within greater Christianity a large influential sect called evangelical Christianity, which is popular in the United States; it operates with a type of messianic zeal and fervor that is often accompanied by a level of rancor and disdain toward science, which makes genuine discussion or engagement an impossibility. Its narrow interests also undermine political and social stability necessary for a viable and healthy democracy. This is no better portrayed than in this season’s Republican presidential campaign. The theatre of the absurd, perhaps.

While some revel in buffoonery, I find it a turnoff when applied to democratic politics. It can be both tiresome and sad to watch, and I am sure moderate and rational Christians must be embarrassed by this public spectacle. It also provides ample evidence not only to atheists but to anyone else why they would want to stay far away from such beliefs. These Christians are surely not helping the cause of Christianity as a universal “religion of love.” It makes Christianity appear small.

In contrast, the new atheists are neither fools nor buffoons, but, rather, intelligent individuals who are without a doubt excellent scientists. Thus, I question their “need” to persuade others of what to believe, or rather of what not to believe. Can one love science and not hate religion? Can one love religion and not hate science?

I think so, just as one can love one person and not hate another. In any case, when such belief is made militant, it is no longer cloaked in the kind of mystery that humans both seek and enjoy. (Rationalism has its limits; humans, including those that espouse rationalism, can’t always be rational.) Yes, this is unequivocally true; humans do enjoy a good mystery; and to deny this is to deny a reality that is as evident as anything else science has proven as true in the last few decades. Humans love to gaze at the stars, at the heavens. And wonder. Or to withdraw into their minds, their thoughts. And imagine.

There is a place in our world for both Science & Religion. I suspect that many would agree with this premise.

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For more, go to [New Statesman]