Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Reflection on the "New Atheism"

I ought to preface this by saying that I have not read a great deal written by the school sometimes called the "New Atheism": gentlemen such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (among others). Part of this is merely that they -- so far as I understand -- are mostly scientists of one sort or another, and I don't happen to be exceptionally interested in their fields; I confess that another is that I simply tend to find them uncongenial, both as people and as thinkers. I would imagine that Hitchens, who believes that Mother Teresa was a hypocrite and an evil woman because, e.g., she failed to promote birth control, will find some difficulty garnering sympathy from the Christian community anyhow; not to mention the world community, or those pitiable victims of her atrocities in Calcutta. I'm sure that the many street children who experienced a mother's love from her for the first time, the many sick who died amid the tenderness and respect of her community of nuns, the hungry she fed and the lonely she comforted, will now be sufficiently energized to join Hitchens' outrage.

In any case. A lot of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, are alarmed and angry about such men. I am not. I cannot pretend that their reasoning does not sometimes offend me, though not so often as it puzzles me; as with Dawkins' syllogism by which he claims to disprove the existence of God. There is a famous comparison, made by a scientist whose name I am powerless to recall (being a Humanities major), that the likelihood of the world as we know it evolving by chance is roughly equivalent to that of a tornado pealing through a junkyard and accidentally assembling a flawless and functional Boeing 747. Dawkins expostulates, on similar grounds, that the existence of the world in general is improbable, but that, logically, the existence of a being who could make something so improbable is proportionately even more unlikely, so God does not exist -- QED.

As I said, this leaves me somewhat puzzled. Possibly this mystery seems meaningless only to the uninitiated, like myself; there may be atheist mystics who, like Elihu, will only shake their heads at me, or will reply out of the whirlwind, demanding where I was when Science set the bounds of reality, saying "Thus far and no further, and here shall thy proud facts be stayed." But surely the manifest reply is that, if the world was created by a transcendent being, then it need not be improbable to begin with; and, if so, Dawkins' conclusion does not stand -- not because he was wrong about statistics, but because he has failed to construct a chain of reasoning which exhausts the possibilities of reality. In short, he assumes that existence is improbable, and that therefore its Creator must be far more improbable; but the only reason for thinking reality improbable is the belief that it arose by chance and not by choice, the choice of a Mind. More shortly still, Dawkins assumes that it is very improbable that creation arose without a Creator.

Of course, in the strict sense, every Catholic, every Christian, every theist (however vague), must feel inclined to agree with that.

But it was not my basic intention to review the arguments which the New Atheists proffer against the existence of God and the truths of the Bible, the Creed, and the Church. As I said, I am too ignorant to discuss such things intelligently, for I have read very little of their work; my familiarity with them is almost wholly secondhand. What interests me more is the tone of what I have read and heard. It is not the tone of the classical, rationalistic atheists of the nineteenth century -- men like Huxley or Bradlaugh, the fastidious meals that drove men like Chesterton to the strong meat and new wine of the Catholic Church. It is not the pessimistic, slightly contemptuous complacency of men like Bertrand Russell or Matthew Arnold, or of C. S. Lewis in his own description of his atheist days. It is angry; angry, scandalized, and more than a little panicked. It recalls something that Dorothy Sayers, an English novelist and religious thinker of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote of the English atheists who attacked contemporary English apologists: "These are not the accents of a man liberating a dog from an unwholesome and confining kennel; they are more like those of a child venturing forth into the garden, and, having picked up what appeared to be a dull and inoffensive stick or stone, seeing it stretch forth a leg and wink a knowing eye: 'Ugh! It's alive!' "

The odd thing about these New Atheists is how curiously old-fashioned they are. They are, in an almost precise sense, religious fundamentalists; at any rate they are irreligious fundamentalists, and seem as shocked and furious as any other sort of fundamentalists that not everyone in the hemisphere agrees with them. To their credit, they have not yet taken to waving offensive signs at funerals or blowing things up.

But it is not only thus that their mindset is old-fashioned; they are old-fashioned in tactics, too. The Greatest Commandment, "Thou shalt accept the conclusions of Science with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength," is to their sweetly singular hearts an obvious appeal to everyone's common sense; and, in fairness, it is not exactly an irrational appeal. Timothy Ware, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, said with great wisdom that "Christianity, if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry." The Catholic Church has certainly always thought so, from the Aristotelian revolution of the twelfth century to the Quantum revolution of the twentieth; though she, unlike most scientists, has had a healthier skepticism of the certainty of scientific conclusions, given that they change so frequently. A sufficiently glib tongue might quip that Quantum mechanics, on grounds of which scientists claim to know that Schroedinger's cat is both dead and alive at the same time, can easily render God alive as well as dead at the same time. Even without that, we might at least wonder whether a field which is not only unashamed, but openly proud, of the fact that it has to discard half its conclusions every half a decade, is really something upon which we can base our lives and minds.

The real problem with the credo of the New Atheism is that there is no such thing as Science. There are, admittedly, various fields of study of the natural world which have a sufficiently similar basic methodology to be referred to collectively, without absurdity, as "the sciences"; but they are many fields, not one, and they do not yield collective conclusions. Nor are the sort of conclusions that the New Atheists claim to draw from Science actually supported by any particular science; not because they are contradicted by the sciences, though a case could be made out for that, but because the kinds of questions that are asked and answered by religion and philosophy are questions which no science, just as such, is interested in. Even miracles, strictly speaking, are not within the purview of any science. This is not, as some befuddled and pious minds have thought or now think, because miracles are too holy to be subjected to inquiry (quite the contrary), but because they are by definition exceptions to the laws according to which nature ordinarily operates. Since it is the goal of the studies we call sciences to discover what those ordinary laws are, they naturally ignore miracles; because, whether miracles happen or not, they are merely irrelevant to the scientist's inquiry. Nor, as some of the New Atheists appear to imagine, does studying the law for any length of time give you the faintest idea of whether the law can be bent or broken; any more than studying legal codes can tell you what a drug dealer must be doing today or may do tomorrow.

It is partly this which enables me to remain serene, not perhaps at the specific attacks of the New Atheists -- for I am no paragon of charity -- but at its profile on the horizon. Its basis will never, I think, really persuade the human race in general; and even for themselves, it is none of my business to say among whom Divine grace is working. I am even reassured by their tone; for though it is a little irrational and even hysterical, that only testifies to either a lack of confidence in their ability to convince people, or a genuine belief in the truth of their own position, or both: the first of which is probably harmless and the second of which is, in one sense, even a good thing (for it would be a very bad thing indeed if they were the sort of people who did not care enough about what is true to try and make people agree with them).

The real danger to Christianity in our place and time, I think, does not come from atheism. It comes from the new wave of spirituality that is rising in our nation. A very intelligent and devout woman of my acquaintance remarked to me a couple of years ago that she felt our generation was "crying out for mysticism." I agreed with her, and agree with her still; which explains why so many of us are turning or returning to the Catholic Church. But a great many of us are turning to other things as well; and if there is any aspect of life which it is not safe to merely venture into, unguided, it is the realm of the soul. Looking back at the ages when the Christian churches of various kinds dominated life (public and private) in the West, forming men's minds and consciences, it is ghastly to see what even they fell into or drew back from. And if these things are done in the green wood, what shall be done in the dry?

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