Answer me honestly. How rational is it to believe any of the following:
- Science can explain everything, even itself;
- The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;
- Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;
- Evolution is why we are so rational;
- Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;
- People are only Christians because they were born into it;
- Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;
- The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?
Each of these propositions is not only false but easily proven to be so, as even the most minimal exertions show. Yet believing any, and many more like them, are touted by “New Atheists” as marks of superior intelligence, as enlightened thinking, even as commonsense reasonableness. To these infinitely self-assured folks, disbelief is a synonym of rational. It’s just a guess, but perhaps this irrational belief is why it is so hard to persuade New Atheists of their errors?
What I like best about the new book edited by Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian and by Carson Weitnauer is the robust spirit on display from the fifteen authors who contributed essays. Right up front Weitnauer outlines the difficulty he has putting arguments across to a hostile audience, like the one which shows that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. “In response to this argument,” he says, “atheists have sometimes complained that they are being falsely characterized as immoral.” A non-rational response.
The atheist’s problem with evil is that, according to his premises, evil doesn’t exist. It of course exists in reality, which is why most atheists are just as moral as most theists. But the words of Exodus hold no meaning to atheist theory: Neither shall you allege the example of many as an excuse for doing wrong. Instead of built-in universal morality, there is democracy. Whenever two or more atheists gather they can have a vote to see whether any should eat the others—why not?—or whether the worst possible misery for everyone should today be considered “evil.”
That’s what Sam Harris thinks is “evil,” incidentally. But the “worst possible misery” is not objective because any attempted definition must assume objectivity somewhere: there must come a point where is becomes ought. John M. DePoe and later Samuel J. Youngs go into the atheists’ problem of evil in great detail.
Tom Gilson’s account of a “debate” between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris is saddening. Harris’s tactic was to ignore Craig. No word on whether he brought out the onion (he’s done it before; this may be the debate Gilson mentioned).
Although there are plenty of sober and fascinating arguments from thoughtful atheists, philosophical subtlety is not the mark of a New Atheist, as Chuck Edwards shows. The kalam cosmological argument (to prove God’s existence) in simplified form goes: (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause, (2) The universe began to exist, therefore (3) the universe has a cause.
Richard Dawkins moves from this to his triumph shouting rhetorically: If everything has a cause, then what caused God! Ha! Whether this proves Dawkins can’t read, is lazy, or so self-shackles his mental apparatus that he can’t see his blatant mistake can be argued. What can’t is whether his objection has any force. I only wish Edwards would have said more about why the universe cannot have existed an infinite amount of time and why it can’t have an infinite amount of stuff. Technicalities, perhaps, but juicy ones.
Naturalism, and its inbred cousin scientism, dogmatically says the supernatural does not exist. But naturalism can’t explain existence: it is necessarily mute on why there is something rather than nothing. Something, incidentally, necessarily includes physical “laws”. New Atheists are always using some science-of-the-gaps argument to evade the force of this observation. David Bentley Hart says, “For existence is definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.”
Man’s ratiocination is supposed to be explained by naturalism; that is to say, by evolution. But, as Lenny Esposito reminds us, if that is so then there is no reason for us to trust our intellects. After all, it’s “unclear how higher levels of reasoning—the ability to use and apply inference, for example—would develop in this way, for natural selection doesn’t care about truth, it only cares about survival.”
We might have evolved to think , but in reality it could be that equation is false! How would you know it isn’t? Your brain might be fooling you because it figures you have a better chance to survive if you believe this absurdity. Why, there might even be an “atheism gene” in the brain which causes people to have the comforting but absurd belief that there is no such thing as sin.
Yes, it’s silly. But so is the idea that our intellects are material (here is a lovely and brief proof we aren’t entirely physical creatures). David Wood’s essay is good here, Peter Grice shows that reason is teleological (it aims at truth, thus the modern views of causality are mistaken), and Esposito takes you the rest of the way: from reason to God.
David Marshall speaks of John Loftus’s “Outsider test for faith.” You’re supposed to ask yourself if you’d be Christian if you weren’t raised that way. If not, then you should switch to atheism. But some born-that-way atheists have asked themselves the same thing and switched to Christianity. You can read more about the One True Religion Fallacy here. Loftus’s argument is basically a ginned up version of the genetic fallacy.
Marshall also reminds us that David Hume “falsely defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature'”, an irrational definition seized upon by (as far as I know) all New Atheists (more on miracles here). Marshall and Timothy McGrew expostulate on the historical conceptions of faith and reason, which includes a nice discussion of Tertullian and theses words of Church father Justin Martyr: “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.” This pursuit of truth is what allows theists to escape the traps of naturalism, for instance.
The supposed “war” between science and religion is a false dichotomy. Admitting its existence is, in a way, a defeat, especially when talking to a scientist who embraces scientism. Ask that fellow if he uses mathematics in his work and if he says yes remind him that all of mathematics is metaphysical and not scientific.
The division between science, i.e. the natural, and religion, i.e. the supernatural, is artificial. Both are needed: you can’t have one without the other. Logic, truth, probability, mathematics, philosophy are not physical (natural) and there isn’t even a glimmer of a hope that the physical can be understood without them. Sean McDowell quotes Sam Harris pontificating (without the mitre) that the “success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma.” For once Harris is right: not all religions are equal. But then sometimes the success of religion comes at the expense of scientism. What matters, as Martyr said above, is truth.
Moving to the practical, Randall Hardman presents historical evidence for the Gospels, Matthew Flannagan investigates God’s command to put every Canaanite to the sword, and Glenn Sunshine discusses the Bible and slavery. Flannagan’s argument in particular, which is strained, is unlikely to convince. Then again, New Atheists can be talked into believing anything, no matter how laughable, as long as it disparages religion. If I hear the fiction of brave Galileo and his battles against a denying Church one more time—well, I can’t be answerable for what I might do. How about when those anti-knowledge Christians burnt down the library of Alexandria? It’s as if all New Atheists subscribe to the Walter Duranty school of history.
Carson Weinauer closes the book by recalling Christopher Hitchens, as do Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others, all religion “child abuse.” New Atheists usually say this kind of thing right before they congratulate themselves on their rationality.