Thursday, 28 August 2008

The "New" Atheists

This is the first of two parts, exploring the avenues of thought that Dr John Lennox presented in that debate I attended. First will be exploring the concept of the "new atheists", next will be a look at Richard Dawkins and his role in the intellectual conflict. It seems a non-issue, atheism simply means without belief in a personal god. To call it a religion is confusing to say the least. To understand why intelligent individuals are trying to label it as such needs a look at what role religion plays in our society and how it is used by both individuals and groups. There are two distinct elements religion has traditionally played it's hand with: explanation, and social cohesion.

In the beginning there was the big bang, and from there stars formed from matter which eventually led to planets, life and eventually us. This is the scientific view of how we came to be sitting on this rock that orbits a star in an expanding 4-dimensional bubble universe; it has been extrapolated from empirical evidence taken from observations of the universe around us. Of course one doesn't have to be an atheist to believe this, likewise if the domains of science and religion are kept truly separate as they should be, then there should be no conflict between this worldview and a religious one. As figures show, this is the worldview of the vast majority of scientists, yet the majority of scientists (especially in America) are religious to some degree.

So in terms of the basics, there is no difference between an atheist and theist in the view of the starry heavens above. The difference lies in the nature of explanation. At some point, a theist has to say Goddidit. The wise ones put that point out of reach of science, before the big bang where no observations can be made. The unwise theists views his mythological tales as fact, rejecting the empirical claims and creating a conflict between science and religion that shouldn't be. So to those ignorant bible bashers atheism looks like a religion centered around a Darwinian premise. Never mind that evolution deals purely with biology, not cosmology, this is the attack of the ignorant theist. The irreconcilable nature between science and religion comes from science being seen as an atheistic endeavour. The wise theists show that it isn't so, that evolution and cosmology are not enemies of God. Throughout history there are theists who even use science to try and prove God's hand. The conflict only exists in the minds of the ignorant.

The moral law within poses some intersection. Science can be used to show just how morals came about and why moral law is necessary. Again, by taking science as a process of investigation of the means of morality and God as a cause, there should be no problem. But that conflicts with absolute morality, and thus even to the wise theist there is some rejection of scientific findings in this area. Dr Lennox seemed furious with the notion that morals weren't God-given and vigorously rejected the notion that morality evolved. This broke from his transcendental workings of God in other areas, so to me it's at this point he became like the unwise theists and set up the conflict between science and religion. Morality seemed his necessity for God, his proof for the divine, and where the "New Atheists" became a religion in it's own. The science of how morality came to be doesn't invoke or exclude God any more than the science behind evolution or stellar formation. Again science is agnostic to the role of God, it's not trying to create an atheist worldview.

Science has replaced the need for mythology as an explanation, and atheists for the most part do look to science to explain certain phenomena. But science can be used by atheists and theists alike to explain the workings of reality. Where Dr Lennox makes his failing in resolving the two world views is not so different from the position of a YEC. It's simply seeing a conflict between science and religion and from there trying to create a religion for those who use science as opposed to belief. In many ways science does make God obsolete, we kill the necessity for God by taking away supernatural explanations from natural occurrences. But it only kills those gods who are false in the first place. Religious beliefs with any credence should have no conflict at all with the nature of empirical investigation, the starry heavens above and the moral law within will not change their origins in a natural universe that had supernatural guidance. Only supernatural intervention should be conflicting, but supernatural intervention should also be evident in the evidence. Calling it a religion when people supplant the need for God is just showing the limitations in one's own worldview.

Social Cohesion
The social cohesion of a society has so often being historically a means of both maintaining and controlling a community, and being tightly-coupled with the explanation has enabled religion to thrive as a social construct which underpins much of modern-day society. So when the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens are so eager to free society from the shackles of religion, what would be there to replace it? This is not a question easily answered. So when theists come to the conclusion that an atheist worldview is to be imposed on the population as a substitute, one only has to look at the likes of Soviet Russia or modern-day China to see the negatives of such an occurrence. The negative aspects of Soviet Russia and China do not, however, stem from atheism. They are a product of control, of the dogmatism surrounding communist ideology. The problems associated with China and the Soviet show even further the dangers of dogmatism, and that it's not exclusive to religious practice. Dogmatism can occur anywhere, under any circumstance. The absolutist mentality and system of control through uniformity are indeed something to rally against, be it a religious institution or otherwise.

So it should go without saying that atheists don't want to replace religious dogmatism with a godless form of it. It would be odd for anyone who has read the likes of The End Of Faith or The God Delusion to conclude that atheists want that dogmatic structure in place. It will be a great challenge to allay the fears of a religious nation, especially when atheists rival Scientologists as the least trusted group in America. It seems without merit as there are far less atheists in prison per capita than almost any other group, not to mention divorce rates are lower. I'm not suggesting that atheists are more moral than theists, just that the fears that seem associated with atheists are unfounded. It's quite shocking to think that a majority of Americans wouldn't vote for a well qualified atheist president purely on religious grounds. Having someone grounded in reality and a concern for this life seems a great virtue for the job, the primitive notion of the relationship between religion and morality is just too strong to shake off.

As society has grown in number, and liberal democracy has allowed diversification, there isn't so much need anymore for a single organisation to keep the social cohesion of a community. In effect, that freedom has afforded us to seek the company of those we choose based on location, interests, socio-economic factors and so on. So while the community as a whole is fractured, there is the possibility for individuals to find a lifestyle that suits their needs. It does run the risk of isolation. This is not, however, symptomatic of the rise of atheism. Rather it seems a bi-product of capitalism where the focus of the individual coupled with global media devices mean that there is not so much of a need to maintain niceties with our neighbours. Now this is not to comment whether it's a good or bad thing, just to show that there is change in the environment which blaming on a simple loss of faith does not adequately explain.

One final thing that should be explored are atheist organisations. There have been a lot of groups popping up, especially in recent years for atheists / agnostics / humanists / whatever. These are social organisations, much like a group for homosexuals or a high IQ society. There is nothing spiritual about these groups, just purely social. So they aren't proof of a new atheist religion, rather they are systemic of modern society and the propensity to splinter off into smaller groups with like-minded individuals. There's no structure, no priests, no rituals, it's merely a place of gathering and social interaction. This can be done with no religious inference at all, and that is key to understanding how organisations fit into the wider social construct.

Understanding atheism
There's nothing really to understand. The word atheist shouldn't even exist; there isn't a word for those who don't believe in Santa, not a word for those who don't believe in fairies, the concept of God is no different. It's because we live in a predominantly religious society that labels to make distinctions between ideological worldviews exist. But the word's existence is so often used to infer belief, and belief in the same context as faith. It's use of equivocation in order to show that both worldviews are tenable in this age of reason.

Christianity is a very complete and self-contained worldview. It explained both, adequately enough, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. As scientific advancement has naturalistic explanations for previously unknown phenomena, it has become possible for a non-believer to have a complete worldview. This complete worldview stems from the same techniques that theists use to understand the world, and organises much the same way as any group behaviour in a large society; so there is nothing unique or even remotely religious about the New Atheism. It simply shows that the theists who use the term are at an intersection of science and religion in some form, and reject those who can adequately explain reality without the need for supernatural invocation.


Aaron Alderman said...

It would be odd for anyone who has read the likes of The End Of Faith or The God Delusion to conclude that atheists want that dogmatic structure in place.

I can't remember where I got this quote from (probably slashdot) but I think it sums up the situation nicely

"It's like Sauron. He fell because he couldn't believe that someone would want to destroy the Ring. He could only envision someone taking it and using it, like he wanted to and would have done.

The religious can't conceive that some people don't think reality has anything to do with religion and don't think there need be anything to replace religion at all."

Kel said...

That's a really nice way of putting it.