Saturday, June 14, 2008

The "New" Atheism: The Same Old Story

The cover of the November 2006 Wired issue boldly proclaimed “The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science.” However, as the article’s author, Gary Wolf, readily admitted early on, atheism doesn’t have any new arguments to offer. Even the sarcastic abuse is stale.

The only thing really “new” about the New Atheism is a missionary zeal. No longer are atheists content simply to sit around university clubrooms feeling contemptuous of the ignorant, superstitious masses; they’re now on a mission from no-God to free the minds of others.

Wolf also remarks, “Even people who suspect that the New Atheists might be right are repelled by their strident tone. … Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reason to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd.” But the evangelical drive to strip us of our religions is only slightly less irritating than the atheists’ insistence that their rejection is somehow validated­—even mandated—by Science.

Atheism is at a perpetual disadvantage when struggling against theism. Christianity can admit the Big Bang, evolution and any number of scientific developments without undermining anything necessary to belief, let alone faith, in God. Atheism, on the other hand, can’t admit anything tasting of the supernatural without compromising itself dangerously, even fatally.

Atheism begins with certain hypotheses about God, the universe and the nature of natural laws. Many atheists are painfully aware these assumptions can’t be proven, so they insist that conjecture be treated as fact and that theism prove its case. “Innocent until proven guilty” may be good law, but “false until proven true” (or vice versa) is bad logic.

But let’s look at a couple of assumptions:

Atheism presupposes all things are either real or unreal, a zero-sum equation. However, it’s possible that reality has multiple levels, not just one. A scientist truly open to the possibility of God (not necessarily a believer) would find potential here for theoretical research. After all, once we concede the reality of the fourth dimension and of multiple universes, then a layered reality—the prospect for things to be “more” or “less” real—doesn’t stretch the imagination that much further. But atheism forecloses such an avenue of exploration with a wave of the hand: “Bah!” Any line of inquiry which may open up the possibility that God exists must be shut down, not with conclusive evidence but with a priori declarations of fact: “Only real or unreal!”

Or consider the out-of-hand dismissal of miracles: Wolf, at the beginning of his article, sneers at “antique absurdities” such as the Virgin Birth and the Assumption of Mary. Here we have a classic case of “chronological snobbery”: People of the first century were too dumb to know that sex causes reproduction. The same people couldn’t tell the difference between a dead body and a living body disappearing into another plane of existence. And, of course, they accepted men walking on water as a commonplace.

Consider the Virgin Birth that is the object of Wolf’s scorn: When the angel announced to Mary her incipient pregnancy, Luke tells us, Mary asked, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man” (Lk 1:34)? And Matthew tells us that Joseph was preparing to break off the marriage with her quietly, so she wouldn’t be exposed to the penalty for adultery (Mt 1:19). Consider Onan, who practiced coitus interruptus about two millennia or so before Christ—and four millennia before jokes about “Vatican roulette”—to avoid impregnating his hand-me-down wife (Gn 38:6-10). In fact, anyone who actually bothers to read the Old Testament should realize that the ancient people knew the connection between sex and reproduction just as well as—and perhaps better than—modern people. Put differently, they knew virgins don’t get pregnant from toilet seats.

Or consider the Resurrection: The forensic pathologist and the medical examiner have nothing over the shaman of a hunter-gatherer tribe in knowing that dead men don’t ordinarily come back to life after a couple of days, especially if they’ve been brutally executed. If resurrection were considered a natural occurrence, there should have been nothing spectacular about Jesus’ return. Moreover, the Gospel writers are at some pains to tell us that Jesus proved to his disciples that he wasn’t a ghost or a figment of their imagination (Paul tells us that over fifty people witnessed the resurrected Christ). Ghosts, spirits and demons were part of their milieu; resurrections weren’t. At least, not until then.

The people of the first century didn’t have as much detailed knowledge about the Way Things Work. But they knew when they saw miracles precisely because they knew that such events were ordinarily impossible, or at least so improbable as to be virtually impossible: the universe couldn’t produce these results of its own volition. The very fact of these events’ impossibility by natural means is what defines and qualifies them as miracles. To attribute the reports to ignorance, insanity, illusions or lies is not so much to explain as to explain away. And to expect future science to explain what present science can’t is to place as great a faith in the future as any Christian’s hope of heaven.

Let’s look at it from another direction:

Nothing supernatural is claimed for such beasts as unicorns. If one existed, it would be a material creature, living on our level of reality. Thor, Jupiter, Brahman and the other gods of other mythoi are/were also creatures of the material universe. So when we don’t find any traces of them, we’re reasonable to conclude they don’t exist.

But God, if He exists, would do so on a level of being that Science is not only practically but theoretically unprepared to verify, let alone explore. As Creator of the universe, He wouldn’t be contained within the universe. So looking for such a God within the material universe would be like looking for an elephant with an electron microscope, or (to borrow from Scott Adams) looking for unicorns in your sock drawer with a metal detector.

But the bias goes further than that. When Suetonius writes of events in the life of Julius Caesar, which was over 150 years prior to his birth, no serious historian attempts to move those events to a more convenient decade, or assumes that the author is making quotes up out of whole cloth. Yet serious, accredited historians and textual critics will push the writing dates of the Gospels even into the second century simply on the presumption that the reports are corruptions of “what really happened”. They’ll also take words out of Jesus’ mouth as later fabrications and interpolations in their quest to discover the “historical Jesus” … i.e., a Jesus who wasn’t—or at least didn’t claim to be—God Incarnate.

Sociological surveys using standard psychological measures have found that people who have had at least one ecstatic religious experience tend to be healthier on average than other people. Medical research have shown that a lack of religiosity is as harmful as smoking a pack a day. Yet atheists still ask us to presume that saints, mystics and those who report miracles to be suffering from some kind of physical or mental illness … or, worse, to be lying scoundrels.

What kind of “science”, I ask you, deliberately eliminates ancient source material as inherently unreliable? What kind of “science” writes witnesses off a priori as crazy or weak-minded? What kind of “science” closes off avenues of investigation merely because those avenues might lead towards an unwanted answer? Simply put, that’s not the rigorous methodology which exemplifies science at its best. Rather, it’s reflexive, close-minded dogmatism, a deliberate distortion of scientific method to stack the decks against even the faint possibility of God. Not only is atheism neither science-based nor scientific, it exerts a corruptive, intellectually dishonest influence in both the natural and social sciences.

I’m not saying that scientists should be required to be believers, but only that they should be radically open to the possibility that God exists, as a matter of intellectual honesty. I’m not saying that such evidence as we have is conclusive, but rather that it shouldn’t be excluded or reconstructed to fit the naturalist/materialist pattern … because ultimately that model may be too limited to accurately describe the universe. Science should be agnostic, in the sense that God/no-God ought to be a conclusion to be reached, not a premise to start from: the anti-religious bias must be whipped from the temple along with all other religious biases.

The friends of Science have objected to attempts by Christians to hijack astrophysics through Intelligent Design. Such friends should also resist the efforts of atheists—new or old—to bias Science against the divine. If Science is truly to be, as one sociologist put it, “the pursuit of truth no-holds-barred”, it can’t afford the restraints of blind, knee-jerk denial.