Thursday, July 9, 2009

The "New Atheists" and Their (Old) Superstitions

Book Review:
Why There Almost Certainly Is a God by Keith Ward (Lion, 2009)
Answering the New Atheism by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (Emmaus Road, 2008)
Atheism Remix by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Crossway, 2008)

These three books are part of a growing stream of literature responding to the "New Atheists," Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (Why God is Not Great). As more and more Christian philosophers and theologians respond to the assertions of the New Atheists, one thing becomes quite clear: these men are not nearly so clever or sophisticated as they think. They show no sign of any engagement with serious Christian thinking and do not really engage with Christian arguments, believing that "science" has shown all religion to be falsehood. As these books show, this position is more a superstition than a warranted conclusion. Hahn and Wiker sum the matter up nicely when, commenting on Dawkins' book The God Delusion, they note, in the context of analyzing Dawkins' notion of "chance," that "Dawkins would rather believe in anything than be induced by reason to admit that there is a good scientific case to be made for the existence of an intelligent cause of nature. He will grasp at any materialist miracle, as long as it is not a real spiritual miracle". The great superstition of the New Atheists is to confuse genuine natural science with naturalistic philosophy. The New Atheism succeeds only so long as one accepts the dogma that their version of science is alone correct and that this version is the only possible means of discovering truth. In other words, if the New Atheists do not recognize something as true this simply means that it is not true--end of discussion. Beginning with this superstition they then go on to criticize religious people for being narrow and close minded (!).
In Why There Almost Certainly Is A God philosopher and theologian Keith Ward analyzes and dismantles Dawkins' book The God Delusion. Ward patiently goes through Dawkins' case against God and shows, clearly and charitably, that Dawkins suppositions about Christianity are usually shallow and that his conclusions are usually erroneous. Essentially, Ward says, Dawkins does not believe in God not because he produced a convincing argument against the concept but because he begins with materialist assumptions. The God Delusion is not a philosophical attack on Christianity but a materialist confession of faith (one in which arrogance is quite often a substitute for argument).
Ward notes that one of Dawkins' greatest failures is his unjustified refusal to look for deeper explanations for the cosmos, explanations which are properly metaphysical. Dawkins maintains that metaphysics is bunk while operating from a position of metaphysical materialism. Ward is quite content to acknowledge that natural selection can adequately account for the evolution but he notes that natural selection can not (as Dawkins seems to think) account for a cosmos in which natural selection is a fruitful process. Evolution depends on a finely tuned universe in which to occur and so does not explain that universe but presupposes it. Dawkins' attachment to a dogmatically materialist naturalism prevents him from seeing a key point: "Evolutionary theory leads to a search for a deeper level of explanation, an explanation that would raise the probability of the laws, forces and structures of nature being as they are".
For Ward, belief in God involves a search for a deeper explanation of the universe. Not an explanation which ignores science but one which goes beyond it, looking for an explanation as to why science is itself possible for creatures such as us. As such, belief in God involves seeing the universe as essentially involving consciousness and purpose. Dawkins is bound by his dogmas to not even consider this possibility.
Roman Catholic theologians Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker also take on Dawkins in their Answering the New Atheism. The bulk of this book is given to an argument against Dawkins view that the universe is best viewed as the product of chance. Their argument is that Dawkins' belief in chance is just that, a belief or article of faith. The existence of a universe such as our's and the existence of creatures such as us who observe and reflect upon this universe call into serious question whether mere chance is an adequate explanation. The odds against both are such as to approach impossibility. Like Ward, Hahn and Wiker are looking for a deeper explanation: "The deep intelligibility of nature itself couldn't be caused by evolution because it precedes all biological evolution, and further, the extraordinary human capacity to grasp this deep intelligibility of nature as evidenced in modern science exceeds by far a reductionist account of the evolution of human intelligence." Dawkins' attachment to scientific materialism is not due to its potential fruitfulness but to do the fact that it rules out the supernatural before any questions are asked.
R. Albert Mohler's Atheism Remix focuses on the New Atheism as a cultural phenomenon. For Mohler, it is the result of a culture which is progressively becoming unhinged. It is not that the New Atheists have fully engaged Christianity and decisively refuted it but that they inhabit a culture in which belief in God is seen as an impossibility for the outset. Ironically, the New Atheists have simply produced a new fundamentalism, one whose central (and unquestionable) dogma is naturalism. Mohler's summary of Dawkins is both accurate and devastating: "Given his absolute and uncritical acceptance of naturalism as a worldview, Dawkins is left with nothing but materialism, and his own lack of intellectual humility is seen in the fact that he simply assumes that his own worldview is the only possible or credible worldview in the modern age." This is a good summary of what might be called the "Dawkins Superstition".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new atheism is the old paganism. "Why do the heathen rage?" Ps 2. I'm a Methodist, but admire the principled stance that St. Peter's has taken in the midst of denominational apostacy. Our denomination faces similar challenges. Preach the gospel. It stands on its own and convicts those that the Holy Spirit has chosen. Don't worry too much about the follies of wolves in sheeps' clothing.

July 18, 2009 at 1:27 AM  

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