Monday, July 16, 2007

A momentary lapse of reason, or antitheism and me

During this weekend's obligatory 'til-the-sun-comes-up, drunken, religio-political conversation, the antitheism of of Christopher Hitchens was discussed (if that's an appropriate word to use) in heated and sloppy fashion. It's somewhat coincidental, then, that in my first five minutes of internet perusal this morning, I ran across a Wall Street Journal editorial blasting Hitchens as a particular proponent of "The New, New Atheism."

But then again, maybe it's not so coincidental; Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and several other prominent antitheists have been waging an unabashedly militant reverse-jihad against religion for what seems like a good while now, and they've enjoyed a decent amount of media coverage. If I remember correctly, it was fairly recently that Dawkins even had his own miniseries on the BBC used to promote his book, The God Delusion.

As Berkowitz notes, atheism in itself is nothing new. What is novel about Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, he says, is how militant their particular strain is. Again, they are antitheists, in that they not only do not believe in a god, but they maintain that any belief in any god is dangerous to humanity. Science and a deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world have ruled out God as a creator, so that a continued belief in him is madness.

It's not difficult to follow the sequence of events that led to the West's current wholesale investment in determinism and hyper-rationalism. What is difficult is determining what it will take to overthrow them as the dominant philosophies*. It is terribly damaging (not to mention terribly uncharitable) to society when, with almost universal agreement, academia brushes off religion and belief in god as ludicrous. For one thing, any theological question is [definitively] outside the scope of philosophy in general, and is [without any shred of a doubt] far, far, far beyond the scope of natural science in particular.


Even were he to concede that religion doesn't poison everything, Mr. Hitchens presumably still would cling to his claim that the findings of modern science prove that God does not exist. Thanks to the knowledge we have attained of how the natural order actually operates--in particular the discoveries of Charles Darwin and modern physics--he concludes that "all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule."

This conclusion, however, contradicts that of the late Stephen Jay Gould, to whom Mr. Hitchens himself refers as a "great paleontologist" and whose authority he invokes in support of the proposition that randomness is an essential feature of evolution. Noting surveys that showed that half of all scientists are religious, Gould commented amusingly that "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs--and equally compatible with atheism."

These lines are quoted in "The Dawkins Delusion," by Alistair McGrath, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology from Oxford, where he is now professor of historical theology, and by his wife Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who studied experimental psychology at Oxford and is currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London. According to the McGraths, Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because "there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method." Such questions--toward which the mind naturally wanders, though it is susceptible to ambush by the crude scientism of which Mr. Hitchens occasionally avails himself--include: Where did the universe come from, and is it governed by purpose?
This isn't even close to the most comprehensive criticism of Hitchens I've read lately, either; everybody's got one, and with good reason. I'm far too busy (read:lazy) to dig up some of the better ones, but that's why Google was invented for you.

*Unless you are holding out for Monumentalism, but I think we all know it's got a few fatal flaws of its own.


Ken, thanks again for the party. It was, and always is, good to see all yous guys.

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At 3:00 PM, July 16, 2007, Blogger GIZMO said...

Dawkins is the best. Hitchens is too, with his drunkeness and whatnot. love it. good form peter....good form.

At 11:05 PM, July 16, 2007, Blogger Vince said...

Drunkeness ftw.

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