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December 14, 2006

An atheist divided against himself?

If James Wood, writing in The New Republic (online registration required), is any indication, some atheists aren't exactly thrilled about the savage tone that has lately crept into atheistic critiques of religion. After about a page and a half thoroughly detailing the reasons behind his own atheism, Wood has this to say:

My inner atheist . . . enjoys the "naughtiness" of this disrespect [of Dawkins, Harris, et al.], even if a little of it goes a long way. And all these writers are correct to argue that religion is unfairly protected by a cordon sanitaire of "respect." In America, all you need to do is intone the word "faith" and your opponent will start backing away from you in terror, like a vampire before a crucifix. In these books the vampire bites back, and Harris has an Orwellian robustness and a good journalistic way with his one-liners. To the creationists who believe that the world is six thousand years old, he says: "This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue." The principal concern of American Christians "appears to be that the creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked." Twenty percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, he writes: "if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all." . . .

This brand of public atheism is very good at the necessary disrespecting of religion, and it has a properly hygienic function. But how worthy of respect is it itself? The problem is that its bright certainty about the utter silliness of religion leads very quickly away from philosophy and argument. There is a dismaying gap, in these books, between the righteous anger of the critique of the many absurdities of religious belief and the attempts to account for why people have believed this apparent nonsense for so many centuries. I would rather that these writers refrained from speculation altogether than plunge into their flimsy anthropological kit bag. It is peculiar indeed to read Dawkins's eloquent pages on evolution, and on how evolution may in the end solve the question of who created us, and then to find that very evolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical, rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believed in God for so long.

For Dawkins, it may all be explained by our evolutionary need to fall in love, or perhaps by our childish need to have a big friend. At the same time, we have also evolved a HADD, a "hyperactive agent detection device": "we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent." (Daniel Dennett is also fond of the argument from HADD.) Dawkins's example of this tendency is a moment in Fawlty Towers when John Cleese's car breaks down. Cleese, drunk with HADD, one supposes, starts thrashing his car to death. Dawkins truly appears to think that this high-table guffawing will do as an explanation of why thousands of generations have been drawn to believe in God. And mystical experience of the divine does not detain him, either. We have evolved superb "simulation software in the brain," which is "especially adept at constructing faces and voices.... It is well capable of constructing 'visions' and 'visitations' of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication." And he concludes: "That is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena." Evolutionary biologists never seem happier than when they are talking about humans as crafty but malfunctioning computers, with "toolkits" and "menus" and "software." The possibility that this might itself be a mad "vision," an example of a highly evolved Oxonian computer on the blink, does not occur to Dawkins's own simulation software.

To my admittedly unphilosophical mind, Wood appears, even as he dismantles religion with a firm hand, to have an uneasy realization lurking at the back of his mind that he himself is standing on shaky ground. Even as he disdains the answers provided by faith, he has to acknowledge that are some answers that his rationalism can't give him -- it's just that he thinks "speculation" is a more appropriate way of handling uncertainty than belief.

In fact, as firmly as Wood seems to think he has no respect for religion, he appears more of a waverer between respect and disrespect. That's how I read it, anyway. I'd be interested to know what the rest of you think.

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Comments

Fred Valdes MD

I just read the Dec 26 editorial on the recent broadcast in England that calls Christianity the "root of all evil". I loved the response by Mr. Colson. I have often asked the question what makes our country be so successful and able provide the greatest freedoms and standards for its people. No doubt in my mind, our profound Christian roots are the meain reason for all our achievements!

God bless. Keep up the great work.

Fred

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