Why the New Atheists Can't Even Beat D'Souza: The Best and Worst in Human History
By Greg Perkins @ 12:10 AM
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
In the firefight between Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza and "New Atheists" such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, the New Atheists are suffering serious damage. The tragedy is that D'Souza wouldn't stand a snowball's chance if they had a strong philosophical grounding.
For example, several of the New Atheists point to the Inquisition and Crusades and Witch Trials of early Christianity, the deadly Jihad waged in the name of Islam today, and so on—and D'Souza agrees this is a terrible toll that religion is responsible for. But he goes on to argue that when you actually look at the numbers, this responsibility is minuscule in comparison to the slaughter of over 100 million by the atheistic regimes of the 20th century. So he contends it is obvious that "Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history."
This point has devastated the New Atheists. They try to defuse it by arguing for some causal association between religion and those bloody regimes: if not explicitly by talking about the Catholicism in Hitler and Nazi Germany, then implicitly by gesturing to a "religious mindset" or some other vague influence of religion. But discussion of the Catholic connection to Hitler and Nazi Germany quickly turns into a back-and-forth of citations from competing historical experts. And while the dust is swirling over whether religion might be connected to that one part of 20th Century totalitarianism, D'Souza points to the explicitly godless Communist regimes. The New Atheists have been reduced to weakly objecting that the Crusades and Inquisition were done "in the name of" Christianity, while Communism and Nazism weren't done in the name of atheism—but given all the references that can be made to those regimes' explicit work to eradicate God, this approach is not convincing. The New Atheists are struggling because they aren't able to frame the issue properly.
What Atheism Isn't
First, consider that atheism is not itself an ideology; there is no such thing as an "atheist mindset" or an "atheist movement." Atheism per se hasn't inspired and doesn't lead to anything in particular because it is an effect—not a cause—and there are countless reasons for a person to not believe in God, ranging from vicious to innocent to noble. The newborn baby lacks a belief in God, as does the Postmodern Nihilist, the Communist, and the Objectivist—but each for entirely different reasons having dramatically different implications. So lumping all of these together under the "atheist" label as if that were a meaningful connection is profoundly confused. Yet this is exactly what the New Atheists do and encourage: they talk about how there are so many atheists out there, and advocate their banding together into an atheist community to seek fellowship, foster cultural change, build a political voice, and so on. But what would a committed Communist and an Objectivist have in common—regarding what they do believe, why they believe it, how that leads them to live personally, the sort of social system they would strive for in government? Nothing. They are polar opposites in principle and practice, across the philosophical board.
The New Atheists can't rebuff D'Souza because he is actually following their own lead to associate them with brutal totalitarian regimes. And worse, that confusion makes it difficult to see the fundamental cause of the misery and bloodshed found across all of those failures of humanity—from the early Christian Crusades and Inquisition, through the 20th Century totalitarian regimes, up to the Islamic theocracies in the Middle East today. The important contrast is not atheism vs. religion, but rather rationality vs. irrationality.
The Wages of Irrationality
All of that bloodshed is a result of people rejecting reason as the way to do business in reality—which means rejecting our only means of peaceful and productive coexistence. Operating in the realm of reason, people are oriented to the facts, their means of dealing with one another is persuasion, and reality is the court of final appeal when there is disagreement. Take scientists, for example: necessarily focused on reason and reality, they resolve their scientific disputes with logic and by reference to facts. We don't find them fragmenting into sects and breaking out into violence over their disagreements. Indeed, just the opposite happens: the body of scientific knowledge converges over time as disagreements are sorted out and facts are acknowledged. Their successes and this convergence don't come from the use of guns and clubs, but from a commitment to reason and reality, facts and logic.
While it is easy to see brutes in totalitarian regimes reaching for a gun rather than peacefully persuading free minds, the connection to force may not be so obvious in the case of people of faith. Yet just as reason and freedom go together, so do their antagonists, faith and force. As Ayn Rand observed, "every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny"—and she underscored this shared rejection of reason in identifying the two as species of the same basic animal: the brutes as "mystics of muscle," and the faithful as "mystics of spirit." To see how religious faith plays into the use of force, consider theologians in contrast to the scientists discussed above. Here we find ever-expanding divergence and fragmentation in their body of thought—just notice how religions and the denominations within them have multiplied through history. And we don't see believers resolving disagreements over their articles of faith by persuasion and reference to the facts of reality—whether it is Muslims vs. Christians, Catholics vs. Protestants, Baptists vs. Mormons, or one part of a congregation breaking away from another. This is because articles of faith aren't based on a grasp of the facts of reality, and so they can't be explained or defended by references to the facts of reality. Since people of faith can't resolve such differences using facts and rational persuasion, they are left with only one alternative: force.
Having it Both Ways
Besides trying to tar his opponents with the worst atrocities in history, D'Souza regularly tries to give Christianity credit for mankind's positive strides. For instance, he argues in an op-ed that "Christianity has illuminated the greatest achievements of the culture" such as the rise of science, human rights, equality for women and minorities, ending slavery, and so forth. That "when you examine history you find that all of these values came into the world because of Christianity." He contrasts Christianity and atheism, saying that these advances arrived in Christendom and by the hands of Christians—not atheists. And he uses this to score extra points in debate by asking his opponents what atheism has to offer humanity, other than the chance to undermine all that progress.
Once again, such a comparison is fundamentally confused. Recall that atheism is not itself an ideology and therefore doesn't lead people to do anything in particular—good or bad. So again we need to approach the issue in terms that will actually shed some light. The illuminating question to consider is: What does reason offer humanity over faith?
Here we see a striking contrast. Every discovery, every invention, every new idea that guided every step we have taken up from the poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of those who came before has been made possible by one thing: thinking. Revelation never delivered a vaccine or explained the rainbow. Faith never designed a building or fed a baby. Submission to authority never discovered a better social organization or put a man on the moon. The power of this-worldly reason did.
Even the broadest strokes of history make this clear: Mankind stagnated for a thousand years through the Dark Ages while the Christian faith reigned supreme. Then what changed? Mankind started to believe that this world matters and that we are worthy and capable of living in it. The suffocating grip of faith and otherworldliness began to loosen as more people turned to reason and reality, and the West clawed its way from darkness into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It took this-worldly thinking to discover the methods of science—not scripture and revelation, which had been present for millennia. It took free minds aimed at the task of living on earth to ignite the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution, and to deliver every bounty in the explosion of progress that followed—not prayer and intercession, which have been with us for all time.
Correlation isn't causation. Obviously, long-standing Christianity only accommodated the relatively recent changes that unleashed minds brought while its overwhelming authority eroded. We were delivered from the Christian Dark Ages despite Christianity, not because of it. Countless lives were made shorter and more miserable by its cruel stranglehold—and how much higher would we be flying now without its dead weight?
The New Atheists haven't been able to slam-dunk D'Souza because they lack the objective philosophical perspective necessary to penetrate to the core of these issues. In this case, their struggles reveal a failure to genuinely appreciate how religion is not itself the fundamental problem—irrationality is. Religion constitutes just one form of unreason, and the only thing that makes it particularly noteworthy and dangerous is that it has at its heart an explicit, committed, philosophical attack on reason: extolling faith as a virtue.
(Upcoming in the series: Science vs. Miracles, The Gap in Religious Thought, and Morality and Life.)
Sam Harris stands out as an exception to advocating atheists banding together under the atheist banner, though his rejection of the label appears to be more of a pragmatic move to avoid troublesome connotations than a principled avoidance of the basic mistake it represents.
Labels: Atheism, Objectivism, Philosophy, Religion