Evangelical Atheism Today: A response to Richard Dawkins
It used to be that atheists
didnt bother anybody. They simply stayed home from church on Sunday and
avoided praying. The social impact was minimal. But, now this is suddenly
changing. With vigor and zeal and cross country stumping, a new breed of
evangelical atheists is launching a crusade to liberate our society from the
chains of religion. Religion poisons the minds of our youth because it teaches
children to rely on something other than critical thinking. Religion is
responsible for the violence in our world, because belief in a supernatural and
jealous god leads us into war to defeat infidels. Only atheism, only outright
disbelief in God, can rescue our society from endless religious conflict.
Wired magazine columnist sounds the alarm: The New Atheists...condemn not just
belief in God but respect for belief in God...Religion is not only wrong, its
evil. Religion is irrational; and it makes societies prone to violence.
Religion, especially fundamentalist religion, incites violence. What todays
atheists want are more converts so they can bring peace. Although not yet
organized into a marching army, we can identify a posse forming around
malcontents such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. A band of intellectual brothers is mounting
a crusade against belief in God [Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired (November 2006) 182-193].
Curiously, the new atheists are evangelizing for non-belief.
Just as the Christian crusaders
sought to take Jerusalem away from
the Muslims, the new atheists want to take science away from Christians and
other religious believers. Science rightfully belongs to atheism, they contend.
Atheism, and its justification through science, is the apotheosis of the
Enlightenment, writes Oxford
chemistry professor, Peter Atkins [Atheism and Science, in Philip Clayton and
Zachary Simpson, editors, The Oxford
Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford
and New York: Oxford University
Press, 2006) 136].
the most visible of the banner waving crusaders for non-belief is Oxford
professor of science education, Richard Dawkins. It was Dawkins who in 1976
gave us the concept of the selfish gene, and who is known for championing the
field of sociobiology. What is so delightful to the theologian is that Dawkins
confronts the question of God with utmost clarity. Does God exist? No. Well,
probably, no. The question of God is a scientific question, he avers. And
scientists can only speak in probabilities, not absolutes. So, it is Dawkins
scientific judgment that, most probably, God does not exist.
is clear on who he wants to see defeated. He says he is not attacking any
specific divine figure such as Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Baal, Zeus, or Wotan.
Rather, he is attacking all of them at once. All belief in such divinities can
be swept up into a single God Hypothesis, which Dawkins attempts to falsify.
I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately
designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
Dawkins advocates an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of
sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end
product of an extended process of gradual evolution [The God Delusion (Boston
and New York: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 2006) 31]. Let us attend to the logic here. If God would exist, it
would take the form of an eschatological existence, not a primordial existence.
No god more intelligent or more complex than the material universe could have
existed at its simple beginning. Such a god could only evolve like everything
else evolves. If (which I dont believe for a moment) our universe was
designed, and a fortiori if the
designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption,
the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative
escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe [Ibid.,
Even with this slim opening
toward the coming into existence of a future intelligence, Dawkins closes the
door on divinity. No God existed at the beginning, at the origin of the
universe or at the origin of life. And no God now guides the evolutionary
process of speciation. Natural selection does. Wondrously, natural selection
has produced an intelligent designer, us. We homo sapiens are the most
intelligent beings in natures earthly history to date. We might expect even
higher intelligence to develop in the future. The evolutionary development of
the human race is what Dawkins believes in. Further, he contends, belief in
evolution requires disbelief in God. Note how Dawkins has substituted natural
selection for divine providence, and substituted the revelatory power of Darwins
theory of evolution for scripture. The evangelical atheists look for their
messiah in science, especially Charles Darwins theory of evolution.
Now, can we honestly say their
atheism is itself scientific? No. The materialist worldview the evangelical atheists
espouse is in fact an ideological add-on, a superimposition. Atheism is not
inherent to scientific inquiry itself. For Dawkins to apotheosize natural
selection within evolutionary theory is simply unwarranted. Dawkinss critique
of religion cannot properly be called scientific writes Mailynne Robinson
[Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins, Harpers Magazine (November 2006) 86].
I can honestly admit that I
appreciate one thing about the new breed of atheists, namely, their strong
advocacy for critical thinking in natural science. We must grant that the
pursuit of scientific inquiry feeds the human soul hungry for knowledge about
the wonders of our natural world. Yet, I object to the unnecessary ideology of
materialism which they attach to science. Rather than admit that their
atheistic commitment is itself an act of religious faith, albeit a negative
act, they attempt to borrow the prestige of science to buttress their cause.
The problem is that science belongs to all of us, not merely to the atheists
This is my response to Dawkins on
science. But, what about the complaint made by the evangelical atheists that
religion is violent and atheism is peaceful? Sam Harris speaks for the
movement: religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict. [The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the
Future of Reason (New York
and London: W.W. Norton, 2004)
236]. In order to bring global peace, we need to stamp out religion. The
religions Harris particularly wants to eliminate are Islam, Christianity, and
Judaism. These irrational and violence prone holdovers from a pre-modern era
must be dispensed with. All reasonable men and women have a common
enemy....Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself[Ibid., 79].
let us ask: do atheists have a record of higher virtue than religious people?
Not according to history. When we look at the twentieth century, we can see
that the most horrific genocidal atrocities--Hitlers global war combined with
the holocaust in central Europe, Stalins purge of non-Communists in the former
Soviet Union and Eastern Block, Mao Tse Tungs incessant reign of terror and
murder, the Khmer Rouges killing fields in Cambodia--were all perpetrated in
the name of atheistic ideologies. What
more compelling evidence could there be that it is misguided to point the
finger of blame for this or other humanly perpetrated atrocities at religion
alone! What delusion could even suggest that either science or atheism or a
combination of these two could provide a peaceful alternative!
new atheists have heard such criticisms before. They respond defensively by
saying that the versions of atheism responsible for the horrific killings of
the previous century were impure atheism. In the case of Stalin and Mao, their
atheism was contaminated by Marxist atheism. In the case of Hitler, his science
was contaminated by the spurious theory of eugenics. Evidently, orthodox
atheism founded on orthodox science has not been tried yet. But, when it is
tried, then it will provide a peace and tranquility not yet achieved by
religion or by unorthodox atheism. Well, this seems to be the argument the
evangelical atheists leave us with.
her widely read Harper review cited
above, Marilynne Robinson says she is not persuaded by Dawkins attempt to
exonerate atheism by extricating science from Nazi genocide. Even though
religiously led anti-Semitism certainly predated the rise of Darwinism, during
the second decade of the twentieth century, it was at such a low ebb that it
had virtually no active influence on German society. It bordered on the
forgotten. What happened then was that Hitler adopted Darwinian eugenics into
his program of racial hygiene; and within the eugenic theory he redefined the
Jew in genetic or racial rather than religious terms. Hitler produced a
scientized racism. The winds of the Zeitgeist then began to blow in the direction of
genocide. It was science, not religion, that propelled Nazi Germany toward the
holocaust, says Robinson. To Dawkinss objection that Nazi science was not
authentic science I would reply, first, that neither Nazis nor Germans had any
monopoly on these theories, which were influential throughout the Western
world, and second, that the research on human subjects carried out by those
holding such assumptions was good enough science to appear in medical texts for
fully half a century. This is not to single out science as exceptionally
inclined to do harm, though its capacity for doing harm is by now unequaled. It
is only to note that science, too, is implicated in this bleak human
proclivity, and is one major instrument of it . In short, to identify
atheism with pure science in order to distance it from the Nazi atrocities fails
in its attempt to persuade that a scientized atheism would usher in human
virtue and world peace.
we should replace the God Delusion with the Dawkins Delusion. The
historical fact that secular and overtly atheistic ideologies self-consciously
founded on what they deem science have been responsible for ruthless murder
on the scale of millions if not tens of millions cannot be overturned by a flip
of the ideological switch, by simply saying these forms of scientific atheism
were not the form that the current evangelical atheists advocate.
two things need to be said. First, the human
propensity for violence and even genocide is just that, a human propensity. It
matters not whether the society marching toward war or murder is secular or
religious. In either case, whatever science or religion is culturally available
will be used to justify destructive intentions. Believers in religion need not
whitewash their own religious tradition; they can afford to be realistic about
the manner in which religion like anything else can be pressed into the service
of justifying violence and destruction. Second, the confidence of the
evangelical atheists that movement toward a scientifically based society will
bring the rule of reason and eliminate current violence is itself a delusion.
It commits the fallacy of false cause. By naming religion as the cause of
violence, this position is looking for a scapegoat rather than looking for a
deeper and broader explanation.
said this, I can sympathize to a certain level with the exasperation the
evangelical atheists feel in regard to what they perceive to be religious
forces in global politics. If what they see is suicide bombers in the name of a
transcendent promise perpetrating fear and suffering among the most innocent of
victims, how can they avoid rising up in outrage? And, it is a fact that
suicide bombers are trained in religious schools and are promised religious
rewards for their acts of merciless killing. It is easy to think that religion
is a fault here.
leaders among the various faiths of the world have a responsibility to clean up
their own act, so to speak. Our era calls for strong religious leadership, for
a loud blast on the angelic trumpet that declares Gods will for a global
society characterized by peace, cooperation, justice, care, and, most
importantly, love. The resources for such leadership lie at the foundations for
each religious tradition, including Islam. Conversion to atheism would at best
amount to a diversion leading to a blind alley. Despite the challenge of
religious violence in our world, our religious leaders need resolute courage to
call to our attention the will of our loving God.
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| Contributed by: Ted Peters