Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists. Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person.
Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.* She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should. The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes. The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains. We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.
The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)
The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience. “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke. The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying. But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence. Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not. Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.
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Dawkins, Christianity, and the Meaning of Life.* Many readers will be familiar with Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, among other works promoting atheism. Darwinism, argues Dawkins, offers a better explanation of what we observe in the world than does the assumption of a creator God.
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. (1995, p 133)
The world is exactly as it appears to be if there were no God and no higher purpose to human life.
The trouble is, the world is also exactly as it appears if there were a creator God and a higher purpose. One doesn’t look at the world as a blind set of facts, and conclude there is no God. Instead, one begins with a general outlook on life, and then chooses the facts that support this view. Unlike so much in life, our religious views are not primarily expressions of early childhood experiences. People seem to choose, and change, their worldviews later in life, often in the late teens or twenties.
Consider the basic questions of life: why are we here, what’s the meaning of our lives, where are we going, what may I hope, what should I do? One does not find these answers in the facts; the facts are interpreted in terms of these questions.
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The good atheist: Melvin Konner and Belief. Atheists generally don’t write good books. Not because they are atheists, but because their goal is to convince others that belief in God is bad. Most well-known among them are the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as they have been called: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of Hitchens’ book is not subtle: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
The thing about atheists like this is not that they don’t believe in God; it’s that their disbelief becomes a crusade against religion as the source of most bad things. I don’t like team sports, and classical music doesn’t do much for me. But it would never occur to me that those who like, or even love these things shouldn’t do it, even if I think a lot of money is wasted on big sports. Atheism today has become synonymous with aggressive atheism: belief is bad.
This is why Melvin Konner’s recent book, Believers: Faith in Human Nature, is so welcome. Raised an orthodox Jew, Konner became an atheist at 17, the result of several factors, including a college course in philosophy. But Konner’s book is not an argument for atheism. It’s an argument for understanding what belief is, where it comes from, and what it does for the believer.
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The best book defending atheism isn’t great.
I keep looking for a good book defending atheism. It’s not easy. Jon Mills’ Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality is better than Grayling’s book, about which I posted a while back, but it’s not great.
Mills tries to do three things. First, to demonstrate that God does not exist. In this he joins a long line of aggressive atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007), Sam Harris (2004), and Richard Dawkins (2006). Mills says he is not a “vociferous atheist,” but he could have fooled me with his remarks about “the believing masses [who] cannot accept the fact that we are ultimately alone.” (p 104)
The third thing Mills tries to do is construct a defense of a humanistic spirituality. He says a lot of good things about finding “intrinsic worth and meaning in living our lives for the present” (p 228), but the foundation of this claim was laid down by Camus and Sartre, and I don’t see where Mills adds a great deal to this argument. In Mills’ defense, it should be pointed out that this is not a book aimed at an academic audience, but to an educated public. Or at least that’s the way I read it.
The second thing Mills tries to do is construct a psychoanalytic argument explaining the need for God. He begins with Freud (1930), who argued that God is an infantile delusion of an enormously powerful father figure. I turn to another psychoanalyst to find a different way of thinking about God. I’ve posted about D. W. Winnicott before.
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