It’s Thursday, and you know what that means: its time to read theist critiques of the philosophical logic behind contemporary atheism! You don’t remember us doing this every Thursday since the creation of this blog? Well, I do, and the onus is on you to prove that we haven’t. In the meantime, I’ll be running for the local school board. Nah—I’m just messing with you. You can’t prove a negative, unless you use an indirect proof to demonstrate that assuming the negative’s opposite results in a logical contradiction—like, for example, when you point out that an omniscient god could not also be omnipotent, since his certain knowledge of the future would delimit the field of his own actions. That’s one of the many appealing but ultimately bankrupt arguments* for atheism that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart mentions in his dense, insightful and enormously infuriating indictment of “the new atheism” in May’s issue of First Things, which I assume is on your coffee table right now. Hart, who is the author of a book called Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (beach reading!) contends that the present cottage industry in books indicting religion is a poor, pale imitation of atheism’s great past. He writes like CS Lewis listening to a tape recording of his own voice, but he makes an interesting point. From the standpoint of rigorous logic, contemporary atheism has become sufficiently popular that it needs to start watching its ass.
There’s a lot to disagree with in Hart’s piece, beginning with his assertion that “this whole ‘New Atheism’ movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County.” First of all, there are still a lot of soap operas on in prime time, and second of all, I don’t think the desire to discover foundational meanings in human existence without making ungrounded suppositions is comparable to “It’s Raining Men.” Atheism—unlike, say, doctrinaire adherence to the religious beliefs of one’s family and community—is generally not something one does because everybody else is into it.
Which is all the more reason to make sure it is a logically defensible position. If your fundamental thesis is that we should base our ontologies—and therefore our systems of meaning—on nothing for which we have no proof, you probably don’t want to rely on emotional appeal. This is the problem Hart rightly locates in the work of Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is a terrific way to convince people that attacking religion is the moral-philosophical equivalent of wearing a fedora in high school. “As best I can tell,” Hart writes, Hitchens’ case against faith consists mostly in a series of anecdotal enthymemes—that is to say, syllogisms of which one premise has been suppressed. Unfortunately, in each case it turns out to be the major premise that is missing, so it is hard to guess what links the minor premise to the conclusion.” Like many of us who find ourselves pressed for time or faced with an interlocutor who is maybe not totally fluent in logical systems, Hitchens bases many of his arguments on the perceived abuses of religious history. He’s right when he says that, for example, the Vatican’s stance on birth control in South America has been responsible for enormous suffering. When he does so, however, he argues not so much against the existence of god as against the social value of religion.
The distinction to be made there is an important one, and Hart himself blurs it when he arrives at his concluding argument, which is that the new atheism does not promise a cogent system of meaning to replace the theological one it attacks. He poses as a counterexample of better atheism Friedrich Nietzsche, who delivered the news that “God is dead” with the full awareness of its implications for human meaning. Nietzsche predicted a radical revision of morality in the face of the certainty that man is the only arbiter of values in the universe—one comparable to the moral revolution that the emergence of Christianity wreaked on the Roman empire. “If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes,” Hart writes, “then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?”
By Hart’s own acknowledgement, however, the scenario Nietzsche describes is not a world without god but one without the belief in god—that is, a world without religion. No intellectually honest person can argue for one without the other, of course. Still, the logical arguments underpinning each differ radically, and Hart conflates them when he argues that the new atheism is logically broken because it offers no meaningful substitute for religion in our lives. One is allowed to say that there is no god without naming his replacement. Whether one would want to is another matter, and I personally agree with both Nietzsche and Hart that the death of god will require “some great feat of creative will.” The operative word, though, is “require,” and just as Hart employs the argument from infinite regress to demand a transcendent plenitude of being in the universe, I say first things first. Let him first prove we have a god before he argues that we cannot do without him.