Friday, December 22, 2006

Mark Shea On Atheism

Two great posts today.

from the second link:

[S]ince I don't hang in agnostic/atheist circle I haven't studied the various denominations and schools of anti-theology. For instance, some people are agnostic or atheist because they actively don't believe the question can be answered. Others are agnostic because (to be blunt) things like making money and getting laid occupy their attention (I knew a lot of these guys in college). Still others have agonized about the question and lost their faith due to various life experiences or trains of thought. And, of course, some are just furious at God and/or his people. And that is not an exhaustive catalog of reasons.

My comments about atheism tend to be shaped by my experience of atheists on the web. In real life, atheists seldom buttonhole you on park benches to begin spit-flecked lectures on how much they loathe faithheads. But the Internet tends to bring those people out and give them a place where they can spew. So vocal, evangelical atheists tend to become the face of atheism. Happily, Adrienne does not seem to be of this ilk, which makes for an interesting conversation.

Adrienne assures me there are lots of theories of morality that don't need a God to work. I suppose there are, or at least seem to be. One of the great linguistic mixups of these discussions seems to me to be Christians who say that atheists "can't be moral if there is no God." Obviously, this is false. I think it more accurate to say that atheism cannot account for morality in an intellectually satisfying way (at least to my mind). It seems to me to be constantly smuggling in mystical doctrines from the Judeo-Christian tradition that sometimes flatly contradict its own committments to materialism and empiricism.

So, for instance, we find materialist attempts to account for the human mind stymied by the fact that we are quite obviously free to make moral choices, yet materialists like William Provine are committed (by their a priori materialists dogmas) to the faith that freedom is an illusion since Mind is entirely the product of matter and energy acting in slavish obedience to physical laws. Atheist sneers at the concept of a "rational soul" are part and parcel of the package. In the end, human acts are entirely the result of natural forces, just like the acts of a dog.

And yet, atheism has a long tradition of ignoring its own premisses and speaking as though Reason transcends Nature, even though its whole argument is that *nothing* transcends Nature because Nature is all there is. This is either sleight of hand or, as I suspect, muddled thinking.

And not only does the supposition of the use of Reason as a free, nature-transcending act seem to me to be an exercise in self-contradiction, even more the constant appeals of atheism to morality seem to compound the blunder and borrow even more from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because atheists are constantly moralizing, not least about the sin of theists. In short, they posit a nature-transending reason that not only can be used, but misused. But what is the sense of saying that a purely natural act is "wrong"?

The normal dodge here is to say "We don't mean 'sinful'. We mean 'unbeneficial to the community'." However, this is just to push the borrowing a little further back. Because you have to still be holding that "the survival of the community" is a Good. But good and evil make no sense in a purely natural world. The arrival of an asteroid 65 million years ago was highly unbeneficial to the dinosaur community. But nobody thinks the extinction of the dinosaurs was a sin in the way the Holocaust was a sin. And yet, in a materialist world, both were ultimately simply the results of matter and energy going through their motions.

Some may press on and say, "Yes, that's right! They were! We attach moral significance to the Holocaust because it helps us survive as a species. But that is ultimately an illusion." However, if they do, they had better contact that atheist community's polemic department, because yer average anti-theist polemics sound very distinctly like they believe theists are genuinely wicked and damnable and not merely like their geno-environment programming makes them prefer margarine while atheists prefer butter.

It is this constant borrowing from the Judeo-Christian tradition which, to me, gives the game away. From the presumption of a mystical doctrine of freedom (and, it's corrollary, sin) to the purely mystical belief in human equality (try proving that to pure empiricists like Aristotle) to constant appeals to teleology to its conviction that the Self is a good thing, atheism seems to me to continually borrow from the Judeo-Christian tradition, either consciously or unconsciously.

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