Debating Atheism, Part 1

A week ago, I was scrambling to get my daughters off to a major swim meet at six o’clock in the morning, when I got a strange email: I was being invited to come to the Philosopical Society at University College Cork, Ireland, and participate in a debate about “whether this house would” reject atheism. The debate would be in mid-March, just a few weeks away.

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I was flabbergasted!  I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they had invited me, of all people. I have no qualifications as a philosopher (my B.A. in philosophy, as impressive as it is, doesn’t quite cut it). I haven’t written a book about atheism. My only academic work has been in Biblical studies, and even that is pretty popular.

Of course, my wife’s first reaction, upon reading the email, was to say, “Well, plainly they must be desperate…”

But I was tempted. The university was offering to pay all my expenses… plane ticket and beer money… and I’ve always wanted to see both Cork and its rather famous university. What’s more, the “Philosoph,” as the UCC Philosphical Society is known, has had quite a few famous speakers and debaters address it, including most Irish politicians and even the prime minister.

However, in the end, sanity prevailed. The debate was right about the same time that I am taking my whole extended family on a 10-day trip to Rome. If I accepted, I would think about nothing else for three weeks and would get nothing done.  It was just too much. I reluctantly declined.

Alas, that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about what I would have said. Why should “this house” reject atheism? Here are a few ideas off the top of my head:

1. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheism is, by its very nature, irrational, and universities should not encourage more irrationality than they already do. Logically speaking, atheism is what is known as a “universal negation” — such as “there are no gods” or “there are no purple toads” — that is impossible to prove empirically. (That’s one of the few things I remember from the Introduction to Logic class I took in college.) Therefore, precisely because atheism is illogical, an assertion of empirical fact without empirical evidence, it should be rejected as the official doctrine of any university regardless of its religious orientation.

2. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheism, unlike agnosticism or theism, promotes the closing of the human mind rather than the opening up of it. Atheism asserts dogmatically that the case for God is not “unproven” but CLOSED — Science has “settled it,” rather like climate change — and this closed-mindedness represents the very antithesis of the scientific spirit that universities are supposed to inculcate in the young and foolish.

3. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheism, in its most popular contemporary forms — as represented by such authors as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett — offers primarily insults, not arguments. The so-called “new atheist” writers merely belittle the vast majority of mankind as intellectually dim-witted compared to, well, themselves. “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma,” said Sam Harris in The End of Faith, which is the closest he actually gets to mounting a philosophical argument of any kind. Phillip Roth once said “Roman Catholicism would insult the intelligence of a gorilla” just as Clarence Darrow, the famous scourge of creationism, noted that he “doesn’t believe in God for the same reason I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” Danniel Dennett famously proposed that atheists call themselves “brights” to contrast themselves with the “dims” who believe in God. Universities should not promote an ideology that merely insults or belittles the vast majority of human beings on the planet.

4. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheism has, historically and more ominously, been an force for intellectual intolerance and, at times, political oppression. The atheism of the French Revolution led inexorably to the guillotine… just as the atheism of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot led to concentration camps and genocide. The New Atheists, like Sam Harris and Dawkins, while not as murderous as their intellectual forebears, nevertheless display the same authoritarian streak. “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss,” Harris writes (The End of Faith, p. 15). Universities should not embrace any ideology that asserts human beings should NOT be free to believe whatever he wishes about God.

5. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheism’s version of empiricism represent a crabbed, discredited 19th century “scientism” that rejects out of hand virtually every intellectual endeavor not conducted with lab equipment. In philosophical terms, atheism adopts a positivistic epistemology that is intellectually indefensible (if it can’t be quantified or measure with instruments, it doesn’t exist or isn’t worth thinking about). Universities in the 21st century should not revert to philosophical doctrines that the vast majority of actual scientists, philosophers and university professors no longer accept.

6. That House Would Reject Atheism because atheism’s principal argument — that order and complexity in the universe can be better explained as the result of chance than intelligence — merely asserts what it must prove. Anyone who has studied Richard Dawkins’s writings knows this. Dawkins’s primary argument is that the overwhelming fact of order, complexity and design in the universe is merely an ILLUSION that can be explained as the result of random events. However, he does not then explain them. Instead, all Dawkins does is show that the theory of evolution offers a plausible account of how biological change could occur through random forces — and then merely asserts that a similar mechanism must exist for the physical universe (what he terms a “crane”), even though he concedes none is known. It is just as logically plausible that order and complexity in the universe are the result of intelligence as it is that they are the result of a yet-to-be-determined random mechanism. Universities should not be promoting as established fact what is, instead, merely hypotheses.

7. That This House Would Reject atheism because atheism’s secondary argument, that an appeal to an intelligent creator involves circular reasoning, is logically fallacious. This secondary argument is the closest Dawkins comes to an actual philosophical argument (Hitchens and Harris don’t even bother with philosophy: they merely throw insults and glib one-liners). Dawkins claims that, while postulating the existence of an intelligent creator does make at least a little intellectual sense, given the existence of so much interlocking complexity in the universe, nevertheless such a hypothesis is intellectually indefensible because it merely begs the question, “Well, then who created God?” But in fact it does no such thing: If I find a baby on my doorstep, and I assert that SOMEONE must have put him there, the fact that I cannot explain who put that someone in a position to put the baby there does not justify me asserting that NO ONE put the baby there… the baby must have appeared randomly out of nowhere.

8. That This House Would Reject Atheism because atheist, at its very root, involves a fundamental rejection of an empirical, even metaphysical fact that all intelligent human beings (except atheists) accept: that nothing happens without a cause. To accept atheism is to believe that things happen without purpose, certainly, but also without any cause whatsoever: The universe “just is,” as Dawkins puts it. While this is logically possible, it contradicts the overwhelming evidence of our own eyes and even of all scientific inquiry: Virtually everything we know about DOES have a cause. Science was born precisely because the Christian belief in divine “laws” gave early modern scientists the stamina to search for underlying causes they were certain MUST exist. Had western Europe embraced atheism, as the Chinese embraced the mysterious Tao, science as we know it would never have been born.  Universities should recognize the role that religious belief has played in the intellectual development of mankind… rather than merely belittling it as atheism does.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).