Missing the Point on Atheism and Mass Murder

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Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking to a gathering at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atheists have reacted with outrage to Mike Huckabee‘s statements (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151207029493634) as well as Pat Buchanan‘s column (http://buchanan.org/blog/the-dead-soul-of-adam-lanza-5428) on the role that atheism might play in such tragedies as the school murders in Connecticut. Some comments I have read suggest that atheists believe that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Buchanan are attacking them personally or saying that atheism directly led to the school shooting. A more careful reading of Huckabee and Buchanan, however, reveals that their claims are more nuanced. The point they make, and I think they are right, is that a godless society is more likely to put the primary focus on the self and its desires. Now I am aware of James Q. Wilson‘s work on sociobiology and altruism, but more people are likely to have heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Most “lay atheists,” even highly educated or intelligent atheists, may not be aware of either work, but one motive for atheism among some (though not all) atheists is the desire to be free of divine judgment in order to fulfill the desires of the self. Kant was a theist of sorts, at least most of his life, and the remains of Lutheran divine command theory kept his principle of autonomy from degenerating into subjectivism–the identical moral law, Kant believed, was given to each individual by that individual self. With the remains of Christianity removed from autonomy, autonomy becomes the right to do whatever the self desires. Now that often comes with the caveat that one can do what one desires “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else,” but without a divine judgment it is only internal conscience developed by habituation that prevents evil personal desires from being expressed. Ted Bundy made it clear to one of his victims that without a God to judge him, he believed that he should fulfill his personal desires to murder his victims and sexually violate their dead bodies. Without a sense that one’s actions can have consequences beyond this life, including negative consequences, it is easier for disturbed people such as Adam Lanza to act on their evil desires. Now he may have acted anyway–we cannot know for sure–but the point is that with one less barrier to fulfilling personal desires, it is easier for an evil or severely disturbed person to “go over the top” and act on his twisted desires. This does not imply that all mass murderers are atheists, nor does it deny that many atheists have moral lives that put some Christians to shame. In a way, the atheist who seeks only fulfillment of the self is acting more consistently than the one who affirms a larger social responsibility to the group. I am aware that evolution recognizes the nature of humans as social beings, and that a lack of all concern for others would prevent human genes from being carried on to the next generation. Yet there is no transcendent meaning to life in atheism, and as Bertrand Russell recognized, all human achievements would be lost in the final ruin of the universe. In such a meaningless world, hedonism may seem like the best option, as with Russell, but with less stable people egoism may be the course they take. Thus the point made is a general one: a society that eliminates any deity is more likely to produce more people like Mr. Lanza that one that accepts ethical monotheism.

Atheist Desperation

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The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a ...

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of new articles and books coming out that assert that the universe literally arose from nothingness without any deity reveal the desperation of atheists. They behave like individuals that assert an absurdity, thinking that if they repeat it enough people will believe it. No matter how much atheists repeat the mantra, “The universe popped into existence out of nothingness,” it will not make that claim any less incoherent. Atheists still play games with the “quantum vacuum,” even though theists have pointed out time and time again that a quantum vacuum is not mere nothingness. When Hawking speaks of a true vacuum causing the existence of a false vacuum, he is spouting nonsense. “Ex nihil, nihil fit” (from nothing, nothing comes to be”) is true today as it was in the past. Pure nothingness is just nonexistence–since it is literally no-thing, not matter, not energy–it cannot have any powers including causal powers. If the atheist tries to bring in another factor into the “true vacuum,” that brings back “something.” The atheist would be more consistent to accept the ancient idea of the everlastingness of the universe as do some “multiverse” theories. In the end, I do not think they save atheism, but at least they are not obviously self-contradictory.

Atheistic scientists often accuse theists of believing in the fantastic, in something so absurd that it cannot exist. Such claims are often salted with terms such as “Santa Claus” and “The Tooth Fairy,” as if that has anything to do with the issue of the existence of God. It is far more fantastic to believe that something arose from sheer nothingness. It is also far more fantastic to believe in an infinite number of universes in which all logical possibilities are actualized (If the traditional conception of God is logically possible, involving no contradiction, which it surely is, then I suppose the atheist would accept one logical possibility that is not actualized–but then the atheist is all about making exceptions when it suits him).

Atheism is primarily about rebellion rather than reality–some people refuse to accept a God who calls their behavior to account. Atheism is a matter of human pride–the refusal to accept any mind higher than one’s own or any truths that go beyond the purview of physical science (especially physics). Some atheists, such as the late Antony Flew, were honest seekers of the truth, and he became a believer in a deistic God. Atheists who are really God-haters may also change their minds if they can overcome their hatred. There is a subset of atheists who are hard core, such as the majority of the members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as those who deign to assert that something can come from nothing. These individuals could see God face to face and deny His existence. They are like the dwarfs in C. S. Lewis‘s The Last Battle, who perceive the gold and jewels Aslan offers them as horse waste and straw. Anyone who asserts a clear contradiction in defense of atheism must be willfully blind. These same scientists will use logic and reason to attack the coherence of a theory they do not accept–yet they assert a blatant contradiction as being true. The only way I can explain that is that the scientists’ beliefs are an act of the will rather than primarily an act of the intellect. They have willed to reject God, and their assertion of contradiction follows. If asserting that something comes from nothingness is the only “argument” that an atheist gives for his position, then that atheist truly is desperate. Atheists who accuse theists of irrationality ought to look at themselves in a mirror first.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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English: John Watson, founder of American beha...

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists

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Atheism

As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

The Emptiness of Atheism

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Atheism symbol

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Imagine a world with no objective values. In this world, people who get away with horrific crimes such as child abuse, rape, and murder never find justice. It is a world in which there is no meaning over and above individual or societal whims. In this world, people seek their own pleasure without boundaries. If sex between men and men, between women and women, or between people and animals satisfies someone, there is no law in this world that could condemn it other than someone’s individual moral whims. And if something inconvenient gets in the way of one’s pleasure, such as a pregnancy, in this world a woman can find a “doctor” to murder her baby under the full protection of the law.

All that ultimately exists in this world is matter and energy. Human beings evolved not under God‘s guiding or planning or creating the evolutionary process, but through chance and necessity alone. They are an accident in a meaningless universe. Death is annihilation. Any good someone does for mankind will ultimately dissolve, as Bertrand Russell noted, when this meaningless universe ceases to be. Or as the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft recognized, this universe is similar to one ruled by a blind god of cosmic chaos, with monsters dancing to dissonant music around a mindless center.

This is the world more and more Americans are living in. It is the world of many academics, the world of many East Coast intellectual elites, and the world of many who work in Hollywood. It is the utterly empty world of atheism.

Although books on atheism abound these days, they mainly mock the excesses and evils of religion without recognizing the greater evils caused by atheistic systems. Nazism and Communism reeked havoc on Europe before both were defeated. But in their place has arisen a consumer society that values “the sweet life” that only ends in nothingness. How, then, is it “sweet.” The atheistic existentialists such as Sartre and Camus were at least honest enough to admit the loss of objective meaning in atheism. They tried to make up for it by saying that a person should find his own meaning in life–but this will ultimately end in coming to naught. So one is left only with Sisyphus and his rock, making his own meaning out of meaninglessness. Even the atheistic existentialists, then, remain in denial–what good will “finding one’s own meaning” do if it all ends in cosmic emptiness?

In the world of atheism there is no ultimate justice. Mass murderers and torturers die in peace, then only face the same nothingness that a saint such as Mother Theresa will face. Is this world fair, or is it one, as Nietzsche said, that is “beyond good and evil”?

I am amazed at atheists saying that they do not fear the annihilation of death. It is not just the annihilation of the self, not being conscious at all that is the issue–it is the annihilation of all beloved family members and friends. But if there is an all-powerful and all-good God who loves us enough to grant us an undeserved eternal life, all will be redeemed and made good. Without such a God, without an afterlife, what is left? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” as St. Paul put it. If I were an atheist, I would be a moderate hedonist, gaining as much pleasure as I could while not doing things destructive to my health. I remember a liberal Protestant once becoming furious at me for saying that–but his fury means nothing–if there is no God, no afterlife, no accounting for one’s deeds other than for illegal actions for which we are caught, why not seek all the pleasure we can? “Live for today,” “Eat, drink, and be merry,” “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” The only problem is that “gusto” will end, perhaps peacefully, perhaps (sadly) in pain and agony, but if atheism is true, humans are ultimately nothing but bits of second-hand stardust who will recycled in the meaningless processes of nature.

For an intellectually honest person, atheism is a road to madness and horror. I choose to believe in God, in a universe that is ultimately good, a universe in which there is cosmic justice, in which good will triumph over evil, in which there is real, objective meaning in life, and in which God will grant us–out of sheer grace–the gift of eternal life.

 

To Christopher Hitchens: All the Best

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Christopher Hitchens

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There is a fascinating story and interview at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/14/christopher-hitchens-cancer-interview

Christopher Hitchens, one of the best known of the “new atheists,” has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Although I disagree with his position on God’s existence, I wish him the very best in his treatment and I hope he recovers. And yes, I will say a prayer for him as will thousands, perhaps millions, of other believers, and there has even been a “Let’s Pray for Hitchens Day.” Believers in God should take care not to do anything out of mean spiritedness or “I told you so,” but only from genuine concern that Mr. Hitchens will recover from a terrible disease.

In May I lost my best friend to cancer–in her case, breast cancer. She was lucky to have been asymptomatic for most of the six years of the recurrence of the disease she thought she had beaten two years earlier. Yet when things began to wind down, she was in a great deal of pain, and her strong runner’s body bore the weight of the ravages of cancer. I wish this disease on no one. Christians should be wary about any hints of claiming any divine retribution against Mr. Hitchens. He engaged in some habits (smoking and drinking a bit much now and then. for example) that probably had more to do with his condition than any act of the deity. And I would have great difficulties affirming the goodness of a God who would directly inflict this terrible disease on anyone, including anyone who does not believe  in God.

With those caveats, I will pray for Mr. Hitchens and for all people who suffer from the ravages of cancer and other terrible diseases. Of course I hope that Mr. Hitchens changes his mind about God’s existence, but if not, I hope he recovers, even if that means he remains a pain in the … for theists for a long time to come.

Stephen Hawking on God’s Existence

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NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.

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Suppose you’re walking in a park one day when you are startled by a man standing right in front of you. After jumping higher than you ever have in your life, you force out the words, “Where did you come from?” The man answers, “I just created myself.”

Would you believe him? I wouldn’t. For a man to create himself before he exists is impossible, for if he doesn’t exist, he wouldn’t be there to create himself in the first place! Yet it is this rabbit out of the hat trick that Stephen Hawking uses to explain how God is not necessary for the creation of the universe.

Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man–I give him credit for doing wonderful work in physics and astronomy, especially in the area of black holes. I also admire his brave fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), from which he has suffered for over forty years, making him by far the longest-lived survivor of that debilitating disease. Despite his handcap, he has continued to write and lecture, and he is a fine popularizer of complex ideas in physics for people without training in the field.

However, in  accepting the view that there is no God because the universe created itself from nothing, he is contradicting himself. If he said that the universe is everlasting, that it has always existed, then he would at least be holding a coherent position. But in saying that the universe “spontaneously created itself from nothing,” he falls into incoherence. If the universe created itself from nothing, then it would already have to exist to do so.  Nothing can be prior to itself. Nothing can exist before it exists. If this what Hawking actually believes, his belief is just as much false as believing in a square circle. If Hawking replies that a quantum vacuum, even a “true vacuum,” produces particles and antiparticles all the time that then annihilate one another, then what he calls a “true vacuum” isn’t. His quantum vacuum is NOT nothing. Even a sea of quantum events is something. Pure nothingness is just what the word implies–no particles, antiparticles, no annihilation of particles and antiparticles, no space, no time–sheer, absolute nothingness. If Hawking’s concept of “nothing” includes more, then he is manipulating words to mean what he wants them to mean. Since his notion of “nothing” isn’t really no-thing, he does not believe that the universe created itself; in a sense, some kind of energy has always existed. I have always been suspicious of arguments such as Hawking’s, whether they posit true and false vacuums, zero-point fields, or some other pseudo-nothingness to argue that the universe arose from nothing. It may be that true and false vacuums exist, and there is good evidence for the existence of a zero-point field, but all of these items exist in some sense. The universe could not have arisen from literal non-being–and this is what Hawking would have to say to justify his claim of a spontaneous universe arising from nothing.

Does Hawking’s view explain the existence of a quatum foam of particles and antiparticles in a “vacuum”? Does it explain why enough energy arose for the universe to have arisen? Or does he say explanation stops at that point–if so, why? If he is saying that the universe is some kind of necessary being, this seems inconsistent with stellar life cycles–eventually the formation of new stars will stop, and the universe will consist of white and black dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes–and even these will evaporate. All these items are contingent–they do not have to be. Thus a necessary being is required to explain the existence of contingent things, whether those things be the universe, a zero-point field, or a “true vacuum” that really isn’t a true vacuum. Once atheists get to the point of saying that the universe created itself, they are holding a view so irrational that it would be best to halt discussion, go to a bar, have some drinks, and talk about the upcoming NFL season.

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