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.

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Horror Movies

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Ghost Story (film)

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One of my pleasures (some people might consider it a guilty pleasure) is watching horror movies. But as Noel Carroll notes in his fine book, The Philosophy of Horror, there is a paradox in enjoying horror. How can something frightening and sometimes violent be a source of entertainment? Another paradox is that to actually be afraid we must “suspend disbelief” and, for the time of the film, believe that the horrific entities described in the film exist. Fear in real life is not a pleasant thing. If I were being chased by a deranged serial killer who desires to eat my tongue for dinner, it would be one of the worst moments of my life, and if I survived, I would not wish to remember or relive that experience. Yet watching the same scene on film is exciting. If ghosts existed (I am open minded, but neutral) and a hostile ghost who could cause harm to me existed, it would not be pleasant if I suffered bodily harm or was scared half to death during the night.

If Aristotle had been familiar with horror films, he most likely would have pointed to catharsis, the cleansing of emotions, in this case negative emotions of fear and dread, as the reason that some people enjoy these films. The emotions I feel seem to be real fear–my heart pounds (usually more in anticipation than when the horrid looking entity pops out), I breathe fast, I feel the adrenalin rush. But I realize that the film is fiction and even if it were not fiction, it is only a film. Nothing will jump out of the projector and attack the audience.

I tend to prefer ghost stories most of all–Ghost Story (with Fred Astaire) is my favorite horror movie; The Shining is also an excellent flick, as is the original The Haunting. Notable also are The Others, the recent film, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and Frailty are examples of top-notch theological horror.

Horror originally was influenced by the latent Christianity remaining in Europe, and Dracula by Bram Stoker basically operates with a Judeo-Christian point of view, and this is reflected in the classic Dracula films. In the older horror films, and in some of the recent ones, there is hope at the end of the film. Lately, with the decreasing influence of Judeo-Christian culture, horror films have become more negative, often ending in despair. I remember a movie from the 1970s in which the audience thinks a couple has gotten away from rampaging people in their van–but the movie ends with their van surrounded. The ending of the recent movie, The Mist, was also one of despair, as a man kills his son and two other people to spare them from being eaten by Lovecraftean-style monsters–yet right after he killed them the army clears the area. Despair is the cry of those without hope, of people without faith who believe, as did Bertrand Russell, that all human hopes and dreams will die in the death of the universe. Since I am in the Christian tradition which is ultimately optimistic, I find those films too much in tension with my values to enjoy. There are still many recent horror films that have a more optimistic ending, though the Judeo-Christian element is omitted or replaced by neo-Paganism or other pantheistic religions.

I suppose I really like horror because it brings into play the transcendent–what goes beyond ordinary experience–whether it be a ghost, a demon, or a serial killer who transcends most human beings in his evil. There is a sense in some horror films of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Combine that with being “just plain scary,” that combination creates a powerful horror film. That is difficult to do, which is why so few horror films are good films–but those that are good have given me and millions of other people enjoyment.

I also enjoy the Frankenstein theme, both in the old 1930s movies as well as in the more perverse Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. I wish more movies would be made with a Lovecraftean element. Some have, but other than the recent silent film, The Call of Cthulhu, none captures for me the cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s writings. I prefer older vampire flicks when the vampire is an evil entity rather than (gag!) vampire romances. Japanese horror, with its references to popular Buddhist legends, is particularly entertaining and frightening, especially Ringu and Juon and their American remakes.

The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists

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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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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.

 

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun: The “New Atheists”

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Richard Dawkins giving a lecture based on his ...

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Richard Dawkins. Daniel Dennett. Christopher Hitchins. Stephen Pinker. Peter Singer. These are some of the names of the “new atheists.” These individuals are “crusading atheists” who sincerely believe that belief in God is dangerous for society. Their hope is that religion disappears and is replaced with a “scientific,” naturalistic world view.

Yet when one examines their arguments, there is nothing new in them–the “new atheism” is actually the “old atheism” reincarnated. For example, the argument that religion results in strife between human beings and wars has been asserted at least since the seventeenth century. At that time, after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in which Roman Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in Europe, philosophers decided that religion was intrinsically harmful if used as a basis for the structure of society. They relegated religion to the private realm and advocated a “scientific” approach to ethics and social-political philosophy. Philosophers as diverse as Descartes, Hume, and Kant belong in this category, despite disagreeing among themselves about the existence of God.

But in France, Voltaire, a deist, argued that specific Christian claims about the divinity of Christ and about miracles in general were primitive superstition. It was not a great leap to argue that such superstition only causes division and violence among people. Bertrand Russell argued this way in his book, Why I am not a Christian.

But the claim that religion is more harmful that good is problematic. True, religious people killed others in the name of their faith–both in war and in religious persecutions. But if one adds up the number killed in the twentieth century due to secular, atheist ideologies (such as Nazism and Communism), the death toll stemming from these systems outnumbers those killed in religious wars by an astronomical margin. In addition, religion has helped set up hospitals, help the poor, and perform other positive actions to benefit society. The “new atheists'” old argument fails.

Another claim parrots the Freudian argument that religion finds its origin in wish-fulfillment fantasies and childish superstition that looks to the transcendent to be a father-figure and to overcome death. Thus, both God and immortality have their basis in our wishes–and in nothing else.

That old argument fails as well, since it commits the genetic fallacy–the origin of a belief, whether psychological or sociological, tells us nothing about its truth or falsity.

Then Dawkins and Dennett raise the old, tired arguments that evolution implies atheism, since all biological development, including human development, can be explained through the non-purposive process of natural selection. Again, this argument is problematic. To treat biological entities, such as organs, tissues, or cells, as “having a function” but lacking a purpose does not make sense. Is it not true that the heart has the purpose of pumping blood? To deny teleology (ends or goals) at least in biological science ignores the facts. And even if God is not needed for the evolutionary process itself, God is necessary to continually keep the universe in existence, as Aquinas pointed out in the thirteenth century. If the very existence of the universe is not a “surd,” an unexplainable fact, which does not sit well with the contingency of the universe, it makes sense to say that an overarching intelligence both brought the universe into existence but also keeps the universe in existence.

It is possible to argue endlessly with the claims of the “New Atheists.” But there’s nothing new about the arguments they make, and nothing new about the refutations of their case written long ago.