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.

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.