Atheism is once again the rage. These religious fads come and go like skirt lengths or medical trends. When I was a child, everyone I knew had had his tonsils out. My mother was more conservative: The tonsils were there for a reason, she said, so why remove them without a good reason? A later generation of physicians have assured me that, on balance, my mother made the right decision, though by now the pendulum may have swung back to universal tonsillectomies.
My mother, without knowing it, was making a backward argument from design. God or Nature would not have given us tonsils unless they served a purpose, which implies the reverse that the universe is so well constructed that there must be a design—and a designer. The natural order is one of the arguments most frequently employed to prove the existence of god. (I am going to use the lower-case g for just any deity and restrict the upper-case version for the Creator of heaven and earth worshiped by believing Jews and Christians.) “The heavens declare the glory of God,” sings the psalmist, and nonbelievers have no excuse, says Saint Paul, because “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” This would not be so, argues Saint Thomas, unless it were possible to demonstrate God’s existence through His works.
More recent variations on this proof include intelligent-design theory, which incorporates evidence from the modern sciences to reach the same conclusion, and the “anthropic principle,” which argues backward from human consciousness to a Creator Who guides the evolution of this consciousness. Growing up as an atheist, I heard many of these “proofs,” and none of them ever impressed me much. Biologists and physicists have gone a long way toward eliminating the need for a creator, even the Newtonian watchmaker who wound up the world and walked away, letting it go on ticking until the end of time.
I am not entirely certain what it would have taken to convert the young atheist I was. I do not think any line of reasoning would have done it. Although I fully agree that the existence of god is knowable and demonstrable, not all minds are open to the demonstration. If we can judge by our contemporaries, it is precisely the most scientific and rationalist minds that are most closed to the idea of god. Apologists counter with the argument that atheist scientists are simply being perverse, but it is something of a petitio principi to declare that the mark of rationality is to agree with us. A rational mind, properly trained, will probably accept the god hypothesis, but neither Porphyry nor Plotinus could be argued into accepting Christianity. Antony Flew was probably not really being irrational when, as the son of a clergyman, he embraced atheism; and pure reason, while it led him ultimately to embrace an abstract sort of theism, did not actually bring him to the Christian Faith.
When I was a child, many Christians who talked about their religion struck me as uncomfortably smug. On the other hand, my sturdy Catholic aunts made it pretty plain that I was going to Hell, if I did not begin following orders that came from Heaven by way of Rome. Whenever I stayed with them, they dragged me off to Mass, over my protestations that I had a bellyache or something—anything to keep me out of church. I loved my aunts, however, especially Catherine McDonald, and later in my life it was some comfort to know she had been praying for me. In college I became friends with two evangelicals, and, while I despised their feeble philosophy, I had to acknowledge the fineness of their character. They pitied me for my disbelief and my dissolution, but they hardly ever preached at me. At some point, it began to dawn on me that good Christians were, by and large, better people than the good atheists I knew. Besides, the Christians were a good deal less polemical. I had always been an atheist and took the nonexistence of god for granted, but I could never understand the passionate hatred exhibited by atheist converts for the god that did not exist. They are like the small boys who have discovered that Santa Claus is a myth and take pleasure in depriving younger children of the jolly old elf.
It was the character of Christians, then, and not their arguments that first began to undermine my simplistic faith in a nonsensical universe. No theistic philosophy could have penetrated my closed mind. Pinning faith to any particular stage of logic and science can be risky, because cosmology is a competitive business. Once upon a time people were content with the elephant standing on a turtle’s back; the far wiser early Greeks spoke of Chaos—the separation of heaven and earth—from which all the things of our universe were generated in stages, while later Greeks either accepted the arguments of Aristotle (that God was the ultimate cause or mover) or sided with the materialists, who insisted that the universe could be explained exclusively in terms of atoms and void. If there be any gods, argued Epicurus, we know nothing of them, and they care nothing for us. Better just not to think about it.
As I said in the beginning, these fashions come and go. The atoms-cum-void in a godless infinity had a pretty good run in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the science boys are pretty confident—as confident as Epicurus was—that they can eliminate the god hypothesis from polite conversation, though so far only about two percent of the world’s population professes atheism. The task is perhaps more daunting than Richard Dawkins realizes. Knowing neither philosophy nor theology, Dawkins barely seems to understand the fundamentals of the religion he would like to destroy.
Card-carrying atheists like Dawkins portray themselves as apostles of reason and scholarship contending against irrational and ignorant bigots. In fact, professional atheists, while pretending to engage in a free and fair debate, always seem to rig the match so there can be but one outcome. In one corner, wearing the white trunks of intellectual superheroes, are Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, while in the other corner are not Aristotle, Thomas, or even Bishop Butler or C.S. Lewis, but a team of impostors like Scott Hahn, Josh McDowell, and Elmer Gantry (played by Burt Lancaster). In the infamous Intelligence Squared debate on the evils of the Catholic Church, Hitchens was paired off with the charming and witty Stephen Fry against Ann Widdecombe (a Tory bureaucrat) and an African Catholic bishop completely out of his depth. The selection process was interesting. Hitchens was apparently chosen as the straight (?) white male, Fry is openly “gay,” the bishop was black, while Widdecombe was the token woman. It is a good thing the producers were not around when the disciples were being selected.
These events are not debates but staged entertainments in which celebrity contestants play to the audience. All Hitchens and Fry had to do was to recite their 1066 and All That list of the Church’s crimes against humanity, from the Spanish Inquisition to child molestation, and they could persuade the halfwits who make up the audience of a TV show. If Hitchens were a serious man, he would not have taken part in such a spectacle, but he is no more serious than Stephen Fry, who is not actually a heterosexual butler, though he played one on TV.
Once upon a time, when a significant number of men tried to lead lives guided by reason, a rational argument over the existence of god might have mattered. Today, in a world that can accept Richard Dawkins as a substitute for Thomas Henry Huxley and where Hitchens and Fry can stand in for Wells and Shaw (and where oh where are the Chesterton and Belloc?), rational discourse is irrelevant. But if no positive proofs of god’s existence have ever persuaded everyone, even Dawkins and Hitchens ought to understand how much more difficult it is to prove the negative. If I went to a play last night, I can probably prove the fact by showing a ticket, describing the performance, and citing witnesses, but, whether or not I actually attended, it will be very hard to prove I was not there. What if I came in after the lights went down, so no one saw me? What if I cannot remember the plot, because I fell asleep?
It may be impossible to “prove” the existence of god to the universal satisfaction of rational, intelligent human beings who have been indoctrinated into the tenets of atheism. On the other hand, most of the positive arguments used by atheists can be easily dismissed by a rational Christian. Plato and Aristotle have had a profound effect in demonstrating the likelihood of a universe in which the imperfect goodness, truth, and beauty found in this world are manifestations or expressions of immutable perfection that belongs to the realm of the absolute or divine. And if classical philosophy from Parmenides and Plato to Thomas Aquinas is wrong, we find ourselves stranded as aliens in a universe where beauty is nothing more than an accidental congruence between material reality and our neurological system; goodness, a sometimes successful adaptive strategy; and truth, either that which happens to approximate to what is at this moment known about the material universe or an improbable fiction.
In an age of quantum mechanics, post-Euclidean geometry, and symbolic logic, the good old arguments of Aristotle and Anselm may no longer have the clout they should have. Then let us, instead, turn the tables and look at some of the disadvantages of atheism. There are many really good reasons not to be an atheist, and the first of them, though it seems a bit tautological to say so, is that atheists have no god to worship.
Well, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Chris Dawkins is sure to exclaim . . .
To be continued . . .