The Rise (and Fall?) of the Fourth Rise

Paul Johnson, a British historian and author, bemoans militant atheism in Forbes magazine (free registration required so that they can bombard you with offers and advertisements.)

Johnson refers to the current wave of vocal atheism as an 'intellectual fashion', as though rationality arises because of emotional reactivity and will recede in the face of Behemothic Abrahamic Myth Machines.

Waves of atheism have swept the West before. One was in the mid-18th century, when the devastating Lisbon earthquake, killing some 60,000 people, shook the belief of many in the benevolence of God.

Doubt concerning the benevolence of God simply because a mere 60,000 people were killed by a natural event such as would then have been considered an Act of God? Oh, they of Little Faith! How could they doubt? Had nobody told them that God Works in Mysterious Ways?

Another was in the mid-19th century, when advances in geology destroyed the traditional chronology of the Old Testament, proving that Earth was much older
than the 6,000-odd years the Bible allowed.

Even these advances in knowledge have not yet eroded YEC stupidity. Religionists pride themselves on their resilience in the face of facts and logic, and the YECers are a particularly intransigent collection of devotees-of-ignorance.

A third spasm followed the First World War, when the combination of Freud's writings and Einstein's theories of relativity upset established views of the
human psyche and the universe.

Freud is now ridiculed, though not for the reasons that he deserves, and the Einsteinian threat has been ignored or replaced by dice-rolling quotes. The theistic motto clearly is: 'When knowledge casts doubt on the unbelievable, believers cast doubt on knowledge.'

We now seem to be in the midst of a fourth. It is prompted partly by the
academic deification of Darwin and his particular theory of evolution, and
partly by the revulsion against Islamic fundamentalism and its violent
expression, which for some has discredited all forms of belief in God.

Academic deification of Darwin? Theists do love hyperbole, don't they? Clearly Johnson is not a biologist in so far as he appears not to know that Darwinian views of evolution, though not discredited, have been superseded by the modern synthesis of evolutionary theories. Though Darwin's contribution was enormous, scientific knowledge has moved onward, particularly in light of understandings of molecular genetics. Natural selection continues to be accepted as a mechanism of evolutionary change, but the operations of biological evolution are now more fully understood. Darwin is respected as a thorough and insightful naturalist, but scarcely as a deity.

Islamic fundamentalism, indeed all forms of religious fundamentalism, evoke revulsion in those not duped into unfounded belief in malevolent mythologies.

Is it a phase? Or is it the harbinger of a fundamental change in the way people see themselves and the world? Ought we to be alarmed--and ought we take action? And if so, what kind of action? . . .

I'm not sure the human race would survive a prolonged bout of atheism. I recall the words of the German theologian Karl Rahner: "If ever God is banished from the world so that even His image is eradicated from the human mind, we will cease to be human and become merely very clever animals--and our ultimate fate will be too horrible to contemplate."

Which, of course, is an extraordinarily ridiculous fallacious argument to fear. It appears that Johnson is not aware that humans have abandoned belief in earlier pantheistic and monotheistic imaginings without devolving into nonhumans.

In fact, we are animals, and we have succeeded by virtue of our proportionally larger brains, our communication skills, and our highly developed culture. If humans had never invented religions, which became violently divisive as a result of schismic ruptures, then we should probably have been better off than we are. Remove all religious dogma and its associated promulgation of illogic from the planet, and we might have the chance to heal those artificial religiopolitical rifts.

I contend that only some humans can reasonably make even the claim of being 'very clever animals' and that, in accord with the findings of most studies, most of these 'very clever' humans are actually atheists. Johnson continues in a similar, emotional fashion to pump out fallacious arguments right up to the end of the article. Judging by the level of his writing skills and his fallacious arguments, Johnson does indeed belong in the theist camp.

More on Forbes: The Brave New World Of Richard Dawkins

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Francis Collins vs. Richard Dawkins

Vote (by clicking on avatars) on position statements by Francis Collins, who rejects the notion that science is sufficient to disprove the existence of God versus evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who insists that anyone who believes in an omnipotent creator is suffering a "delusion".

As of 9/21/07, Dawkins is a clear winner

The archangel Gabriel tells God he's concerned:
"You've been working pretty hard, Lord, creating stuff and running the universe and all that. You deserve some time off." ... more

Bay at Fundies

Theists reactively accuse atheists of warranting the same labels that are justifiably leveled at the more problematic aspects of theism:

Theist accusation: "Dawkins is a fundamentalist."

This contrasts to the actual definition of fundamentalism:
"A term originally applied to conservative, Bible-centered Protestant Christians (many of whom now prefer to call themselves "evangelicals"), but more recently extended to apply to the religiously authoritarian of all sorts (including classical Christians, Jews, and Muslims) who interpret their scriptures literally and in general favor a strict adherence to certain traditional doctrines and practices." [source]

"Fundamentalism is the belief in absolute religious authority and the demand that this religious authority be legally enforced. Often, fundamentalism involves the willingness to do battle for one's faith. Fundamentalists make up only one part of any religion's followers, who usually fall along a wide spectrum of different interpretations, values and beliefs."[source]

It would be much more accurate to describe Dawkins as anti-fundamentalist. Of course, theists could not be theists if they were particularly interested in accuracy.

Misunderstanding the New Atheism

Jonathan Haidt in Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion makes some interesting, and basically acceptable points about the psychological impetus for invention of religious systems and the emotional component of moral judgements.

When Haidt turns his sights on New Atheism, he overemphasizes the (American) health benefits and societal impact of religion. Haidt conveniently ignores the blood-spilling aspects of religious fundamentalism while emphasizing the greater blood donating generosity of the religious:

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood.
I don't consider the generosity of the religious difficult to explain. Those theists of my acquaintance who regularly attend church are expected to donate time and income to the church. These individuals are not necessarily more generous in spirit than atheists but they do experience and respond to peer pressure within the church community, which is organized upon and around expectations of service. Further, these individuals do not see their donations as going solely to other individuals, they actually believe that they are tithing their incomes to God.

Haidt concludes, "A militant form of atheism that claims the backing of science and encourages "brights" to take up arms may perhaps advance atheism. But it may also backfire, polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process."

This strikes me as an unfounded and emotional reaction to the New Atheism. What scientific study of religion? Is Haidt talking of studies that examine the psychology and neural activity that underly moral emotions and religious experience? How could these be undermined by the parallel message that there is no empirical foundation for belief in the supernatural?

Since when, outside religious absolute moralism, are statements about morality to be equated with moral dogma? How are statements about the role of religious violence in history and current affairs and exposure of religiously motivated hypocrisy and bigotry to be taken as moral dogma?

By what mechanism could statements about religious fundamentalism damage the prestige of science? Should we also assume that if scientists among the New Atheists make any comments about Art or the meaning of life then the prestige of science could be damaged?

The prestige of science will only be damaged–further–if religiously motivated anti-science and pseudoscientific nonsense, together with incursions of creationism into science classrooms, are allowed to continue unopposed. Until the recent upsurge of vocal atheism, the efforts of scientists to explain the realities of science have gone unheaded, misunderstood, or attacked by the religiously prejudiced.

Having read more about Haidt's work and blog reactions to Haidt's theories, I think that I was too hasty in accepting his views on morality before moving on to his take on atheism. Read more:

Reactions to Haidt's article: on Edge by Michael Shermer, David Sloan Wilson, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers . Bulldust about atheism and morality . Religion, Atheism, and Morality . Haidt Hype . The Purported Five Pillars . Overextrapolating the Boundaries . NewScientist "If morality is hard wired in the brain - What's the point of Religion?" . Morality Gene? . Evolution of Morality .

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