This weekend’s convention of tambourine-banging atheists will certainly rival any religious shindig. There will be as much religious fervour there as at any old-fashioned revival meeting. The three-day gabfest in Melbourne is being touted as a “Celebration of Reason”. The truth is quite the opposite however, and for a number of reasons.
The god-haters love to pretend that there are only two sorts of people in the world: atheists, who are all about reason, and religious folk, who are all about faith. This is of course a blatant mistruth. Christians have always held that their faith is informed by reason, and atheists live on faith as much as anyone else.
The truth is, everyone on this planet operates on a mixture of evidence, reason, proof, faith and belief. But I discuss these matters further here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/23/evidence-proof-and-belief-part-one/
It is also misleading in the extreme to suggest that religious folks are anti-reason. The simple truth is, nearly all of the great minds in Western intellectual history up until recently have been theists, if not Christians. The great Western philosophical tradition is of course dominated by theists. Think about these names for example: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel – not one of them card-carrying atheists.
And the makers of modern science were almost all theists as well. Just consider a few of the many names that can be mentioned here: Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Faraday, Newton, Babbage, Pasteur, Mendal, Kelvin, and Clerk-Maxwell. They were all theists, and most of them Christians. As John Lennox notes, “Their belief in God, far from being a hindrance to their science, was often the main inspiration for it.”
Indeed, simply consider one important new volume by an English historian of science who carefully documents the Christian basis for the rise of modern science. Everyone should consult James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery, 2011) to learn more about this.
But I want to finish with some incisive comments made by two authors who both penned very valuable and incisive books on the new atheism recently. I refer to these two excellent volumes:
– Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.
– David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Yale University Press, 2009.
I have been going through my library of books on the new atheism, with well over 70 titles, revisiting them with a view to trying to highlight some of the cream of the crop. I have reread a number of these volumes in the past few days, and these two especially stood out.
Hart offers more of an historical, or an intellectual history, approach, while Feser offers more of a philosophical approach. Both are first class volumes, and both are worth quoting at length regarding this issue of reason. First let me cite some of the thoughts of Hart.
He contrasts the fuller, richer and deeper understanding of reason in the Christian tradition with the reductionist and shallow view of reason in the atheist tradition: “I suspect that our contemporary ‘age of reason’ is in many ways an age of almost perfect unreason, one always precariously poised upon the edge of – and occasionally slipping over into – the purest barbarism.
“I suspect that, to a far greater degree than we typically might imagine, we have forsaken reason for magic: whether the magic of occult fantasy or the magic of an amoral idolatry of our own power over material reality. Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist.
“A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom. In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, primarily because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is also always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational.
“Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is.”
Feser also speaks to this notion of reason, and how it surely is not the sole domain of the secularists. Neither are such virtues as tolerance, democracy and science. And these goods are often twisted and corrupted goods in the hands of the secularists: “The mainstream Western religious tradition itself very firmly rests on and embraces reason and science.
“That tradition also insists that religious conviction and moral virtue must be adopted of one’s own free will, not imposed by force; and while it holds that some of the things people choose to do are morally unacceptable, secularists who also profess to believe that there is a difference between right and wrong, hold the same thing. The Protestant John Locke and the Catholic Second Vatican Council (to take just two examples) endorsed religious toleration and democracy, and on theological grounds at that, while secularists are none too happy with democracy when, say, it results in school boards that mandate the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’ theory alongside evolution.
“So what, pray tell, is distinctively ‘secularist’ about reason, science, free choice, toleration, democracy, and the like? Nothing at all, as it happens. The fact is that secularists are ‘for’ reason and science only to the extent that they don’t lead to religious conclusions; they celebrate free choice only insofar as one chooses against traditional or religiously oriented morality; and they are for democracy and tolerance only to the extent that these might lead to a less religiously oriented social and political order. Again, the animus against religion is not merely a feature of the secularist mindset; it is the only feature.”
Quite so. The entire thrust of Feser’s book is that the Enlightenment rejection of the great Western intellectual tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas has led to the overwhelming intellectual and moral mess we now find ourselves in. Bad ideas in other words have bad consequences.
We have replaced true reason with superstition. We have rejected the great truths of Western philosophical thought for a mass of relativism and scepticism. And that has resulted in some very real and some very bad consequences. Says Feser:
“We are well past the time when slippery-slope arguments might be used to try to shock a liberal or a secularist out of his folly. You can no longer attempt the reductio ad absurdum with him, for he will now simply embrace with enthusiasm any absurdity that follows from his premises and thank you for suggesting it to him. He is well through the looking glass, his mind and his moral sensibility so thoroughly corrupted that to him it is obvious that black is white, up is down, sodomy is marriage, and scraping a fetus from its mother’s womb is compassion.”
This is just where autonomous, humanistic reason has taken us. God is a rational God, and being made in his image, we are rational creatures. But when we cut ourselves off – defiantly – from the source of all truth, wisdom, and knowledge, our reason, like everything else, becomes deeply damaged and perverted.
The human mind without God becomes a darkened, ugly affair which can only lead to superstition as Feser puts it. Or as the Apostle Paul once put it: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).
So this weekend the parading hordes of atheists will celebrate reason. But it will not be genuine reason they will celebrate. It will be debased, perverted and corrupt reason – a reason which will only lead them further away from God, and thus further away from truth.
We need to keep them in prayer, and trust that some who really are seeking after truth will find it. They certainly won’t be finding it at this convention.