Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The truthful atheist

Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, is a truthful atheist. Unlike the 'new atheists', he does not castigate religious believers as imbeciles because they don't agree with him. Nagel acknowledges the intelligence of religious believers and is honest enough to admit that his atheism is motivated not only by reason, but also by fear:

'I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.'

According to Nagel, the fear of religion common in philosophical circles has 'large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life' because it has encouraged the transformation of a biological explanation into a general theory of truth:

'My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.'

Nagel observes that the problem with this sort of 'Darwinist imperialism' is that it cannot completely eliminate the religious threat. The question of whether or not atheists, other than Nagel, are able to see this is a different matter:

'There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at all - but it seems to be less alarming to most atheists.'

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word. Oxford 1997, pp.130-131.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What the Fool says (7)

The late atheist philosopher, J.L. Mackie, made the following assertion in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 'Morality is not to be discovered but to be made'. This disconcerting statement, which dramatically lowered my estimation of him, crystallizes precisely one of the great dangers entailed in atheism, the separation of fact and value. On this account, moral principles and values have nothing to do with the structure of reality, but are statements of how we would like things to be. We make morality in our own image, which is not such an objectionable idea if 'we' are peace loving followers of Saint Francis, but is completely objectionable if 'we' are the not so peace loving followers of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. Once moral principles cease to be regarded as objective statements about the world and become expressions of our personal prejudices, then any behaviour can become morally acceptable, if we choose to make it so.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What the Fool says (6)

Atheists never tire of complaining about the intolerance of religion yet themselves demonstrate an incapacity for tolerating, not just any viewpoint which is opposed to their own but, more alarmingly, any person who is not in complete agreement with them. Last year Stephen Fry appeared alongside Anne Widdecombe in a t.v. programme for Channel 4 in which they debated the merits of the Ten Commandments. In the following reply, posted on his website, Fry gave this response to a viewer who had the audacity to question the intelligence of Fry's assessment of the moral worth of the Ten Commandments, as well as his behaviour towards his opponent Anne Widdecombe:

'The Mosaic commandments are so evidently the hysterical drivel of a mad desert people (my own people as it happens) that they don’t deserve the dignity of anything other than anthropological curiosity and amused contempt. They have no more moral authority than any other set of preposterous, ill-thought out and inconsequential assertions. Besides how dare a “loving” creator be so arrogant and egotistical as to create a race of beings and then boss them about with these ludicrous “commandments”. I mean, frankly. ...It’s not what’s wrong with the commandments ...no, those are bad enough, it’s the commandments that are MISSING ...No mention of tolerance, decency, kindness, openness, freedom – all qualities actively disdained by that entity. Oh, it’s so self-evident that the decalogue is absolutely no basis for any kind of law, moral, theological, social, political or any other kind ...'

But, questions of 'hysterical drivel' aside, Fry's plea for the 'MISSING' commandments of 'tolerance, decency, kindness, openness, freedom' has a hollow ring:

'Incidentally, she [Anne Widdecombe] interrupted me a great deal more than I did her. Hitchens and I were edited to look intolerant. I only agreed to do the interview because I felt guilty at what an unholy (in every sense) idiot she made of herself in the debate on catholicism that preceded that interview. Well, she got her revenge by making us look like the intolerant ones. But we don’t preach intolerance, she and her church most specifically do. I’m tired of being expected to show “respect” for these odious, creepy and preternaturally stupid people and their “beliefs”.'

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Doubting atheist

It seems that A.N. Wilson has returned to faith in God after a long battle with atheism. Although it may be difficult to see quite why Wilson found atheism so compelling in the first place, other than the usual difficulties of religion such as doubt, dryness, faintness of heart etc, he offers some useful insights into what attracts people to atheism. A large part of it for Wilson seems to have been the satisfaction gained from being a 'born-again atheist', the 'complete certainty' of the atheist creed and the 'heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers', and for the first time in his life at ease with his contemporaries. What stands out in Wilson's account is a peculiarly English donnish propensity to denounce anything faintly mysterious as 'nonsense'. He dates his slow journey back to belief in God from his recognition of the failure of materialist atheist explanations of complex human experience, for instance, of love and music:

'When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion - prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.'

But what really seems to have clinched it for Wilson are the dangerous moral consequences of making man the measure of all things:

'I haven't mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer's serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.'