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.

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