Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007
Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the connection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Communism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.
Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply religious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequious, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.
One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “appropriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.
Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investigation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on human observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical authors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.
Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them wanting. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the universe vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.
Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revelation. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.
Dawkins does not stand in awe of religious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the message of this literature.
Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not useful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.
For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriating. But for those who want to confront the alternative to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.