"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why atheism can be respectable

First Things' web editor Joe Carter argues, pace David Hart, that we must "abandon the politically correct notion" that any form of "atheism is intellectually respectable." As St. Paul implies in Romans 1, atheism is a case of vincible ignorance. Even people who have never been vouchsafed special divine revelation have "no excuse" for failing to know God:
For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. (20-22)
Carter's argument, then, is roughly as follows. If Christianity is true, then the Bible is divinely inspired, and whatever assertion is divinely inspired is true. So St. Paul is correct in arguing that those who do not believe in the God there is are "without excuse." Hence atheism is vincible ignorance. And vincible ignorance is not intellectually respectable.

To be fair, Hart does not argue that all forms of atheism are respectable. He is particularly, and justifiably, contemptuous of the "new atheism," which never rises to the elegance of a Hume, the nobility of a Voltaire, or the clear-eyed radicalism of a Nietzsche. But his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, a tour-de-force by almost any standard, does not depend on disparaging the motives of atheists as such. I'm reading it now. What Hart recognizes, and Carter does not, is that atheism is sometimes motivated by moral passion. That passion can be immature and anthropomorphic, but by no means is it always base. And even when it is base, it often arises from unreflective outrage about real wrongs people do in the name of God. We cannot simply assume that atheism is motivated by a desire to escape divine judgment or indulge in base sexual passions. Paul may well have been right about many pagans of his time, but I don't think we need or should read him as condemning all atheism as a moral failing.

For one thing, doing that would lower theists to the level of the new atheists, who can see theism as motivated only by stupidity or ill will. It would also abandon the progress made by most of the Christian world, which no longer sees heresy as explicable only by stupidity or ill will. Even when such claims are true, it is unhelpful to make them.

When the sort of moral passion motivating atheism is immature, anthropomorphic, or base, the best response is usually the example of believers who love as they ought: love primarily for real people, and secondarily for all that is obviously true, good, and beautiful. Evaluating motives is rarely helpful in intellectual debate, and sometimes not even helpful in ordinary life. In politics and private life as well as religion, all sides tend to overindulge in Bulverism. The antidote is the sort of rationality that sustains itself by a love for truth that is greater than one's hatred of enemies. That allows for due objectivity about competing arguments. And in the case of atheism, such an intellectual task must take the form of studying and evaluating the arguments strictly on their merits. The new atheists usually don't come out of that looking good. But intellectually respectable atheism can.

As Thomas Aquinas recognized, the two most common objections to theism are (a) the explanatory superfluity of the supernatural, and (b) the problem of evil. Those objections are worth taking seriously on the merits. As I argued over a year ago, however, even they arise from what are, at bottom, moral objections. The best of the atheists are best engaged when theists recognize that and proceed accordingly. At bottom, the debate is about what humans ought to value, and in what configuration. In turn, a debate like that arises from competing claims about what humanity itself is. Ultimately, then, the best way to combat atheism is to act, not just argue, as though God reveals man to man.
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