To Regret Religion Is To Regret Western Civilization?

"If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency" - Theodore Dalrymple

There has been a recent spate of books by atheists Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens condemning religion. Books by the Christian authors Alister McGrath and John C. Lennox have been written in reply as have several excellent reviews notably that by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books.

Theodore Dalrymple, who describes himself as a non-believer, has found the attack on religion to be somewhat blind and makes this case in his article What the New Atheists Don’t See which appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of City Journal, Volume 17, No. 4. Dalrymple wrote in part:

The British parliament’s first avowedly atheist member, Charles Bradlaugh, would stride into public meetings in the 1880s, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. God bided his time, but got Bradlaugh in the end. Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works. Evidently, there is a tide in the affairs, if not of men, at least of authors.

The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence: the coyote’s “methods of locomotion have been ruthlessly optimized for efficiency.” Or: “The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look.” Or again: “This is a good example of Mother Nature’s stinginess in the final accounting combined with absurd profligacy in the methods.” No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it.

Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him. The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum? Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove. Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns. What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.” In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization … To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it … of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting (Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602), by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window. Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life…..

I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my own neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value. But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich; though a moderate Puritan, he took the Royalist side in the English civil war and lost his see, dying in 1656 while Cromwell was still Lord Protector. Except by specialists, Hall remains almost entirely forgotten today. I opened one of the volumes at random, his Contemplations Upon the Principal Passages of the Holy Story. Here was the contemplation on the sickness of Hezekiah:

Hezekiah was freed from the siege of the Assyrians, but he is surprised with a disease. He, that delivered him from the hand of his enemies, smites him with sickness. God doth not let us loose from all afflictions, when he redeems us from one. To think that Hezekiah was either not thankful enough for his deliverance, or too much lifted up with the glory of so miraculous a favour, were an injurious misconstruction of the hand of God, and an uncharitable censure of a holy prince; for, though no flesh and blood can avoid the just desert of bodily punishment, yet God doth not always strike with an intuition of sin: sometimes he regards the benefit of our trial; sometimes, the glory of his mercy in our cure.

Hall surely means us to infer that whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, has a meaning and purpose; and this enables us to bear our sorrows with greater dignity and less suffering. And it is part of the existential reality of human life that we shall always need consolation, no matter what progress we make. This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human. For Hall, life is instinct with meaning: a meaning capable of controlling man’s pride at his good fortune and consoling him for his ill fortune.

In his 'Occasional Meditations', Hall takes perfectly ordinary scenes—ordinary, of course, for his times—and derives meaning from them. Here is his meditation “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse”:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin! Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Surely Hall is not suggesting (unlike Dennett in his unguarded moments) that the biological purpose of flies is to feed off injured horses, but rather that a sight in nature can be the occasion for us to reflect imaginatively on our morality. He is not raising a biological theory about flies, in contradistinction to the theory of evolution, but thinking morally about human existence. It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s providence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

What don't atheists see?

Posted October 31, 2007

God’s Baseball Team - Batting For Jesus?

"I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." - Colorado Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort

BP Sports and USA Today have published articles describing the role of Christianity in the ethos of the Colorado Rockies baseball team and their trip to play the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 World Series which starts this week. BP Sports commenting on the USA Today article said that “the (USA Today) story examines the influence of Christianity on the entire team -- from manager Clint Hurdle, to players like Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, to general manager Dan O'Dowd, to team CEO Charlie Monfort".

According to USA Today: No copies of Playboy or Penthouse are in the clubhouse of baseball's Colorado Rockies. There's not even a Maxim. The only reading materials are daily newspapers, sports and car magazines and the Bible. Music filled with obscenities is not played. Quotes from Scripture are posted in the weight room. Chapel service is packed on Sundays. Prayer and fellowship groups each Tuesday are well-attended. It's not unusual for the front office executives to pray together. Behind the scenes, they quietly have become an organization guided by Christianity — open to other religious beliefs but embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success.

The Rockies are having their best season since 1995 with a payroll of $44 million, the lowest in the National League's West Division. Their season ticketholders and fans are, for the most part, unaware of the significance the Rockies place on Christian values. "I had no idea they were a Christian team. ... I would love for them to talk about their Christianity publicly," says Tim Boettcher, 42, a season ticketholder for 12 years and an elder at the Hosanna Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colo. "It makes sense because of the way they conduct themselves. You don't see the showboating and the trash talking. ... They look like a team and act like a team." "We had to go to hell and back to know where the Holy Grail is. We went through a tough time and took a lot of arrows," says Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort, one of the original owners.

We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have," he says. "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." "We try to do the best job we can to get people with the right sense of moral values, but we certainly don't poll our players or our organization to find out who is Christian and who isn't," says O'Dowd, who says he has had prayer sessions on the telephone with club President Keli McGregor and manager Clint Hurdle. "I know some of the guys who are Christians, but I can't tell you who is and who isn't."

Is it possible that some Rockies are playing the role of good Christians just to stay in the team's good graces? Yes, former Rockies say. "They have a great group of guys over there, but I've never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose," says San Francisco Giants first baseman-outfielder
Mark Sweeney, a veteran of seven organizations who spent 2003 and 2004 with the Rockies. "You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs. "Look, I pray every day," Sweeney says. "I have faith. It's always been part of my life. But I don't want something forced on me. Do they really have to check to see whether I have a Playboy in my locker?"

While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team's improvement. "You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

God is betting on the Colorado Rockies?

Posted October 23, 2007

Who is John Galt?

""I swear by my life and my love of it I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." - John Galt in Atlas Shrugged.

First Things in an October 11, 2007 article by Brian Murray entitled “Who is John Galt? And Does Anyone Care Anymore?” discusses the influence of Ayn Rand on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Murray writes:

Atlas Shrugged was a huge, hotly debated bestseller in its day, and its sales have held steady ever since. Its author, certainly, retains a certain mystique as the exacting thinker still revered by many Americans as a great intellectual and seer. All of us, surely, know someone who has passed through an Ayn Rand phrase, mild or severe. At some point we’ve all heard the words: “Atlas Shrugged changed my life.”

Ayn Rand took herself very seriously indeed. She was a born iconoclast and provocateur: one of those restless souls forever seeking to bend the world to her will. She was not easily impressed, deciding early on that nearly all philosophy after Aristotle was a waste of time. One day, Rand famously assured her university professors, she would produce timeless philosophical writings of her own. She had very little humor but plenty of push.

First, however, she would write movies and plays. Alicia Rosenbaum—as her family knew Ayn Rand—spent much of her childhood reading far-fetched novels featuring square-jawed adventurers in exotic locales. Besides Aristotle, Rand’s heroes were all fictional he-men—late Victorian versions of Indiana Jones. When, in 1926, Rand left her native Russia for the United States, she headed straight for Hollywood, where in short order she found a husband, took an extra’s part in Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings, and started cranking out scripts. Alicia Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand, the headstrong heroine of a decidedly American story.

Rand’s educated, prosperous family suffered terribly under the Soviets, and her hatred of communism burned on like a hard, gemlike flame. But she loved the United States in her own, highly stylized way: She loved its skyscrapers, its technology, its machinery, its energy. Rand’s first big bestseller, The Fountainhead (1940), is in part a long hymn to this America of her imagination, and its hero, Howard Roark, is her first extended portrait of the consummate American—a world-class architect based loosely on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rand’s Ideal Man could never be a schoolteacher, say, or a physical therapist, or a claims clerk in the Social Security Administration. He must not be short-winded or fat. He must be perfection in action—gifted and brave, uniquely talented, and utterly free of irrationality and fear. He must, like Roark, defend the premise that no man should ever compromise his individual will or submit to pathetic notions of “sacrifice”; he must recognize that men of genius like himself will forever fight the lazy, inferior parasites who seek to take what superior minds have made. He must, in short, look like Gary Cooper and think exactly like Ayn Rand. As The Fountainhead showed, Rand’s beliefs were well-suited for the big screen, where outsize heroes, defiant acts, and stirring speeches have always been the order of the day.

Rand hated religion as much as she hated communism; for her Christianity was, of course, the religion of fools and slaves. Rand’s “marginalia,” culled from the books in her library and published in 1998, are particularly revealing: The woman who despised emotionalism and valued reason above all became, when faced with C.S. Lewis, like one of those “literary guys” faced with Mickey Spillane. Lewis, Rand averred, was a “driveling non-entity,” a “mediocrity,” and “scum.”

Still, Atlas Shrugged, you’ve heard countless times, is a classic, and apparently it’s soon to be a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie. And so, finally, you’re ready to give it a go—all 1,168 pages. It is full of rich characters: They own steel mills and railroads. Otherwise they’re ponderous and flat. It’s possible, then, that early on your eyes might start to glaze a bit, and you’ll find yourself thinking “Really, I couldn’t care less” each time the novel demands: “Who is John Galt?” It’s very possible, actually, because fifty years after its publication Atlas Shrugged is much better as a doorstop than a novel.

Atlas Shrugged – Good novel or good doorstop?.

Posted October 17, 2007

Has Science Buried God?

"What is the meaning of it all?" Richard Feynman - American physicist known for expanding the theory of quantum electrodynamics.
"The universe is just there, and that's all." Bertrand Russell - English philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, pacifist, and prominent Rationalist.
"It is the very nature of science that leads me to belief in God," John C Lennox - a popular Christian apologist and scientist.

Adam Kirsch wrote a review of a new book on Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin for The New Yorker magazine entitled 'God’s Undertaker: How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope' and in it Kirsch writes:

“One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the product of his dawning sense that nobody, not even the priest, could possibly take the church service seriously. There seems to be a straight line, if not a short one, from Hardy’s “consternation” to the madness of the stranger who, in Nietzsche’s famous parable, barges into churches to sing a requiem: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

John C. Lennox in his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God offers a response to the claims of more modern atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, that science has finally killed the idea of God. Lennox argues that indeed the reverse is more likely to have validity and based on the evaluation of modern scientific evidence he argues that theism is more in tune with science than atheism. The book’s publisher writes:

“If we believe many modern commentators, science has squeezed God into a corner, killed and then buried Him with its all-embracing explanations. Atheism, we are told, is the only intellectually tenable position, and any attempt to reintroduce God is likely to impede the progress of science. John Lennox invites us to consider such claims very carefully. Is it really true, he asks, that everything in science points towards atheism? Could it be possible that theism sits more comfortably with science than atheism?”

Fixed Point hosted a debate between Dawkins and Lennox on the positions taken by their respective books. Copies of the debate can be obtained on the Fixed Point website.

John Lennox has published over 70 articles in Algebra (Group Theory) and co-authored two research monographs in the Oxford Mathematical Monographs series - "The Theory of Subnormal Subgroups" (with S.E. Stonehower) 1987 and "The Theory of Infinite Soluble Groups" (with D.J.S. Robinson) 2004. He is currently particularly interested in the interface between science, philosophy and theology and lectures in Science and Religion at Oxford University.

Science is God's Undertaker?

Posted October 07, 2007