Friday, December 30, 2011

The New Atheism

This article was originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.

Atheism isn’t really new. It’s as old as the idea of God itself. At the dawn of history the first time someone said “there is a God” the guy standing next to him said “no there isn’t.” And we’ve been arguing about it ever since.

In the ten years since 9/11 a raft of writers have published best-selling books championing the well-worn idea that God is an invention of our over-active collective imagination, an invention humanity would be a lot better off without.

At the head of the pack of the so-called New Atheists is Richard Dawkins whose book The God Delusion, published in 2006, spent 51 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and has since sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and has little patience for any truth-claim that cannot be supported by empirical evidence. For him, belief in the virgin birth, Creationism and the existence of an invisible cosmic overlord is utterly groundless and worse – “Religion,” said Dawkins in a recent New York Times interview, “teaches you to be satisfied with non-answers.” In other words, religion makes us stupid.

Dawkins is not alone in his critique of the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. He joins a brilliant and esteemed list of philosophers including Hume, Sartre, Camus, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nagarjuna, Mill, Chomsky, Santayana and Foucault.

Other famous atheists range from the not at all surprising (Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud) to the unexpected (Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller). Thoughtful, inventive, creative and courageous people throughout history have, at sometimes great personal and professional risk, dared to question the central paradigm of western civilization – that the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad is real.

But atheism doesn’t just ask questions – it asserts answers. By making a specific truth claim, namely that there is no God, atheism is vulnerable to the same criticism it levies against theism. Whether you claim there is a God or not you still have to supply evidence to support your claim and present that evidence in a framework we can all accept. The devil is always in the details.

Where Dawkins’s brand of atheism falls short is in its misestimation of the human capacity to know. For Dawkins, religion is a failed science – a science utterly without evidence or sound hypotheses. What Dawkins is unwilling to consider is the possibility that religion and science do not share a common epistemology. The process by which one establishes knowledge or certainty in science is utterly different from the process by which one establishes knowledge or certainty in religion. Scientific certainty is founded solely on empirical, that is, sensory evidence whereas religious conviction is founded on externally unverifiable inner experience. Religious claims are therefore prone to a host of criticisms from an empirical epistemological stance. To scientists like Dawkins religion is nothing more than a long list of misunderstandings amplified through time and concretized by tradition. Gone from even the realm of consideration is the possibility that there are ways of apprehending reality other than through sensory data and conceptual thought. What if non-sensory awareness or direct, unmediated experience carries its own epistemological weight? As Native American philosopher Vine Deloria puts it, “We may misunderstand, but we do not misexperience.” Learning to humbly trust the authority of our own inner-awareness gives birth to an epistemology unbound by mere intellect and the limiting mechanics of logic.

Ironically, atheism does religion a great favor by laying bare the absurdities inherent in any attempt to conceptualize the ground of being. If the formless ground of being that we commonly personify as God is the source of all reality, (including our conceptual minds), then of course any mere concept of God falls woefully short of the reality it purports to describe, leaving all such concepts susceptible to ridicule.

Whether we like Dawkins’s conclusion or not, any thinking person understands and appreciates the urgent importance of his inquiry. Throughout history, the God idea has done as much harm as good. Religious wars, oppression, conquests and crusades have left us battered and bloodied. Given the rise in popularity of atheism in the post 9/11 world it is clear that a great number of people are frustrated by religion, especially fundamentalism in all its many forms. Atheists like Dawkins capture a wide audience because they deftly skewer outdated and outmoded God-concepts that never really worked anyway. In other words, the God-concept attacked by atheism is a God-concept many of us have already left behind – the angry, judgmental, anthropomorphic God (think Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel) who commands unquestioning obedience to an endless list of confusing and often conflicting dictates administered by an authoritarian church. It’s a shame, however, that in their haste to abandon religion so many people have cut ties with their innate spirituality as well.

A genuinely scientific and open minded approach to the God question would allow for the possibility that while the existence of God cannot be proven within the narrow bounds of empirical science, God may still exist. In this sense Dawkins does not disappoint. Dawkins believes that evolution is progressive and inherently leads to increasingly complex forms. The emergence of conscious beings from the primordial ooze strongly suggests the possibility of significant future evolutionary development. If there was no God “in the beginning”, could there be one now or in the future? “Yes,” says Dawkins, “it is highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures,” and if there aren’t, there could be someday. Such is the power and potential of evolution. Admittedly, these are not the sort of gods that populate creation myths the world over but are rather the result of a long, unguided process of mutation and natural selection of desirable traits – the culmination of evolution, not its genesis.

What Dawkins is unwilling to concede, despite eons of experiential evidence, is that God-consciousness is not just a future possibility, the end-point of eons of evolutionary progress, but the starting point of it all. If God-consciousness is the source of everything, and even more to the point the essential nature of everything, then it is impossible to turn God into a mere concept let alone a logically sound one. Trying to define God is like trying to see your own eyes. “The source of consciousness cannot be an object in consciousness,” said Nisargadatta Maharaj in his classic of Vedanta philosophy I Am That. “To know the source is to be the source.” In other words, we cannot turn God into a thought because God is the very act of thinking itself. Asking us to explain God is like asking a fish to explain water. We cannot point to a disembodied thing called God because God is what everything is. This brand of religious philosophy, dismissively and misleadingly called pantheism by mainstream theologians, offers a third alternative to the tired theism/atheism debate.

By challenging an outmoded concept of God and the crippling propensity of mainstream religious doctrine to jettison rational thought Dawson is performing an invaluable service. Arguably, he is helping us all move forward out of millennia of dogmatic authoritarian hearsay and toward a spirituality grounded firmly in experiential knowing. As Jung famously remarked, “Religion is a defense against the experience of God,” and as such ought to be critically examined by all who wish to deepen their authentic spiritual practice. Dawkins’s well-reasoned attack on traditional religious belief is pushing us away from the shallow end of the pool and into deeper waters. From here we can see the other side.

In any debate, theological and other wise, the goal is not to eliminate dissention and compress the baffling complexity of reality down to a single, simplistic proposition. No matter how deep our longing, humanity’s search for meaning cannot be reduced to an up or down vote on the existence of God. The object of thoughtful discourse is to allow conflicting truth claims to polish each other to a shining luster in the rough and tumble give and take of rigorous yet mutually beneficial dialogue. And in the great sorting, the chaff is left on the granary floor, laying bare the wheat that nourishes us all on the long road to wisdom. Moving past simple scenarios of this or that, we finally begin to appreciate the need to grow beyond slavish attachment to rigid opinions or positions. Maybe the question of God’s existence can never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. “The great and most important problems in life are utterly unsolvable,” said Carl Jung, “they can never be solved, but only outgrown.” Instead of childishly regarding the new atheism as either true or false, it is more likely that it is yet another facet of the unfolding of evolutionary consciousness, a welcome corrective to our natural tendency to cling to old narratives and conceptual frameworks that no longer serve our highest good.


Laura Vigneau said...

One day I realized that G~d is a lot like love- with a wealth of meanings, as numerable as the souls in communion with its essence. They (love or G~d) can only be worthy within an authentic self realization, or discovery.

Jp said...

As an infant, I'm born without any religion and as I grow up, I try to figure out why things happen and why sometimes it seems like that happen to me. I start using logic to figure this out and when I can't figure out and answer on my own, I ask others why a particular thing happened. Usually, the result is that "GOD" did it.

Without that input we might just scratch our collective heads and keep working on the problem until we understand it. However, when "GOD" is introduced into the thought process, we stop that quest and just blame anything we don't understand on "GOD."

When we learn math, an equation has parts that create a sum so that the equation balances. Without the proper numbers in that equation, thinks don't make sense and we keep working on the numbers until we get them right. If I were to introduce a number into the equation and just say well, "GOD" doesn't want us to know this because he's mysterious and all knowing and our puny little minds can't possibly balance this formula, we give up looking for the proper numbers and shrug our shoulders at the real answer.

I can only imagine taking a test in school where instead of creating a working equation, I put as a variable, "GOD." I'm pretty sure that that instructor would mark that item as a wrong answer when graded, however that same teacher might believe in "GOD" and accept that "GOD" is the answer to all questions that s/he can't figure out in other relevant topics.

"GOD" is a cop-out. ..A "throwing up of hands".. a "give up" when you just don't know. It provides nothing to society but a way to cop-out of real critical thought.

"GOD" therefore is dangerous. It wounds the human species and retards the human brain. And, if the "GOD" that I was raised to believe in, did not supply the everyday miracle that fills the void of what we don't know, it must be wrong because it's not YOUR "GOD."

One last thing to THINK about. What if you were born in another country, say Africa or the Middle East instead of North America. Which "GOD" would you believe in? That of the Jews, or Mohammed or would you be a Christian?

Shouldn't "GOD" be the same one no matter where you live? Shouldn't all of the bible be the same since day one, not re-written several times. I mean this IS the word of "GOD" no doubt.

Why is the story of "Jesus" copied from engraved tablets about Horus dating back 2,000 years B.C.?

Why did the accounts in there get written 50-100 years after the death of Jesus? Why was it re-written in 331 AD if it was all correct in the first place. Why were some stories left out and others included? Why was Nazareth not established until about 30 years AFTER Jesus of Nazerath's death?

When you do the "math", none of this adds up. It's literal NONSENSE from a period in our human existence when we had no answers and had to figure things out for ourselves. We had no idea where the Sun went at night. Why babies were born... It was a period of no reasoning whatsoever other than fighting each other for land and trying not to get killed or eaten.

I find it very odd that the same people who use reason for everything else in their lives can shut off the logic in their brain for any reason.

It's time for the world to grow up.

© Peter Bolland said...

Jp, thanks for your comments. In my piece I worked hard to separate the God idea from the vagaries of man-made religion, a distinction you seem uninterested in making. Like Bishop Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman and many others, you correctly point out the problems in a literal belief in the Bible or any ancient text and its teachings. But a thoughtful discussion about existence of a source reality beyond sensory data is completely distinct from these reasonable and widely accepted criticisms of mainstream religion.

Andy Robinson said...

"It's literal NONSENSE from a period in our human existence when we had no answers and had to figure things out for ourselves. "

God or no God, we still have to figure things out for ourselves. If there is a God, then he/she/it might appreciate us working on that. There are things that will probably always be beyond our knowing, but the effort and intention to try and make sense of our existence are important. Exploring one's spirituality is one way to do that.

Kalani Gattis said...

Professor Bolland,

Thank you for opening up a much deeper discussion rather than the argumentative debate we often hear. I have shared this we many of my friends on both sides of the equation and it has brought us closer together rather than farther apart. How refreshing.

Thank you.

Motorod said...

I don't think that focussing on Dawkins' ilk as atheists is any more useful than using Santorum's as Christians. I submit there is a huge difference between Capital-A Atheism, and simply living an atheist life.

Becoming atheist is just as much of a internal journey of search and self-discovery as that of any spiritual one. To shine the piercing light of reason into every dark corner of one's psyche, using truth to strip one of all illusion; that's what it is to live without god: To be disillusioned. Try to think of is as yet another face of Enlightenment. To travel by one's own moral compass, rooted in reason, devoid of superstition, can be liberating.

I'm convinced that small-A atheists don't require a god to know what's right or wrong any more than they need "priests" like Dawkins to tell them what to think. On the question of morality: Is a flexible worldview based on evidence and reason any more likely to incline someone to good or evil than a religious approach based on a holy book from a divine authority? I think not, and probably even less so. People use the tools they know. The Golden Rule is just as much an intellectual precept as a spiritual one.

I remember reading somewhere that the King James Bible had a vocabulary of only 8000 words. The average educated English speaker knows about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 words in a week. I don't know if one's use of language ever delineates one's reality, but it certainly describes it.

An atheist is still filled with awe in the face of nature and the seeming limitlessness of the Universe. A walk in the deep woods is still just as much of a wonder. Believing in Woden, Pan or Yahweh wouldn't make it any more enjoyable, although actually knowing about them might. Knowledge. That may well be just the thing.