Ian Boyne, Contribuutor
The arrogance and hubris of some atheists, particularly those who are scientists with little training in philosophy, can be enormously grating. There is a triumphalism and scorn about non-scientific ways of knowing - a phrase that would be dismissed as nonsensical - that is pathetic.
Steven Pinker, world-renowned cognitive scientist and linguist (whose latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined I thoroughly enjoyed) is the embodiment of that hubristic spirit. In his August 19 'New Republic' essay, 'Science Is Not Your Enemy: A Plea for An Intellectual Truce', Pinker declares confidently: "The moral world view of any scientifically literate person - one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism - requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value."
Well-known and distinguished atheistic physicist, Steven Weinberg, says, "Anything scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion may, in the end, be our greatest contribution to civilisation." And the Oxford chemist, Peter Atkins, has joined the chorus by saying that scientists "are at the summit of knowledge, rationality and intellectual honesty; and there is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence". A rather bold old claim!
Victor Stenger, his book God: The Failed Hypothesis - How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist says with gusto: "By this moment in time, science has advanced sufficiently to be able to make a definitive statement on the existence and non-existence of God." And you don't have to guess what that is: God is not just improbable. He is impossible!
Yet not all atheists manifest this unshakeable faith in science. There are some brilliant atheists who are doing some very interesting philosophical and scientific work and who are dissociating themselves from the scientism of Daniel Dennett, Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Kraus, Stephen Hawking, Peter Atkins, Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins.
One of them is Canadian philosopher, John Schellenberg, who just recently published Evolutionary Religion. His thesis is that we are too early in our evolutionary history to express definitive, conclusive, final judgement on ultimate issues. In his new book, he quotes triumphalistic atheist Jerry Coyne (who wrote Why Evolution Is True) as saying that our six thousand years of civilisation (not mankind's history) represents "only one-thousandth of the total time that the human lineage has been isolated from that of the chimpanzee. Like icing on a cake, roughly 250 generations of civilised society lie atop 300,000 generations during which we have been hunter-gatherers living in small social groups ... there's been relatively little time for evolutionary change since the rise of modern civilisation".
Schellenberg uses that and myriad other facts to drive home his point: Mankind is too early in his evolutionary history as a thinking species to freeze and close off present knowledge, assuming we have come to full truth. In other words, the arrogance of scientism (not science) is totally unwarranted. So Schellenberg uses evolutionary theory itself to caution humility.
Theism Could Be False
Firm in his atheism, Schellenberg says we must be open to some kind of, what he calls "ultimism" - that is, some form of ultimate reality that might not be theism. In other words, theism could well be false, but that would not mean that methodological naturalism is true.
That there is nothing beyond the physical cannot be proven decisively. Science starts with physical laws. Science starts with order, intelligibility, and regularity. Science is based on these concepts. There could be no scientific world without a view that the world is intelligible, orderly, law-governed - not capricious and ephemeral. What accounts for this order, this regularity? (The sun does come out every day, despite Hume's scepticism).
And the most amazing fact of all - that we have consciousness to contemplate this vast universe or multiverse, 100 billion galaxies known so far! It was Einstein, who said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." I recommend Thomas Nagel's latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. It is a gem. Nagel is one of the world's most outstanding philosophers (he's an atheist) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Nagel tenders into evidence the incredulity of "the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life". He continues: "It is prima facie highly improbable that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection." Nagel mentions two profound questions: "First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what the likelihood is that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry?
"The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that as a result of a physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?"
Nagel is quick to assure that "my scepticism is not based on religious belief or any belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not, in this matter, rationally require us to subordinate our incredulity of common sense. This is especially true with regard to the origin of life."
One Christian philosopher who has, for decades, been debating and challenging the leading atheists - and from whom Richard Dawkins has refused to debate face to face though they have debated on teams - is William Lane Craig. He has debated some of the biggest names in atheistic philosophy and science, and I have seen not one floor him. You might say I am biased because I am a theist. Well, I can tell you that in debates between Christians and atheists, I usually find the atheists far more intellectually engaging. I find non-theists, especially agnostics, usually sharper than Christian and other religious believers.But I have watched many debates between Crag and leading, tough-minded atheists and they have never been able to defeat his Kalăm cosmological argument. Go to his website, Reasonable Faith and look at his videos with brand-name atheists and you judge for yourself. And if you think all Christians are fools and dunces (as some under-read Jamaican atheists postulate), go to that website.
Also, there is an excellent radio show for thinkers on British Christian radio called Unbelievable (Premier Christian Radio), where you find prominent Christian scientists and philosophers debate equally prominent atheistic philosophers and scientists. Go for an intellectual feast.
I find that many atheists are woefully unaware of the serious and critical religious thinking taking place and their exposure is just to the religious nuts and con men on religious TV and on street corners. I recommend, for example, British Christian philosopher Peter Williams' book, A Skeptic's Guide to Atheism (2009), where he deals with the New Atheists. I also recommend two of his books just released this year, C.S. Lewis vs The New Atheists and a Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom.
I have some favouirite agnostics and atheists, too: Michael Martin, Richard Carrier, Richard Gale, Wes Morriston, Graham Oppy, Alain de Botton, Taner Edis, John Schellenberg, William Rowe, Nick Trakakis, Theodore Drange, Bruce Sheiman, to name a few. If you are a religious person and you say only fools could be atheists, or that you can't understand how a person could be an atheist, you should disguise your ignorance by shutting up!
But what should be exploded - and it is a growing myth - is that philosophical naturalism is unassailable. First, note that even if evolution is true, it would not mean that God does not exist. There are Christians who believe in evolution (this might shock fundamentalists) There are thinking Christians who say there is nothing necessarily contradictory between evolutionary theory and Christian belief in God. Many thinking Catholics and others believe in evolution
Arrogant but Ignorant
So evolution does not necessarily disprove God. Besides, the ignorant view that all Christians believe in a 6,000-year young earth and that the Genesis account must be read literally is just that - ignorance. Arrogant but ignorant Jamaican atheists trot out, with unquestioned authority, the view that since science has proven that the Big Bang took place 13.7 or so billion years ago, the Bible has been refuted because Genesis must be taken literally or else God does not exist and the Bible is false. Nonsense! There are Christians who accept the scientific view that the earth is old, that there was no universal flood, and that Genesis 1-2 is not literal, and that humans evolved.
Christians hold a variety of views, so naďvely assailing one set of views (usually fundamentalist) does not refute Christianity, my Jamaican atheistic interlocutors need to know.
Nagel makes an important point in his book, Mind and Cosmos: "Whatever one thinks of the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine - that the appearance of life form from dead matter and evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law - cannot be regarded as unassailable." Did you get that? "It is an assumption governing the scientific project, rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis."
I can't resist quoting more of this atheistic thinker who has been jolting the world since 1967: "Science is driven by the notion that the world is intelligible. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge ... . In the natural sciences, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiment, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone.
Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order which long antedates the scientific revolution, those discoveries could not have been made."
Perhaps the arrogant atheists should pay greater respect to philosophy and religion rather than prematurely performing last rites. It's arrogant atheism which we should bury.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.