Wired has a fascinating cover story this month by Gary Wolf called “The Church of the Non-Believers.” It’s an overview of what Wolf calls the New Atheism, the fundamentalist, evangelical nonbelief of philosophers and scientists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. For a week or two now, I’ve been planning to write something about how the intelligent design movement has hijacked interesting theology and turned it into bad science. The Wired article has spurred me to write a different post entirely, this one on how atheists like Dawkins have hijacked interesting science and turned it into bad philosophy.
So what do Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson have in common?
Well, for one, they both want you to believe that science and religion are inevitably at loggerheads, that the belief in God by necessity leads to creationism, just as the belief in evolution leads to atheism. Both seem to believe that there is only one way to believe. There’s a basic assumption here: the God that Dawkins does not believe in is Pat Robertson’s God, but, like Robertson, he doesn’t think that there’s any other way in which to believe. For most of the article, Wolf is making the same assumption—that the “belief” that atheists reject is the belief in Uncle God who wants to make you rich, and give you a gnarly time while doing it. (Indeed, it’s nearly the end of the article before Wolf even mentions any definitions of God that fall outside this caricature.) Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” makes more or less the same argument, rejecting belief in “a big brother who will look after you.”
And while that’s certainly where much of America’s loudest religious thought is now directed, it’s bad theology, and it’s wrong to paint all belief with that brush. Far preferable to me and, I would argue, most Christians throughout history, is Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which a greater cannot be conceived.” This is a far more interesting definition, more theologically sound, more spiritually rewarding (especially when combined with scientific discoveries in astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and, yes, evolution), and empirically non-falsifiable. Despite Russell, Dawkins, and Robinson’s insistence, God is not an old man who sits on a cloud smiting the wicked. God is a category of being that encompasses all of reality—good luck finding empirical proof either for or against that.
This is a basic problem with creationism and the intelligent design movement as well—they want God to be something that can be detected and proven with science. In a really, really good theology class I took at Harvard with Philip Clayton (who gets a name-check toward the end of Wolf’s article, when he finally gets around to talking about different definitions of God), I learned about a little theological conundrum called “the God of the gaps.” Basically, if you propose God as the answer to all the questions we don’t have answers for, then science will inevitably fill in those gaps, and the province of God will get smaller and smaller. ID theorists fall straight into this trap, even exacerbating the problem by trying to re-create gaps that have already been filled. But the basic problem is that they’re forgetting Anselm’s definition. God is that than which a great cannot be conceived. Wouldn’t a being like that be able to do better than straight-up evolutionary miracles?
Anyway, from this false definition of God, Dawkins concludes that religion is a cultural tumor that must be excised. In Wolf’s words:
Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.
This particular statement reminded me more than a little of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s novel Heaven, in which the entire known galaxy is controlled by the Church of Cosmic Unity, who preach tolerance for all beings and all beliefs. (Notably, their system of belief is called the Memeplex, after Dawkins’ own idea of self-replicating ideas.) So firmly do they believe in their message of tolerance, in fact, that they completely obliterate any species that refuses to accept their gospel. I’m not trying to suggest that Dawkins would go to such extremes, but it’s worth noting that the intolerant organization at this novel’s core uses the language of both faith and reason.
Of course, Dawkins doesn’t preach tolerance (and I agree with Wolf that “preach” is the right word here—in fact, the entire article is peppered with religious terminology applied to atheism). And that’s the basic problem with much atheism, both as I see it described in this article and as it was when I practiced it in high school. For all that Dawkins seems to have thought about faith, he doesn’t seem to have thought too much about the content of faith, relying instead on presuppositions and prejudices created by—well, Pat Robertson, for one, and Bertrand Russell too. That reference to Philip Clayton in Wolf’s article I mentioned? It’s immediately followed by a quote from Dawkins in which he describes the entire discipline of theology as “a nonsubject… Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.” He rejects it out of hand, prejudicially, simply because of what it is. That statement makes me wonder: is this atheism a considered standpoint, or knee-jerk contrarianism?
I get my answer, I think, from the article’s sidebar on Penn and Teller, who, I learn, have been increasingly adding stage banter about their atheism. Penn, apparently, has registered vanity plates reading ATHEIST and GODLESS, and has been known to sign autographs with “There is no God.” While reading the sidebar, I couldn’t help but think: is Penn Jillette the atheist Steven Baldwin?
And with that I had my answer. Atheism, or at least the evangelical atheism of Dawkins, Russell, Penn, and Teller, is every bit the intolerant bad guy that Christian fundamentalism is. They're fixing to fight, and the rest of us are caught in the middle.