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God and the new atheists: A response to Peter Naish

God and the new atheists:
A response to Peter Naish

By Professor Frederick Toates

As I write this, the scenes of unimaginable suffering from Japan are being transmitted into our living rooms. Even utterly depressing and continuing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa is forced into second place. I can fully sympathise with those who see this as a universe devoid of any intrinsic meaning, except that made transiently by humans themselves. None-the-less, I read with surprise and disappointment the section on religion in the latest offering from my friend and former OU colleague, Peter Naish (OUPS Newsletter, February 2011). Leaving aside the issue of whether the Newsletter is the appropriate place to promote religious and political views, I think that the feature contains some statements that are seriously misleading.

Peter asks: “Should we instigate a programme of education that would ensure no more mumbo jumbo (i.e. religion….”. He then makes reference to a belief in Santa, apparently as an analogy to a belief in God. This is an old line of Dawkinsian argument that has been repeatedly shown to be misleading and often seems to be thrown in just as a gratuitous insult. I know of no one who, when an adult, found Santa and thereby was given meaning to their life. I know of no one inspired by a belief in Santa to spend their Saturday nights trekking around dangerous and disadvantaged parts of town trying to help the dispossessed (Come to think of it, I know of no new atheists who engage in a such activity either but that is quite a different matter). Both Oxford and Cambridge have research institutes devoted to reconciliation of science and religion. I know of no such equivalent for Santa. Given a video facility, it is relatively easy to prove that the presents under the Christmas tree derive from the parents rather than from a visitor entering down the chimney. There is no equivalent proof against the existence of God.

Peter refers to “educating the general public about science and reason”. In this light, let us note that the first two OU Professors of physics, Russell Stannard and Jocelyn Bell Burnell (the discoverer of the pulsar) are highly active in science-religion dialogue. Indeed, some of the greatest names in science have been/are theists, including the person to have discovered the principles of inheritance, more recently the leader of the research group who decoded the human genome, the person to have first articulated the big bang theory, pioneering neuroscientists Sir Charles Sherrington and Sir John Eccles, social psychologist

Michael Argyle and the co-discoverer of the principle of evolution. Einstein made repeated reference to religious themes, albeit of an unconventional type. Of course, famous names do not in themselves prove a truth except that the notion of inevitable science versus religion is made to look rather hollow. Is Peter seriously asking us to believe that, in a part of their life that assumed great importance, each of these people displayed all the cognitive sophistication of a 5 year-old child?

Try to consider it in this way. The probability of the existence of our universe is exceedingly small to the most unimaginable degree. Furthermore, given such a universe to start with, the emergence of carbon-based life in it is also exceedingly improbable. By analogy, to grasp the improbability, one could imagine taking a small sample of every letter in every language in the world and putting them in a hat. A random sample is then pulled out and thrown in the air. When they land, they are seen to form the expression “To be or not to be. That is the question”. Another sample is then taken and this time the message reads “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. The process of adding improbabilities continues as follows, whereupon things can get even more daunting. Since no one, including by his own admission, Jerry Fodor, has the slightest idea of how consciousness emerges from the physical brain or what is the correct way to formulate the hard question, there is not even an analogy that can be devised to illuminate this
final stage.

Confronted with this utterly mind-boggling situation, which has only been so clearly articulated by scientists relatively recently, there seem to be several possible responses. One is to suggest an infinity of universes and we just happen to be the lucky ones to have landed on this one with its possibility of OUPS weekend schools emerging (though one would surely need to speculate that somewhere there is, running in parallel, a universe containing, say, 4 day and 5 day OUPS weekend schools). This seems to be an extravagant hypothesis and, since it can never be proven for or against, it is hardly a scientific hypothesis. Another eminently rational approach is to admit that we have not a clue and so we simply adjourn to the pub. A third reaction is to wait anxiously for science to say something really insightful that will clear it all up once and for all. Yet another approach is to argue that the universe looks amazingly as if it were designed by a purposive intelligence for the emergence of conscious beings. Is this a knock-down argument for the existence of God? Certainly not. It is at best a working hypothesis that, like all such, creates problems as large as any that it solves. However, it seems to me odd in the extreme that this final response should trigger so much anger in the new atheists that many a dinner party has been ruined after someone has had the audacity to argue for it. Given the weakness of our understanding, it seems entirely unreasonable to promote either religious or atheist fundamentalism.

Peter notes rightly that the new atheists are in “a position to influence public belief”. This is very true but in reality how do they make use of this position? I must wonder how many people have ever been brought to see the error of their ways by being told that they are ‘mad, bad or sad’, usually with ‘lacking in intelligence’ thrown in just for good measure. This seems perilously close to adopting the tactics of the playground bully. It is an approach which strikes me as likely to be particularly counter-productive when confronting religious fundamentalists, where persuasion is most needed. Indeed, my fear is that, by sharing their total certainty and intolerance for anyone who dares to question them, the new atheists are rather effectively recruiting sergeants for fundamentalists of all faiths. It also lends a shabby respectability to the kind of political correctness that means air stewardesses have been threatened with dismissal for wearing a crucifix and nurses put under suspension for offering to say prayers for their patients.

There has recently been a flurry of new books arguing that religion confers an evolutionary advantage and is encoded in the genes. Therefore, it strikes me as particularly ironic that someone like Dawkins, who was a pioneer of understanding genes and evolution, should get so angry with believers. Surely, given such a premise, one might just as well get angry with people for having an appendix or becoming bald.

Peter suggests that faith lies “at the root of untold harm throughout history”. There is no doubt at all that organized religion continues to have a very great deal to answer for. However, as good psychologists, when suggesting an independent variable, we need a control group, in this case presumably as similar as possible except for an absence of religion. Atheism has had a much shorter time frame in which to display its wares, so we would need to take a slice of just a few hundred years. Within the control group, one would need to include the brutality of the French revolutionaries shown against believers, as well as the genocidal horror of Stalin, Mao and the Khymer Rouge. I find that the new atheists get particularly angry when the inclusion of this control group is suggested.

Peter alludes to the Iraq war when describing the debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on religion. This raises an interesting issue. After Blair’s name, he adds in brackets “(in spite of his behaviour, astonishingly a Christian)”. Of course, Hitchens was one of Blair’s principal cheerleaders for the war. Given the new atheistic morality, I wonder whether, in describing Hitchens and the war, Peter would feel the need to put in brackets “(in spite of being an atheist).”

Incidentally, for the record, at the time of the Bosnian war, I for one did not hear the expression “Serbs, Croats and Bosnians” since in this geographical boundary all three ethnicities/faiths are equally Bosnians. Rather, I heard the qualifying adjective ‘Bosnian’ to refer to each description ‘Croats’, ‘Serbs’ and ‘Muslims’.

This article was originally published in News & Views in 2011.


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