Friday, October 15, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 1 - The Myth of Inevitable Progress

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

Or, technically, it’s not founded on its own myths.

What I aim to do here is to expose some of those myths, as I see them. I concede at the outset that this doesn’t prove the New Atheism to be false, any more than it proves my Christian Faith to be true. However, what I hope to do is to counter the shrill voices of New Atheism that condemn me, and people like me, for no other reason that we hold to our particular mythology.

Mr. Kettle, let me introduce you to Mr. Pot.

(They’re both black, in case you didn’t get it.)

The first myth of the New Atheism is what I call the myth of inevitable progress. It’s more a sentiment than a doctrine, but it still ends up as dogma. It is expressed in a number of ways, but it ends up at roughly the same place – we are better than our parents because…well, just because, OK?

And by ‘better’, it can be ‘better’ in any number of ways. We are more tolerant, better informed, more rational, more reasonable, better communicators. In its crudest form, it’s the voice of the petulant teenager screaming out that his or her parents are stupid idiots (because they have ordered said teenager to tidy up his or her bedroom).

Now, it may just be that we have access to better information and education (though the latter is moot), but the wry commentator will note that not all change is progress. Certainly, this is the case if you look in the broader history of humankind. Nazi Germany thought it was progressing to a new age, the infamous Third Reich, and we know how that story ended.

Kingdoms and Empires rise and fall. On what basis do we say that one is ‘better’ than another? On what objective basis can I claim to be a ‘better’ person than my forebears?

If the New Atheists look to evolutionary theory to underpin this sentiment, they are looking in the wrong place. Specifically, our species has been recognizably distinct for many tens of thousands of years. I’m sorry if my science is a bit vague here, but it’s certainly a very long time when compared to the time span from one single generation to the next. In other words, we (modern 21st Century human beings) are genetically indistinct from those people who hid in caves and told themselves creation myths in the dark. Apart from the chronology, the only thing different between them and us is our access to better technology, and the internet.

If we were to get hold of a caveman, give him a shower and take him through our education system, he would look at the world in much the same way as we do. The question here is not what opportunities that education would open up to him, but how he would use them. Would he be wiser or more stupid than us? Would he be ‘better’ than us? Genetically, he would be indistinguishable from us; same man, different clothes.

What’s worse, and this is something ‘proper’ evolutionists would probably agree on, is the myth that evolution will make me into a better person. Face it; evolution by natural selection will NOT make you into a better person. What it does is that if you’re genetic make-up is better suited to the circumstances in which you find yourself, you’re more likely to pass it on to your progeny than someone who’s make-up is less suited. It’s all about your progeny, not you, and by the time they benefit (several generations into the future), you’ll be dead. You will not benefit one iota. It offers no hope to the individual.

You cannot call on evolution to claim that you are being made into a better person. What’s more, we cannot claim that evolution is making us better as a species, because we have interrupted the process of natural selection. Put simply, instead of being forced by our environment to change our genetic make-up over the generations, we have changed our environment to suit our genetic make-up. The Eugenics movement tried to correct this perceived imbalance, but they went the same way as the Nazis, which is no mere coincidence.

See. I’m appealing to history, which might be a waste of time on some New Atheists because they were the first to discover the universe, stupid.

We could go on with the current misuse of the word. For example, we could say that the personal computer has ‘evolved’ from its humble beginnings.

No it hasn’t. Not in the naturalistic sense. The reason PCs are better now than they were is wholly because an external intelligence (PC engineers) looked at previous generations and figured out how to improve them. Apply this metaphor to the natural world, and you actually argue for Theism (an intervening external intelligence), not Atheism.

So, please, let’s abandon the idea that evolution is somehow responsible for the law of inevitable progress – it isn’t.

It changes stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily make it better. In fact, you could argue that it actually makes it worse through a rather poor exegesis of the Laws of Thermodynamics and entropy.

One of the more insidious expressions of the myth of inevitable progress is the Richard Dawkins doctrine on the evolution of religion. Put simply (and you’ll find this pap all over the internet) Mr. Caveman didn’t have science to explain how the universe worked, so he invented God. The argument follows that now we have the science, we don’t need God. In fact we need to progress beyond the idea of God because…well, just because its progress, OK, and progress is inevitable. God, therefore, is holding us back.

Crucially, Dawkins and his disciples miss the point that its not just about science. If you believe that the purpose of humanity is to produce good science, then Dawkins’ hypothesis might actually work for you. (I’m not convinced, and I don’t see why, in an Atheistic Universe, improving our understanding of it will make any ultimate difference to it whatsoever). However, human beings are more than walking test-tubes – we try to understand our universe for a reason, and that reason is life and living (to put it crudely).

Allow me to illustrate. A few months ago, a friend of mine, Michael Young, set out to cycle around Australia and raise money for Cancer Research. Incidentally, he’s a Christian and I know him because we go to the same church. When he set out, I don’t think he thought to himself, “I’m going to need to invent a God who will fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the route”, which is akin to Dawkins’ simplistic analysis of why religion came to be. What I do think he thought was that by undertaking this venture, some good will come of it (because, ultimately, there is a God who is interested in such things), and I sincerely hope it does. (PS Please donate through Michael's website, if you can.) The former is an enquiry into the nature of the universe; the latter is faith. Dawkins confuses the two in his quest to replace Christianity with a cult of his own making.

I digress, but the myth of inevitable progress ignores the evidence, which is inexcusable for a movement that prides itself on being led by the evidence. And, by evidence, I’m referring to the many, many instances in which faith in God has propelled the advances that we have benefited from today.

For example, the very fact you are reading this has much to do with the Reformation. The Reformers vigorously promoted the learning of reading and writing and the reason, for them, is that they wanted people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, without relying on the Roman Church to read and interpret it for them. In fact the whole premise that we function better in the universe if we understand it finds its origins in the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and we’re talking about traditions that stretch back maybe 3,500 years to Moses and beyond.

Surely, if we are to become ‘better’ people, then we need to allow ourselves to learn from our forebears, and to do that we must abandon our bombastic claims that we are intrinsically better than them. Progress is possible, yes, but it’s not inevitable and it takes a lot more humility and hard work than the New Atheists might acknowledge.

When I see the kind of propaganda put out by some New Atheists, my mind instantly goes to the petulant teenager. Usually, bound up with these objections, there is some reason to jettison God. It’s usually an objection to the possibility that God could interfere with that person’s life in some way. Heaven forbid that this same God might actually judge that person and (horrors!) decide whether that person belongs in heaven or hell.

The Christian Faith stands in the tradition of God. The progenitors of this ideology certainly did believe in a God who would judge them (along with everybody else), and that made them into the best people that I have ever heard of. As far as the myth of inevitable progress is concerned, our spiritual ancestor pronounced that “No servant can be greater than his master” (John 13:16). I agree, and that’s why I count myself in his family. To me, Jesus of Nazareth is the pinnacle of what it means to be truly and fully human – and he lived 2,000 years ago. Have we really progressed since then? We have changed, but are we ‘better’?

So, what gives us the right to claim that we are ‘better’ than our ‘religious’ Caveman and his colleagues? That’s right, nothing more than a myth. We are better than him because…well, just because, OK.

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