Friday, October 22, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2a – People are good, religion is evil

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

That is, it's founded purely on observed, deductive reasoning and there's no myth or dogma about it.

Unfortunately for the apostles of New Atheism, in drilling down to the foundations of some of the basic tenets of their faith, I have found that instead of being built on the solid rock of demonstrable, objective science, it may as well be build on aether. Here's another example; 'people are good but religion is evil'.

Please follow me carefully on this because I'm going to agree broadly with the idea.

My contention with it is that it is utterly incompatible with 'pure' New Atheism. The idea actually belongs at home in a peculiarly Christian context. In other words, the New Atheists cannot say this if they want to advance their cause. Christians might say it without contradicting their own world-view, but I advise caution (I hate slogans, even good ones, anyway).

To be more specific, my objection to the New Atheist's use of this slogan is twofold;

1 'Pure' atheism cannot comprehend that good is 'good' and evil is 'evil', therefore it has no logical basis to call people 'good' and religion 'evil'. A better paradigm is found in the Christian Gospel.

2 Jesus and his followers spearheaded a counter-Temple movement. I'll tackle this next week.

Are people 'good'?

My understanding of 'pure' New Atheism is that there is no external, divine influence on the cosmos. Everything is cause and effect. Everything in the cosmos is what it is now purely and wholly because of what it was one micro-nano-second earlier. And where it was one micro-nano-second earlier was because of where it was in the previous micro-nano second, and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.

Each and every electron, for example, in the entire universe is located where it is located now because of a seamless and uninterrupted chain of events since the Big Bang. That's an unimaginable number of electrons and an unimaginable period of time but, and this is the point, because they all obey natural and reasonable laws with no surprises thrown in by an external deity, their current locations are entirely predictable (we don't have the computational power to do the math for an accurate prediction and we never will).

Another way to look at it is to say that each and every electron, and everything else in the cosmos was always going to end up exactly where it is today. It doesn't have a choice.

This includes all the electrons spinning round the atoms in the electro-chemical impulses in your brain in that great flux that you perceive as 'thought'. Curiously, you don't have a choice either, because those electrons were always going to line up exactly as they have done and coalesce into what you perceive as a choice, ever since the Big Bang.

So, if we were only ever going to make the choices we make, what makes a good choice 'good' and an evil choice 'evil'? What makes Michael Young's attempt to cycle around Australia to raise money for the Cancer Council good, and what makes implementing a policy to systematically exterminate Jews evil? According to the New Atheism, both choices are simply the results of the laws of nature exerting themselves inexorably on the cosmos.

The common response, I suspect, is to call something 'good' if it is beneficial to humanity. The Nazi Holocaust was obviously not good in this context; in fact, we call it 'evil'.

Now, I'm absolutely not going to defend genocides and other atrocities here, but I need to ask the question about why 'beneficial to humanity' constitutes 'good' in an objective sense.

As I have argued above, the impersonal laws of nature have simply acted to bring everything to where it is today. In the process, they threw up human beings, but they also threw up cockroaches, HIV viruses and a host of other creatures. What makes us think that the interests of human beings are more important that these other things, and what happens when their interests conflict?

We like to think we are special. But, according to the New Atheism, that sense of 'specialness' is nothing more than the result of the normal, impersonal forces that shaped our anthropogenic heritage. There's nothing 'special' about the 'special' feeling, and the universe certainly doesn't care one way or the other. Will that 'special' feeling save me from being killed by a tsunami? Of course not! Though, it might give me the motivation to try to get myself saved.

If we step outside our own self-interests for a moment, we are faced with the unsettling truth of the Atheistic Cosmos – what right have I got to pursue and defend my interests? Who should we kill; the patient or the malarial protozoa? They both owe their existence to an unknowing and uncaring universe that has no purpose in its existence and no way to know the difference between the human or malarial creature. To assert otherwise would be to insist on an intelligent and purposeful deity, which is strictly forbidden under the rules of New Atheism.

By contrast, the Christian Gospel, following the older Jewish tradition, asserts that when God made the universe, he made it 'good' (Genesis 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:20, 1:25 etc.). In other words, God looked at what he had made and he liked it. Furthermore, he particularly liked the human beings he had made and considered them to be a special part of his good creation (Genesis 1:27-31). Interestingly, he continued to safeguard their interests, even when they lost interest in his (read from Genesis 3:21 to the end of the book), but I digress. Here, we have a logical basis to call the protection of humanity's interests a 'good' thing.

The picture is nuanced by the introduction of sin, which tends to draw people to the wrong thing. However it is complete in the sense that we are created as sentient beings with the capacity of choice and, even though we often choose evil, we have a basis to promote and defend the things that are beneficial to our neighbors. In other words, my neighbor might harm me, but I still have a reason to love him (Matthew 22:36-40).

So, the Christian Gospel lays a rational, logical foundation on which to call people 'good' and to pursue the things that benefit them.

There is no such foundation in New Atheism.

In New Atheism, it's a myth.


  1. Comment from Zoe by email...

    A great philosophical argument!
    I trust it generates some fiery responses for you to get your teeth into!

  2. Martin, great article. I´m not very familiar with new atheism to actually contribute with much here, but i´m starting to grasp a few key concepts here and there and you argumentation is very good, it exposes the lack of logic and consistency in an atheistic world view. They can only make those assertions if they borrow from the morals and values of the Christian world view!

    I find funny when they say the existence of moral values doesn´t come from God, but if i remember right it comes from self-preservation and self-interest needs. You refute that logic very well in this article.