The New Atheism

I have been interested recently in a lot of the posts I have been seeing on Sam Harris’ blog. I particular, I picked out a TED talk he gave in 2010

He discusses the issue of whether or not the recipe for right living, happiness and well being is something that may ultimately be discernible in the same way as scientific facts.

He seeks to refute the notion that values and facts inhabit their own spheres – non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA.

He points out, correctly I believe, that the notion that facts and values should inhabit separate domains may lead us to into the realm of moral relativism where we might claim, for example,  that, because Proverbs 13:24 suggests that sparing the rod is spoiling the child, that view is the moral equivalent  to the point of view that corporal punishment is child abuse.

We may claim also that judging as primitive and not conducive to well being the practice of clothing women in a full burkha is cultural imperialism.

He remarks that we accept that certain opinions on certain matters are owed more deference because of the evident expertise of those who hold those opinions. His opinions on string theory are not consequential because he knows next to nothing about it. Why, he says, is it less obvious that the Taliban [or ISIS] has nothing to say worth listening to on matters of well being and how to run a society properly aligned with human happiness?

So, why is this post about The New Atheism and how does this relate to something near and dear to me, namely Christianity?

I have been puzzling lately about the issue of freewill and prayer. The following HuffPost article is on point.

New Atheism is largely about the importance of not allowing what the movement’s adherents would describe as flawed reasoning to lead people astray from the true path of human progress by distracting them with religion. In some cases – this certainly has been observed by religious critics – New Atheism can be quite evangelical.

The Huffpost article skewers religion and belief in God on the twin horns of freewill and omnipotence. I do have trouble in reconciling prayer with freewill. It does not stop me praying, but I do wonder about its effectiveness.

So, here is where my thinking is evolving. I don’t believe God is omnipotent and I don’t believe in God’s omniscience – as those terms are typically used in debates concerning freewill and the problems of evil. In summary, the arguments go, if God is omnipotent, how can he permit evil; if he is omniscient, doesn’t that undermine freewill?

In the Old Testament, God put his thumb on the scale quite a bit. He helped out in battles, took sides, gave instructions, destroyed (almost all) creation, allowed it to rebuild and definitely picked winners. Unfortunately, it didn’t all go according to plan.

He gave us an instruction manual to live well in the world – The Ten Commandments. We didn’t do a good job of following instructions and lost our way.

I do believe in God as creator and I do believe that, as creator, he intervened in the world through Jesus. He gave us not just instructions for right living, but a model for right living.

God gave us freewill to be the best we can be and the worst we can be. He gave us the discernment to tell one from the other and the capacity to move our world in the right direction. He gave us the capacity to discern false arguments and clever wordplay (if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big he cannot move it?) God, as C.S. Lewis put it, cannot do things that are non-sensical such as not be God. Nonsense cannot make a good argument.

I view God’s supposed knowledge that we will take a certain course as no different  – if considerably better informed – than a parent’s knowledge that their child will most likely do a certain thing because of their deep and intimate knowledge of their child. The concept of God’s foreknowledge undermining our freewill requires us to enter a realm of thinking that is foreign to the way we actually behave.

So, yes, Sam Harris, I do believe that values may ultimately be known to be as incontrovertible as facts. In reaching that goal, we will return to the point of actually knowing that, for example, the Ten Commandments do contain the essence of what we need to live a good life and have a healthy society.

What we discern now, in many cases, as being the right thing to do as a matter of faith, we will one day know as a matter of fact. Restraining ourselves from advocating right action that is demonstrably consistent with right living and from condemning behavior and belief systems that are manifestly evil is an abdication of our duty as human beings to advocate for the well being of our species and the world we live in.

When we arrive at this point and the need for faith is reduced if not removed, will God be happy or sad? I don’t know. This may be the return to the garden before Adam and Eve’s misstep with the knowledge and strength to resist the temptation to which they succumbed. It will be progress at least.

One thought on “The New Atheism”

  1. Comment from Kenelm Tonkin

    Your posts are stimulating and courageous. I enjoy them very much, thank you.

    I am not expert in these matters and, really, who is. For after all, none of us knows the ultimate truth. We can only use our meager faculties – the mind, the heart, the body – to do the best we can. So everything which follows is humbly suggested:

    Harris, as with all the New Atheists, is sharpest when challenging fundamentalists and literalists. Of course, he does that in the TED speech you cite but this time ventures onto less firm territory. He challenges NOMA and suggests that morals can be reduced to, if I understand him correctly, objective facts against the yardstick ‘does this allow humanity to flourish?’ He shows extremes – burqa to pornography – and suggests there is a middle ground which will objectively satisfy that yardstick.

    The speaker had 20 minutes so could not develop his argument but, of what I heard, it was perhaps not the strongest available. There are two reasons I say this:

    First, ‘allowing humanity to flourish’ is a criterion which seems steady but is relative and, depending on the circumstances, difficult to judge. For instance, one might think cannibalism is wrong factually because it does not allow humanity (or at least the victim) to flourish. Does that judgement change if starvation is imminent? What if the victim is mortally wounded? What if the victim consents? What if the beneficiary can stop imminent global nuclear war if only he could eat? What if the beneficiary is a Nobel Prize winner and father of 18 children and the victim a serial murderer with no relatives? As one steps through the possibilities, objective moral ‘fact’ begins to evaporate as opinions about humanity flourishing diverge.

    I therefore lean towards non-overlapping magisteria and suggest that reducing moral judgement to objective fact is not really possible.

    Second, I think Harris is perhaps weaker here because, in circumscribing his view that there is an objective moral stance, he is making a subjective one. Harris, like everyone, is influenced by his uniqueness: education, experiences, strengths, weaknesses, occupation, religious beliefs, health, relationships. In stating that there is a scientific factual basis for morals without the need for an omnipotent deity, he is betraying his own thesis. Who says ‘allowing humanity to flourish’ is the yardstick? Him? Why not ‘allowing the strongest to flourish’ or ‘allowing the smartest to flourish’ or ‘allowing the most fertile to flourish’ even ‘allowing only the richest 3 billion to flourish’ … they are all criteria with an argument for each. By stating a criterion on a whim, Mr Harris falls into the trap of being the subjective moral creator. I’m not sure I like that and I suspect many yearn for a firmer, less arbitrary foundation for their moral structure.

    Your candor about responsiveness to prayer and whether there is an omnipotent God is very welcome.

    Many fear saying such things as if the admission of doubt is taboo. It isn’t. In fact, it seems to me that the vast thinking population doubts, most of them inhabiting space at the dividing line between doubting believer and doubting atheist. Both groups think. As none of us knows the truth, doubt healthily follows.

    While my thinking continues to evolve, or at least I hope so, the following seems real to me:

    1. (And this is trite …) The universe exists. We exist and can see the universe. All of it has been brought into existence, but we know not how;

    2. The Genesis creation description is beautiful bronze age allegorical literature written to make sense of our origin;

    3. We know Genesis is allegorical due to the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Hawkings and Higgs. Physics is our codified and growing knowledge of the universe. Unsurprisingly, it has revealed detail far more wondrous than possible in the bronze age and this further piques yearning to understand the moving force of the universe’s and our existence.

    4. Even if physicists were to penetrate earlier than the Planck Epoch to the actual commencement of time, the laws of physics as described by humanity come from something. The perpetually receding ‘Who created God?’ rebuttal ignores the possibilities of science;

    5. In light of this and given experience, animation of the universe feels more like an initial moving force, a ground of being or an energy through which flows understanding and connection, rather than a supernatural, omnipotent, personal God exhibiting base human emotions. Here, language gets in the way, but the former feels like The Father of Christianity with the latter more akin to God of Judaism. And I’d like to distinguish what I’m trying to impart from the formlessness of New Age thinking. The universe has complex form and structure after all;

    6. If that be true, spiritual connection is perhaps better achieved away from non-mystical distractions, so everything from modern living. This is not about incantations of memorized creeds and formulaic praying. Spiritual connection of the universe’s wonder is perhaps best appreciated in still, timeless isolation and contemplation. Again, this is personal and language obstructs, but in Christianity we call this The Holy Spirit;

    7. I have much more work to do on the Christ part. My doubts are most persistent here. The Fall of Man and Original Sin followed by Atonement seems tortured in light of Darwin. So, how can made be said to be perfect in Eden when we now know evolution is a continuum? The scapegoating of Christ in satisfaction for past and future sin jars. Virgin birth and miracles seem like mythologizing in the early movement, and C.S. Lewis’ trilemma that Christ was either “lunatic, liar or lord” ignores this possibility …. you know, “lunatic, liar, lord or legend.”

    Then, I am just one person with limited understanding and the journey continues.

    Again, thank you so much for your post. Magnificent.


    Kenelm – thank you and apologies for a tardy reply. You write so well and illuminate the issues clearly.

    I have just finished leading a Lenten book group on Sam Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation”.

    It is a profoundly irritating book for several reasons:

    – it is a blog masquerading as a book. It errs on the side of punchy certainties and easy put downs rather than nuanced argument

    – Harris, has, in my opinion and that of others (one atheist friend of mine) with whom I have discussed his work, a God-shaped hole problem (Tim Keller’s phrase): he is craving an absolute but denies God

    – He sets up conservative Christians as his target and, in doing so, claims a rather modest victory.

    He brings up the issue of Theodicy (as he should) but his argument lacks nuance: God is either impotent or evil. The classic response to this is to note that, if there is a possibility that God may permit suffering in the service of a greater good, then the “impotent or evil” argument fails at its core.

    Where the argument should be is in the interplay of God allowing actions that may lead to suffering in the service, for example, of the greater good of mankind ‘figuring things out’ in the exercise of freewill. In fact, granting freewill arguably let the genie out of the jar (or the snake into the garden) to begin with.

    That leads to the question of ‘miracles’, aka God’s intervention in the world in response to prayer or His own wish to intervene. I believe God can and does intervene, but I can’t explain why or when or to what degree or the extent to which intervention may or may not interfere with freewill at some point.

    I don’t believe that the fact of awfulness in the world is proof that God does not care or that He is impotent. I believe we may have a view of how things should go in the world that clashes with events as they unfold. Science assists us in understanding (among other things aplenty) natural phenomena such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Science also informs us that, given what we know about our environment, New Orleans, to give one example, is not wisely located or properly defended.

    As a species, we take risks, make compromises but frequently suffer consequences with less equanimity than perhaps we ought to. We turn to God for answers when sometimes we know the answers – precisely because He has granted us the wherewithal to know them: freewill and the intellectual resources to understand our environment and our place in it.

    I firmly believe that the presence of evil/bad stuff is in part due to the accumulation of generations of bad choices we have made in the exercise of our freewill. We are contaminated by the consequences of these bad choices much as second hand smoke pollutes the lungs of those in the vicinity of the smoker.

    So, where is God in all this? Helping us to navigate if we choose to ask for direction. Helping us to find the resources we need within ourselves and our community. Giving us, as always the example of His Son.

    To your struggle with the “Christ part”, I think it is helpful to research the history. The history of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is actually quite sound and, as you might imagine, thoroughly researched. That is important because it leaves one to explore, with confidence that the debate is real and substantive, the central question of why was Christ born, why did he live and die and what does his resurrection mean?

    Here is my 2c. God created the world, saw it was good and then saw how we messed it up. He rebooted (flood) and thought it heavy handed and promised not to do THAT again. Yes, perhaps an allegorical explanation of a cataclysmic event, but this is not central. God needed a way to make His presence real. He wanted to walk among us for a time – grass roots, bottom up – and show us what He had in mind: the way back to Eden aka what God hoped for and intended for us (I will come back to that).

    So, Jesus walked among us and showed us the way. We have this super-reliable account(s) of his life, death and resurrection in the form of the New Testament. He gave us lots to work with. He knew and God knew we would mess up again (and again). We did. Allowing us to crucify His mortal form was part of the reality of Christ’s humanity, designed to demonstrate that this mortal coil is NOT what IT is all about.

    The resurrection was designed to show us what comes next. This mortal coil is the beginning. It can’t be the end because it is not as God intended. It is imperfect and messy. Yes we can do better (a multi-level video game) and we will, but God has more for us. No, we will not be resurrected as Christ was in this world. But Christ came back to us in this world and then departed precisely to show us that there is more: we must follow him and, if we truly believe that, we will gain the perspective we need to suffer the slings and arrows of this world.

    Why bother if we are going to reboot into a better eternity? What did God intend for us? This world is a beginning but it is not irrelevant. What we do now does reverberate in eternity in the sense that we take it with us. We matter in the world. What we do matters. The love we give to our neighbor, our family matters. Using our talents matters. We take with us into eternity the consequences of our actions for ourselves and for others. There are marks for effort – marks on our own psyche and marks on the collective psyche of the community we inhabit.

    If we are not open and malleable to the influence of God’s grace in our lives, we are going to have a tough time in eternity, not because God will judge us harshly and send us to eternal damnation but because we will have done that to ourselves. We will truly have hardened our hearts.

    Now, assuming God has His way and we graduate to the final level, to Eden, what then? Why did God create in the first place. What does that tell us about God? Something to look forward to.

    Reply from Kenelm

    To your reply, I humbly build upon it with a few additional thoughts to each point:

    1. An atheist might suggest the onus is on theists to prove the existence of God. They might say just because science doesn’t disprove God as the first cause doesn’t mean there is a God. One might side-step this debating repartee by asking “If cutting-edge science today, like Higgs Boson, or even ideas like String Theory, are parts of a puzzle which eventually prove the first Big Bang particle ‘came from nothing’, would you demur on God’s existence then?”

    2. As best as science can tell us and that each of us can discern in our daily living, we humans are unique in our self-consciousness. Were other intelligent lifeforms with self-consciousness discovered, we’d say rare rather than unique. The distinction doesn’t matter. It seems to me that evolution and even neuroscience have very little to say about self-consciousness.

    3. Freewill is very helpful in explaining decisions and consequences. Many people become troubled when we talk about happenstance, for instance cancer, random acts of violence and tragedy. Here, many theologians talk in deistic terms, emphasizing God as nature or a force of being, rather than the personal interventionist God of theists.

    Core to many criticisms of religion are (a) noma, and (b) the God of the gaps. This later argument is that we use ‘God’ as a filler word for what science has not yet proven, and that as science discovers more and more, theists are forced to retreat to smaller more isolated intellectual havens, until God disappears from our language and need.

    In the end, I have no difficulty pinning my colours to the mast. Even if physicists discover that the universe was from one dense particle that appeared from nowhere, even if that Theory of Everything is provable, I will still yearn to know why. In that yearning, I will inevitably call upon God. And, I do not share some scientists confidence, which borders on a faith itself, that humanity can map the complete laws of the universe. Scientific understanding is wondrous and clever. However, the so-called ‘gaps’ will remain vast next to scientific understanding as it scratches away at the edges.

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