Trouble with atheism

Dr Johnson, who doesn’t qualify as a rational person according to The Times

The real trouble with atheism is, well, atheism.

And I’m not talking about the posthumous destination of atheists’ souls, nor about the moral chaos predictably afflicting a predominantly secular society.

These could make for some lively discussion, but what interests me today is the brakes that atheism puts on the intellect. This isn’t to say that atheists are necessarily stupid in any everyday sense.

I know some exceptionally clever atheists who are capable, for example, of producing penetrating social commentary. But one can detect that they’re aware of their intellectual limitations.

That’s why they shy away from metaphysical subjects, allowing instead their intricate intellects to stay close to the ground. Nor does it ever occur to them to make a case for their atheism.

When one points out to them the gaping intellectual holes in the intellectual trousers of any atheist who tries to argue in favour of his atheism, they nod understandingly.

What do you expect? Of course someone like Richard Dawkins is a strident ignoramus who wouldn’t know a sound argument if it came up and bit him on the… well, you know.

An exceptionally clever atheist knows better than to broach metaphysical subjects. He knows that physics is impossible without metaphysics but, since he can only think on the low empirical level, he chooses to ignore it. We can’t possibly understand such things, he says, so it’s best to leave them alone.

The atheist realises that, by saying that, he dismisses not only theology but also any philosophy worthy of the name. But hey, life’s too short for everything.

When I suggest he read Jacques Maritain’s cogent explanation of why theology is a higher science than philosophy, and philosophy higher than any natural science, he smiles politely and says he might. We both know he won’t.

Fair enough, we can remain friends. It takes all sorts. Actually, having written that, I remembered my Texan friend who once said: “It doesn’t really take all sorts. We just have all sorts.”

True. And the sorts we have, alas, include few really clever atheists like a couple of my close friends.

Most atheists are incapable of putting together an argument that would pass muster even at the lowest intellectual level. But they do try, and the more they try, the more inane and ignorant they sound.

G.K. Chesterton once described Thomas Hardy as “the village atheist talking to the village idiot”. Things have moved on since then, and the two categories have neatly morphed into one.

I was reminded of this by James Marriott’s article We Need to Take the Arrogance Out of Atheism.

Mr Marriott’s photograph makes him look like a pre-teenager with learning difficulties. His prose then dispels the notion that appearances are deceptive.

The trouble starts with the title. One can no more take arrogance out of atheism than scrub the spots off a Dalmatian.

What can be more arrogant than refusing to submit one’s intellect to the absolute, supreme mind?

If faith is an act of self-sacrifice at God’s altar, then the mind is perhaps the greatest offering, especially for people with the greatest minds. But giving one’s mind to God doesn’t mean that the believer becomes mindless as a result.

Quite the contrary: God accepts the sacrifice and rewards the donor by giving him his mind back, having first cleansed it of everything extraneous, scoured it of everything dreary.

Thus purified, the mind acquires the freedom it never had before, because, just as no content is possible without its form, no freedom is possible without discipline. The greater the mind, and the more sincere its original sacrifice, the greater God’s reward, the higher the mind can soar.

In the absence of such a sacrifice, the mind remains for ever shackled to the earth with its mundane concerns – the mind itself remains mundane.

Thus prideful refusal to submit one’s reason to God’s is punished by a diminished power of the reason. For, when looking at the world, the mind can see so much more by rising above quotidian problems than by staying mired in their midst.

But that’s taking Marriott way out of his depth. What troubles him isn’t our all-pervasive atheism. It’s that its most vociferous mouthpieces are too strident.

And why is that a problem? After all, people should shout off the rooftops if they’ve found the truth.

Oh well, you see, “Troublingly, this aspect of new atheism would develop into an ugly Islamophobia. (Try this recent Dawkins tweet: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great medieval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu akbar’.)”

And, “Dawkins’ provocative tweets about Islam have done nothing to advance his cause. Now a whole generation thinks of him as an angry racist from Twitter rather than the lucid thinker his early science books show him to be.”

If the new generation believes Dawkins ever was a lucid thinker, that generation is even dumber than I thought. And if Marriott believes Dawkins wrote “science books”, rather than anti-religious propaganda, he’s even dumber than the new generation.

I’ve never thought I’d come to Dawkins’s defence, but obviously some people can sink even lower than him.

What’s Islamophobic about what he wrote? It sounds like an accurate aesthetic judgement. Or does Marriott think that “Allahu akbar” is nicer than “the lovely bells of Winchester”? Perhaps he does at that.

Marriott laments the dwindling number of atheists in Britain. Mercifully, “the survey reported in The Times showed that while the number of people saying they believe in God remained steady, more people reported a belief in ‘some sort of spiritual power’. You can see this in the rise of millennial interest in astrology and tarot and the Canadian psychologist and speaker Jordan Peterson’s invocations of God and Judeo-Christian ethics”.

One has to be amused by this gibberish – and especially by the fact that its author is deputy literary editor of The Times. On this evidence, he isn’t qualified to edit the What’s New In Our Kindergarten bulletin.

First, he doesn’t realise that belief in “some sort of spiritual power” is perfectly consistent with atheism or, at any rate, is certainly not its antonym. What abstract spirituality is an antonym of is religious faith.

Second, he lumps Christianity together with astrology and tarot, which is akin to grouping Dante, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky with obscene graffiti on the wall of a public lavatory. They’re all literature, innit?

Third, he equates those neurotic, puerile perversions with “God and Judaeo-Christian ethics”. Surely even he must have heard vague noises about the role those tarot equivalents have played in our civilisation? No? What a shame.

Fourth, he seems to think that the neuropsychologist Jordan Peterson is the only one who eccentrically dares to invoke such things.

I can believe that Dr Peterson, what with his huge presence in social media, is the only such daredevil Marriott has heard of.

But I don’t know of any serious thinkers, including, oxymoronic as it sounds, atheist ones, who eschew such “invocations”. It’s simply impossible to swipe them off the table if one wishes to sound cleverer than a pre-teenager with learning difficulties.

There I was, thinking we were taking arrogance out of atheism. Yet Marriott’s ignorance and inanity go beyond arrogance, entering the domain of offensive effrontery.

“All rational people should be disturbed when society drifts away from reason towards foggy superstition,” he continues, nudging the reader towards the conclusion that atheism is a sine qua non of rationality.

Arguing against this nonsense would be unsporting, like taking a full swing at a baby. Let’s just mention that the ranks of believers include such rather rational people as Newton, Maxwell, Mendel, Einstein, Planck – and, by the mournful admission of Lewis Wolpert, another propagandist of atheism, more than half of today’s scientists.

Now you know why I never sully my hands with a copy of The Guardian. If a staffer of a supposedly conservative paper operates on this level, one can imagine what leftie papers are advocating.

Human sacrifice? Necrophilia? Don’t tell me if you know.

8 thoughts on “Trouble with atheism”

  1. “Let’s just mention that the ranks of believers include such rather rational people as Newton, Maxwell, Mendel, Einstein, Plank”

    Planck, to avoid accusations of thickness.

      1. That plea would be readily accepted. “Thick as a plank” is an old English expression, but it could never be applied to you. Thank you for another excellent little article.

  2. “the ranks of believers include such rather rational people as Newton, Maxwell, Mendel, Einstein, Planck ”

    Isaac believed in witchcraft. I am not sure what to make of that.

    1. Newton certainly regarded magic as one of those possibilities that could not be dismissed out of hand. Belief in God and giving pertinent lectures on the subject were part of his contract with his university employers although he put off that bit for as long as he could. E O Wilson considered that religious belief gave an individual an advantage in life so it was actually a product of evolution. I hope you have a swear box close to hand.

  3. I read your blog regularly with enjoyment and in most cases agreement but it bothers me that you hold unbelievers and atheists to such a low standard. You say that ateists are arrogant although your latest blog oozes of arrogans towards ateists. It also implies that ateists are creatures of lower intelligens. I have since I was 12 years old been an unbeliever and held exactly that view of believers in my early years, that you must be dumb to believe in God. I have since grown up and have a different view today. However, ateists I would think, are mostly lefties and perhaps thats is where your grudge comes from. I consider myself an ateist but politically most people on the left would probably call me far right. So there you go, it is possible to be both ateist and hold conservative views. Keep on writing, you are doing a good job.

  4. “magic as one of those possibilities that could not be dismissed out of hand.”

    “What you people call magic we call science.” – – Thor.

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