“Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative” (G.K. Chesterton).
Under the leadership of militant atheists like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, a new wave of radical atheism is pounding the streets. But look carefully because their writings are full of self-contradictory arguments. One thing that is especially striking is how (in a strange way) these atheist indirectly validate belief with the intensity of their unbelief.
In “Uncomfortable Unbelief,” Wilfred M. McClay suggested that, “Unbelief would be untenable without the moral and metaphysical capital created and banked by the belief it displaced.” He asked, “Can there be unbelief without religion, or without a religious point of view that is being negated? After all, our understanding of ourselves as secular is undergirded by a powerful conviction that ‘we have come to be that way through overcoming and rising out of earlier modes of belief.’”
“In other words, we have liberated ourselves. Will not God and theism therefore remain a necessary reference point? It may be possible to imagine a society in which the idea of God would not even have been a discarded image, never having been on offer at all. But such a society would clearly be very different from the one we actually inhabit, or any we are likely to experience in the foreseeable future. Part of the passion animating the new atheists is their sense of themselves as ‘having overcome’ the foolish and destructive irrationalities of the past. Without that sense, their passion—and perhaps the cogency of their project itself—recedes.”
Another really strange and inherently self-contradictory emphasis can be found in Christopher Hitchens’ book, “god is not Great” (as in books from Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins). These authors are full of moral appraisals (often using the most fundamentalistic tones) and readers are somehow obliged to see things through their moral grids. I continuously felt the urge to ask why these atheists so strongly believed that their moral conclusions are superior. Although they typically avoid this question by changing the subject, thoughtful readers will not be tricked.
While vehemently denying God (especially the Christian version), they write as if an absolute standard of goodness and duty exists–one they have special access to and we are obliged to accept on their word (unless we wish to remain irrational idiots). They want to tell us that such a standard is possible without God but they don’t offer a well-reasoned explanation for how this could be. They just impose it on us with repeated tones of moral superiority.
At this point the question, “Who are you to impose your morality on me?” becomes fair game. How is your opinion superior to another? On what basis am I obliged to yield to your rules? Isn’t it fair after all to suggest that without God all moral conclusions are merely subjective human opinions without any binding authority beyond what people or cultures attribute to them?
Why is peace better than war or love better than hate? If I claim one to be superior, does that make it right? If I get enough people to agree with me, does this make it true for all people? Are moral issues settled by what increases happiness or decreases suffering? If so, whose happiness? Is some view of human flourishing the measure to use? If so, whose view? (And, why am I even asking these kinds of questions?)
Reading these authors, I continually found myself asking, “Says whom?” Although they don’t seem to get it, their statements about right and wrong are simply alternative choices without moral superiority. If they were logically consistent, they would encourage their readers to suppress all notions of moral superiority—something they are clearly unwilling to do.
In fact, rather interestingly these men assume a moral framework that implies higher understandings of morality and humanity — a strange thing for an atheist to assert! But even more fascinating is how consistently (and illogically) they borrow assumptions from theism to argue against it. They love to reject things in the Bible considered by them to be inhumane and then expect us to assume some basis for their moral conclusions without providing it for us. Worse yet, they use biblical categories of morality to reject the Bible.
It would be far more consistent for them to admit that evil is merely an illusion made up by humans. For there to be objective evil, there must also be some objective standard of right and wrong. But if the physical universe is all there is (as they firmly believe), there can be no such standard. How could arrangements of matter and energy make judgments about good and evil true? So, there are no real evils, just violations of human customs or conventions. But are they ready to think of murderers as merely having bad manners? Of course not!
These atheists (and their disciples) must also (if they do not wish to be self-contradictory) admit that human beings are not importantly different from other animals or the material world in general. Consistent with their views, humans are simply the result of blind chance operating on some primordial ooze, and differing from animals by only a few genes. Yet, here is where the beauty and wonders of human achievement, along with the moral dignity we ascribe to human beings (acts of benevolence and heroism) cannot fit with the claim that we are no different from animals. The conclusion that humans are creatures uniquely made in the image of the benevolent and righteous God offers a better version of reality.
And the Bible these men reject speaks openly of both evil and benevolence. One does not need to upgrade her view of the world when reading scripture. No rose colored glasses needed. Yet the scripture offers a larger and more satisfying frame of reference for understanding the complexities of the world. It reveals a world God prescribed (the goodness and innocence of Eden); one he permitted (the violence and rebellion of Cain) and a world he will providentially make new (the new heavens and earth).