Outgrowing Atheism

I recently had the guilty pleasure of a YouTube binge (when the cat’s away…). The algorithm on my computer decided I was in the mood for some Christian apologetics so I ended up watching Justin Brierley (of Unbelievable? fame) in debate with Stephen Woodford (Rationality Rules) swiftly followed by the latest episode of Word on Fire, in which Bishop Barron comments on the recent Joe Rogan interview with Richard Dawkins, on the back of the release of his new book Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide to Atheism, which I then obviously had to watch as well.

I was curious to see how “Rationality Rules” in particular would argue against the reasonableness of Christian belief. How would atheists respond to the theist arguments I was familiar with? What was the comeback? Interestingly enough, there wasn’t one. Woodford merely repeated the usual atheist anti-religious platitudes without engaging with Justin Brierley’s points at all, while at the same time taking great pains to present himself as the epitome of rationality. He came across as by far the more dogmatic, almost as if he was the one who held to a faith-based worldview immune to rational argument, instead of, as he clearly hoped to persuade us, his “irrational” religious opponent.

So what is the atheist worldview? According to both RR and RD, we are merely evolved apes. We are mostly if not wholly determined by our genetic inheritance and the chemical processes going on unconsciously in our brains. Free will is basically an illusion and there if no objective morality beyond socially agreed norms of behaviour, which are ultimately only “good” because of their “survival value”. Even out ability to reason is the product of an evolutionary process directed by natural selection based on survival.

We are just animals. All the fancy religious guff about the specialness of human beings is just an expression of speciesism and anthropocentric arrogance. At the end of the day, we are just animals, cleverer than walruses, but not any “better” than them. Maybe we can speak more eloquently than they, but when all is said and done, they are much better swimmers. Who says people are better than walruses? Maybe The Beatles were right all along.

This, it seems, is the great crime of religion, that it has alienated us from our true animal natures and the natural world of which we are an integral part. We have become the “Super Predator” destroying everything in our path precisely because we refuse to accept that we are just animals and have no rights beyond any other. Presumably, if we truly and honestly admitted to ourselves that we are nothing but evolved apes, we would stop lording it over all the other animals. Really?!

The false logic is breathtaking. Why should we then have any moral obligations at all? Why shouldn’t we dominate everything within our power? Isn’t that the whole point of the “survival of the fittest”? If we are driven by pure animal self-interest (even if dressed up in fancy clothes), why bother keeping up the pretense? We don’t need to pretend to the other animals of course. They don’t case what our motivations are. We pretend to each other simply because we prefer to live under the illusion that we are “human”. The more “enlightened” among us slyly wink at us. They know better.

If you sincerely believe that you are nothing more than a puffed-up animal, you can have no claim to Reason or Value beyond the self-interested demands of personal and collective survival (genes look after their own apparently). There is no such thing as the Good, the True or the Beautiful. These also are just pretty romantic illusions spun out of the loom of philosophical vanity. Things are only relatively or subjectively “good”, “true” or “beautiful”, if they somehow promote “survival”.

According to naturalist atheists like Woodford and Dawkins, we are animals. In which case we belong to the bottom right corner of the Tibetan Wheel of Life. Utterly determined by our biological needs and appetites, we have no free will, and therefore no possibility of rational or ethical choice. We may believe that we are rational, ethical and free creatures, but it’s just an illusion.

According to the Tibetan Buddhists, the animal realm is a close neighbour to the hungry ghost realm and the hell realms. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. If you really are ruled by nothing but appetite and self-interest, what is to stop you taking this dismal state of affairs one step further? In one direction, you become a “hungry ghost”, an addict enslaved to all manner of desires which can never finally satisfy.

There are four broad types of addict: substance addicts (addicted to food and stuff, drugs and alcohol) and behavioural addicts (addicted to sex and love, entertainment and information). This is exactly what you would expect if you were really an animal with excessive desires and no free will. The other direction is into the demonic realms, which are ruled by the destructive negative emotions of rage, hatred and violence. Here manslaughter, torture and murder are commonplace. But these things are not “evil”, according to the naturalist atheists. They are just an expression of natural exuberance (Rationality Rules reasons that Genghis Khan cannot be called evil in any absolute sense for example).

If we are “animals”, we are also inevitably on occasion “demons” and “hungry ghosts”. But that’s fine because it’s all perfectly natural. We are not responsible for our actions anyway. It’s not as bad as all that, however, because atheists are also generally humanists. This means that although they believe that we are just evolved apes, they also believe that evolved ape societies have evolved in such a way that we have become highly socialised, and our animal instincts have to some extent been tempered and subjugated by social pressure, a condition we call the “human condition”.

Humanists don’t think we are just animals. They think we are human. What they mean by this is that we have evolved social structures and practices which have lifted us above the level of brute nature in which the rest of the animal kingdom lives. We have clothes and houses, read books and use knives and forks (or chopsticks as the case may be). In other words, we have civilization. Which is generally a good thing, notwithstanding Freud’s anxieties about “civilization and its discontents”.

This is in no way incompatible with the naturalist claim that we are evolved apes. We are simply evolved apes who have also evolved complex social arrangements. These arrangements obviously include concepts such as goodness, truth and beauty, although these ideas are ultimately socially constructed and have no absolute reality outside the social contexts in which they emerge.

The human world is thus a world of socially constructed conventions. Members of the human world are members of a “polis”, which only grants membership to those who abide by the norms, conventions and laws of the polis. It is thus based on a “social contract” and on mutually agreed values. Conform to the prevailing culture, with all it’s morals, laws, manners, aesthetics, etc. and you enjoy approbation as a valuable and valued member of that society. Those who are especially successful within any social system will inevitably rise to the top and enjoy greater powers than the rest of the population. These become the “high and mighty”. Don’t conform on the other hand, transgress or break socially accepted behaviour, and you will be punished, imprisoned, exiled or put to death.

But because human societies are only ever commonly agreed social constructions temporarily established by the coercive power of the majority, rival social conceptions will always emerge to challenge the status quo. When perceived injustices grow beyond a tolerable level, a portion of the population will fight to overthrow the existing system in favour of a more equitable one. If they are successful, a new social order becomes established.

This socio-political reality explains the top half of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which consist of the three higher realms: the “Human Realm”, the “Asura (Fighting Spirits) Realm” and the “Deva (Heavenly Host) Realm”. Just as the Animal Realm is the default position in the lower half of the system, so is the Human Realm the default position of the higher. We are ordinary Animals, but sometimes degenerate into Hungry Ghosts and Demons. We are ordinary Humans, but sometimes become Devas or Asuras. In my updated terminology, we are either muggles, divas or muppets.

This sums up the atheist worldview: we are basically Animals (and therefore also Hungry Ghosts and Demons) but also Humans (and therefore also Fighting Spirits and Devas). It is a closed system. Our position on the Wheel is determined by extrinsic forces. All things are contingent and inter-connected and there is no absolute, objective truth, goodness or beauty. Since the conditioned nature of the system precludes anything acting on the system form outside, there is no Transcendent God but neither is there free will or consciousness. All these are merely clever illusions generated from within the system itself.

The religious worldview is very different. Here there is a God, which is the transcendental ground of goodness, beauty, truth and consciousness. Human beings are neither mere animals nor mere humans nor a strange amalgam of the two. Rather, human beings are “children of God”, made in the image of God.

The classical arguments for the existence of God are therefore also arguments for the existence of the children of God. I will consider seven such arguments. The first three deal with the question of Being. They are the Cosmological Argument (why is there something rather than nothing?), the Fine-Tuning Argument (why are the universe’s physical constants so precisely fine-tuned for life?) and the Origin of Life Argument (how could organic life emerge in a pre-biotic environment?). Atheist hold out for future scientific advances to eventually solve these problems, but only because they misunderstand the nature of the problems.

The other four arguments are more immediately relevant to our present lived experience. They are the Ethical Value Argument (how do you derive an “ought” from an “is”?), the Aesthetic Value Argument (what is Beauty and what’s the point it?), the Argument from Reason (a naturalistic explanation of reason undercuts itself) and the Consciousness Argument (how can consciousness emerge from purely material processes?).

These seven argument for the existence of God also describe the essential qualities of a human being according to the religious conception. If we combine the first two arguments, the Cosmological and the Fine-Tuning arguments, we end up with six. The archetypal human being who can embody the cosmic understanding of existence contained in the first two arguments is the Mystic. The next argument, which deals with the essential nature of life, is personified in the archetype of the Shaman.

The other four archetypes correspond to the remaining four arguments for the existence of God. The Warrior archetype represents Karma Yoga and our intuition of goodness and moral value. The Monk archetype represents Bhakti Yoga and intuition of beauty and aesthetic value. The Philosopher archetype represents Jnana Yoga and our ability to reason and intuit truth. The King archetype represents Raja Yoga and our intimate intuition of our own consciousness and will.

For materialist atheists, none of this exists. It’s just fantasy. They experience reality as consistent with their beliefs about it and therefore assume it must be true (for the simple banal reason that it is rational). For them, life is just the play of “animal nature” and “human nature” on the Wheel of Samsara.

For the religious on the other hand, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim or Christian, the experience of reality is very different. Reality is about communion with Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and with the transcendental realities of Goodness, Beauty and Truth. Human beings are not understood as deterministic biological creatures or socially constructed humanoids. Human beings are children of God, created by God in the image of God, just “a little lower than the angels”.

But only the religious worldview can accommodate the reality of free will, consciousness, goodness, beauty and truth. Only the religious worldview can rescue humanity from the modern atheist nightmares of totalitarianism, anarchy, rampant capitalism and techno-slavery.

It really is time we outgrew atheism.