“The new atheists have directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part. Seeing religion as a system of beliefs, they have attacked it as if it was no more than an obsolete scientific theory. Hence the ‘God debate’ – a tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion. But the idea that religion consists of a bunch of discredited theories is itself a discredited theory – a relic of the nineteenth-century philosophy of Positivism.”
John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism
I recently found myself embroiled in this tedious debate on that great sinkhole of tedious debate, Twitter. The only thing that kept me going was a perverse fascination with the perverse human capacity for willful incomprehension. Added to this was the faintly surreal phenomenon of people brandishing their ignorance as if it were a virtue. Indeed the stupider they were, the cleverer they seemed to appear in their own eyes. This curious oddity can probably be put down to a kind of arrogant superiority complex: the belief that what is self-evidently nonsense (in this case, belief in the existence of God) deserves nothing but casual, dismissive ridicule and disdain with an absolute minimum of real argument (one doesn’t want to appear to be taking such nonsense seriously does one?) Richard Dawkins was explicit about this, when challenged on his casual dismissal of theology: “it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology”.
There is a distinction to be made here between two different types of atheist. The first is your common-or-garden atheist who doesn’t believe in God because their circle of friends and family don’t, or because they’ve never really given it much thought, or because they just don’t. They don’t believe, but they’re not bothered either way. This kind of default atheism has been wittily labelled “apatheism”. Apatheists don’t believe in God simply because they don’t find God interesting or in any way relevant to their everyday lives. This is part of the explanation for the deep-set ignorance of modern atheism. Terry Eagleton expresses some surprise at this cavalier ignorance, again in relation to Dawkins: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
But Dawkins is probably less ignorant than most, and has at least had some contact with religious ideas. He is not so much an “apatheist”, indifferent to the whole question, but an “anti-theist”, expending an enormous amount of time and energy (and indeed making a lot of money) attacking religion. He seems to honestly believe that humanity is being held back from its great rational and scientifically enlightened destiny only by the anachronistic shackles of superstitious religion. This belief is itself an article of faith of course, perhaps the foundational faith of this science-based creed: only when the last vestiges of religion are destroyed and buried deep underground will humanity be freed from the curse of its phantom God.
It’s not all that surprising then that casual observers have noted the evangelical and even cultish nature of much of the New Atheism. A fervent hatred of God (miso-theism) and antipathy to religion (anti-theism) gives people a sense of purpose and mission which may be lacking in their otherwise apatheistic lives, spurring them on to an odd kind of nonchalant activism, always trying their best to disguise their raw God-hatred behind a patina of enlightened indifference. (Peter Hitchens makes an interesting connection in this regard between the political (Trotskyism) and “the rage against God” he observed in his brother, Christopher).
In my somewhat idiosyncratic psycho-spiritual system based on the Tibetan Wheel of Life, I describe six different ego states, the three higher states represented by the Muggle, Muppet and Diva archetypes. When it comes to atheism, we can helpfully distinguish between apatheist muggles, who have no experience or understanding of spiritual matters, and are not really interested in it at all, and anti-theist muppets, who are ideologically committed to a scientistic worldview (science can explain everything) and feel that religion is not only wrong, but perniciously wrong, and are interested in it only in a negative sense, just enough to pull it down. The third type, the pantheist divas, can be spiritually proficient and knowledgeable about metaphysics and theology, but because they generally either underplay or fail to recognise the transcendent aspect of God, holding instead to a purely immanent, naturalistic view of reality, tend to fall prey to spiritual narcissism, secretly (or not so secretly) considering themselves to be the pinnacle of creation in an ecstasy of New Age enlightenment.
Clearly the best fit for my Twitter antagonists is the “anti-theist muppet” category. The persistent refrain, which continues unabated, no matter my response, is “there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God”. It matters not a jot that I completely agree with them. They continue to demand proof, repeating their demand like an incantation, or like someone with a severe case of Tourettes syndrome. There is no clearer expression of the inability to see beyond the great unwashed and unwarranted assumption of scientific materialism or “scientism” than this incessant demand for scientific proof, namely, that science is the only valid source of knowledge.
Of course I can’t scientifically prove that God exists, but equally, they can’t prove that He doesn’t. Or to put it another way (to avoid the predictable retort that they can’t prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist either), they can’t prove that the universe is self-created and self-sustaining. Believing in a Godless world has metaphysical implications which also need to be rationally defended. If the only way a naturalist conception of existence can work is to posit infinite universes and the magical emergence of something out of nothing (the universe out of a quantum void (but where did the quantum void come from if it’s not pure nothingness?), organic life out of inanimate matter and consciousness out of mindless physical processes), prove THAT if you please before badgering me about proving God.
The corollary of this demand for evidence is the demand for proof “beyond all reasonable doubt”. Applying this strict level of proof, appropriate in the context of clinical trials, and somewhat less stringently, to a court of law, when applied to the question of the existence or non-existence of God is obviously inappropriate, unreasonable and unrealistic. This is not the type of inquiry that could possibly pass such a high bar, either for or against. Which leads us to the question of “the burden of proof”. The constant, tedious, demand that theists “prove it”, is an aggressive move that automatically puts them in the dock. But if, as Mircea Eliade argued, we are best described as homo religiosus, and have always believed in God in one form or another, is the burden of proof not equally, if not more, on the atheist?
Belief in God is about faith, not proof. If we could prove it rationally and empirically, there would be no point in religion, which is about communion with God through faith. We don’t need (and can’t have) certain knowledge, or proof beyond reasonable doubt. In order to be able to believe at all, we don’t need 100% certainty, or even 90% certainty. All we need is more that 50%, in other words, a conviction that God is more likely to exist than not. We’re in the realm of plausibility here, not certainty, and should avoid that “irritable reaching after fact and reason” characteristic of incorrigible skeptics. The arguments in favour of theism (cosmological, ontological, etc.) are far stronger than the atheist arguments and counter-arguments, which seem to rely to an almost farcical degree on misunderstanding and caricature, and in my estimation, almost all the theist arguments remain unanswered, whereas almost all the atheist arguments have been successfully dealt with. Conversely, if atheists can’t honestly be more than 50% certain that purely natural, physical processes can explain everything about the universe, including how and why it exists at all, then they have no basis for faith in their materialist metaphysics.
If, however, our rational mind can be persuaded that materialist neo-Darwinism is “almost certainly false” (Nagel) or that “there is almost certainly a God” (Ward), then our intuitive mind can get on with the business of the actual, direct, spiritual experience of God. We need the green light of rational assent from our left hemisphere in order to take the leap of faith with our right hemisphere. The mystery is why some people need only a 50/50 possibility, whereas others need so much more. As the adage has it, “for those who refuse to believe, no proof is possible; but for those who believe, no proof is necessary”. Or consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16: 19-31 and the haunting words of Abraham to the rich man in hell, who begs him to send Lazarus down from heaven to warn his brothers to behave themselves: “And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”.
Further reading: The Case for God: What Religion Really Means by Karen Armstrong; The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart; Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel; The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and it’s Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski; The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens; Can Science Explain Everything? by John Lennox; The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks; The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath; Why There Almost Certainly is a God by Keith Ward; Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray; The Waning of Materialism by Robert Koons; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens; The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett; God the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist by Victor Stenger.