Criticism of Atheism

dawkins by matthew rowson

atheists by xkcd

Criticism of atheism is criticism of the concepts, validity, or impact of atheism, including associated political and social implications. Criticism of atheism is complicated by the fact that there exist multiple definitions and concepts of atheism (and little consensus among fellow atheists), including practical atheism (apatheism), theoretical atheism (ignosticism), negative and positive atheism, implicit and explicit atheism, and strong and weak atheism, with critics not always specifying the subset of atheism being criticized. Arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical.

In general, atheists regard the arguments for the existence of God as unconvincing or flawed. Agnostic atheists contend that there are insufficient grounds for strong atheism, the position that no deities exist, but still reject theistic claims. Ignostics propose that every other theological position (including agnosticism and atheism) assumes too much about the concept of God and that the question of the existence of God is meaningless. Criticism of atheism includes arguments based on theistic positions, and arguments pertaining to morality or what are thought to be the effects of atheism on the individual.

In his ‘Pensées,’ Blaise Pascal criticizes atheists for not seeing signs of God’s will. He also formulated ‘Pascal’s Wager,’ which posits that there’s more to be gained from wagering on the existence of God than from atheism, and that a rational person should live as though God exists, even though the truth of the matter can’t actually be known. Criticism of Pascal’s Wager began in his own day, and came from both staunch atheists, and the religious orthodoxy. A common objection to Pascal’s wager was noted by Voltaire, known as the ‘argument from inconsistent revelations.’ Voltaire rejected the notion that the wager was ‘proof of god’ as ‘indecent and childish,’ adding, ‘the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists.’

Another criticism of atheism is that it is a faith in itself, as a belief in its own right, with a certainty about the falseness of religious beliefs that is comparable to the certainty about the unknown that is practiced by religions. Journalist Rod Liddle and theologian Aliester McGrath assert that some atheists are dogmatic. Michael Martin and Paul Edwards have responded to this criticism by emphasizing that atheism can be the rejection of belief, or absence of belief. Don Hirschberg once famously said ‘calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.’

An article in the ‘American Journal of Psychiatry’ in 2004 suggested that atheists might have a higher suicide rate than theists. According to William Bainbridge, atheism is common among people whose social obligations are weak and is also connected to lower fertility rates in some industrial nations. Extended length of sobriety in alcohol recovery is related positively to higher levels of theistic belief, active community helping, and self-transcendence. Some studies state that in developed countries, health, life expectancy, and other correlates of wealth, tend to be statistical predictors of a greater percentage of atheists, compared to countries with higher proportions of believers. Multiple methodological problems have been identified with cross-national assessments of religiosity, secularism  and social health which undermine conclusive statements on religiosity and secularism in developed democracies.

The Catholic Church believes that morality is ensured through natural law but that religion provides a more solid foundation. For many years in the United States, atheists were not allowed to testify in court because it was believed that an atheist would have no reason to tell the truth. Atheists such as biologist Richard Dawkins have proposed that human morality is a result of evolutionary, sociobiological history. He proposes that the ‘moral zeitgeist’ helps describe how moral imperatives and values naturalistically evolve over time from biological and cultural origins. Natural law provides a foundation on which people may build moral rules to guide their choices and regulate society, but does not provide as strong a basis for moral behavior as a morality that is based in religion. Douglas Wilson, an evangelical theologian, argues that while atheists can behave morally, belief is necessary for an individual ‘to give a rational and coherent account’ of why they are obligated to lead a morally responsible life. Wilson says that atheism is unable to ‘give an account of why one deed should be seen as good and another as evil.’ Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, expressed this position by describing a lack of faith as ‘the greatest of evils’ and blamed atheism for war and destruction, implying that it was a ‘greater evil even than sin itself.’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies atheism as a violation of the First Commandment, calling it ‘a sin against the virtue of religion.’ The catechism is careful to acknowledge that atheism may be motivated by virtuous or moral considerations, and admonishes Catholic Christians to focus on their own role in encouraging atheism by their religious or moral shortcomings: ‘The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. ‘Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.’ Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out against atheism, stating in 2010: ‘As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny.”

Some totalitarian regimes, like the USSR and the North Korean government, had atheistic and antitheistic beliefs. However, Richard Dawkins pointed out that Hitler was a Roman Catholic that made public speeches affirming his belief in Christianity, and that the statehood of the Holy See is ‘founded on a Faustian deal in which Benito Mussolini handed over 1.2 square miles of central Rome in exchange for church support of his fascist regime,’ and he also pointed out that: ‘Hitler certainly was not an atheist. In 1933 he claimed to have ‘stamped atheism out,’ having banned most of Germany’s atheist organisations, including the German Freethinkers League whose building was then turned into an information bureau for church affairs.

Some researches suggest that atheists are more numerous in peaceful nations than they are in turbulent or warlike ones, but causality of this trend is not clear and there are many outliers. However, opponents of this view cite examples such as the Bolsheviks (in Soviet Russia) who were inspired by ‘an ideological creed which professed that all religion would atrophy … resolved to eradicate Christianity as such.’ In 1918 ‘[t]en Orthodox hierarchs were summarily shot’ and ‘[c]hildren were deprived of any religious education outside the home.’ Increasingly draconian measures were employed. In addition to direct state persecution, the League of the Militant Godless was founded in 1925, churches were closed and vandalized and ‘by 1938 eighty bishops had lost their lives, while thousands of clerics were sent to labor camps.’

In 1967, Enver Hoxha’s regime conducted a campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania; by year’s end over two thousand religious buildings were closed or converted to other uses, and religious leaders were imprisoned and executed. Albania was declared to be the world’s first atheist country by its leaders. The Albanian constitution of 1976 stated that “The State recognizes no religion, and supports and carries out atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.’ Evangelical Christian writer Dinesh D’Souza writes that ‘The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth.’ He also contends: ‘And who can deny that Stalin and Mao, not to mention Pol Pot and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a Communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic? Who can dispute that they did their bloody deeds by claiming to be establishing a ‘new man’ and a religion-free utopia? These were mass murders performed with atheism as a central part of their ideological inspiration, they were not mass murders done by people who simply happened to be atheist.’

In response to this line of criticism, atheist author Sam Harris wrote: ‘The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.’ Likewise, Richard Dawkins has stated that Stalin’s atrocities were influenced not by atheism but by dogmatic Marxism, and concludes that while Stalin and Mao happened to be atheists, they did not do their deeds in the name of atheism. On other occasions, Dawkins has replied to the argument that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were antireligious with the response that Hitler and Stalin also grew moustaches, in an effort to show the argument as fallacious. Instead, Dawkins argues in ‘The God Delusion’ that ‘What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.’ D’Souza responds that an individual need not explicitly invoke atheism in committing atrocities if it is already implied in his worldview, as is the case in Marxism.

Sociologist Steve Fuller wrote that ‘…Atheism as a positive doctrine has done precious little for science.’ He notes, ‘More generally, Atheism has not figured as a force in the history of science not because it has been suppressed but because whenever it has been expressed, it has not specifically encouraged the pursuit of science.’ Early modern atheism developed in the 17th century, and Winfried Schroeder, a scholar of atheism, noted that science during this time did not strengthen the case for atheism. In the 18th century, Denis Diderot argued that atheism was less scientific than metaphysics. However, since the 19th century, both atheists and theists have said that science supports their worldviews. Historian of science John Henry has noted that before the 19th century, science was generally cited to support many theological positions. However, materialist theories in natural philosophy became more prominent from the 17th century onward  giving more room for atheism to develop. Since the 19th century, science has been employed in both theistic and atheistic cultures, depending on the prevailing popular beliefs.

Robert Wright has argued that some ‘New Atheists’ discourage looking for deeper root causes of conflicts when they assume that religion is the sole root of the problem. Wright argues that this can discourage people from working to change the circumstances that actually give rise to those conflicts. Mark Chaves has said that the New Atheists, amongst others who comment on religions, have committed the religious congruence fallacy in their writings, by assuming that beliefs and practices remain static and coherent through time. He believes that the late Christopher Hitchens committed this error by assuming that the drive for congruence is a defining feature of religion, and that Dennett has done it by overlooking the fact that religious actions are dependent on the situation, just like other actions. Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Jack David Eller believes that the four principal New Atheist authors (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris) do not offer anything new in terms of arguments to disprove the existence of gods. He also criticizes them for their focus on the dangers of theism, as opposed to the falsifying of theism, which results in mischaracterizing religions; taking local theisms as the essence of religion itself, and for focusing on the negative aspects of religion in the form of an ‘argument from benefit’ in the reverse.

Professors of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey, take issue with ‘the evangelical nature of the new atheism, which assumes that it has a Good News to share, at all cost, for the ultimate future of humanity by the conversion of as many people as possible.’ They find similarities between the new atheism and evangelical Christianity and conclude that the all-consuming nature of both ‘encourages endless conflict without progress’ between both extremities. Sociologist William Stahl notes ‘What is striking about the current debate is the frequency with which the New Atheists are portrayed as mirror images of religious fundamentalists.’ He discusses where both have ‘structural and epistemological parallels’ and argues that ‘both the New Atheism and fundamentalism are attempts to recreate authority in the face of crises of meaning in late modernity.’

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