The Atheist Delusion
1. Refuting Scientism
2. The Atheist Priesthood
3. Defending Theism [tbc]
4. Proving God [tbc]
5. The Soul [tbc]
Part 1 : Refuting Scientism
The last decade has witnessed a surge of anti-religious feeling in the Western world. Polls show that the number of atheists is rising, and accompanying this rise is the increased marginalisation of religion in the public sphere. There are a number of causes of this, but perhaps most important is the perception that religious belief is intellectually deficient, coupled with the feeling that science has somehow shown this to be true. A number of so-called intellectuals have taken up the cause of atheism with a religious zeal, publishing a spate of books fiercely critical of religion as ‘delusion’, ‘poison’ and a ‘spell’ that must be broken. Documentaries are regularly aired with similar negative messages, both explicit and implied.
The consequence of all this is that many believers feel under constant attack. Psychologically, they are bullied into feeling intellectually inferior and into doubt, and so spiritually, they suffer. To these believers I offer hope. I used to feel the force of the atheist critique of religion, and be over-awed by many of their leaders’ scientific credentials. Now I know better. Their arguments are both shallow and flawed, and betray a deep ignorance of philosophy and theology. When put under the microscope of analysis they all fail, scientific credentials notwithstanding.
Scientism and Rationality
I will begin by addressing the broad question of the rationality of faith. I suspect that for most believers, Imaan exists because it just seems to them that God exists, just like it seems to them that the Sun is bright, that they are not dreaming, and that justice is a moral virtue. When asked by atheists why they believe, they talk about the Fitra, the innate knowledge in our hearts of the existence of God and of religious truths. Typically, the atheists aren’t satisfied by this reply: ‘That’s just faith’, they proclaim, ‘Where’s the scientific evidence!?’
By ‘faith’, the atheists typically means ‘unjustified belief’, and so in describing belief in God as ‘faith’ they are claiming that it is unjustified. Why is it unjustified? The answer is given by the second half of the atheists’ reply: there is no scientific evidence to support it. Implicit in this reply is the claim that any belief without evidence is unjustified and so irrational. The reason that belief in God without evidence is irrational is because there is no evidence for God, say the atheists. This is the central claim:
- In order for any belief to be rational it has to be based on scientific evidence.
This claim goes by the name of ‘Scientism’. I will argue that Scientism is false. But before I do, I should make it clear that I do think there are many good arguments for the existence of God. There is certainly much evidence out there (or ‘signs’ in the language of the Qur’an), it just isn’t necessary to know about that evidence in order to be rational. The fitra is sufficient.
The argument against scientism has two parts. The first is to show that there are no good reasons for accepting it, and the second is to show that there are good reasons to reject it.
What is responsible for the widespread acceptance of scientism? Arguably, the success of science has played the biggest part. Scientific advances have cured diseases, allowed us to peer into the deepest oceans, and look back in time to the beginning of the universe. We have built sky scrapers and space rockets, made computers and mobile phones. The advocate of scientism will point to the extraordinary success of science, and argue from that success that science is the only source of knowledge, and so the only guide to what exists; absence any scientific evidence, any belief is unjustified.
There can be no question that science has been hugely successful in telling us about the physical world. The believer is happy to concede this, and point out that in fact many of the pioneers of science were theists who were inspired to do science by their faith in God. What the believer is not willing to concede is that this proves that science is the only source of knowledge, for the move from the premise that science is successful to the conclusion that there is only scientific knowledge and not any other type of knowledge is plainly invalid. The success of science proves only that science is successful, not that it’s the only source of knowledge. Science is good at giving us mathematical models of things, and telling us about the material workings of the physical world. When it comes to other domains of inquiry that aren’t concerned with physical matter, then science tells us very little. It would be like arguing that because a metal detector is so good at detecting metal, then it’s good at detecting any object whatsoever. This plainly doesn’t follow, and assumes without argument that all objects are metal objects. So the argument for scientism is flawed.
Let us turn to the argument against scientism. Ironically, scientism is self refuting. Recall that scientism (claim 1 above) labels all beliefs not based on scientific evidence as irrational. But for those who accept it, scientism is itself a belief. So we can ask: What is the scientific evidence for scientism? What is the evidence that science is the only source of knowledge? Please point me to a lab experiment that shows this, or to a randomised control trial, or a peer reviewed scientific paper. The truth is that no amount of gazing through telescopes or looking down microscopes will prove that claim 1 is true, for scientism is not a scientific theory but a philosophical one. It is a claim about what we can know, and so falls within the philosophical discipline of epistemology. This poses a problem for the advocate of scientism, for if there is no scientific evidence that proves scientism true, then it must be irrational, for scientism itself states that in order for a belief to be rational it has to be based on scientific evidence. Scientism pulls the rug from under its own feet. It’s bad epistemology.
You might think that the above considerations are bad enough for scientism, but it doesn’t stop there. If scientism is true, then we’re all irrational, including those atheists who naively accept it. The following is a brief and incomplete list of facts that aren’t known through science, yet every sane person believes.
1. Moral truths, e.g. justice is good, torturing innocent people for fun is wrong
Science tells us how things work, but not how we should act. We can learn all there is to know about the human body, and still not know how to act morally. As philosophers are fond of saying: ‘Is’ doesn’t imply ‘ought’. Knowledge that sticking a knife into someone will harm them doesn’t allow us to infer that that act is evil.
2. The external world exists, i.e. I’m not hallucinating or dreaming
If we were dreaming then the world would look the same as it does now, so no scientific experiment can prove that we aren’t dreaming. Or to take the philosophers favourite example, for all we scientifically know, we could be brains in vats being stimulated by mad scientists. The sense perceptions would be the same; we would think that we were conducting scientific experiments, but it would all be an illusion. Having said that, clearly we aren’t hallucinating (who can seriously think otherwise?), so scientism must be false, as it’s not through science that we know this.
3. Induction is a rational means of forming beliefs
The scientific method depends on induction. An example would be inferring that all humans have brains from a limited set of observations of humans. We haven’t peered into the skulls of all humans, but we’ve looked into enough of them to be justified in inferring that all humans have brains. The problems for atheists is that induction can’t be given a non-circular justification, as Hume famously pointed in the 18th Century. Induction depends on the uniformity of nature; it presupposes that the future will resemble the past. That’s why observations in the past that humans have brains allow us to infer that they still have brains today, and will continue to do tomorrow. Unfortunately, there is no non-circular justification of the uniformity of nature. It might be tempting to argue that because nature has been uniform in the past, it will continue to be in the future, but such an argument will be using the principle of induction, and as induction itself presupposes the uniformity of nature, the argument would be a circular one.
4. The Laws of logic
Science wouldn’t be possible without the laws of logic. All scientific theorising depends on them, and presupposes their applicability. The laws of logic come before science, so they cannot depend on science for their justification; rather, they are known to be true intuitively.
Part 2 : The Atheist Priesthood
And when the orator instead of putting an ass in the place of a horse puts good for evil being himself as ignorant of their true nature as the city on which he imposes is ignorant; and having studied the notions of the multitude, falsely persuades them not about “the shadow of an ass,” which he confounds with a horse, but about good which he confounds with evil – what will be the harvest which rhetoric will be likely to gather after the sowing of that seed?
The modern secular worldview currently in vogue shares many similarities with religion. Like religion, it has something to say about the ultimate nature of the world and the people in it. It has an opinion about morality and the meaning of life, and about how we can know the most important facts about existence. It provides its adherents with a framework with which to interpret the world, and affords them with a sense of identity and community. There are new atheist and ‘sceptic’ groups forming every day, with weekly meetings that function much like Sunday morning Church, during which adherents talk about the central tenets of their faith, and bemoan the misguidance of others.
Given this resemblance, it is perhaps not surprising that modern atheism shares another similarity with many religions – it has its own clergy. These are a group of elite atheists that are influential within the community that followers look up to and take as role models. The atheist clergy are the idols and celebrities of modern atheism. They are the defenders of the faith, and the leading voices against ‘superstition’ and organised religion. They are regarded – even by many outside the fold of atheism – as the leading intellectuals of our time. In this chapter I examine some of their writings to see if they are worthy of the respect that is afforded to them.
Introducing the Clergy
Lawrence Krauss is a professor of physics based at Arizona State University who has been lauded as a ‘public intellectual’ by Scientific American. He travels widely lecturing against religion, and has engaged in a number of high profile debates with theist academics. He is perhaps most well known for his book A Universe from Nothing in which he argues that science has shown that the universe came from nothing. In making this argument, he attempts to do away with the need to posit a Creator of the Universe and answer the age old question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Given that the book appeared on the New York Times best sellers list and was praised in the prestigious New Scientist, and given Krauss’ academic credentials, one would think the book worthy of serious consideration. So, what is Krauss’ argument? In a nutshell – he redefines ‘something’ as ‘nothing’ and then misleadingly proceeds to show that the Universe could have come from this falsely defined ‘nothing’! Along the way he treats us to a farcical attempt to analyse ‘nothing’; he talks about how a definition of nothing should be ‘based on empirical evidence’, and discusses ‘possible candidates for nothingness’, wondering ‘what ‘nothing’ might actually compromise’. (How could nothing compromise anything? It’s nothing after all!) Most of the book is about how energy in empty space plus the laws of physics could give rise to the Universe. Of course, energy is not ‘nothing’ and neither are the laws of physics ‘nothing’, so this discussion (forming the bulk of the book) is completely irrelevant to the purported aim of the book. What Krauss should have done is correctly define nothing as the absence of any existence, and then proceeded to show how the Universe came from that. Instead he performs a semantic sleight of hand, fooling the gullible and unsophisticated reader, and argues for something completely irrelevant.
One of Krauss’ fans is the notorious Richard Dawkins’, the evolutionist and author of The God Delusion. Dawkins didn’t just like Krauss’ book, he wrote an afterword to it. ‘Not only does physics tell us how something could have come from nothing’, writes Dawkins, ‘it goes further, by Krauss’s account, and shows us that nothingness is unstable’. Nothingness is unstable! Nothingness is the absence of anything at all, and so cannot have any properties or characteristics. If it did have properties and characteristics then it wouldn’t be ‘nothing’ – it would be something. It’s amazing how highly respected ‘intellectuals’ can make such silly mistakes. The believer is reassured in the rationality of his faith when he sees that the leading intellectuals of the opposition embracing such absurdities in their desperation to do away with the need for a creator. And indeed that is a major reason why their works are full of such absurdities. Thomas Nagel, a famous atheist philosopher is not afraid to put things bluntly. He speaks of the effect of the ‘fear of religion’ in academia, and even admits to having a ‘cosmic authority problem’ himself. Here is a telling passage:
‘I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that’
The Last Word, Nagel
It goes without saying that such strong and deeply ingrained anti-theistic inclinations will bias anyone against accepting reasonable arguments for the existence of God, and make them be much more inclined to latch on to anything that seems to justify their disbelief, no matter how unlikely or absurd.
I will say more to say about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in a later chapter, a book which made the eminent atheist philosophy Professor Michael Ruse be ‘embarrassed to be an atheist’. For now I want to explore another explanation for some of the absurdities atheist intellectuals come out with – ignorance; they simply have no idea what they are talking about. What is perplexing is that many of them openly acknowledge this ignorance, but carry on regardless. A great example is the professor of evolutionary biology Jerry Coyne, who has made a name for himself in his best seller Why Evolution is True. He maintains a blog that goes by the same title, and has become in recent times a very influential lobbyist for the secular crowd, and a vocal proponent of the claim that science and religion are incompatible. In a blog post dated 31/10/12, he admits of not knowing the difference between basic philosophical terms like ‘epistemology’ and ‘ontology’ and that he has spends a ‘fair time ‘Googling’’ such things. Of course, he doesn’t let his ignorance get in the way of regularly writing about these same subjects, including articles for major outlets like USA Today and The Chronicle of Higher Education. One such topic that Coyne is fond of is free will, persistently and confidently assuring the public that it doesn’t exist. Another is that of the rationality of scientism, which was discussed earlier, and yet a third is the supposed incompatibility of science and religion. In a later chapter I will deal with the objections to free will and religion, but suffice to say, all three of these favourite topics of his either fall squarely within the philosophical sub-discipline of epistemology or else are closely related to it, a discipline that is concerned with broad questions relating to knowledge and rationality. Can you imagine the outcry that would ensue if a major outlet published a critique of evolution by a self-professed ignorant individual, who admits to not knowing the difference between terms like ‘genetics’ and ‘palaeontology’, and is candid about his frequent need to ‘Google’ them? What does this double standard say about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of the editors who publish such articles, and about the public who are content with them? I guess that if things are that bad amongst the intellectuals and academics, then the lay public aren’t going to be much better.
Philosophy professor Quentin Smith, who is certainly not a believer in God, laments this ignorance amongst his contemporaries. In his paper The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism he says,
‘The vast majority of naturalist [materialist] philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism [materialism]. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism.’
I said that admitting ignorance yet carrying on regardless is perplexing; lack of any awareness that you are ignorant and the false belief that you have knowledge is surely much worse. The Ulema have an apt description for this state –جهل مركب or ‘compound ignorance’. The physicist Stephen Hawking put it eloquently when he said ‘the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge’. What sad irony then, that a perfect embodiment of this compound ignorance is Stephen Hawking himself. He begins his 2010 book The Grand Design by telling us that ‘philosophy is dead’ and that it is scientists rather than philosophers who are now the torchbearers of knowledge. He then spends the first third of the book unwittingly doing philosophy, and making pronouncements on topics such as free will, determinism, scientific realism and philosophy of religion. Unfortunately it is really bad philosophy, because he has no awareness of the vast philosophical literature on these subjects, thinking that philosophy is ‘dead’ and confusing it with science. One of his bad attempts at philosophy is his defence of what he calls ‘model-dependent realism’ which is his preferred view of scientific theories. He tells us our theories are just models of the world, and there can be many different models of the same thing and that we cannot say which one is truer than the other if they make the same predictions. His view is essentially a denial that scientific theories are true, i.e. a denial of ‘realism’ about science; scientific theories are simply convenient models. He gives us a few examples that serve to show how extreme this view is. Take Young Earth Creationism, the Evangelical theory that God created the Earth 6 thousand years ago, and contrast it with the Big Bang Theory. Hawking tells us that ‘neither model can be said to be more real than the other’, it’s just that the latter is ‘more useful’! Brian Cox, another famous physicist expresses similarly confused ideas about Science in his book Why does E=mc2? :
‘In Science, there are no universal truths, just views of the world that are yet to be shown to be false.’
Saying that a scientific theory hasn’t been shown to be false does not mean that it has been shown to be true, so if our attitude to scientific theories is merely that they haven’t been shown to be false, then we simply aren’t justified in taking them to be true. And this means that we would be wrong to say that any of our best theories from physics to chemistry to biology are true; they are simply yet to be proven false. We do not know that Big Bang theory is true and we don’t know that quantum theory is true; nor do we know that E=mc2 is true. It’s ironic that those who champion science as the only source of knowledge end up denying that we can have any scientific knowledge whatsoever.
Large volumes can be written on the confusions and absurdities of the atheist clergy; I have only taken a handful of examples from a small portion of their ranks. Much more can be said, but at this point I want to raise the question of why these ignorant individuals are so widely respected, and why they are taken as reliable sources of knowledge on philosophy and religion when they know little about these subjects. One reason is the lack of knowledge of the general public. If the public don’t have much familiarity with the works of theistic philosophers and theologians, then they are much less likely to be able to differentiate the garbage from the good stuff. A second reason is that modern society rightly has much respect for science, and this respect translates to scientists themselves. This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing if it’s respect for scientists as scientists, i.e. respect for them as experts in their field of expertise. The problem arises when they are also assumed to be experts in fields outside their expertise, either because the public don’t realise that they have strayed outside their expertise, or else they suffer from a subconscious scientism that makes them think that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge that exists. A third factor is the social taboo that surrounds religion, to the extent that religion is taken by default to be matter of ‘faith’ rather than ‘reason’, thus biasing any discussion about religion in the atheist’s favour, and setting the bar for serious discussion about the subject very low. It is my conviction that all three of these ailments can be cured with clear minded analysis, and rational argument of the sort not found in the works of the ‘intellectuals’ of modern atheism.
I hope that this brief discussion has shed some light on the level of understanding of the atheist clergy, and gone some way to exposing their level of sheer ignorance and the lack of sophistication of their works. More will follow in due course. Dawkins and his ilk assure us that they have proven our belief in God to be a delusion; in fact what they have actually proven is a delusion of their own – that they have anything interesting, insightful or profound to say about religion and philosophy.