There has arisen in our day a new kind of hero: the angry atheist. He writes books and gives lectures and debates believers; he appears on television talk shows and is wildly applauded. He has a great following among millennials who grew up without religion and feel the need to be delivered from the soul-deadening trivialities of consumerism. Atheism for them has become a salvific creed.
Atheism has a long history. In ancient India one of the principal philosophical schools was that of the Charvakas, absolute materialists who insisted the only possible human knowledge was sense knowledge. And the fact that we read in the Psalms (5:21) “The fool said in his heart: There is no God,” indicates that such fools were then a conspicuous presence.
In the nineteenth century, philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche rejected the traditional religious views of their time and were said to be atheists, although it is misleading to equate them with today’s atheists, who are simple (and sometimes simple-minded) dogmatic materialists.
Modern atheists – the popular variety as represented by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – have about them an ambivalence: they present their convictions as having been forced upon them by the rigors of scientific inquiry, yet there is an evident animus against God rooted in feeling. Listening to them is an experience more like that of listening to a television evangelist than to a scientist or logician. There is an exhortation to not believe underlying their words and an unmistakable anger, often surfacing as mockery, toward the God they claim doesn’t exist.
Dawkins can be easily dismissed, as his atheism is said to rest on evolutionary biology, which is based on some questionable extrapolations from the paucity of so-called “transitional” forms that are supposed to establish the jump from one-species to another: this is called macro-evolution. The game is to convince the general public, largely through ignorant journalists, that the experts “know” what they are talking about. Evolutionary biology then becomes an arcane science that only a small fraternity of the intellectually gifted can comprehend. “Take our word for it: Darwin was right and there is no God.”
Evolutionary biology cannot be scientific because its “truths” do not rest on observable phenomena nor upon repeatable experiments. It is an imaginative creed that has become a kind of modern mythology. But it is a very unsatisfying mythology, for it cuts us off from all meaning, which is the opposite of what ancient mythologies accomplished. Yet, those in the academic world can be ‘anathematized for blasphemy’ for questioning its claims.
Evolutionary biology reminds one of Mr. Grimwig, a character in “Oliver Twist” who underscores the truth of his declarations with the oft-repeated phrase: “Or I’ll eat my head.” This is a mangling of the cliché “Or I’ll eat my hat,” but the impossibility of eating one’s own head makes it comical and memorable.
Atheist evangelists such as Dawkins present themselves as the champions of objective truth, while at the same time claiming that we are all completely determined by biological accidents, i.e. random mutations. Truth is not a category of biology, which is a descriptive science: it catalogues observable processes and supplies them with names. Within its limits, it can make no statements about the origins and purpose of existence, and there is certainly nothing in the physical description of the body that can oppose a metaphysical argument or religious claim. That a particular science can provide no evidence outside of its domain does not amount to the proof that nothing exists outside of its domain. The botanist can tell us little about astronomy, but that does not mean there are no stars.
In founding its claims on materialism, evolutionary biology eats its own head, for whatever it may say can only be the result of random mutations of genes, not a truth that rises above biology and explains it. When consciousness is seen to be a function of brain matter, there can be no criteria for objective truth. The very notion of truth becomes meaningless. Theism and atheism are then both rooted in biology and ideas can be no more than electrical impulses that, for unknown reasons, manifest as differing images in the brain. Science itself becomes a babble, despite the fact that some things seem to work in certain ways and we can gain some control over limited phenomena.
When we come to figures such as the late Christopher Hitchens, however, we come to something that cannot be so easily dismissed. There is in Hitchens an underlying tone of righteous indignation. He appears to be emotionally wounded. In this respect, he draws our sympathy. What he seems to be saying, when all the pseudo-science and witticisms are stripped away, is that it hurts to be a man, and if there were a good God, He would save us from so much pain. It seems that he is blaming the God in Whom he supposedly disbelieves for all the sorrow he finds in the world and in his own life.
And he goes further. He insists that belief in God makes the world an even more terrible place than it would otherwise be. For this, of course, he cites the incidents of religious wars and the psychological suffering caused by moral teachings that induce feelings of personal guilt. Implicit in this is the kind of utopianism that found expression in John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” a plaintive ballad that foresees a time when religious divisions are no more because religion is no more. Men will then presumably live in harmony, unmolested by popes and patriarchs, prophets and preachers. Superstition will give way to reason, at long last, and reason will deliver us from God.
In a past which is not so long ago in terms of years but belongs to another aeon in terms of feeling, I used to sit around with my friends and classmates and we would discuss Albert Camus, the atheist philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1960, in a car crash that may have been a suicide. There was something appealing about Camus personally. Like Hitchens, he seemed to be carrying about a great wound; to be a man of noble aspiration and generous love who was confronted with an evil world that frustrated his ideals. He took it out on God.
Camus’ appeal to the callow undergraduate also rested upon his easily grasped reductionism. He said that, given the suffering we endure, we have two choices: we can accept that man is guilty and God is innocent and submit; or accept that God is guilty and man is innocent and rebel. He counseled us to rebel.
His reasoning is best illustrated in his novel The Plague, which details the horrors of a modern outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian city and the ordeal of a French doctor trying to save the lives of its victims. The plague itself comes to represent the very conditions of human life in which we find ourselves subject to all manner of suffering, both physical and emotional. Camus’ premise is that man did nothing to deserve his fate. He simply wakes up as a being in a world that is turned against him in so many ways, and he must decide to endure or to give up. He is famous for having said that suicide is the only serious philosophical question.
Camus exonerates man and condemns God, Whose existence he doubts and Whose order he denounces. He explained that he could never become a Christian for he could never believe in a God Who allows innocent children to suffer and die. So, it comes down to a question of justice for Camus.
He chooses the image of an innocent child suffering for it would weaken his argument to choose an adult, for by the time we are mature, we all have done many things that merit punishment. But when did we begin our history of wrongdoing? Did it begin when we passed puberty? Is immoral behavior a function of time? Of biology?
That Camus rests his arguments on the notions of right and wrong and justice tends to undermine his apology for human innocence. And from where does he acquire his ideas of justice? Why should it matter to him, if we are locked in a world of absurdity with no transcendent meaning? It seems that, like many modern thinkers lauded by the world, Camus, for all his genius, did not examine critically the foundations of his thoughts. He preferred instead to wrap them in the fog of poetic prose. He was, in the end, an artist, not a thinker.
But he did elucidate the choice that we must all make, although I would phrase it somewhat differently. That we must either blame ourselves or blame God means that we must accept that we are either free beings who make morally consequential decisions or automatons. That children suffer is not an argument for our innocence, but rather a reminder that all we do plays its part in shaping the world in which we and others live.
And there is both a sentimentalism and a presumption in Camus’ appeal to the suffering of innocent children. The sentimentalism has to do with the notion that life should be long and pleasant and filled with good things. It is the sentimentalism upon which materialism rests and that holds out life in a garden suburb as the universal ideal. It is ultimately the ideal that fuels all the violence of social justice movements.
But life may have purposes beyond the pleasantry of a clean house and a full refrigerator and reasonably good health. If we all possessed these things, then Camus’ rage would seemingly have had no impetus. Rather than shake his fist at God and wonder whether he should kill himself he could have rested content that all were receiving their just due. Or could he?
Throughout “The Plague,” Camus’ hero doctor talks about love as that which alone gives meaning to life and makes it tolerable. And in a moment of stark insight that provides a justification for all that he otherwise condemns, appears this sentence: “What is true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
Another way to say that men can rise above themselves is to say that they can love one another. The real plague of life comes from selfishness, from turning one’s back on the needs of other people. This is what makes life hell on earth, not God. If we understand suffering as an inducement to love, then we can surrender the presumption that makes us sit in judgment on matters that are beyond our comprehension. Then, the question becomes not whether man or God is guilty, but whether we choose to love.
Behind much of the militant atheism one witnesses these days is the failure to think clearly about what we can and cannot know. We experience suffering all around us and within us, and if we cannot see justice in every instance, we might in humility refrain from making grand pronouncements about God’s nature or intentions or probable existence. We might, as Camus’ doctor did, make every effort within our power to alleviate the suffering of others and to endure our own as long as we must.
And some of the militant atheists give us reason to hope for their reclamation. Some really do want to know the truth. Some do feel the pain of others and want to help. They have come of age in a time when materialism holds the field without any serious challenger; when religion is often in the hands of weak and insincere and corrupt men who mouth empty pieties that inspire indifference or contempt. If their hearts are pure, if they are willing to suffer through to the truth in a world that has turned its back upon it, they will find God in the end, or rather, God will lift them out of the morass in which they appear to be sinking.
In the face of the Redeemer, Who alone shows us the face of God, the paradox of love reveals itself to us: that in suffering for others we can find our greatest joy. What lies beyond this world of the terrible and the tender can begin to take shape in us now as the seed of eternal life. In this respect, a plague may be a blessing, and a seeming blessing may be a plague, for the wisdom of men is foolishness in the eyes of God.