The Nobel prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes in his essay ‘The Discreet Charm of Nihilism’;
A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged. The Marxist creed has now been inverted. The true opium of modernity is the belief that there is no God, so that humans are free to do precisely as they please.
(HT: Martin Ayers)
Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed a book by Harvard Professor, Niall Ferguson entitled Civilisation: The West and the Rest. In his review Lawson includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which describes itself as ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘). Here is what the Chinese have discovered:
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.
The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.
Now the Chinese are not alone in reaching this conclusion. Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion writes about the impact of Jesus on our world. Christianity he says introduced:
A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture.
What you and I take for granted, living as we do in the UK, has its origins in Christianity and the Christian worldview.
Matthew Parris writing in the Times talked of his own return to Africa after 45 years away and concluded;
travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Christianity has made a massive difference to our world.
Fascinating article in this week’s Spectator from Jonathan Sacks,the chief Rabbi on the failure of atheism to find an answer to the question ‘why be good?’
I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
In discussing faith and science Higgs went on to say I don’t happen to be one [a believer] myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.
(HT: David Robertson)
The problem with atheism is that as ideas go it’s a perennial underachiever – the Tim Henman, if you will, in the world of ideas. Wherever it has been tried it has been found wanting, not least because as a ‘negative’ philosophy it is unliveable and unloveable. The absence of belief in a transcendent reality finally collapses into a celebration of nothingness.
So what is an atheist to do? Alain de Botton has hit on an idea – why not should steal all the good ideas from the world of religious belief and pass them off as your own.
De Botton, author of soon to be published Religion For Atheists, has written a piece for the Guardian in which he comments that ‘Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone‘ and that therefore ‘the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed.’
It doesn’t take much by way of intelligence to recognise that there is nothing particularly rational about such a statement. After all ethical ideals depend upon reasonable foundations for believing them and compelling reasons for protecting them. Atheism is a denial that any such foundations exist and so any morality or virtue is so to speak built on sand and so easily swept away. Unlike de Botton, the New Atheists recognise that religious ideas cannot simply be stuck on.
Yet atheists who have experienced and benefited from the values they have inherited from Christianity find it so hard to let them go.
Roger Scrutton in An Intellegent Person’s Guide to Philosophy admits;
The ethical vision of our nature gives sense to our lives. But it is demanding. It asks us to stand up to judgement. We must be fully human, while breathing the air of angels; natural and supernatural at once.
A community that has survived its gods has three options. It can find some secular path to the ethical life. Or it can fake the higher emotions, while living without them. Or it can give up pretending, and so collapse, as Burke put it, into the ‘dust and powder of individuality’. These are the stark choices that confront us, and the rest of this book defends the first of them – the way of high culture, which teaches us to live as if our lives mattered eternally.
As yet, I offer no philosophical justification for taking this apparently objectivist stance. For the moment, it is enough that, in practice, it seems to work.
One hopes, as a Christian, that such thinkers who find the fence they sit on so uncomfortable will land safely on the side of the God who alone makes life liveable.
Brilliant piece by His Grace on Richard Dawkins’ refusal to defend his ideas in debate with William Lane Craig
In an interview in the Guardian yesterday Stephen Hawking confirmed his belief that ‘There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark‘
Hawking also argues that ‘Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing‘ a claim that is widely disputed within the scientific community.
For a Christian response to the idea of an uncaused universe see William Lane Craig’s Cosmological argument
An Oxford University Philosopher and atheist has written an open letter suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be running scared for refusing to debate Dr. William Lane Craig, arguably the greatest Christian apologist and debater of our time.
Dawkins has consistently refused to debate Craig even though Craig has debated just about every atheist debater out there. Why when Dawkins will debate lesser men without any hesitation does he continue to avoid Craig? It certainly looks as if he is trying to dodge a debate!
In his letter Dr Daniel Came from Worcester College writes,
“The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.
“I notice that, by contrast, you are happy to discuss theological matters with television and radio presenters and other intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Colorado Hell House.”
For the full story see the Telegraph report.
For a great expose on Dawkins His Grace has some very interesting insights.
As a result of my post yesterday, I received a number of mostly friendly tweets from ‘new atheists’ questioning whether Christianity really was the force for good in African society that the atheist Matthew Parris argued it was. Part of our debate centred on a fact I took as a given that soon became apparent was not shared by those who opposed me. It was this: atheism, as a worldview, has stood behind the greatest atrocities and evil committed in the history of the world.
The new atheists I engaged with were quick to blame religion for all sorts of evil but could not see why I wanted to respond in kind when it came to atheism. The response I met with was ‘no-one kills in the name of atheism’.
How does the argument work for the new atheist? It seems to be something like this, only allow a cause to be responsible for an act of evil where the action can be directly and immediately attributed to the cause. Then and only then can the cause be blamed. So for example a terrorist who cries ‘God is great!’ as they detonate the explosive vest they are wearing clearly shows that religion is not great! But, so the argument goes, atheism does not stand behind acts of evil in that direct way so atheism is not a cause of evil in the world like religion.
But my new atheist friends have missed something in this attempt to exculpate atheism and it is this; ideologies may be rightly held to account where acts of evil are indirectly attributable to an ideology and especially where that belief has been consciously, consistently and even perhaps deliberately adopted by a regime or group or individual to justify acts of evil.
Now clearly it’s not enough to say because person A holds a belief B and that therefore their action C must have been caused by B. So it is conceivable that someone might claim to be a Christian and commit murder and for someone to thereby try and tie the two together. But of course it won’t work because Christianity calls murder a sin, Jesus called on his followers to be prepared to suffer injustice, to turn the other cheek, to NOT retaliate or seek revenge. Those who murder are no friends of God and certainly no followers of Jesus, they are guilty of identity theft! Rather they can expect nothing from him but condemnation for their sin. It has failed the consistency test.
But it is beyond dispute that atheism was a consciously adopted ideology that led to a number of governments to commit acts of evil that far outweigh any charge that can be leveled against religion (although please note I am not seeking to clear ALL religion of some sort of foundation for acts of evil merely demonstrate that atheism cannot be cleared of such a charge itself.)
Vickor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz. He wrote this:
If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment – or, as the Nazis liked to say, “of blood and soil.” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
So it seems to many that there exists an indirect but evident link between the nihilism that atheism tolerates (notice atheism does not in and of itself promote nihilism it merely tolerates it as entirely consistent with atheism) and the attrocities of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. This statement in no-way suggests that all atheists are nihilists or that atheism must necessarily lead to evil merely that it allows it by creating an intellectual foundation through the sweeping away of categories of good and evil, right and wrong in exactly the way men such as Richard Dawkins and Kai Nielson as atheists recognise.
So Dawkins writes:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence. DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.
The philosopher Kai Nielson writes:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational beings unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason does not decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.
And such ideology was used by those tyrants of evil to justify their actions as Frankl witnessed. Hitler himself said:
I free Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality…We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence – imperious, relentless and cruel.
So is atheism to blame?
In one sense the answer of course is ‘no’. Atheism does not tell you to murder your own people by the millions as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Kim Jong-Il have done but it’s tenets have been put to a perfectly consistent and logic use when used by regimes to justify mass-murder as Frankl not only observed but was forced to endure. A godless universe is one of ‘blind pitiless indifference’ one should not be surprised to find atheists using that reality to justify ‘blind pitiless indifference’ in their treatment of their fellow men.
Contrast that with Christianity. No one can with any consistency follow the teaching and example of Jesus and commit acts of evil.
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