Atheists and theists face off: Whose side is science on?

“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds to religion.”– Francis Bacon, 1561-1626

They’re called the new atheists and are people like Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who should have stuck with studying the brain instead of trying to use his philosophically in ways that are surely embarrassing to the old atheists.

Like Richard Dawkins and others in the group, he’s also a loudmouth atheist, writing books, publishing articles, inundating the Internet with Sam, Sam, Sam, as in his list of myths about atheists.

His first one has to strike some of us who once wandered in his wilderness as odd.  It’s a myth, he says, that atheists believe life is meaningless.

“On the contrary,” he says, “religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.”

All he has missed in this assertion, besides the meaning of meaning, is deluges of serious philosophy and literature about the misery resulting from religious diminution in the modern age. Consider, for instance, the writings of Matthew Arnold. A great 19th century literary critic and poet who himself had put aside religion, he wrote a famous poem, “Dover Beach,” in which he talks about the “melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” leaving the world with “neither joy, nor love, nor light.”

A 20th century thinker, Bertrand Russell, easily as much an atheist as Sam Harris, was maybe ten times the philosopher. He approved any retreat from faith,  but did not kid himself about where it left those without it. Please endure one long sentence and a shorter one in which he starkly sums up the truth as he saw it.

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Unyielding despair is right. Harris should admit this is where atheism takes its most probing victims even if he manages to live a life he likes. Maybe he gets where he wants to be in part because he dishonestly hides out from large questions in much the way he thinks religious people are happy only because they subscribe to hocus pocus, refusing to think rationally. What they really do, I think, is bow to the greater truths that embrace them instead of explaining them away with sophistries.

William James, one of the best philosophers America ever produced, said this life is little but theater without a deep sense we find within us that it’s a fight for something eternally important, a sense that communicates with nature, informs who we are and suggests profound possibilities that bring us to faith.

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