Tuesday, November 06, 2007
This morning, I discussed how the so-called "new atheists" failed as intellectuals by dismissing wholesale everything normally associated with religion. In doing so, the new atheists make it easier to swallow such arguments as Theodore Dalrymple's that we must abdicate reason in order to hold lofty ideals or experience sublime emotions.
This evening, we see these same intellectual lightweights play right into the hands of none other than Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. This time, they do so directly by means of facile generalizations and indirectly by their assertions that atheism constitutes not merely the intellectual position that it is on the question of whether there is a God, but a worldview.
After minimizing or dismissing the role of religion in fomenting war throughout history by declaring that, among other things, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, at its core, a religious one," (!) D'Souza happily accepts Sam Harris and Richard Dawkin's help in blaming the holocaust on atheism:
Harris can go on forever in this vein. Seeking to exonerate secularism and atheism from the horrors perpetrated in their name, he argues that Stalinism and Maoism were in reality "little more than a political religion." As for Nazism, "while the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, it was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity." Indeed, "The holocaust marked the culmination of ... two thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews."To be fair, I have read Sam Harris's The End of Faith and do recall him offering evidence that Christians did "fulminate" against the Jews and that, for example, during the Third Reich, the Roman Catholic Church allowed the Nazis access to its records for the purposes of determining whether individuals had Jewish ancestry.
One finds the same inanities in Mr. Dawkins's work. Don't be fooled by this rhetorical legerdemain. Dawkins and Harris cannot explain why, if Nazism was directly descended from medieval Christianity, medieval Christianity did not produce a Hitler. How can a self-proclaimed atheist ideology, advanced by Hitler as a repudiation of Christianity, be a "culmination" of 2,000 years of Christianity? Dawkins and Harris are employing a transparent sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name. [bold added]
However, it is one thing to note that both Christians and Nazis persecuted Jews, and to liken Nazism to a religion: It is quite another thing to explain what about Nazism and religion make them similar to each other and similarly dangerous to man and how religion might have set the stage for Nazism.
Leonard Peikoff did a far better job of this than I can, long ago in his seminal The Ominous Parallels. But just to consider one such similarity: Both religion and National Socialism promote an altruistic morality of self-sacrifice, differing only in who collects. After holding sway over Europe for centuries, Christianity had trained its people to regard self-sacrifice as normal and good. To move from subordinating oneself to an unseen being to an unseen collective is not exactly a great leap. If I recall correctly, Peikoff also has quite a bit to say about another crucial similarity between religion and Nazism: rejection of reason.
Again, atheism is just an answer to a question, regardless of how it was reached. With the Nazis, we see that one need not even be rational to be an atheist. So much for atheism being the distilled essence of reason, which so many religionists like D'Souza despise.
But recall also that D'Souza speaks of a "sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name". Recall again that all atheism is, is a position about one question: "Does God exist?"
Despite the wishes of the new atheists, atheism offers no position on any other question, offers no basis for a meaningful "group identity", and offers no guidance whatsoever for how to live life or organize society. D'Souza knows this, and he also knows that religion does do these things. Atheism leaves open the question of whether you should live your own life for its own sake or hand it over to other people, the state, or some imaginary being. But religion offers very specific guidance, and it is: Sacrifice yourself. Atheism has nothing to say about whether we should acquire knowledge through evidence and logic -- or take the words of some grizzled Middle Eastern tribesman on faith. But religion is based on faith.
D'Souza, so soon after accusing atheists of a "sleight of hand" hopes to cash in by invoking Dostoyevsky's old saw that "If God is not, everything is permitted," and with only the new atheists around, he could credibly get away with it. For the new atheists, their sound and fury notwithstanding, offer exactly what their one tiny similarity has to offer in the way of ethical and political guidance: nothing.
But as with Theordore Dalrymple, D'Souza ignores one atheist intellectual at his peril: Ayn Rand. As I pointed out this morning, Ayn Rand, although she was an atheist, had a great deal to say about many other philosophical issues, and particularly many widely regarded as the exclusive domain of religion. She understands what is good about religion -- and grounds it in reason. She knows what is bad about religion -- and offers a much -needed rational alternative. Ayn Rand can explain precisely why Dostoyevsky has it exactly backwards -- and why we need a secular, absolute morality as well as how to discover it.
D'Souza hopes that his readers will recognize that atheism offers man no guidance -- and rush to religion by default, and he is counting on the blatant intellectual bankruptcy of the new atheists. But Ayn Rand is one atheist who does offer a viable philosophical alternative to religion: her this-worldly, rational, egoistic, and capitalistic philosophy: Objectivism.
PS: On the title: I started off thinking more along the lines of discussing how religion paved the way for Nazism, as well as how miserable people are in eras, such as the Middle Ages, when religion holds sway. One quite plausible explanation for why there was no Christian Hitler is that feudal Christianity made it impossible for enough people to survive all at one time (or for civilization to be far enough above subsistence level) for such a thing as the Third Reich to even be possible.
Looked at in this way, D'Souza's argument is something like the Fallacy of the Broken Window: We can count skulls of people in the modern era who would have never lived to adulthood (or been born) in a more primitive, religious era. This doesn't make piles of skulls good, of course, but it shows that D'Souza is not looking at the whole picture of how religion affects human existence. Hence the title.
Today: Added a PS.
11-7-07: Corrected some typos.