Debunking some of the atheistic secularists

  • April 25, 2007
New books bent on discrediting religious belief and practice are never in short supply. But in the last couple of years we have witnessed a mini-boom in anti-religious publishing of the classic, interesting sort — ferociously opinionated, high-minded, inclined to view Christianity as something very dangerous. The basic arguments may be rather shop-worn, but they are stated in compelling and sometimes surprising new ways.
For readers who don’t want to plough through all the new books on the lists, there is an excellent roundup review of four of these recent publications in the current issue of The Walrus, a Canadian magazine. The author is Daniel Baird, an editor at that magazine, and a writer simultaneously attracted to the sublime liturgies of Christianity and Judaism, revolted by the religions themselves and puzzled by religion’s persistence some 300 years after Enlightenment thinkers decided to rid the world of it. He is a questioning reader of the new atheistic discussion, that is, hence a good guide to its key arguments.

The books he tackles in his column are Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (W. W. Norton) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Alfred A. Knopf); Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Houghton Miflin); and Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam (Arcade).

Harris is a fundamentalist among atheistic thinkers, insofar as he believes that religion is black and reason is white, and that’s that. “The conflict between science and religion,” Harris writes, “is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not.” You spot the error immediately: there is, of course, absolutely nothing simple about cognition and discourse. Among the things that give religious life intensity and richness, in fact, is the very complexity of negotiating as believers in the world as we have it. The more we think about what matters most urgently, the more complicated thinking itself becomes — and the more we find ourselves moving among the symbols and images by which revelation communicates meaning about important matters.

In the world according to Harris, however, there would be no room for the luminous ambiguities and discourses to which faith continually points. Harris declares: “(T)he very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” The problem with tolerance, of course, is that it acknowledges something good in religious belief — something worth conserving, perhaps even useful to society at large. Not so, believes Harris. “Religious moderation. . . closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics and the building of strong communities.”

Here again, the problem in Harris’ thinking leaps out at us. How are we to build strong communities without a knowledge of human character and destiny — the very stuff of revelation? A good community is grounded in, among other things, special care for the beginning and the end of human life. We learn about this care from revelation, which in turn is not only a set of precepts (though it is that), but also a model for the largest life possible. The Christian imagination is repulsed by abortion and euthanasia precisely because they are abridgements of life — attacks on the human (as revealed by God) in the name of “more sophisticated approaches,” viz. merely secular ones, to building the earthly city. Atheism, in other words, is too crude (among other reasons) to deal with the real human problems of city-building.

Atheistic secularism is most easily confronted at the level of social and cultural ideals, where it really has nothing better to offer than the model of the city developed by St. Augustine and elaborated by real European city-builders — Christians all — from Augustine’s time until the Industrial Revolution. For Daniel Baird, however, the key obstacle over which Harris’ arguments stumble arises out of the very depths of our souls. “(A)s human beings,” Baird writes, “we have a terrible need to have an emotionally immediate sense that the world and our lives in it have meaning and purpose.”

That terrible need is the most persistent dilemma for all atheists. Though reviewing these books has not made a believer out of Baird, he brings refreshing honesty to his considerations, and an admirable determination not to accept easy answers. I suggest you read his remarks on the other books under review.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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