Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? (About Reason)

2. Reason: the rationality of beliefs

The rationality of belief in God

The New Atheism refuses to confront the inconvenient truth that every worldview – whether religious or secular – goes beyond what reason or science can prove. That’s just the way things are. The “ultimate questions” about value and meaning won’t go away. Both the New Atheism and Christianity represent and rest upon convictions. Both are based on what they know cannot be proven yet nevertheless hold to be trustworthy. As has often been pointed out, that’s how worldviews and belief systems – whether religious or secular – work (…).

Christopher Hitchens declares boldly that New Atheists such as himself do not entertain beliefs – “Our belief is not a belief”. It’s one of the best examples of blind faith I’ve come across – a delusion that makes his whole approach vulnerable. To give one obvious example: Hitchens’s anti-theism rests on certain moral values (such as “religion is evil” or “God is not good”) that he is unable to demonstrate by reason. Hitchens simply assumes that his moral values are shared by his sympathetic readers, who are unlikely to ask inconvenient questions about origins, foundations, or reliability. When he’s called upon to prove them (as he regularly is in debates), he finds unable to do so. His beliefs and indeed beliefs even if he prefers not to concede this decisive point. Welcome to the human race, Mr. Hitchens. That’s the position we’re all in – including you (p. 87-89).

Human reason and the invention of God

The New Atheism, in scapegoating God for the rational and moral failings of human beings, is hoping that nobody will notice the blatant incoherence in its own worldview. Everything that’s wrong with the world, it assures us, can be blamed on God. But if God is an invention, a fictional character, the blame has to be laid firmly and squarely at the door of God’s human creators. It wasn’t God who initiated or executed the Holocaust. It was human beings in the twentieth century, supposedly as the zenith of their rationality and morality. The New Atheism needs to get used to this  and start making some adjustments.(p. 92)

The real problem for secular rationalists is that having made human beings the “measure of all things”, they find themselves embarrassed by the range of convictions human beings have chosen to hold – most notably, the widespread belief in God.  If belief in God is a human invention, and if the crimes committed in the name of religion are thus of human origin, humanity appears to be rather less rational and moral than the New Atheist worldview allows (p. 94).

The Enlightenment and the New Atheism

The ideals of the Enlightenment play an important part in the thinking of New Atheist writers. Indeed, critics of the New Atheism have not been slow to point out that itțs incorrigibly weeded to modernism, a cultural mood thatțs now in retreat (p. 97-98)

The recent rise of postmodernity is really not a symptom of irrationalism (as Hitchens and Dawkins assert) but a protest against the existential inadequacy of rationalism and the authoritarianism it has encouraged. (…) Godel analysis (in incompleteness theorem, my note) reinforced the growing realization that reason cannot be used to establish its own authority and competence. This point is simply evaded by those who speak loosely and naively of freethinking, unaware of the capacity of reason to delude, limit and imprison. Reason is constrained. (p. 99-100).

What about Marx, Darwin, and Freud?

For Hitchens, the precondition for human self-improvement is that we must be able to “transcend our prehistory”. If some of today’s Darwinians are right, we may not be able to do this. Marx, Freud, Darwin, and others have forced us to confront the painful truth about the limits and biases of human reason. Their ideas may ultimately prove to be wrong, but they cannot be disregarded by the New Atheism. Might reason simply lock us into habits of thought and action we do not really understand? Might reason be shaped by hidden social and subconscious impulses so that what we believe to be pure reason is actually socially constructed and manipulated by our past history and subconscious motivations? Might natural human notions of goodness simply echo the demands of survival? These inconvenient questions are deeply controversial, yet they cannot be avoided by those who proclaim human reason as the supreme resources for life and thought (p. 104).

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