RESPONDING TO ATHEISM
The first section below provides the opportunity to follow important debates regarding atheism.
The second examines what atheists really believe, the third looks at prominent atheists who later found God and
the forth is a thought provoking definition.
This article is a review of the book: What Americans Really Believe.
"You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god," comedian and atheist Bill Maher said earlier this year on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
On the Saturday Night Live season debut last week, home-schooling families were portrayed as fundamentalists with bad haircuts who fear biology. Actor Matt Damon recently disparaged Sarah Palin by referring to a transparently fake email that claimed she believed that dinosaurs were Satan's lizards. And according to prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, traditional religious belief is "dangerously irrational." From Hollywood to the academy, non believers are convinced that a decline in traditional religious belief would lead to a smarter, more scientifically literate and even more civilized populace.
The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won't create a new group of intelligent, sceptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that's not a conclusion to take on faith -- it's what the empirical data tell us.
"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity.
Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?
The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31%
of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship
more than once a week did.
This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, sceptic and science writer Martin
Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an
increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical
Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while
born-again Christian college students were the least likely.
We can't even count on self-described atheists to be strict rationalists.
On Oct. 3, Mr. Maher debuts Religulous, his documentary that attacks religious belief. He talks to Hasidic scholars, Jews for Jesus, Muslims, polygamists, Satanists, creationists, and even Rael -- prophet of the Raelians -- before telling viewers: "The plain fact is religion must die for man to live."
But it turns out that the late-night comic is no icon of rationality himself. In fact, he is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience. The night before his performance on Conan O'Brien, Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.
Anti-religionists such as Mr. Maher bring to mind the assertion of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown character that all atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists are susceptible to superstition: "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. "Look Who's Irrational Now." The Wall Street Journal (September 19, 2008). Reprinted by [Catholic Education Resource Centre] with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Mollie Hemingway is a Washington writer who writes for Get Religion. She is the author of Losing Our Religion.
By TIMOTHY LARSEN
Just such a conversion has happened to A.N. Wilson, the 58-year-old British biographer, novelist and man of letters. He was once an observant Anglican and, later, a Roman Catholic, but in the 1980s he lost his faith and began skewering the supposed delusions of the faithful. His anti-faith stance was expressed in books such as God's Funeral (1999) and Jesus: A Life (1992). A few weeks ago, however, Mr. Wilson confessed that Christ had risen indeed. He attributed this to "the confidence I have gained with age." He now says he believes that atheists are like "people who have no ear for music or who have never been in love."
Mr. Wilson's story matches that of other skeptical authors who became convinced by Christianity, not least in Victorian Britain, when Darwin and various modern ideas shook the foundations of faith among the educated classes. Among the notable examples from Victorian Britain are Thomas Cooper, the most popular free-thinking lecturer in London in the 1850s; George Sexton, the most academically accomplished secularist intellectual of the time; and Joseph Barker, a well-respected leader of the mid-19th-century free-thinking movement. The 20th century also had its share of writers and intellectuals who rediscovered Christianity as mature thinkers, including T.S. Eliot, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden.
Our modern assumption that thought and faith are incompatible can be traced to the Victorian
atheists. As one of them snidely remarked when a fellow secularist came to faith: "I find it hard to believe
that someone could progress backwards."
For his part, A. N. Wilson had denounced as dishonest every leading Victorian intellectual who maintained a commitment to orthodox Christianity. Indeed, in God's Funeral he did not just go after the usual targets, such as John Henry Newman, but savaged even Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. They were not presented as simply mistaken, but rather as downright "dishonorable."
Those who later recanted their atheism went on from this common start to begin to doubt their doubts. They gradually decided that their rationalistic method was too narrow: It could pick holes not only in Christianity but in any attempt to distinguish between right and wrong or to articulate the meaning of life. They came to realize that they could only tear down and thus were left intellectually with no habitable place to live. John Henry Gordon, who held the only full-time, salaried secularist lecturer position in England, came to believe that secularism was a creed of "mere negations."
Having realized that their method was flawed, they then began to reconsider faith. Christianity, they discovered, spoke to the deepest realities of human experience. George Sexton, for example, decided that Jesus as presented in the Gospels was so compelling and haunting that only a historical original could account for this: "If Christ be simply an ideal picture, the man who sketched it will be as difficult to account for as the Being himself."
Their skeptical pasts did leave a permanent stamp on their thought. Joseph Barker believed as a young man that the Bible was error-free. As a free-thinking lecturer he specialized in highlighting problem passages. As a convert, he conceded that the Bible was not perfect but went on to argue that it was perfectly suited to speak to the human condition.
The Swiss Alps are not perfect cones, he observed, but this does not detract from their grandeur. Thomas Cooper declared that his newly rediscovered faith did not include a belief in eternal punishment.
As is the case with Mr. Wilson, intellectuals often pursue long, drawn-out love affairs with
Christian thought. Next time you hear someone fume that God is the most contemptible being who never existed, keep
in mind that you just might be watching the first act of a divine romantic comedy.
Timothy Larsen, "Look Who's a Believer Now."The Wall Street Journal (May 29, 2008). Reprinted by [Catholic Education Resource Center] with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
THE AUTHOR Timothy Larsen is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. His
intellectual interests are in the areas of British history, historical theology, Christian thought, and intellectual
currents and controversies. His research and writing tends to explore theological and intellectual ideas as they
were appropriated and wrestled with in specific cultural, social, and historical contexts.