Tired of the New Atheists, and the old atheists as well? Delighted to see the likes of Philip Kitcher taking them down in this week’s Sunday Book Review? Philosophers Kitcher and David Albert reviewed books by atheists Alex Rosenberg and Lawrence Krauss in an exercise that was more like shooting fish in a barrel than any kind of literary review. But wait a minute, what is Philip Kitcher—who once wrote that evolution illuminates “a wealth of biological details” and whose book was endorsed by arch evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould—doing tossing Molotov cocktails into the atheist camp? Isn’t evolution just atheism in disguise? Kitcher’s and Albert’s reviews are another example of what is the fundamental name-of-the-game, and most people will continue not to get it.
Atheists such as Rosenberg and Krauss make for great targets, but the question that Kitcher and Albert did not ask is “why?” Why do otherwise very intelligent thinkers present such silly ideas? These atheists make bogus, anti-intellectual moves and, sure, that ought to be exposed.
But far more interesting and important is the question of how anyone, let alone very intelligent people, make such moves in the first place. If you see Michael Jordan pass the ball to the wrong team, score at their goal, and so forth, you don’t point out the mistakes and laugh. You wonder what in the world could be going on. In the case of the atheists (old and new), the answer is not that complicated.
All manner of theologians, philosophers and scientists have been explaining and insisting, for centuries, that the world arose by law, not miracle. Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and others have agreed that God did not intervene to create the world. For everyone knows that a greater god works according to secondary causes. Miracles make for a capricious creator and, in any case, we must not make god out to be like a man. Furthermore the world is obviously not designed, for its patterns reveal no designer behind the design. Even more importantly, the world is far too inefficient and evil to have been intended. And in any case, science would be impossible if the world did not operation according to natural laws.
These and other arguments have been forcefully advanced since the Enlightenment, and is it really such a surprise that, having been handed the news that the divine is as superfluous as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, a logical few would venture just one tiny step farther and conclude that, gee, maybe we can say more than just that the divine isn’t necessary. Maybe this divine just isn’t, period.
Could it be that this god is dead? He is invisible and doesn’t do anything. Is not atheism practically a necessary consequence?
What the religious skeptics, from Hume and Huxley to Dawkins and Krauss, have done for the rest of us is to perform a rather reasonable reductio ad absurdum on evolutionary thought. But as we know from centuries of history, the smart money won’t go there.
It reminds me of Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray) in The Caine Mutiny, who encouraged the mutineers, only then to shift back into the shadows to maintain plausible deniability when the judgment came. Or of Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in Casablanca, who was “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the casino. Or of Peter Townsend’s lyric, “And the men who spurred us on; Sit in judgment of all wrong.”
Where were the Kitcher’s and Albert’s of the world when Leibniz, Ray and Burnet imposed their religion on science? Where were they when Darwin made his silly metaphysical mandates that the species just happen to arise on their own? Where were they when Gould, Coyne, Miller and Haught continued the tradition of theology telling science what the right answer is, and the supplied right answer is a polite version of sheer absurdity? They were nowhere to be found, of course.
You see the smart money knows not to go against the flow or make rash statements. It takes advantage of those low-risk, high-payoff opportunities as they arise, like criticizing the dumb-money atheists.
The evolution debate is not about atheism. It never was. Atheism is the unwanted black sheep of the family. What’s important in the evolution debate is the men who spurred them on. For atheism doesn’t come from, well, atheism. It comes from, as historian Alan Charles Kors found out, religion:
[My] inquiry led not to a prior history of free thought, most of which culminated in deeply theistic deisms or in antiphilosophical skepticisms, but to the orthodox culture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in France. It was, above all, within the deeply Christian learned culture of those years that there occurred inquiries and debates that generated the components of atheistic thought. It was, to say the least, not what I had expected; it indeed was what I found. … Before one can understand the heterodoxy of early-modern atheism, one first must understand the orthodox sources of disbelief. [Atheism in France, 1650–1729, Volume I: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, Princeton Univ Press, Princeton, NJ, 1990, p. 4.]
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.