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It's no wonder evangelical atheists need to shout so loud

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It's no wonder evangelical atheists need to shout so loud

Every faith, the dogmatic atheists say, contains a seed of violence and torment

Barry Cooper, For The Calgary Herald
Published: Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The shining example of free thinking said to characterize the French Enlightenment was Voltaire. In the face of dogmatic clerics, both Protestant and Catholic, he urged reasonable people everywhere to "crush the infamous thing."

His argument was as obvious then as it is today: organized religion not only divides humanity into believers and infidels, it authorizes the former, with a beatific smile, to extinguish the latter. Often religion claims to be doing so for the good of the infidel.

That Voltaire had Christianity in mind is indicated by a rather more vulgar expression from his pen: "the people will not be free until the last king is strangled in the guts of the last priest."

Modern would-be Voltaires such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins are just as strident in their hatred of religion in general and revealed religion in particular.

For my money, their arguments don't amount to a hill of beans. They simply oppose one dogma with another. Truth to tell, such analysis as they advance has little to do with serious and existentially commanding descriptions of religious experience. Their questions like those of the village atheist are just plain silly: can an omnipotent God make a rock bigger than he can lift?

So the question that comes to mind is: why are they shouting so loudly?

The two most obvious explanations are, first, that they think their opponents are so powerful that they must amplify their own arguments just to get a hearing.

Second, they know full well that their own arguments are so weak that they have to obscure this fact with a high-decibel diversion.

True, these "evangelical atheists," as Roger Scruton called them, do think religion is both powerful and malign. They can point to Islamists for contemporary proof, but add that the current crop of fanatics has hordes of angelic predecessors, stretching back to antiquity.

Every faith, the dogmatic atheists say, contains a seed of violence and torment, even (or especially) among those who see in their religion a command to love their neighbours, including neighbours as obnoxious as these atheist critics.

In short, the atheists' dogmatism is as much an expression of the weakness of their position as is the dogmatism of the believers.

We can see it all on a daily basis, played out in the letters pages of this and many other newspapers, with the heated and mutual denunciations of the atheist Darwinians versus the Creationists of the supporters of Intelligent Design.

To use Dawkins' formula, we are machines that ensure the survival of our genes, which are nothing but complicated molecules that obey the laws of organic chemistry. They emerged one fine day, the story goes, from the primordial soup. How that actually happened in detail is so far unknown, but science, not religion, will one day explain.

What Dawkins and his pals don't seem to get is that religious people are quite happy to think of themselves, for purposes of genetic biology, as survival machines for genes. But they have a few other questions to ask.

They wonder, for example, where the first gene, selfish or not, came from. Or, if it came from the soup, where did the soup come from? Or the universe as a whole?

When the atheists reply, "The Big Bang," the curious have one more question: what caused the Big Bang?

The answer of physicists is clear: close to the "time" of the Big Bang, the number of unknowns in our matrix of mathematical equations is greater than the number of knowns. This means there is no unique mathematical solution. Which is to say: if there is an answer, physics cannot provide it.

Karl Marx, who was equally dogmatic regarding such questions, said that even raising such questions was a waste of time. They were, he said, "abstract."

And then he told his inquirer to shut up. "Socialist man," he famously declared, "does not ask such questions." That is probably true. Socialist man does not wonder about where it all came from.

The problem, however, is that some people find raising the question, even if they don't know the answer, a meaningful act. They are going to wonder about such things whether Marx or Christopher Hitchens approves.

Wondering means tolerating mysteries. Interestingly enough, it was Socrates, not some religious fanatic so pilloried by the evangelical atheists, who said that philosophy begins in wonder.

Wonder is something enlightened atheists never could abide. No wonder they shout so much.

Barry Cooper, PhD, is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.



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