A new form of atheism is on the rise in the U.S. and it portends dangerous social consequences, according to Dominican Father Justin Gable, philosophy professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology of Berkeley, Calif.
Average atheists on the street “are just not interested in God” the way their predecessors were, Father Gable explained in his lecture, “Responding to Atheism: Old and New” delivered at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage on Jan. 11. About 80 people attended the evening talk which was part of Holy Family Cathedral’s public lecture series — Dominican Forum.
Father Gable noted the old atheists — Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche — can be “unwitting allies” in the battle for faith in today’s atmosphere of indifference. They knew “the question of God is still the most important in life,” he observed.
Nietzsche, who declared God “dead,” thought deeply about how society would function without belief in God, Father Gable noted.
In particular he considered the fate of morality in a post-religious society.
Atheism — disbelief in the existence of God — is a growing phenomenon in an increasingly irreligious nation.
Since the mid-1960s, there has been a “gradual but steady shift” away from faith, Father Gable observed. In 1965, only two percent of Americans surveyed claimed no religious persuasion; in 2015, it was 17 percent, he said.
Father Gable noted that in the last 10 years, a movement of self-professed atheists have “taken advantage” of this new “atmosphere of unbelief,” particularly authors Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. But their assertions for atheism are rife with “bad logic,” Father Gable explained.
They employ numerous logical fallacies, such as attacking the person holding a position rather than the position itself. There’s also the straw man fallacy, in which one attacks something other than the position then declares the position invalid. For instance, many atheists say they attack religion but what they attack are fundamentalist caricatures, Father Gable explained.
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Then there’s the false dichotomy, namely presenting two choices as mutually exclusive — which the new atheists use when asserting a conflict between science and religion.
For centuries, faith and reason have been understood as “essentially complementary” modes of knowledge, Father Gable observed. Using “natural faith,” he said, “we take things on trust all the time,” from the mechanics of Algebra to the circumstances of one’s birth to the workings of a computer. “There’s nothing irrational about taking certain things on trust,” he noted. In using “supernatural faith,” he said, one can trust in what God has said as well.
“We couldn’t possibly verify these divine realities ourselves but we have every reason to believe that God is speaking to us in certain ways,” he said, “and that he is telling us the truth.”
Meanwhile unaided reason — without the aid of revelation — “actually reveals quite a bit about the world,” Father Gable continued. In fact, “something as basic as the existence of God…you don’t need any kind of special revelation for that. We can know that simply by looking at the world around us…This couldn’t have created itself.”
Father Gable then cautioned it is important to distinguish between authentic science and certain beliefs about science.
The idea that the only real knowledge about the world comes from what science can study or quantify is not science, or a conclusion from science, but rather scientism — a philosophical belief, he said.
There are numerous aspects of reality “that don’t quite make it into the scientific realm,” he added, pointing to such phenomena as motherly love, or meaning we find in the world.
If there is nothing outside the natural, material world, “we have a very difficult time explaining how it is that we live in a meaningful world,” Father Gable said. “Our experiences of goodness or truth or beauty – are these all the result of a movement of subatomic particles?” He said it’s a “very hard position to sell.”
Moreover, it’s a “self-defeating theory,” he noted. If humans are “hard-wired” and programmed to necessarily think in particular ways, there is “no reason to believe that what we are thinking is actually true.”
Attempts to concoct a world where only science yields knowledge is “much more problematic than simply accepting that there is something more to existence than what we can see and touch,” he said.
RELIGION AND VIOLENCE
The new atheists often argue that religion is the cause of violence. Quoting David Bentley Hart, author of “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies,” Father Gable observed “there is nothing to prevent us from agreeing that violent religion is violent” or that people have done violent things under the guise of religion “without being forced to concede that religion as such is violent.”
He addressed examples of past, so-called “wars of religion,” noting the principally political motivations behind them.
Moreover, Father Gable pointed to the millions of people killed last century under Adolph Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot — all “totalitarian dictators who don’t have a religious bone in their body.”
Father Gable believes one of the biggest spiritual dangers comes from today’s average atheists who are indifferent about the moral and philosophical questions.
“They don’t even feel like the question of God’s existence or the truth of religion is even important,” he said. “So it’s not thinking about God, but thinking constantly about ourselves, thinking constantly about what it is we’re acquiring, or just constantly being distracted by all the noise out there.”
OLD ATHEISTS CAN BE NEW ALLIES
Father Gable said some of the old atheists are worth “critically and carefully” reading. In fact they can help Christians keep the question of God before the “garden variety” atheist who is indifferent about God.
In particular, the late German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche “tends to sneer at religion and Christianity but also tends to understand it better than most of Christianity’s critics,” Father Gable observed.
He considered Christianity “the morality of weakness…an obstacle to the full expression of our inherent powers,” Father Gable explained. But Nietzsche acknowledged Christianity was the “morality that takes care of the sick and the downtrodden and the wounded” — something never found in the same magnitude in pre-Christian societies.
In Nietzsche’s famous passage, “the Death of God,” he addresses the stark implications of a post-Christian society.
“What happens when Christianity really ceases to be a cultural force, but has been the source of all our moral norms for millennia? What do we do now?” Father Gable said.
In a post-Christian world, Father Gable said society will be left with “these free-floating ethical values that, like cut flowers, may be withering and fading.”
Father Gable then outlined several ways to help illumine the truth of God for atheists.
First, referencing Hart, he said, “We can’t underestimate the revolutionary character of our own faith” — Christianity provided “a new universe in which to wander, expand and flourish” and enriched the culture in ways that had never existed under the “rule of the old gods.”
He then noted C. S. Lewis’ two arguments for Christianity: The “Trilemma” and the “Missing Key.” In the Trilemma, one must decide among three options: Jesus is either “a liar, a madman, or he is what he says he is” — God.
“Jesus being a great moral teacher is not one of those options,” Father Gable noted. In fact Jesus is very clear about who he was.
In the “Missing Key” argument, Lewis argues that we might not fully understand doctrines like the Incarnation or Trinity but “they make everything else in our experience make sense.”
Father Gable also highlighted the fact that Christ’s crucifixion has unmasked violence and elevated our understanding of the human person, and led the world to appreciate the dignity of victims.
Father Gable then pointed to the stark reality of sin.
“We understand on some level that there’s something wrong with us,” he said.
In facing the most heinous acts of humanity, such as the Jewish Holocaust, Father Gable said, “We want to say that was real evil at work in our human lives. It becomes very hard for us to understand that if we take away the concept of sin…”
Finally, he pointed to the fact that everyone experiences moments of the transcendent. Referencing Blessed John Henry Newman, he said, “We can have all sorts of different experiences that reveal that there’s something transcendent, something beyond, that God in fact exists, that there is a kind of loving presence, a creator behind things…the beauty of nature, a sense of the contingency of human life, the peaceful joy of a family Christmas, the kind of honor and beauty when a soldier fights for his country.” In particular, the “experience of conscience, and its moral demands on us” reveals a “divine moral legislator.”
When such experiences accumulate, Father Gable explained, “our human reason can clearly lead us to know God’s existence.”
MYTH OF NEUTRALITY
Promoting faith in God is difficult in a society that claims the public square should remain neutral when it comes to religion.
“The idea is that a truly neutral public space is virtually atheistic,” Father Gable explained.
But atheism is “not a neutral position,” he said. It very emphatically denies the existence of God and the truth of revelation.
In speaking with atheists, he urged attendees to be willing to make judgment calls about truth, goodness and evil, while remaining engaged, genuinely listening to their concerns and developing friendships.