I’ve written on this theme before, but thought I’d wait until the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism rode by to snipe at them from behind. Who, after all, wants to be in the sights of the formidable Professor Dawkins or the acid Mr Hitchens? Not me.
In their heyday, the Horsemen’s books were sitting on the coffee tables of every secular/humanist/atheist household I visited, and I visited a few. In one case last year in Los Angeles, a proud browser had Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens on view on side tables, but confessed he “hadn’t read them all the way through.” That’s no crime, I said happily. “They’re really not very good.” How could I say that, he asked, somewhat confused: “Aren’t you the head of some humanist outfit?” Atheists are mostly pretty old and they use “outfit” thinking back to their service days. I assured him (a) I was not the head of anything and (b) I did not check my critical reading skills at the door when I joined the humanist outfit.
When I wrote on this topic before (“Of Brights and Dims: Why Hard Science won’t Cure Easy Religion,” Free Inquiry, 2006) I mainly had Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion in view. I still do. Without oversimplifying an already simple thesis, Dawkins feels that religion is essentially for stupid people–people who don’t like or understand science and who think big bangs come from Pa’s shotgun. They like their religion literal, illogical, and their savior handy in case of distress. Think of the Palin clan, back in Wasilla. Nevermind that it gets them into all kinds of messes, like smiling in the face of the proven insufficiency of abstinence-only birth control: it’s easy to understand and you don’t have to wait in line. God cleans up the messes we make because he’s in the business of wanting personal relationships with people (he’s in the forgiveness business), and as a bonus he created the big mess we call the world in the first place. Religion is for Dims. Science is for Brights. Religion (saith RD) is the default position for the scientifically challenged of the world.
Now AAFCPS, this is not an argument against religion. It’s proof of stupid people. I meet such people every day. They doze through my classes, can’t make change, even with talking cash registers, burn out their credit by the age of 24 and think their preacher is the smartest man in town–after Rush Limbaugh. Dawkins, it will come as no surprise, comes from the faraway land called England, but his model of a Dim is almost exclusively American. This is where dim dives to new wattages. This is where dim is dimmest.
Richard Dawkins wants these people to know they are deluded. To help them out, he reminds them of their Thomas Aquinas and Anselm’s famous ontological argument. Nevermind that even the intellectually radiant Pastor Bob has never read these thinkers either. It is important that their dimness include ignorance of the Middle Ages, which it almost certainly does.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an argument against religion either: it’s blaming medieval scholastics for living in the Dark Ages. Everything was pretty dim. But what reason do we have to suppose that Aquinas would not have accepted the idea of a primordial implosion as a worthy substitute for “In the beginning God,” if he’d lived next door to Dawkins in twentieth century Oxford. (And as it happens, Anselm lived just down the way, in Canterbury, but alas, in the 10th century, and too dim to make the journey to the twenty first). The lesson seems to be however, that before dims can achieve a higher luminosity they must first foreswear the arguments for God’s existence that they have never heard of.
Next, they must confess, as an act of faith, that the science they were too dumb to learn proves them dim. Most of the scientists I call friends have never read the Origin of Species, but they are permitted this omission because they take evolution as scientific theory, meaning subject to falsification, meaning that if Pastor Bob can produce photographic evidence of Genesis 1-3 Darwin can suck eggs. But until he does, Darwin is right, and Pastor Bob and all his Darwin-dissing ID by-any-other-name friends are a threat to society. Moreover, creationism cannot be scientific because creation clearly exists and is thus not falsifiable and with it goes the need for a creator. Whoops, category error. Who spotted it?
Once there was a fifth horseman, a physicist by trade, a nice but plodding prose style, the author of seven books or one book in seven versions, the latest being God, the Failed Hypothesis. At a 2007 lecture anticipating his book Why is There Something rather than Nothing? Victor Stenger said, “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence. The laws of physics are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing. There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.” And all the congregation, bedazzled with an hour’s worth of sparkling equations and no toilet break, said Amen.
I felt my light flickering: was I dimming out? Surely, I thought quietly, not wishing to be outed, we can only say something is more stable than nothing because we live in something-land. (To say Nothing does not exist is a tautological giggle). And what strange quantum hubris entitles us to say in the passive voice, “No laws of physics were violated in bringing the world into existence”–because the cosmos we see is the one we would expect to get from nothing. I said nothing of course. (Perhaps the something I might have said would have been the sort of thing one would expect). The audience were in full and energetic agreement. A few were even trading equations on business cards. For my part, I resolved to enroll in a low-numbered physics course at a local community college.
What physics has shown is that a table is in full conformity with a square-topped four-legged entity used for eating, writing or similar function. Just as we expected before we made it. From wood.
I have missed so much.