The Big Idea

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got religion. Hitch and I are the same age. His current condition is one I watch with dismay, but (I’m sure) there will be no final turning here, no retreat as the forces of life and death fight it out in his body, no confiteor at the end.

Malcolm Muggeridge

That is because he is brave. In Five Good Things About Atheism, I gave as reason number one that atheism is probably “right”: there is no God or “supernatural” force that can explain the world as efficiently as a natural force or process. It would be cheating to call that process God. It would be the equivalent of the Grinch strapping a tree branch to a dog’s head and calling it a reindeer.

I also said that it takes a certain amount of courage to make this claim–saying I do not believe in God–not medal of honour courage, perhaps–but the simple courage that could be described as principled and honest. When people say to me proudly, “I have never believed in God. I was an atheist when I was five and saw my mother putting presents under the Christmas tree,” I smile and say, “Right.” If you fit this description read no further.

eligious folk often cling to an improbability argument that permits them first to claim a “supernatural” cause of the universe and then to make many more specific claims about the nature of this cause.

They point to the improbability of life, then intelligent life, or moral life, arising in an “accidental” or non-purposeful way. The whole basis for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity is a version of an improbability argument, though it lacks a sufficient explanation of what an intelligent designer might “look like” at a moral- and thus at a purpose-level, which some over-educated people call “teleology.” It is nonetheless nonsensical from a philosophical and (yes) a theological point of view.

Why? Because the the improbability of anything cannot be educed as probability of something else. It’s a point as familiar to philosophers and theologians as the principle that “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” The simplest known version is Why a bee can’t fly, a problem solved by John Maynard Smith by looking not at improbability but how bees manage to do it.

I suspect many atheists know that axiom even if they don’t know many others. It is dangerous, however, to rely on it exclusively, because to assert that the universe “happens” without cause, despite a massive amount of physical evidence and probability on its side, has to be “interpreted”: t=0 is simply a statement–that everything we are familiar with came into existence: protons, neutrons, stars, galaxies–even space and time. What is difficult for ordinary (and ordinary religious) people to understand is that in addition to physical things the properties, laws and impressions of physical thingsleft, right, up, down, cause and effect, the stage for all physical laws–emerged in the same event. The question of cause and effect does not arise about the big bang but because of it.

At the same time, long before physics and astronomy captured the imagination of hard-headed empiricists, Saint Augustine ponders just this point and wonders about its relationship to his forming idea of God: space and time do not exist before creation but as a result of it. Time especially is a paradox for him. But if this is true, “cause” and “effect” cannot exist either, because what is causally related is temporally related. What then would it mean to say that God is a “cause” of the universe when the conditions for causality did not arise until it existed?

His solution was to locate God outside the order of creation. Now we know better. And we know better in part because Augustine raised the question in relation to the Book of Genesis, which he could not take as a factual description of time and creation. Would such questions have arisen apart from the idea of a sufficient being (ens necessarium) cause-all, multi-purpose God? It is hard to say: the history we have is the history we have. But one thing (as I’ve said repeatedly): There was no clutch of atheist scientists scrounging out a meager existence in the hills above Rome waiting to come on board and set the church straight.

To the extent they know anything at all about these discussions, or have any interest in them, it may strike my hardcore atheist opponents as strange that this principle dominated attention during the Middle Ages, when “God” was all about proofs and much less the Bible. But they need to come to terms with the fact that something went on in the two thousand plus years between Jesus and us, or the three thousand between the Old Testament and us, and it wasn’t all dark, not even before Darwin, not even before the Enlightenment, and not even within the many-splendored Church. Which, by the way, wasn’t one thing but many things ranging from a political state to a souvenir factory to a patroness (the sole patroness) of higher education.

hen I say that contemporary and largely American-vintage atheism has made God a little idea, I mean atheists frankly have very little idea of the idea. In fact many who responded to my previous essay, and some in sentences that parse, have said that atheism isn’t about ideas: it is a settled “conclusion” about which there should be not discussion but enforcement and action. Anyone who can read a t-shirt should join the army, or a billboard that assures them that that they are worthy and loved and accepted, even if there is no big old Sky Fairy to magic them into immortal beings.

Two postings deserve mention as proof positive that Atheism’s Little Idea is getting smaller: A certain Jason Rosenhouse (who can’t spell Hoffmann and probably doesn’t care much–Rosen-house–really?) has written an especially imbecilic rejoinder which never engages and so never rejoins, following a recent riveting post where he asks the following seductive question: “We might wonder… why the Bible contains so much awful stuff.” And an especially obtuse and humourless man named Eric MacDonald has once again filled a balloon with gas and let it sputter around in my direction hoping it would hit me in the eye. It didn’t. For the elucidation (5 syllables, thus pretentious) of the latter, I offer Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Bugbear Style” which, as he quotes Shakespeare from memory, he will know by heart.

The atheists have convinced themselves, on the basis of reading dubious statistics badly, that they are an enormous underground movement waiting for a messiah who will lead them to Canaan, or at least to Milwaukee. They believe they are “results-oriented” political movers whose time has come: they have their evangelists and epistle-writers already, and unsurprisingly, just like the early Christians, they all agree with one another. As Jacques Berlinerblau writes, their behavior is all the more baffling when you consider they are “a cohort that prides itself on empirical precision.”

They are appreciative of science for “opening their eyes,” but they need to use them more to explore other kinds of literature, especially serious history, and not the fake atheist history of the websites and the Big Book of Atheist Quotations. It is no good accusing Christian fundamentalists of only reading one book with its skewered view of the world if the response is going to be equally false to the facts of human civilization. A few of their magi accused me of “making up” a quotation I made up from Faust, then (in quick succession as the egg dried on their face) getting the German wrong, then missing the point, then saying the joke wasn’t funny. A number of respondents accused me of “making up” the Sure-Fire Atheist Rapid Response Manual, which even as satire was pretty thin, transparent stuff. Not since Jonathan Swift offered his solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ has an audience been more willing to take seriously what is offered in jest. The new atheist troupe is proving two things, day by day: (1) They are resolute; (2) They don’t know what they are doing. There is a corollary to (2): If they do, they are doing it badly.

ut I do not want to give aid and comfort to the religious zanies simply because I expect more from my atheist comrades than they have so far been able to deliver. I know I will be stretching religious tempers to the breaking point when I say that the the idea of an all-good, all-powerful, self-sufficient being “needing” to create less good (or bad), dependent, and contingent organisms is more absurd than the irreducible complexity argument. As far as I am concerned, no matter what data proponents of ID can produce, the absurdity of the improbability argument is incontrovertible.

Most religious people prefer the idea of a “smart” and good god (“omniscient” might not come easily to their lips) with smart ends in view creating smart people like them for his smart universe.

Not the only problem with this view is that this scenario is not attested in the book they use to prove their case: The Hebrew God looks shortsighted and at times thick as molasses: a deal-maker like the merchants, priests and politicians who made him up; a crook; a powerful performer, but limited to a few physical tricks. His “smart” creation is likewise disappointing: small and unworthy rather than savvy; disobedient but persistently repentant; politically corrupt, murderous and disloyal. The Bible is not about how smart people are–and, actually, Christians and Jews used to know this. It is about how bad and ungrateful they are and how big and merciful (within limits and with exceptions, like the flood) God is. It took until the renaissance for people to face up to the idea that in moral terms, Adam was superior to god, a calculation depicted in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” where God–the very image of God atheists most love to make fun of–is geometrically reduced in form to Adam’s size and becomes Adam’s older image.

So, I reject the biblical God with some personal satisfaction. His evolution has been an ideological evolution in the way people thought about him and have been able to recast him in our improving self-image. That is what humanism in the sense most people still understand the word was all about. There is a proud “atheistic” convention of rejecting non-material causation from Leucippus to Feuerbach. It was there during the scholastic period, and emerged from the medieval period–slowly and painfully–as science. There is a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates to Abelard and from al-Farabi to Leo Strauss–of taking moral responsibility away from the gods, who cannot serve as models, and turning the project over to men and women who can design them.

he biblical picture of God is not a coherent view of God. No ancient view of any god is. But it is consistent enough–sufficiently integrated–that to reject a single aspect of his description calls the whole picture into question. Rejecting the whole picture is easily the most efficient way to deal with the biblical god at a literal level, and millions of people are “atheists” in relation to this god and his story.

Some of these people, if we could look beyond the comparatively flat landscape of American atheism to the secular European world beyond, still celebrate religious holidays, light candles, give presents, and may even go to church once or twice a year. The biblical god is not part of their day to day life. Custom and tradition are. They would, I suspect, find the American debate over “Christmas” a little peculiar, jaundiced, perhaps even “typically American.” American atheists on the other hand would argue that the amount of attention given to religion during holiday seasons is oppressive and inappropriate–though this is largely a political rather than a philosophical discussion. It is a reaction to the suffocating influence religion of the most banal variety exercises over American life and political culture.

Like many soft unbelievers (I know what the paralytic expression “accommodationist” means) I regard people who still clutch their childhood god and saints tightly to their breast as superstitious. They are clinging to illusions. Many of them are not very curious about life, and many of them are not very brave about the future. They are the true servants of a god who wanted his people to be “faithful,” not very smart and not very brave, like a jealous husband his bride (Jer. 3.14). But their basic human need for consolation is none of my business; I understand it because I am human, and I need consolation, too. I have no license to rip the saints from their arms, unless they tell me to bow down and worship them too. I know as well that in the evangelical-political arena, this very thing is happening, and when it happens–when I am told that I must believe, act or think in a religious way–unbelievers, secularists, atheists and religious people have a duty to push back, to say, This far and no farther. One other thing: his chosen people were Jews, Clearly, therefore, God is not omniscient or he would have chosen some other people to be his obedient, unquestioning servants.

But my opposition to (even) organized conservative religion is also conditioned by modern reality: If someone cries “Rapture!” in a crowded theatre, no one will budge. Some people will laugh, many will tell the shouter to shut up and sit down, most people will think he is merely crazy. “Modern reality” is really shaped by the gnawing sense that even believers–not just atheists–lead skeptical lives. Religion will be lost to better ideas or it will not be lost at all. No amount of shouting, skewered statistics, contrived blasphemy or insult will kill it off.

o, the God of worship and faith, the God of the priests and mullahs and bishops and conservative rabbis, enjoined on followers by “religion” in its organized form is a god I live without as a moral presence or rule-giver. I’d be hard pressed to do without his story, however, because it is one of the most fascinating stories human beings have ever created. I would like to shake the hand of the man who put the finishing touches on the tale of God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 (16-33). What a sense of humour.

I can also live without the God of the philosophers: the diminished God of a Voltaire or a Diderot, of Paine and the coffee house agnostics, but I do so recognizing that that God had been reassembled not from premises but from slivers left over from biblical criticism and criticism of the Church, both protestant and Catholic. Even the most acerb critics were fond of making a distinction between God and his Church, until it became clear that this God was in many theological particulars the creation of the church, and aforetime of the Church’s religious ancestors, the Jewish priests. When that happened, he could not even hide behind the laws of nature where Spinoza wanted to stash him.

It’s possible to develop, as Gaskin has done, a taxonomy of unbelief that shows how atheism is not one thing but differs according to “where” one has come from in the religious system and when the atheism occurred. But atheism as an ideological position (a position with respect to an idea) doesn’t ask its holder for his or her credentials (I’m sorry to diosappoint my critics who think that’s what I have been arguing) but only for their reasons for holding that position. Saying “Because religion is stupid,” is not a reason for anything. Saying “Because people who are religious don’t understand science,” may have some general merit, but it’s pretty indirect to the question. If atheism is a defensible intellectual and ideological position, it has to be defended and advocated in the way other positions are defended. Christian apologists became adept at philosophy specifically for the purpose of defending the premises of a faith that seemed ridiculous to their philosophical opponents. Given the upper hand they say they have intellectually, isn’t it time for atheists to become better at argumentation and more aware of the sources that exist for constructing such arguments? To quote Mr Tipton (My Cousin Vinny): “No self-respecting southerner uses instant grits.” So must it be with ideas and arguments.

healthy disbelief in the god of book tradition, theological extrapolation and defense, and philosophical rescue is a good place to start developing an atheist apologetics. But it’s going to take a lot of work from the billboard and bumper sticker crowd. The god of J L Mackie and the God of Alvin Plantinga are incompatible ideas, but the dialogue between the two is an important and patient discussion of how two thinkers can come out on separate ends of a debate. Both (Mackie died tragically in 1981 at the age of 56) take the idea seriously–not meaning that they give any premature credence to the idea, but that they give the idea the respect it deserves for purposes of discussion. They do not lessen the discussion by grounding their ideas in personal experience, for or against religion, or cheap shots at people who think differently.

As serious professional philosophers, of course, their discussions are a little heavy: Mackie, especially, has an Oxford feel to his language, which makes it both crisp and complicated whereas, as an analytic philosopher, Plantinga can at times be merely complicated.

Most of all, however, they know the history of the idea, the history of debate and discussion, the twists and turns of opinions, and above all, the arguments.

In a strange salute to Mackie, Richard Dawkins wrote, “The atheist philosopher J L Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion of [the ontological argument] in the Miracle of Theism,” and then says of the argument itself, “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer”(God Delusion, p. 107). I remember thinking two things simultaneously when I read the passage: First, how would it be to introduce Dawkins in the last sentence as “the atheist ethologist Richard Dawkins.” But that is a minor point.

Dawkins’s major point is an important one: he is saying that common sense doesn’t get us far enough into the analysis of anything in order to be able to draw conclusions, and scientists since the Middle Ages have been wary of unexplicated sensory data for just that reason. If our senses lead us astray in ordinary ways, think about the extraordinary–the cosmos for example. One of the most elegant treatises on the subject of sense-deception was the al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal written by the Persian thinker Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century. It is one of the most remarkable early treatments of perception and cognition ever written; the west had nothing like it at the time. It was written as theology.

A great deal will depend on when we come into the theatre when the main feature is Common Sense–Aristotle, Locke, Paine, William James, or later. The cheap definition–that common sense is “paying attention to the obvious”–seems to be guiding atheist discussion these days. Yet the science that is being invoked against belief in God could never have arisen if we were not fundamentally skeptical about sensory detail–unless we rejected certain axioms that were held to be true for thousands of years. Common sense is not the same as skepticism; skepticism is the correction of common sense:

If common sense were true, why should science have had to brand the secondary qualities, to which our world owes all its living interest, as false, and to invent an invisible world of points and curves and mathematical equations instead? Why should it have needed to transform causes and activities into laws of ‘functional variation’? Vainly did scholasticism, common sense’s college-trained younger sister, seek to stereotype the forms the human family had always talked with, to make them definite and fix them for eternity. Substantial forms (in other words our secondary qualities) hardly outlasted the year of our Lord 1600. People were already tired of them then; and Galileo, and Descartes, with his ‘new philosophy,’ gave them only a little later their coup de grace. (William James, Common sense and Pragmatism, NY: Longman Green, 1907, p 73)

do not believe that the non-existence of God is self-evident or obvious. In fact, I think that the existence of some sort of god, based on our ancient perceptions of cause and effect, is common-sensical–that is, it makes sense to ordinary people. But atheists have a responsibility to reject the self-evidentialism that has made its way down the totem pole to people who think the existence of God is an established “conclusion” and that philosophical discussion (along with history and a few other encumbrances) is a waste of time. God, it seems to them, is not worth arguing about any more. The only work remaining is to get other people to see it their way. As a Zen master, a goomba packing heat, or a spirit-filled Christian might say, Don’t even think about it.

12 thoughts on “The Big Idea

  1. It must be difficult for the hard-cores to realize that the very criticisms(many of them) of theism were actually preserved through time in the very church institution they so despise.

    Part of Christian theology is much like Coleridge’s description of Secondary Imagination: taking what’s learned for the past, the Greco-Roman tradition along with Jewish cosmology and synthesizing the two traditions into a new one, Hellenized-Judaism.

  2. Since you pointed out that some of the people who responded to your “previous essay,” responded in “sentences that parse,” it is obvious that you admire sentences that are grammatically correct and unambiguous. Please clarify your message in the following sentence:

    “Anyone who can read a t-shirt should join the army, or a billboard that assures them that that they are worthy and loved and accepted, even if there is no big old Sky Fairy to magic them into immortal beings.”

    • “Should” can be used to express the continuous, passive or subjunctive: how do you think it’s used here? On a different subject: “Since you pointed out that some of the people who responded to your ‘previous essay,’ responded in “sentences that parse, it is obvious that you admire sentences that are grammatically correct and unambiguous,” Can you tell me what is wrong with your sentence? Go to “it is obvious,” your main clause. Now scan back to “Since,” in your adverbial phrase. Is it [?] obvious that [I] admire sentences that are grammatically correct and unambiguous,” because [since] I pointed it out or [ever] since I pointed it out? It [state of affairs] wouldn’t matter would it, since [because] what you want to say is “You seem to like sentences that are grammatically correct and unambiguous. Please, then, explain this one.” The high school teacher who told you you write well should have spent more time on modification sequences. Why is “previous essay” in scare quotes, by the way? But you are right: I admire sentences that are grammatically correct and unambiguous.

  3. I have been combing this blog for the past few days, and I have to say – I feel at home here… Thanks!

    One question… you talk about Protestantism and Catholicism, but you never seem to mention Eastern Orthodoxy. What is the reason for that?

  4. Read no further if you say “I have never believed in God. I was an atheist when I was five and saw my mother putting presents under the Christmas tree.” That’s bright. I bet it’s been said too, and I can imagine by whom – almost. Atheists really do have very little idea of the idea. So here you elucidate the idea very succinctly with all the usual wit and cynicism, historical and contemporary analyses. Let those readers who didn’t, now understand… but they won’t, they didn’t, I’ve seen.

    It’s the best evaaaahhh,
    Ihr doting fawn.

  5. Re-read the last sentence, it’s a good one: “don’t even think about it”. As the philosopher Neil Diamond said, “don’t think, feel”! This is sage advice if one wants to be lead around by one’s nose for a lifetime.

  6. Whilst I entirely agree that becoming like the the older Malcolm Muggeridge is a fate too hideous to contemplate with any equanimity, I am not absolutely sure that a last minute conversion to, for example, Christianity from atheism inevitably represents a chickening out. After all, to those who believe in reincarnation, around a billion of them, the claim that this life is the only one we’ve got looks remarkably like wishful thinking.

    I think you need to add a page to the Sure Fire Guide to cover this; one never knows when some Hindu is going to laugh him/herself silly at the claim that we are just facing up to reality…

  7. Come to think of it, God could have chosen an entirely different species. To make things much better, he could have chosen dogs; after all, they’re very obedient and prefer moving around in packs, like us humans

    He also could have done much worse and chosen domesticated cats. Cats are loaners and don’t take orders from anyone; in fact, they just come and take everything over and become gods themselves, somewhat like humans in the political profession.

    • “Everyone has observed how much more dogs are animated when they hunt in a pack, than when they pursue their game apart. We might, perhaps, be at a loss to explain this phenomenon, if we had not experience of a similar in ourselves.” David Hume, clearly ruminating the modern atheist phenomenon.

  8. Hitch was an avid polemicist, and an entertaining one – which is all we ask..

    I believe the Big Idea is yet to come – that the purpose of life is to change the finite into the infinite. The biggie may be the notion of each member of our species giving themselves into the care of every other member, right through to pooling our genomes and handing them to modern-day Jesuits (refrocked in gay colours).

    Ergo our resurrection as “later twins”, the Bible is correct, and the circle is unbroken. Like Bitcoin, it may not be for everybody, but there is a pathway in that direction that is sound today.

  9. Who told you that atheism was an “ideological position?” There’s nothiong ideological about it. Not believing in Yahweh is no more ideological than not believing in Osiris or Zeus.

    I was one of those kids who never believed at all, by the way. At first I thought the adults were just playing a make-believe game like Santa Claus. I never could understand (and still can’t understand) how anyone could really believe it. If there is such a thing as “God gene,” I was born without it.

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