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4/19/2007
AN ANSWER TO D’SOUZA’S “WHERE IS ATHEISM?” QUESTION
CATEGORY: Ethics

Dinesh D’Souza asks an interesting question in his AOL Blog relating to the tragedy at Virginia Tech; “Where Is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?”

Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing. Even secular people like the poet Nikki Giovanni use language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning.

The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference. Dawkins further argues that we human beings are simply agglomerations of molecules, assembled into functional units over millennia of natural selection, and as for the soul–well, that’s an illusion!

To no one’s surprise, Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it’s difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil. The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist. For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho’s shooting of all those people can be understood in this way–molecules acting upon molecules.

If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.

As an atheist myself, I find Mr. D’Souza’s question laughably simplistic and shockingly uninformed. I daresay that atheists are standing shoulder to shoulder with people of faith this day in condemning the tragedy as well as expressing sorrow and solidarity with the families of the victims. A belief in God is not a prerequisite to being a decent human being nor does empathy for your fellow man depend on having faith in a supernatural power greater than yourself. These things are independent of religion and have much more to do with one’s upbringing and society inculcating values and modes of acceptable behavior above and beyond that which one might learn through participation in organized religion.

I have no argument with people of faith. And I abhor the way in which many atheists belittle those who believe in God or feel themselves somehow superior for their non-belief. In fact, I find as much ignorance about religion emanating from atheists as I see stupidity about the natural world coming from many who believe in God. Atheism is a matter of choice arrived at after a careful, independent examination of the nature of the universe and one’s own conscience. A true atheist acknowledges and accepts the fact that others hold opposing views on how the universe can be explained and that those views should be respected. Anything less only proves how closed one’s mind can get when certitude replaces inquisitiveness and dogma just as rigid as any pronouncements from the Vatican is substituted for open and honest inquiry.

I digress here because it is painfully obvious that D’Souza’s triumphalism regarding people of faith having some kind of superior insight into tragedies like the murders at Virginia Tech is based on a towering ignorance both of atheism and humanity. He uses the words of the positivist Richard Dawkins in an attempt to show that a belief in the randomness of nature is the same as postulating that randomness in human behavior can be explained the same way - killing 32 people can be understood as “molecules acting upon molecules.”

In fact, most atheists believe in causal relationships when trying to fathom how the human animal behaves. This is being born out as every hour since the tragedy, it becomes clearer that Mr. Cho fell through the cracks of a mental health system designed not to protect society but rather enable the legally insane to avoid involuntary incarceration. And despite good faith efforts by some in the Virginia Tech community to get the young man help, the legal roadblocks to protecting ourselves from people like Mr. Cho turned out to be a direct cause of the tragedy.

And to ascribe “evil” intent to someone obviously suffering from a mental disorder is risible. Mr. Cho was a sick young man. He was diagnosed as such. Perhaps Mr. D’Souza should recalibrate his humanity and look more to his belief in a supreme being before labeling someone who by both legal and moral definitions was not responsible for their actions.

It is Mr. D’Souza who is having a hard time defining “evil,” not atheists. Yes, there are some who believe good and evil are relative terms and cannot be applied with any certainty to human behavior. I totally reject that notion. One does not need to believe in God (or the devil for that matter) to recognize the conscienceless barbarity of a Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler as true “evil.” Nor does one need to believe in the saints to recognize the innate goodness in people like the late Pope John Paul or even Jesus Christ. The conscience-driven life should be aspired to by all - not just people of faith.

Herein lies another aspect of Mr. D’Souza’s ignorance; the growing scientific evidence that what we term “conscience” is, in fact, an outgrowth of human evolution and our need to live in large groups. It may not be “molecules acting upon molecules” but rather the still mysterious evolution of the human brain and how both genes and learned behavior contribute in some fascinating mix to the development of, for lack of a better terms, our spiritual selves. Can one be a moral individual without a belief in God? Can one act ethically without fear of going to hell if one transgresses the law?

Of course they can. The Ten Commandments are a very good adjunct to common sense behavior if one is to live in a large, diverse society. Don’t kill anyone or steal from them. Keep your hands off their spouse. Always try and tell the truth. Be good to your parents. These things can be ordered as a result of basic human decency - perhaps even instinct if the evolutionary biologists like Dawkins keep digging - and not necessarily because disobeying these strictures could land the transgressor in a very bad place after they die.

Does it matter how one arrives at moral behavior be it through belief in the Commandments or acting out of a sense of obligation to society? Is it important that we all recognize that the true marvel of the human animal is in our capacity to live by “the Golden Rule” and treat others as we would like to be treated regardless of whether that urge is biological or spiritual in nature?

D’Souza would do well to read Thomas Aquinas who not only said “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,” but also “Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” That last is not dependent on anything except the individual conscience of each and every one of us, informed by both socialization and a desire to live among others of our kind in peace and harmony.

UPDATE

Hilzoy has a much snarkier, more thorough takedown of D’Souza.

By: Rick Moran at 8:02 am
14 Responses to “AN ANSWER TO D’SOUZA’S “WHERE IS ATHEISM?” QUESTION”
  1. 1
    gregdn Said:
    8:28 am 

    D’Souza learned from Anne Coulter that if you want to sell books you need to ’shock’ the public with outrageous propositions.
    As an Agnostic, I can only reconcile the tragedy at VT by knowing that there is evil in the world (and mental illness). If someone takes comfort in a belief in God, more power to them.

  2. 2
    The Thunder Run Trackbacked With:
    9:30 am 

    Web Reconnaissance for 04/19/2007…

    A short recon of whatÂ’s out there that might draw your attention….

  3. 3
    David M Said:
    9:43 am 

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 04/19/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  4. 4
    Hot Air » Blog Archive » Dinesh D’Souza on VTech: What say you now, atheists? Pinged With:
    9:52 am 

    [...] Moran responds at length. Exit question re: D’Souza: Cynical attempt to coopt the murders for his own agenda or transparent case of projection by a religious believer who’s a little ticked at God for not stopping Psy-Cho in his tracks? digg_url = ‘http://hotair.com/archives/2007/04/19/dinesh-dsouza-on-vtech-what-say-you-now-atheists/’;digg_topic = ‘political_opinion’; [...]

  5. 5
    Ann M Said:
    11:06 am 

    Just regarding the 10 commandments: You wrote,
    “Don’t kill anyone or steal from them. Keep your hands off their spouse. Always try and tell the truth. Be good to your parents. These things can be ordered as a result of basic human decency – perhaps even instinct if the evolutionary biologists like Dawkins keep digging…”
    Except, those are rules that go AGAINST instinct. They are not instinctive. Being good to your children is instintive. Lust is instinctive. Taking what you want is instinctive. Protecting oneself with lies and half-truths ala Clinton is instinctive. Just look at any group of three-year olds playing. Why would anyone say, “Play nice” if it was instinctive to do so? Think about it. Be honest…

  6. 6
    Doug Purdie Said:
    11:22 am 

    Thanks Rick for clarifying the fact that one can both believe in good and evil without believing in God, the Devil, Heaven or Hell. Since your blog reaches a wider audience, more people will gain a true understanding of atheists like us.

  7. 7
    Rick Moran Said:
    11:44 am 

    Ann:

    I should have clarified:

    “Instinct” meaning the urge to live in large, diverse groups and innate recognition that some strictures are necessary for that to be possible.

  8. 8
    Bill Ramey Said:
    12:45 pm 

    Although D’Souza’s argument is open to critique, the reaction to it here and on Hot Air is rather overwrought. D’Souza isn’t making an ad hominem attack against atheists; he’s arguing that Dawkins-style atheism cannot account easily, if at all, for the existence of evil. Indeed, some atheists have argued the same point, e.g., Wittgenstein. In brief, D’Souza’s argument is:

    If nothing exists except matter in motion, then evil doesn’t exist.
    Evil does exist.
    Therefore, it is not the case that everything is just matter in motion.

    D’Souza is banking on the fact that most of us accept the second premise, i.e., most of us are moral realists in one sense or another. The first premise is prima facie plausible: if nothing exists except matter in motion, it’s difficult to see how some material events could be called “evil” and others “good,” other than in some emotive sense. That’s not to say that it is impossible to reconcile moral realism and Dawkins-style atheism, but it’s a hard road to hoe. The upshot is that Dawkins-style atheism is more compatible with moral nihilism; hence if you reject moral nihilism, you’re likely to reject Dawkins-style atheism. Again, there’s room for critique here, but there’s no grounds for the abuse that people are heaping on D’Souza.

  9. 9
    Wonder Woman Said:
    12:48 pm 

    Thank you, Rick.

    I have had this argument myself, many times.

    Many continually express the false perception that atheism boils down to a belief in human beings as a puddle of chemicals that think, and the universe being some colossal accident.

    I have yet to meet a single real atheist who sees things this way. Most have expressed to me, a belief that reason and order are universal absolutes (in place of the deist’s belief in God as the absolute). Every action is positive or negative, and every action elicits a positive or negative consequence. The fact that this equation is evidenced daily, in our interactions with each other, proves it is not an accidental occurrence, but rather a fundamental law of causation.

    What many deists don’t realize is that there are really 2 camps on the non-deist side. One is atheism — like you and I. We know and understand the theory around religion, and respect the tenets it teaches and those who follow them. We agree on the concept of right and wrong, and merely disagree on how the conclusions are arrived at.

    The second camp however, is comprised of what I like to call God-haters. Dinesh D’Souza (and many others) makes the mistake of lumping them in with real atheists. But an atheist does not believe in the existence of God, making the hatred of God and religion, an irreconcilable contradiction. God-haters don’t just hate God and religion, they hate humanity and anything that celebrates it — God is just the main casualty of this destructive tendency.

    The reason many deists vilify atheists this way, is because they haven’t determined this simple separation. After all, The Children of God evoked the presence of an almighty and used similar terms to that of fundamentalist Christianity, but most Christians would balk at being lumped together with them, under one theological banner.

    Crikey, that comment got long, fast. Sorry Rick…this is an argument I just hate having with people who should know better.

  10. 10
    Gang of One Said:
    12:55 pm 

    Rick, you are certainly welcome to your beliefs, How, may I ask, would you respond to the following?

    Take as much time as you need.

    God is the one and only self-caused fact in the universe. He is the secret of the order, plan, and purpose of the whole creation of things and beings. The everywhere-changing universe is regulated and stabilized by absolutely unchanging laws, the habits of an unchanging God. The fact of God, the divine law, is changeless; the truth of God, his relation to the universe, is a relative revelation which is ever adaptable to the constantly evolving universe.

    Those who would invent a religion without God are like those who would gather fruit without trees, have children without parents. You cannot have effects without causes; only the I AM is causeless. The fact of religious experience implies God, and such a God of personal experience must be a personal Deity. You cannot pray to a chemical formula, supplicate a mathematical equation, worship a hypothesis, confide in a postulate, commune with a process, serve an abstraction, or hold loving fellowship with a law.

    True, many apparently religious traits can grow out of nonreligious roots. Man can, intellectually, deny God and yet be morally good, loyal, filial, honest, and even idealistic. Man may graft many purely humanistic branches onto his basic spiritual nature and thus apparently prove his contentions in behalf of a godless religion, but such an experience is devoid of survival values, God-knowingness and God-ascension. In such a mortal experience only social fruits are forthcoming, not spiritual. The graft determines the nature of the fruit, notwithstanding that the living sustenance is drawn from the roots of original divine endowment of both mind and spirit.

    The intellectual earmark of religion is certainty; the philosophical characteristic is consistency; the social fruits are love and service.

    The God-knowing individual is not one who is blind to the difficulties or unmindful of the obstacles which stand in the way of finding God in the maze of superstition, tradition, and materialistic tendencies of modern times. He has encountered all these deterrents and triumphed over them, surmounted them by living faith, and attained the highlands of spiritual experience in spite of them. But it is true that many who are inwardly sure about God fear to assert such feelings of certainty because of the multiplicity and cleverness of those who assemble objections and magnify difficulties about believing in God. It requires no great depth of intellect to pick flaws, ask questions, or raise objections. But it does require brilliance of mind to answer these questions and solve these difficulties; faith certainty is the greatest technique for dealing with all such superficial contentions.

    Page 1127 If science, philosophy, or sociology dares to become dogmatic in contending with the prophets of true religion, then should God-knowing men reply to such unwarranted dogmatism with that more farseeing dogmatism of the certainty of personal spiritual experience, “I know what I have experienced because I am a son of I AM.” If the personal experience of a faither is to be challenged by dogma, then this faith-born son of the experiencible Father may reply with that unchallengeable dogma, the statement of his actual sonship with the Universal Father.

    Only an unqualified reality, an absolute, could dare consistently to be dogmatic. Those who assume to be dogmatic must, if consistent, sooner or later be driven into the arms of the Absolute of energy, the Universal of truth, and the Infinite of love.

    If the nonreligious approaches to cosmic reality presume to challenge the certainty of faith on the grounds of its unproved status, then the spirit experiencer can likewise resort to the dogmatic challenge of the facts of science and the beliefs of philosophy on the grounds that they are likewise unproved; they are likewise experiences in the consciousness of the scientist or the philosopher.

    Of God, the most inescapable of all presences, the most real of all facts, the most living of all truths, the most loving of all friends, and the most divine of all values, we have the right to be the most certain of all universe experiences.

  11. 11
    Rick Moran Said:
    1:03 pm 

    Bill: You make several excellent points (see WW who commented without having seen your thoughts.)

    But D’Souza took Dawkins way out of context - and I believe you misunderstand some of what he says as well. Randomness as applied to macro systems is something even religious Cosmologists accept. I think D’Souza was minimalizing Dawkins arguments and trying to squeeze them into too narrow a focus.

    Besides, Dawkins, as you may know, says many things simply to provoke discussion - a not uncommon tactic among those who advance unpopular or controversial positions.

    Wonder Woman:

    Nice to see you back and blogging. Honored to be in the Justice League. Send me a link and I’ll blogroll ya.

  12. 12
    Drongo Said:
    4:58 pm 

    *wild applause*

    Excellently said.

  13. 13
    Miguel Guanipa Said:
    6:44 pm 

    Rick your essay is very interesting. But when you admit that you are an Atheist (which I understand to mean that you do not believe there is a God) you are basically saying that you have examined all of the knowledge available in the universe and have come to that conclusion.

    That is quite a feat.

    It is usually safer to call yourself an agnostic- which implies you are still searching but are not convinced yet, but are open to the posibiliy since there are things which yet remain and perhaps will forever remain unknown to any one single human being to warrant such a definitive declaration.

    Perhaps I misunderstood what yur definition of Atheist is. Would you care to explain?

    Miguel

  14. 14
    Drew Said:
    7:04 pm 

    D’Souza is doing the best with what he has. Unfortunately, what he has is religious faith, and that’s not much to work with. As a result, his examples are half-truths, his analogies are weak, his conclusions faulty, and his misrepresenation of his opponents’ position constant. To #5 above, helping others is instinctive to me - I’m sorry for Ann if her instincts are still those of the three-year olds she references. To #10 above - your concept of a god has only evolved as the mythology of Christianity has been dismantled, discredited, eroded, and disproved by rationalism, humanist philosophy, and science in all its forms (history, biology, anthropology, astronomy, etc). The path from literalism to “moderate” (ignore whatever parts you don’t like) religion, from theism to deism, from belief to agnosticism - these are all steps, taken by humanity, societies, and individuals, on the path to atheism.

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