Let's Blame The Atheists genre: Hip-Gnosis & Six Degrees of Speculation

Big Questions

I realize that events like the tragedy at Virginia Tech are highly emotional and lead to countless reflections...but today I found one that elicited a double take. The posting is titled "Where Is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?" and it was written by Dinesh D'Souza who is employed at Stanford University.

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.

Oh my...where to begin? OK, seriously, I understand the point D'Souza is attempting to make and I can even appreciate his effort to dismiss atheism in little more than three paragraphs...but I struggle with his insinuation that atheists like Richard Dawkins would view the Virginia Tech tragedy as nothing more than molecules acting upon molecules.

Can this event be scientifically characterized in that way? Of course...but that's true of virtually all actions. D'Souza and other like minded scholars frequently seek to paint atheism as heartless and without conscience. It's the same battle the Catholic Church has waged against secularism for as long as I can recall. The argument basically posits that non-believers must therefore be something approximating ruthless hedonists who spend all of their time trying to disprove God through science. I respectfully disagree.

Even the title of D'Souza's piece is part of the propaganda. Is he suggesting that there weren't any atheists in attendance at these memorial events or that they would refuse to attend one? The truth is that many atheists are humanists, hence the term I heard so often during my Catholic upbringing, secular humanists. No group has a monopoly on grief nor should anyone attempt to draw those comparisons or conclusions.

So what then is D'Souza actually suggesting? I read a blog called Pharyngula, a science blog, and they have frequently debated topics that involve the intersection of science and religion. A number of months back, the site did a posting that asked the question, "Does Science Need Religion To Have A Conscience?". The following discussion is from a Thought Theater posting on the topic and I think it speaks to the assertions made by D'Souza:

PZ Meyer, the sites author, wrote:

"No, we don't need religion for that. Atheists can have a conscience, too, and we are aware that there are human limits to what we should do. Too often, religion is used as a justification for doing the inhuman to heretics and unbelievers...and to pagans. It's a piss-poor substitute for morality, unless you think propping up the obscenely rich or damning people for what they do with their genitals is "morality" (and isn't that also an awfully petty concern for their majestic deity?)."

You can read the entire post and comment thread here.

The following was my comment posting:

I'm not a religious person and I don't believe in an afterlife. Ironically, while I also won't stake a claim to being a Christian in the defined and institutional sense of the word, I am content to support the notion that the examples offered by a man (fictional or factual are irrelevant to me) named Jesus can guide us to change. His is the story of a social critic who dissected the fallacies and hypocrisies that permeate the human experience. He did so at great personal risk because I believe "he" saw it as I choose to see it...if one man can elect to pursue and follow "truth", then he is entitled to believe and expect that all men can do the same.

In doing so, when each individual makes this necessary choice, we will cease pursuing and negotiating for a better, future destiny...and we will finally live heaven on earth. Our destiny is of our own making. I refuse to allow religion, or those who believe it is theirs to define, to remove that destiny from my earthly grasp. In the end, we can choose to be good people that honor humanity without submitting to any religious institutions or doctrines. Attempts to argue that science needs religion to keep it humane are therefore absurd.

The following was one of the replies to my comment:

While a generally agree with you thoughttheater, I must as a similarly flawed human take the stance that just because someone "attempted" to lead people to a better world, based on his own interpretation of what would make one, I would be a fool to assume that he a) had the knowledge necessary to adequately assess the consequences of his theories, b) sufficient knowledge of world customs and cultures, many of which he could have known nothing about and c) a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic biological drives that led to both the social structure he fought and the one he advocated, to succeed. History is rife with people like Jesus and Marx, who had utopian idea[ls] that "sound" good, but ignore the basic realities of how, and why, humans think and act the way they do.

The only functional system is one that sways with the occasional punches thrown by the individuals that "fail" to fit into the structure. Societies are like bridges. Build them to sway to little and they break, let them sway too much and they vibrate themselves into the point of failure. We barely understand the stresses that can screw up one person, based on a rough estimate of their personality. Jesus, Marx, et al, tried to build bridges with no understanding of the materials, no comprehension of the scale of time needed to succeed and no clue what the existing, never mind new, stresses would be.

The bridges they built collapsed, but society survived by living in the wreckage, until some other fool came along and tried a new design. Only, just as we still fail at building new structures, we continue to fail at building new societies. The problem is, when a real bridge falls down, someone looks it over to find out "why", societies sadly keep being rebuilt using various combinations of historical ideas, with no grasp of the reasons for failure and no desire on the part of those that proclaim themselves as the arbiters of morality and social order wanting to learn from the mistakes, never mind ever doing so. Progress when it's made is made in spite of such people, and like old world church builders, if it works and doesn't look offensive to them in some fashion; they adopt it, then claim they knew all along that it worked. When it doesn't, they more often than not try to rebuild the same unsupported towering columns, defective dome ceilings and fancy pedestrian threatening crenalations and physically impossible arches. And of course, they blame demons and goblins (or atheists and liberals) when the whole edifice collapses.

I then moved the discussion to Thought Theater and replied with the following:

First, in my offering Jesus as an example, I wasn't actually attempting to support an established doctrine but moreover to demonstrate what I perceive to be an effective method for the pursuit of "truth". Underlying all of my beliefs is my strong conviction with regard to the sanctity of humanity. For me, nothing holds greater weight...nothing. Keep in mind that I stated that "the examples offered by a man (fictional or factual are irrelevant to me) named Jesus can guide us to change." Therefore, my focus was on an endpoint; not a prescribed path...hence the key word "guide". To give an analogy, suppose we want to obtain a total of ten particular items...say marbles. The way we count those marbles may be different but the goal is something we can agree upon; we all generally concur on how to define a marble and we all have an understanding of what the number ten means.

Essentially, my premise is founded on the notion of "truth". Note that I am not supporting what I would characterize as dogma or doctrine...that being Truth. That begs the question, what is "truth?" To understand that premise, one needs look no further than the underlying principle, "the sanctity of humanity." The individual that responded to my remarks stated:

"I would be a fool to assume that he (Jesus)...a) had the knowledge necessary to adequately assess the consequences of his theories, b) sufficient knowledge of world customs and cultures, many of which he could have known nothing about and c) a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic biological drives that led to both the social structure he fought and the one he advocated, to succeed."

There is "truth" in those remarks. However, they do not refute the endpoint...they simply explain that he (Jesus) may have been more distant from it then than we may be now. Obviously, at the time one would have expected people to believe that the world was flat or numerous other incorrect assumptions. More importantly, in seeking "truth" we can be wrong until such time as the data tells us otherwise...so long as we continue to seek it and to honor the sanctity of humanity. If the stated goal is sincere, doctrine and dogma will not stand to block the newfound "truth"...it will support it since it is consistent with the end goal...more "truth" to bolster humanity.

Science, as I see it, accepts the methodology I am advocating. At the same time, goodness, as the logical adjunct to the concept of the sanctity of humanity, can travel simultaneously and in synchronicity with science without the need for religion. In my construct, the advancement of humanity is the ultimate objective. To say it differently, religious doctrine is not allowed to intervene and insert judgments that distinguish beyond the basic definitional denominator...our humanity is sacred.

Repeating a portion of what the other commenter stated:

"The problem is, when a real bridge falls down, someone looks it over to find out "why", societies sadly keep being rebuilt using various combinations of historical ideas, with no grasp of the reasons for failure and no desire on the part of those that proclaim themselves as the arbiters of morality and social order wanting to learn from the mistakes, never mind ever doing so."

Again, there is "truth" in these remarks. I agree that many seek to determine the direction of society based upon their own doctrines of morality...that is typically found with most religions...and it is often unwavering in spite of any sufficient evidence to the contrary. In fact most religions don't actually seek to build societies...they seek to keep them as they envision them, based on dogma, for all of perpetuity. Nonetheless, that doesn't refute my basic premise...it merely points out the obstacles that are created. Another example might be beneficial. Since the origin of the Bible, numerous interpretations have been offered and, more recently, more documents have been exposed that seemingly indicate that the content that was placed in the Bible, to a large degree, was chosen by those in positions of authority.

Clearly, there are Gospels that were not incorporated into the Bible. The fundamental premise is that God spoke to those who authored the Bible and yet it is obvious that humans had to make determinations as to which conversations were real and which were fabricated. That endeavor was necessarily based upon doctrine over science and that dogma continues to assert authority today despite the evidence that the methodology remains subjective and therefore potentially flawed. Jesus, whether factual or fictional, challenged many of the notions found in the Old Testament. Presumably, he did so because he felt the doctrines it contained conflicted with his pursuit of a larger "truth". Was his purview sufficient for eternity...of course not. Has his methodology remained valid...I contend it has. Keep in mind that I called him a social critic which by its nature defies conventional precepts in order to expose more "truth"...a construct that remains fully consistent with my contention.

I want to come back to one of the commenter's remarks. He indicated that individuals like Jesus and Marx must have had "a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic biological drives that led to both the social structure he fought and the one he advocated, to succeed." In theory, this still remains true. We don't understand all of the biological factors within the individual and therefore the society. Nonetheless, we have the ability to pursue them. Again, the goal remains consistent...the pursuit of more "truth"...and the methodology is still valid...continue to dismantle and question without reliance on doctrine in order to find more "truth".

Jesus and Marx approached change by pointing out the very things the commenter objects to...a reliance on established methods despite evidence to the contrary. They both promoted change by explaining the faults with the status quo. In other words, sometimes the visions for the future are nothing more than the dissection of the foibles of the past. In that regard, both Jesus and Marx told us what was wrong and what to walk away from...the absence of "truth"...and to move towards what might be better...the discovery of more "truth".

Not long ago I saw a play in Denver called Marx in Soho by historian Howard Zinn. The premise of the play is that Marx has come back for one day to defend himself and his theories. The following is from Westword, a Denver publication:

He is not a Marxist, this Marx insists, going on to condemn the power-mad thugs who terrorized Russia and China in his name. He describes his belief system as essentially humanistic, a blueprint for a classless society in which everyone is free of want and able to develop fully as human beings.

On the other hand, the critique of capitalism is spot-on, since capitalism, too, carries within itself the seeds of its own corruption. "I predicted that capitalism would increase the wealth of society, but this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands," Marx says, describing the America we know with absolute precision. When he talks about the manipulation of patriotism to make people "forget their misery" and thunders against capitalism's tendency to commoditize everything, including art and human individuality, it's hard not to stand up and cheer.

Although Marxism contended with capitalism for dominance and legitimacy over much of the twentieth century, few Americans know anything but a cartoon version of it; Marx in Soho is an excellent antidote to this ignorance.

The point of the play, and my point about those who seek to advance social change in the interest of the sanctity of humanity as the underlying premise, is that it is not the choice of those who call for change, in order to promote change, that stops change; it is halted by the failure of more to choose it because they see the sanctity of humanity as secondary to the singular objectives of the individual. I contend that this is in fact the hidden, yet compelling, force behind religion.

Establishing a construct that "allows" the individual to take priority over the whole of humanity (I think the acceptance of humanity being inherently flawed is a choice) and at the same time be provided with the opportunity to obtain redemption is the very essence of religion. Once in place, this collective mentality allows the individual to come first because it is supported by the accepted premise that humanity is flawed. Subsequently, as part of the fundamentals of religion, forgiveness can then be obtained by supporting and participating in religion.

There are scholars who contend that the actual message of Jesus was in fact that all men are the sons of God because humanity is sacred. In other words, his message was that we must all choose to honor the sanctity of humanity. One often hears it expressed that he was "the only begotten son" of God. It isn't hard to conclude that the reference simply meant he was alone in his choice to honor the sanctity of humanity here on earth. His fate speaks to the fact that established beliefs can and do hinder the unbiased and unfettered pursuit of more "truth".

Once our humanity and its obligations are subrogated to religion, a whole new hierarchy has been fabricated by the few for the many. When this happens, religion has thus supplanted our accountability to humanity such that our actions in relation to others are viewed through this new prism. Unfortunately, the prism is different from one religion to another. In one way or another, they all attempt to place value judgments on some or all of our natural human activities such that the sanctity of humanity becomes secondary to the principles of any particular religious doctrine. This is often done regardless of conflicting scientific information thereby frequently suppressing the acceptance or pursuit of more "truth".

The example of Jesus cannot be characterized as that of a rigid doctrinaire. In the end, if Marx or Jesus were to actually return to this world as it now exists, I believe they would analyze the prevailing Truth, assimilate the actual "truth" available, compare and contrast both, offer their views on the degree of either's legitimacy, and lastly, and most importantly, choose to live all the "truth" available despite the potential risks...while remaining committed to seeking more...ever mindful of the underlying objective...the sanctity of humanity. The visionary, whether placed on the horizon of yesterday or today, always looks backward before moving forward...yet always remains a visionary.

Daniel DiRito | April 18, 2007 | 10:39 PM
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1 On April 19, 2007 at 10:06 AM, Dr X wrote —

D'Souza's position seems to be 'here is the truth and damn the facts.' I'm a Christian but have not always been. I am clear that belief in God has nothing to do with whether one has a well-developed moral life or whether one finds meaning in events or in one's existence. I know plenty of atheists and agnostics who experience meaning and love in their lives, while living with a deep sense of conscience. I've also known plenty of religious people who are heartless, petty and inhumane. D'Souza's is a case of politics trumping the data of human experience.

2 On April 23, 2007 at 3:17 PM, Daniel wrote —

Dr X,

Thanks for stating it so well...good and bad come in all flavors, sizes, and shapes. It's unfortunate that so many attempt to suggest otherwise. Would that life be so simple, eh?

Thanks for your observations. Always a pleasure!



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