Adler on Atheism

Via Afarensis, I came across this Newsweek article about atheism. It focuses mainly on Sam Harris, RIchard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Overall I think it’s a pretty good article. Here are a few highlights:

This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or after 9/11. Atheists “are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public,” according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6–only 2 percent answered “don’t know”–and only 37 percent said they’d be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That’s down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll–which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.)

Even homosexuals are preferable to atheists?!?!? That’s just cold.

Of course, we should pause to state the obvious. A person who declared they would never vote for a Christian would be dismissed as a vile bigot. The 63 percent of Americans unwilling to vote for an atheist should be similarly dismissed.

Later we find this:

[Harris] asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation?

These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the “theodicy” problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.

I like that. A clear, forthright admission that no one but a true believer could be persuaded by the various attempts at Christian theodicy.

But if the arguments of Dawkins and Harris are familiar, they also bring to bear new scientific evidence on the issue. Evolution isn’t necessarily incompatible with faith, even with evangelical Christianity. Several new books–Evolution and Christian Faith by the Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden and The Language of God by geneticist Francis Collins–uphold both. But to skeptics like Dawkins–and to Biblical literalists on the other side–Darwin appears to rob God of credit for his crowning achievement, which is us. In particular, evolutionary psychologists believe they are closing in on one of the remaining mysteries of life, the universal “moral law” that underlies our intuitive notions of good and evil.

Again, well said. Of course faith and science can be reconciled, if you’re content to show that no law of logic is violated by grafting God onto the findings of science. But the fact remains that evolution fits a lot more comfortably in an atheistic framework than it does within Christianity. Darwin does, indeed rob God of his crowning achievment, in the sense of making supernatural intervention unnecessary for explaining how complex life can arise from simple precursors.

Sadly, the article ends on a truly idiotic note:

If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.

Oh, for heaven’s sake. It is not people choosing sides that leads to people getting hurt. It’s when one of those sides starts thinking that something other than rational argumentation is an acceptable means of bringing the other side around that you have a problem. And here we see the real difference between people like Dawkins, Harris and Dennett on the one hand and their religious opponents on the other.

They are often called “militant atheists.” How militant are they? They write about it, and sometimes they speak publicly about it. That’s it! That’s all they do. And for this they are told that they should worry about the wrath of offended religious people, or that they need to be more respectful of the feelings of others.

But when religious people argue that public policy should be based on scripture, or that discrimination against homosexuals is acceptable because it is condoned in the Bible, or that their’s is the one true church of God and their leader is infallible, everyone is expected to show great deference to their views. Indeed, in polite society it is considered downright rude to challenge someone’s religious beliefs.

Of course, the reason for this is not hard to spot. On the one hand, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. On the other, almost none of these beliefs can withstand even a little bit of rational scrutiny. Consequently, the only solution is to avoid rational contemplation altogether.


  1. #1 Frank
    September 8, 2006

    “They are often called “militant atheists.” How militant are they?”

    Would you prefer evangelical atheists? (just kidding)

    On a more serious note…
    “their leader is infallible”
    Here and in a previous post you mention/refer to the infallibility of the Pope. It deserves mention that the infallibility of the Pope quite limited (e.g. limited to matters of faith and to the Catholic Church) and rarely invoked.

  2. #2 Donald
    September 8, 2006

    What does any of this have to do with “Adler”?

  3. #3 DRR
    September 8, 2006

    Adler is the author of the article.

  4. #4 John Walsh
    September 10, 2006

    I think most Americans fear atheists because they think that they lack a moral compass…and homosexuals don’t?

    I on the other hand believe that in order to reach the conclusion of an athiest,you need to be a deep thinker and a logical individual.

    When the crap hits the fan, give me the thinker every time.

  5. #5 tommy
    September 10, 2006

    John Walsh,

    As an atheist and a homosexual, i can vouch that I, as well as countless others have ‘moral compasses’. A more accurate description may be ‘ethical compass’. Indeed, as I was raised a Southern Baptist, I experienced firsthand the ‘morals’ which many feel to be so important. The obvious problem that morals encounter is that they are entireley relative. There are many moral actions preformed every moment that are unethical. One advantage of watching this throughout my childhood was that I came to understand this difference, and so have most Atheists, in their own way. Perhaps it is truly the lack of a moral compass, and instead an ethical one. If we can help inform people of this difference, then there will inevitably be less fear, distrust and confusion surrounding atheism.

  6. #6 bmkmd
    September 10, 2006

    Religious people fear atheists more than anyone, because we force them to question their belief in God. Homosexuals only question sexuality exclusively between man and woman.

  7. #7 Jon S
    September 14, 2006

    Christians really have nothing to fear from atheists, at least in a spiritual sense, because we already have victory. The only thing we have to fear, from a worldly point of view, is atheists leading others astray. But as for the article, atheists have been a threat to the American way of life simply because they’ve been removing all morality from public schools and public places by winning battles in court to remove any reference to Christ anywhere they can. Of course, what you get is moral decay, and a society where truth is relative. Adler is clearly ignorant of the position Christianity takes, and doesn’t realize his questions have already been answered in scripture. And he’s wrong about evolution not necessarily being incompatible with faith (from a scriptural perspective it is incompatible). I do disagree with his last line as well, because there’s no competition between science and religion (that’s just what atheists want you to think). The real competition is between religion (atheism v.s theism). It’s just that those who are atheists have a tough time realizing this because they practically define atheism as science. And it’s sad that atheists really don’t want to scrutinize their own religious beliefs, and that they think they’re so much more rational than the 92% who believe in God.

  8. #8 sesliyagmurum
    November 25, 2009

    thank you

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