Saturday, August 22, 2009

The New Atheists and the Age Old Problem of Evil

13 August 2009
Donald M.

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins writes that God is “the most unpleasant character in all fiction … a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” The last time a literary character was described in such despicable terms was probably Charles Dickens’s description of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” writes Dickens, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” I’ll let you decide which character is worse.

Let’s lay aside for the moment that Dawkins considers God fictional, that is to say (in Dawkins’s words) “almost certainly does not exist.” (even that betrays some slight doubt on Dawkins’s part). The real issue for Dawkins and many of his fellow ‘New Atheists’ (NA’s) such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and the like, is that humans have had a nasty tendancy to commit many acts of evil over the centuries in the name of this fictional God. As the NA’s see it, if we could only rid the world of this fiction called God and its handmaiden, Religion, then the the Golden Age of Atheism will lead the world to a Scientific Utopia, where Science and Reason rule the Mind and all humanity is rid of these childhood fantasies about God, Church, Religion and the like. In short we’ll grow up. At least, that is the upshot of most of the lectures, books, articles and blog posts coming from the NA’s and their ilk.

Unfortunately for the NA’s, there’s a huge hitch in their thinking, and it just isn’t going to go away no matter how much clever rhetoric they toss at it. That hitch is the age old Problem of Evil (PoE). According to the NA’s, if only we could rid humans of the false beliefs in this or that god or gods and/or this or that religion, then all the evils committed by humans in the name of those gods and/or religions would go away, too. Thus, Dawkins, Harris and the other NA’s mince no words in describing their disdain for anything that smacks of the supernatural. What the NA’s don’t seem to realize is that they are admitting that real evil exists, even if the God or gods in whose name(s) the evil is committed does not.

The upshot of taking evil to be real, even if the God(s) behind aren’t, is that evil still needs to be explained. For the NA’s, the only possible explanation for any behavior, evil or otherwise is evolution. Thus, for all their ranting against religion(s) and god(s), they really ought to be ranting against evolution itself. But appealing to evolution doesn’t help their case much.

On the NA’s worldview, all events in time and space are the end result of the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy evolving over eons of time through chance and/or necessity. That’s it. There simply are no other causal forces at work. That means that all human behaviors, good or evil, are also the end result of this same chain of evolution. We might claim we were motivated to do good or evil by our belief in some diety or religion, but the truth of the matter (on the NA’s worldview), is that evolution made us do it.

For all their complaints against religion(s) and dieties, the NA’s have no basis, rooted in evolution, to judge any act as good or evil, simply because evolution has not produced any objective standard by which to measure such things. Sure, humans might do things that NA’s (or others) don’t like, may even hate, but that doesn’t really make them evil (or good…depending on your point of view). Dawkins judgement that if the God of the Old Testament Scripture were real He’d be evil is thus not based on any objective standard, but is itself the result of the same evolutionary processes. For all the caterwauling from the NA’s against religion, they really ought to be complaining about evolution itself!
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