Atheism on the Rebound?
Recently, after a long period of dormancy, militant atheism seems to be trying hard to make a comeback. Evidence for this is can be found in the popularity of such popular diatribes as The End of Religion" by Sam Harris, the recently published God Is Not Great by Vanity Fair editor Christopher Hitchens and, Breaking the Spell by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Then there is The God Delusion by the most widely read spokesman of contemporary atheism, the biologist Richard Dawkins, whose wholesale attacks on religion are so impassioned that even the British scientist, Jonathan Miller, who is the producer of a new PBS TV series on the history of atheism, calls Dawkins "a born-again atheist".
How explain this phenomenon? I think there are three possible answers, either one of which or in one combination or another, might be correct.
First of all, we have the understandable reaction to 9/11 and all the other apparently religious-inspired terrorism around the world. If anything could give religious belief a bad name, this kind of religion-inspired violence could hardly be surpassed. Yet curiously, those who point to religion in general as being the cause of all this mayhem seem to conveniently forget that most of the millions of violent deaths in the 20th. Century were caused by political regimes that were avowedly atheist (Marxist Communism) or (like Nazism and Fascism) were contemptuous of religion except where it could be manipulated for their own use.
Second, we have the equally understandable reaction to the kind of religious and political conservatism that seems unable to face or offer realistic solutions to other current problems such as sky-rocketing population increases, the spread of diseases like AIDS, and widespread poverty, which are affecting the future of the world. All of this seems to give the impression that belief in God, while it may give many people some consolation (belief that there is a better life beyond) or may even inspire some to try to alleviate the suffering, that in the long run, religions tend to prolong the conditions that cause so much suffering in the world.
However, I suspect there is a third factor at work, one that those who place their faith in science instead of religion are rather reluctant to admit. It has to do with cosmology, the branch of science that deals with the nature, origins, and future of the universe. The current "Big Bang" theory raises a very unsettling question: what was there before the Big Bang began some 13-14 billion years ago? Some (mostly mathematicians who like to play with numbers) like to hypothesize the existence of other "universes" or even a "multiverse" of which our universe is only a temporary phase. But as astrophysicist Eric Chaisson points out, without observational or experimental data to support it, such speculation is more in the category of "science fiction" than real science. The result is that, unable to otherwise explain how something (the whole universe) has apparently come from nothing, some (like Dawkins) are trying to redefine science as being purely descriptive — something like an examination of effects without a cause.
All this would seem to suggest that atheists sense that they are being backed into a corner and are forced to turn to denouncing the misuses of religion — of which there are certainly many — or else substitute theories that, unsupported by any hard evidence, require just about as much faith to accept as any religious belief.
However, instead of reacting the way they are, would it not be more wise, at the very least, to adopt an attitude of reverent agnosticism before the mystery of Being that believers have been too ready, and no doubt all too quickly, to call "God".
R W Kropf 5/25/07 Atheism2.doc 07-05-25.html