The Advent of Teleology

February 4, 2013

I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.

But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.

Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.

Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.

For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.

Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.

It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.

That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.

As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.

The Inanity of Jerry Coyne

January 29, 2013

I was reading a post recently by New Atheist Jerry Coyne criticizing a book by philosopher J. P. Moreland called Christianity and the Nature of Science. I haven’t read the book myself, so I can’t speak directly to Coyne’s criticisms, but I can speak to the logic of his main argument. Essentially he argues (contra Moreland) that theology has not arrived at “some truth concerning the world”. How does he know that? Well according to Jerry Coyne, he knows that because so many religions disagree on the nature of God:

Now let me first agree that philosophy has progressed, at least in areas I’m familiar with, like ethical philosophy, where bad arguments have been weeded out and questions have become clearer.

But that doesn’t apply to theology. One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on. There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions. And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control. If you think that religion has arrived at the truth, first have a look at this truncated phylogeny of Christianity (which of course leaves out the thousands of other religions).

As is typical of Jerry Coyne as well as New Atheists generally, what is missing here is logic. He doesn’t ever justify why the existence of various beliefs about some topic undermine the fact that we can know something true about said topic. Take a study like political philosophy. It has been fairly well established that constitutional democracies that respect individual rights are far superior to any number of other political systems in terms of freedom, personal prosperity, health and scientific and technical advancement. Despite this fact, many of the same political systems that have always existed still exist. We still have tribal warlords, kings, dictatorships, communist regimes, and theocracies. And within the broad umbrella of constitutional democracies, there are many variations – multi-party systems, two party systems, those that employ prime ministers and those that employ presidents, and some that do both. If Coyne’s logic were accurate, then we would have to conclude that nothing has been learned about what constitutes a good political system. Of course such a conclusion is absurd.

But thinking about his contention this way partly explains why there are so many systems of religion. The reason dictatorships and the like still exist despite the demonstrable superiority of constitutional democracies is that such systems allow certain individuals and groups to selfishly retain power they would otherwise not have. In other words corrupt human ambition explains the existence and proliferation of demonstrably untrue ideas about governing. I would say much the same is true about false religions or ideas about God – such ideas benefit certain people or groups of people in terms of their selfish ambitions. It is no accident that people are punished for conversion in large parts of the Islamic world, or in Hindu controlled India, or even in secularist regimes like China, North Korea and Cuba. So the existence of multiple religions doesn’t in any way undermine the idea that we can grow in our knowledge of God.

Of course science is different than certain other kinds of knowledge like theology or political philosophies in that science is essentially a method or tool, whereas our religious and political beliefs govern the way we live individually and the way we run our societies. Discovering that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way round may change one’s view of the solar system – but understanding human nature and how God intended us to live can change every aspect of one’s life. This isn’t to say scientific knowledge doesn’t impact our lives, but we choose how that knowledge will be used – and how it is used depends on other beliefs that science can’t inform.

Even so, Coyne overplays his hand. He cites the common misused figure of ‘34,000 denominations of Christianity’ as if this represents 34,000 fundamentally different beliefs. If Coyne himself actually knew anything about theology, he would know that the vast majority of Christians who are members of those denominations all adhere to certain fundamental truths like the Apostle’s Creed. As a Christian of the New Testament evangelical stripe, I find shared beliefs with Aquinas and Luther and Calvin and C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham – even though I am not of the same ‘denomination’.

But such a fine to thought process is probably too much to expect from the likes of Jerry Coyne. New Atheism is not after all an intellectual pursuit, but a rhetorical hammer meant to obliterate all thought contrary to its own. We shouldn’t expect them to be rational when discussing such matters.

The Necessity of Meaning

January 15, 2013

The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.

But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.

I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)

This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.

Is the Problem Faith?

December 12, 2012

Jerry Coyne recently posted a video which he puts up as a reasonable argument from Richard Dawkins as to why religious belief is ‘bad’:

Dawkin’s arguments in this video (like those of most New Atheists, for whom he is Dear Leader) are a typical string of straw men, Red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

In his first claim Dawkins contends that religious folk are an incurious lot that don’t question or consider anything beyond what is written in their Holy book or as he characterizes it, “This is how it is. It is all written in the Holy Book. It was written 2000 years ago and that’s the end of it”. It’s rather obvious he is referring to Christianity here since Christianity is about 2000 years old. Of course this is a straw man version of Christianity since historically Christianity is anything but incurious. From the Apostle Paul to Augustine and Aquinas, to Newton, Pascal and Mendel, Christianity is filled with folks who pursued knowledge and understanding about every aspect of life. Christianity’s contributions to theology, philosophy, science and culture are undeniable.

But Dawkin’s claim makes even less sense when one considers the Christian view of nature and the universe. For Christians historically Scripture wasn’t the final Word but the launching pad for intellectual development. The Bible’s picture of our world as an orderly place that is conducive to rational comprehension is a greater impetus to explore and understand the universe than is the atheist’s perspective is. To see why this is one need only consider the following scenario:

Imagine for a moment I told you about an incredible art gallery. Not only incredible, but this particular art gallery was filled with artwork by the greatest artist that ever existed. The works of this artist were so intricate and so vast that generations of people had devoted their lives to the study of his productions and never come to the end of them. Now imagine further that I told you not only was this the greatest artist ever, but this artist was so wise that he had anticipated those who would study his work and had worked into them wisdom and truth that would benefit those who took their time to gaze upon his handiwork. Would you be curious about such an art gallery? Would you devote time and effort, perhaps even pay something to see such a place? If after a little effort you began to see that indeed what was there opened your mind to greater truths and understanding would you perhaps consider it your life’s work to study the works of this artist? I would think most would.

Now imagine I told you about another gallery. The works of art in this gallery are unusual – because no artist produced them. The art is incidental – it exists merely as the result of a series of unplanned events that began no particular purpose in mind. You could spend your life studying the art, but in the end the art has nothing for you, it just is. The very notion that you are seeing ‘art’ in it – that is design, purpose and beauty – is an illusion you have projected upon the objects in this gallery. You may glean some understanding of the processes that produced the art but in the end you always come to the same dead end – it’s just there, there is no ultimate explanation for why it exists. And we know the end result of these works – they are decaying, and in time they won’t exist at all, and neither will anybody’s memory of them. They began without purpose, and they end without any permanent value.

This explains the absurdity of Dawkin’s characterization of faith. The Christian’s faith in the order and meaning of nature gives him confidence that he can explore and understand it. The greatest motivation for exploring the universe has been to understand more about God – which is why so many scientists, including some of the originators of science, were also men of God in one way or another. It is a pursuit that is purposeful and fruitful; in the Christian perspective nature is a reflection of the mind of God.

The second contention by Dawkins is that faith is potentially lethal; it has been used to turn men into weapons because religious people are particularly vulnerable to mindlessly do acts of violence due to their unquestioning belief. At this point he does a bait and switch, referring to the Islamist suicide bombers instead of the Christians he previously targeted. For New Atheists, such details “don’t matter” as Dawkins puts it. Of course they don’t matter for his purpose, which isn’t to discern the actual causes of violence but to besmirch religious. This latter contention is more ridiculous than the first.

The ‘religion incites violence’ argument fails in two major ways. The first is that while religious belief is virtually a universal human attribute, the particulars of religious belief vary widely. Tendencies to religious violence seem almost wholly dependent on the particular beliefs of a religion. No one can contend that the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites, who are among the most devout believers, are in any way violent. Buddhists and Baptists don’t seem particularly inclined to strap bombs on themselves. And the most religious cultures aren’t necessarily the most violent. So there is no necessary connection between religion and violence.

This isn’t to say religious belief can’t incite the worst human behaviors – but the second reason the argument fails is that men are capable of atrocities quite apart from religion. Men have killed millions in the name of eliminating economic classes, attempting to breed a master race, even murdered in the name of equality and liberty – all perfectly secular considerations.

So if religion doesn’t necessarily incline men to violence and secular interests may, what are we to conclude? The Christian understanding makes the most sense here – men on the whole are corruptible, given to selfish ambition, desires for power and wealth and dominating others. In short they are sinners. This why the New Testament emphasizes the need for the transformation of human nature. And for a society as a whole it takes generations to internalize the moral behaviors we take granted now, and a few tragic choices to undue those same behaviors. Dawkin’s naturalism has no power to accomplish this.

So Dawkin’s arguments fail completely here. What is amazing to me is that Dawkin’s arguments are held up as the pinnacle of reason by Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists when his logic is so transparently fallacious. If this is the best of atheist reason, then the movement is bereft of any intellectual vigor whatsoever.

Bad is Bad

December 3, 2012

There is an excellent article on the Huffington Post (it’s not often you will hear me say that) called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion which compares the bad thought processes that go into bad religion and bad science. As biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes:

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Here Sheldrake describes one of the most common thought processes I encounter in New Atheists. As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena. Sheldrake cites a term by science philosopher Karl Popper to describe this kind of thinking – he calls it promissory materialism:

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

The effect of this dogma is to cause a replacement of experimental science which yields observable and testable results with highly theoretical science which sucks up time, money and minds with no tangible results. Atheists are attracted to this kind of science because they are desperate to justify their beliefs in the materialism which underpins their metaphysical beliefs. I can’t count the number of times I have seen highly theoretical theories presented as ‘evidence’ by atheists that life can spring from non-life or universes can originate from nothing, or morals can evolve from animal brains. They do this because to not do so would open up the possibility that fully explaining the nature of the universe requires something more than the mindless phenomena we observe inside the universe.

And as more scientists adopt a hardened metaphysical materialism, they are increasingly wedded to these scientific dogmas. It is a rapid downward spiral.

As a Christian, I agree with Shledrake that there can be a bad sort of religious thinking that is unwilling to be revised in light of new evidence – but I also recognize that this same sort of fundamentalism exists in atheism as well, and that it is in fact New Atheism’s raison d’être.

Is the Bible Stupid?

November 27, 2012

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.

Atheists Eat Their Own

September 24, 2012

New Atheism, the movement that holds that religious belief should be strongly criticized and countered because it is dumb, delusional and dangerous burst on the scene early in the 2000’s with a flurry of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Motivated in part by the perceived religious motivations of the 9/11 attacks and George Bush’s overt religiosity and fueled by the easy communication of blogs and discussion boards, New Atheism quickly grew into something of a movement. Foundations, conferences and rallies have since provided a sense of community and identity to the nascent cause. And yet, while there has been much fanfare about the growth of New Atheism, at nearly a decade out the movement appears to be employing the same attacks against itself that it once leveled against the religious and with greater effect.

Overt acts of sexism and harassment by men in the movement against participating women have recently splintered the movement. New Atheism has also dividing over what it means to be an atheist; whether the movement is merely skeptical of religion or obligated to advance certain social and political concerns like feminism, gay rights and social and economic justice. In short, some want to offer a progressive agenda, or what has been dubbed ‘Atheism+’. Atheist journalist Nelson Jones gives a good overview at the NewStatesman:

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief. Most notoriously, there was “Elevatorgate”, an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man’s behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war. She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats…

…The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. [Jen] McCreight [A founder of the movement at PZ Myers Freethought blogs] herself says: “We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism.” Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. “To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins.”

Not long after this article was published skeptic Jen McCreight ceased blogging at FreeThoughtBlogs over the harassment she received from her criticism of her fellow atheists. Beyond the blog wars, major players in the atheist movement like Dawkins and PZ Myers and Sam Harris are vociferously at odds over all sorts of issues. While the blog comment sections and discussion boards of atheists have always been offensive and irrational places for believers, they are now verbal torture chambers for fellow atheists.

As a Christian I would normally avoid commenting on the internecine battles of groups that don’t include me. It is no skin off my nose that atheists are attacking each other. But I think the current state of affairs is instructive when it comes to understanding the modern atheist movement and human nature.

The first thing to understand is that ‘New Atheism’ is primarily the domain of young white males. And not ordinary young white males, but the sort whose lives consist largely of the consumption of video games, pornography and internet trolling. Psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo described this group recently in his book The Demise of Guys. While many of the leaders of New Atheism appear to be respectable enough folks, New Atheist leaders like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have been idolized by troops of young men because they justify their chosen lifestyles. Whereas it was once expected that a man in his twenties would do something productive and profitable like advancing a career or starting a family, now we have millions of young men who feel completely content to squander their lives engaging in artificial combat to conquer digital worlds while satisfying themselves with virtual relationships. They are ripe for the picking by folks like PZ Myers who created a legion of trolls by whipping fan boys into a frenzy against imagined evil religious hordes. There is little wonder then that the fun was spoiled when real women started showing up at the party, with all their expectations of social maturity and common decency. Their presence, and the insistence by certain atheist leaders that the some of their followers need to grow up was like Peter Pan telling the lost boys to leave Neverland and get a life.

While this was true for the minions, for leaders of New Atheism it has never been about mere skepticism. New Atheism is closely allied with progressivism because they share a common enemy. Progressives see atheism as useful to diminish the power of conservative faiths that are the primary bulwark against leftist agendas. Of course the fan boys in the atheist movement aren’t nearly so high-minded – they see religion as bulwark against their chosen lifestyles. As much as this mindless passion causes young men to rail against religion, they are useful to leaders on the left. That is why the movements in the sixties could encompass both the high-minded feminist notions of ‘equality’ alongside the ‘free love movement’ which consisted mainly of mainstreaming sexual promiscuousness. To advance, both required diminishing traditional and religious beliefs about family even though they shared little in common with regard to actual goals. They were literally strange bedfellows.

The reason conflicts have arisen in the atheist movement is the reason conflict inevitably arises in all human movements – the selfishness and hubris that is inherent to human nature. This comports with first and foremost truth advanced by Christians that all men are sinners – that is by nature we are selfish, proud and corruptible creatures. This is why the very atheist hordes PZ Myers used to command against the religious now clog his inbox with messages of contempt. It is the reason the very folks Richard Dawkins inspired to be rationalists now label him a misogynist. And it is why Sam Harris, whose books partly inspired the New Atheist movement, is now labeled among the ‘5 Most Awful Atheists‘ by some of his peers. Atheists imagined that religious belief itself exacerbates conflict and once it was done away with reason would reign – now they prove that a devotion to reason is no remedy for the inherent human tendency to advance one’s ambitions over the interests of others.

Atheists often cast aspersions on the Church because there are multiple Christian denominations. ‘How can there be one truth with so many different variations?’ goes the reasoning – all the while ignoring the basic creeds that Christians overwhelmingly adhere to and the fact that the Church experienced no significant splits for over a thousand years of its existence. They tout their movement as one motivated by reason and thus immune to the vagaries that plague many religions; yet they can’t deal with basic matters amongst themselves with common civility.

If we can test the truth of a proposition by the consistent agreement about its basic tenants among its proponents, then New Atheism, a small movement that is splintering almost as soon as it has begun, is almost certainly false.