• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

The Dogmas and Failure of Rational Atheism


I was recently re-reading sections of what I think is one of the best and yet most under-appreciated Catholic books written in recent decades, Faith and Certitude by Father Thomas Dubay. Fr. Dubay's book is, as the title suggests, especially concerned with skepticism and unbelief, and is an excellent examination of the intellectual premises and varied attitudes held by atheists. In a chapter titled, "Clarifying Our Concepts," Fr. Dubay writes:

"Everyone is dogmatic. The statement may startle, but it is easy to demonstrate. We human beings differ not as to whether we consider ourselves infallibly right about this or that but as to what this or that may be. ... All of us have dogmas, some with good reason, some without."

This is similar to a line in G.K. Chesterton's Heretics, which indicates: "Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. . . . Trees have no dogmas." A bit later Dubay states:

"Yet despite this confusion [brought about by relativism] there lurks in the human heart a deep need for what we shall call objective truth and the secure possession of it."

Simple enough, but also profound. Those statements came to mind when I stumbled upon a piece on ScientificAmerican.com titled, "Rational Atheism," which is "An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens," written by Michael Shermer. Shermer is publisher of Skeptic and author of Why Darwin Matters (Henry Holt, 2006). He is not too taken with the often harsh and sensational methods of attack sometimes employed by the best-selling authors he addresses his letter to; he pleads for a more calm and reasoned approach that stresses positive thoughts and action: "I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher..." And:

"Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others."

A higher moral principle....but based on what? He refers to the "golden rule," which is, if I'm not mistaken, a religious principle made famous by Jesus Christ.

Shermer ends his letter with what can only be read as an overt dogmatic statement: "Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion." I find it interesting how some atheists tend to find something out there and above us that is providing objective guidance—a "principle" in this case—but don't imagine it could be a personal Creator.

For example, Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, writes that there “is no reason that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of culture. Indeed, it must evolve, if we are to have any future at all.” If that isn’t an overt statement of dogmatic faith—in the necessity and inevitability of some sort of evolution—what is?

Harris's book is a rather fascinating read. Unfortunately, good reason and reasoning are rarely found, as Harris's favorite argument against "faith" and "religion" (mostly Christianity and Islam) is that religious people and beliefs are ignorant, foolish, backwards, insulting, intolerant, violent, insane, etc., etc. Every religion, he writes, “preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaards’ leap of faith.” And: “Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.”

In glancing through The End of Faith once more, I noted how much it resembles a bad magic act, with the magician (the atheist author) trying to confuse the audience with a flurry of clumsy distractions (name calling; straw men; rapid fire accusations; emoting; whining) so they won't notice how poorly he performs the "trick" (makes God disappear). It is curious, for example, that a 336-page book with extensive endnotes, written by someone with a degree in philosophy who supposedly relies occasionally on philosophical arguments—and which describes Catholic doctrine and beliefs as "suggestive of mental illness"—does not contain a single reference to Thomas Aquinas. Or John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Paul Claudel, Josef Pieper, Han Urs von Balthasar, Mortimer Adler, Hans Küng (a man I often criticize, but who wrote an 800-page book titled Does God Exist?), Romano Guardini, Richard Swinburne, Karl Rahner, William Lane Craig, Michael Novak, etc., etc. Augustine is mentioned a few times, but mostly to call him an anti-Semitic "sadist." Of Blaise Pascal: "That so nimble a mind could be led to labor under such dogma [regarding the divinity of Jesus] was surely one of the great wonders of the age."

Imagine if a theist wrote a book titled The End of Disbelief and failed to mention, say, Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Comte, and Sartre, with only passing reference to Darwin, Freud, and Singer. It would be roundly and rightly criticized...by Christians!

Equally revealing is this passage by Harris:

"Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God."

Here, again, it is the omission that stands out, especially from a student of philosophy. What are the famous words of Socrates? "Know thyself." Harris is so fixated on scientific and technological achievement and knowledge that he ignores the perennial greatness of self-examination and knowledge of man—who he is, how he thinks and feels, how he lives and should live, how he should treat others, etc. That is what the well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century knew far better than the average, self-absorbed, unthinking denizen of the Information Age. Of course, Aquinas spends much time in the Summa Theologica considering the nature and existence of God; but he also focuses on the nature and meaning of being human, the meaning of life, the goal of life, the what and why of ethics, and so forth. It is one reason that even non-Christians generally recognize him as a philosophical/theological genius (even if Harris is unaware of that fact).

As Fr. Dubay points out, there are three untenable conclusions "that necessarily flow from the atheistic choice." They are the belief in blind chance "as the origin of an unimaginably complex universe"; atheism's "lack of rationality and the ultimate nihilism to which it necessarily leads the consistent mind"; and, to the point I've just made, atheism's "inability to explain men and women to themselves."

Atheism, especially the popular sort offered by Harris, tends to spend much time explaining what it doesn't believe and why it hates Christianity. That might be enough for some people to live on intellectually and otherwise, but it's not enough for folks who are really grappling with the mysteries of life and reality.
(Image credit: TED)

Carl Olson

Written by

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report and IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the best-selling author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? (Ignatius, 2003), which was selected by the Associated Press as one of the best religious titles of 2003, and co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius, 2004). He's also the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Ignatius/Augustine Institute, 2016) and co-editor and contributor to Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Ignatius, 2016). Raised in a Fundamentalist home, Carl attended an Evangelical Bible college, and entered the Catholic Church in 1997. He holds an MTS from the University of Dallas. A well-respected author, Carl writes a weekly Scripture column, "Opening the Word" for Our Sunday Visitor, and has also written for First Things, This Rock/Catholic Answers Magazine, Envoy, Crisis, National Review Online, and National Catholic Register. Find Carl on Twitter @carleolson and visit him online at CarlEOlson.net.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.