Dawkins and Friends on Atheism
Scrawled on a wall: “G-d is Dead.” – Nietzsche.
Underneath: “Nietzsche is Dead.” – G-d.
Many years ago, I found it necessary (or so I thought) as a young kiruv (outreach)worker to learn what the other side believed. I picked up Bertrand Russell’s small collection of essays on atheism, and ploughed through them. They wound up enhancing my emunah (belief). This was the best the atheists could cobble together, I thought?
Richard Dawkins, preeminent biologist and spokesperson for contemporary evolutionary thought, is on tour of the US, hawking The G-d Delusion, his new book exposing belief in a Deity as the underlying cause of most of what is wrong with civilization.
Here are two treatments of atheism worthwhile reading.
I know of no more convincing or articulate voice for belief in our generation than Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This from a recent essay:
Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress. Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.
There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.
It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”
Nietzsche was contemptuous of such attitudes. Wherever they prevail, he said, “language exhibits a tendency to bring the words ‘good’ and ‘stupid’ closer to each other”. Only slaves are foolish enough to believe that love and gentleness are ways to live. Masters know a different ethic entirely: “According to master morality it is precisely the ‘good’ who inspire fear and want to inspire it.”
On this Nietzsche agrees with Machiavelli, who said that in politics it is better to be feared than to be loved. And here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Nietzsche’s supreme value was the “will to power”.
Look at Dawkins’s list of crimes committed in the name of God and you will see that they are all cases in which religion has been used to conquer, control or intimidate. They are all expressions of the will to power. This, if anything, is the root of all evil, whether it takes religious or secular forms. That is why the supreme virtue of Judaism and Christianity is humility, the opposite of the will to power.
To seek to impose your will on another, against his or her will, is the first step on the road to dehumanisation. It leads people to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, and wage war in the name of the God of peace. If Richard Dawkins has done no more than warn us of this danger, then may he forgive me for saying that he is a fine example of why God creates atheists and why sometimes theirs is a prophetic voice.
I have gained much through the years reading the long and deep analyses of Rabbi Shalom Carmy, the master of Torah and philosophy on this side of the pond. Here are a few paragraphs from a published essay of his on smug and self-confident atheism:
I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.
The confident skepticism of these words assures us that this is no mad mullah haranguing barefoot tribal youth. We are not in the paradise-promising courtyard of some primitive madrasah. It is springtime at Harvard, and the speaker is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who has already ascended from his distinguished professorship of law to his unequalled judicial career, to be capped by thirty years on the Supreme Court of the United States.9 No longer venerated uncritically in liberal circles today, he is still a towering figure in the secular pantheon, “with a
capacity to mold ancient principles to present needs, unique in range and remarkable in prophetic power” (to cite Franklin Roosevelt’s eulogy for him). More important for us: Holmes is perhaps the most unrelenting secularist among America’s leading intellectual-political lights. He stands for hardheaded pragmatism, fully emancipated from Christianity, untouched by lingering aftereffects of religious training.
The secular gospel Holmes preaches is the unadulterated cult of
death. The Civil War that led his commander-in-chief to speak of the horrors of divine justice incubated in Holmes a very different faith. Like most of us, Holmes is a member of the materially comfortable classes. Hence the selfish passions of war—plunder, power, rage and rape that formed the soldier’s faith in days of yore, cannot suffice. Nor can he believe in truth and transcendent meaning, the higher passions that rightly or wrongly inspired idealistic (or ideological) warriors justice,
national predominance, preserving the Union or abolishing slavery.
Dismayed that “the aspirations of the world are those of commerce,” haunted nonetheless by the instinctive aristocratic conviction that there is a grandeur to human existence that is above the routine of getting and spending, bereft of any sense of transcendent purpose, he is abandoned to reheated chivalry and nihilistic adoration for the blind waste of human life. Like a religious believer he understands that a life is not worth living if one is not willing to die for it, but he strives to avoid the
obverse truth: it is not worth dying for a life that is not worth living.
Hence he is not above comparing the “divine” message of war with that of sport: “If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for hardship and command.” Secular, rational thought has filled the vacuum and provided a raison d’être for this cultivated, desperate Harvard eminence, where religious dogma might have provided a more useful, sober form of patriotism.
[Thanks of Martin Brody for the Jonathan Sacks piece. I later found it on Hirhurim, the only blog I read religiously. It provided the Shalom Carmy link.]