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Militant atheism goes West

14 June 2007

Back in the 1930s the League of Militant Atheists was booming in Stalinist Russia. At its peak it had over 11 million members. And in Russia in the 1930s more than 200 000 priests and monks were killed in the godless paradise where all the bad things caused by religion — war, oppression and hatred — were no more.

By the 1980s, however, atheism was no longer as fashionable, though those who strayed from it still risked becoming second-class citizens and facing discrimination in jobs, education and housing.

Someone I know who was an enthusiastic Komsomol member in that period described how he went to a monastery that had a popular spiritual elder to persuade him that atheism was the only way to universal peace and happiness. He challenged the elder to prove the existence of a God who could not be seen. The elder said, “Did you know that this room is full of voices, even though you cannot hear them?” The atheist evangelist was sceptical. “And did you know,” the elder went on, “that this room is full of people, though you cannot see them?”

“How can that be? asked the atheist.

“If you bring a radio,” andwered the elder, “you will hear the voices. If you bring a television, you will see the people. But in order to do that, you need to have an antenna that detects them. In the same way, you cannot see God because you don’t have a spiritual antenna.”

The erstwhile atheist is now a professor of theology.

And the same thing has happened with many erstwhile atheists in Russia.

In my youth in South Africa I read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian?” and listened to speakers promoted by the Rationalist Society at the university. I heard their arguments, and did not find them convincing, but that formed the basis of education in Russia.

Now, however, in Russia Deacon Andrei Kurayev is giving lectures on “Why I am not an atheist.”

And militant atheism has now moved West, with a proselytising zeal not seen since the 1930s in Bolshevik Russsia (with the possible exception of Enver Hoxha’s Albania).

A few weeks ago an agnostic friend of mine wrote

Why I am an agnostic.It seems obvious to me that there are things we cannot know or fully understand, and a lot of time is wasted by otherwise intelligent people debating matters which cannot be debated.

Theology believes certain things to be true, but has never been able to show that any of its hypotheses are falsifiable. This does not mean that theists may not believe what they believe, it merely means that they should show more humility.

Atheism believes certain things to be untrue, but has never been able to show that any of its hypotheses are falsifiable.This does not mean that atheists may not believe what they believe, it merely means that they should show more humility.

Science believes certain things to be true with a high degree of confidence because there hypotheses are all falsifiable, and are rejected
or modified when they are falsiefied. But science is based on elements that are not falsifiable and axioms that have not yet been falsified. Some humility is called for.

Only agnostics can claim to know everything that they claim to know with absolute certainty. No need for humility!.

I’ve been trying to persuade him to start his own blog and post this kind of thing there, where one can comment on it, but since he hasn’t done so yet, I’ve taken the liberty of nicking his text.

In my experience both Christians and atheists show varying degrees of humility. Some atheists are not militant. They are just “without god(s)”, which is all that “atheist” really means.

But my agnostic friend also had an encounter with militant atheists. This is how he described it:

If you enjoy that sort of thing, pay a visit to The Forum — of really stupid American atheists. I spent a bit of time upsetting their cosy apple-cart as an agnostic, but have now given up on them. Why not give them a brief go? It’s fun for a while. You’ll find my postings under the topic Agnostics are not Atheists.

These bozos even berated me for not having read their multi-chapter rules of debate which include (I’m not kidding) their “standard model” of God to be debated, and their atheist guru with whose works one had to be familiar. I responded to this with “There is only One
God Who Does Not Exist (the others don’t not exist, they just ain’t) and Sam Harris is the Prophet of His Non-Existence … they didn’t laugh.

Here are my first and my final contributions to their forum:

Atheists are fundamentalists. They make smug declarations about questions that are poorly defined and can in principle not be answered. When they deny the existence of a god, they usually restrict their arguments to the Christian god – a push-over. (I don’t blame them for leaving Allah alone – it’s not rational to ask to have your home blown up and the throats of
your family cut.)

Agnostics accept that, ultimately, the origin and nature of existence is – and will always remain – mysterious and that some theistic explanations are no less and no more absurd than some scientific explanations, and vice versa.

Agnostics are the only rationalists. They understand that the question, “Does God exist?” is too vague to answer, and that, even if we do succeed in defining “God” in a way that is generally accepted, the question can in
principle not be answered with certainty – in other words with a statement that can demonstrably not be falsified.

Given enough power, some atheists will end up burning believers at the stake. The only way to avoid this risk is to accept the limitations of
reason – without abandoning it completely and drowning our sorrows in the ultimate drug – unquestioning faith.

No I have not read your Holy Scripture. These issues are universal and have been debated since at least the time of Spinoza (the first great rationalist and one of the key figures in the Enlightenment; also often erroneously referred to as the First Atheist). If atheism is only about “standard models” then it is not atheism; it is parochial partisanship — it is merely peeing spitefully against the local church wall. It is a sect.

Someone else also mentioned one Sam Harris. Again, no, I have never heard of the fellow before, but I have read his arguments now, and they are as feeble as watered wine. I have not read the Word of your Prophet in its entirety. But I have read most of the great atheists and agnostics of the past, from Spinoza (he was once excommunicated by the Dutch Jewish
establishment for his “atheism”, but he would now be recognised as a theist in the most general and sophisticated sense – but is still reviled as an atheist by True Believers and as a believer by pseudo-Atheists), to the Huxleys, Haldane, Bertrand Russel and the like. There is very little that can be added to their work by transpontine pygmies standing on their shoulders.

And that’s why I try to avoid such discussions. They keep going round in circles. Militant fundamentalist atheists aren’t all American, though. Another friend (who does have a blog), once wrote:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

You can read the original here.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. The Imugi permalink
    15 June 2007 12:23 am

    Thanks for posting that article! 🙂 I especially liked Deacon Kurayev’s analogy of “listening to music”. I’ve always felt that atheists are not any more or less smart than believers—they are just tone-deaf.

  2. 15 June 2007 5:11 am

    You might enjoy this interview with Madeleine l’Engle, in which she says, among other things:
    Many people see faith as anti-intellectual
    Then they’re not very bright. It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity.

  3. The Imugi permalink
    15 June 2007 5:31 am

    Wow…it’s nice to see Mz. l’Engle is as sharp as ever. 😉 Thank you so much for that article, she has so many intelligent things to say. I especially like how she differentiates between “truth” and “facts”. There’s something all too few people—on both sides!— are willing to do in the current atheist/theist debates…

  4. 6 September 2007 4:37 am

    Atheism believes certain things to be untrue, but has never been able to show that any of its hypotheses are falsifiable.

    In fact, there are many things that would conceivably falsify atheism.

    – God, angels, or supernatural beings could appear and allow themselves to be examined.

    – There could be a study that shows that some goddy practice leads to some effect, in such a way that only supernatural forces could be at work. Many such studies have been tried (for example, the healing power of prayer), but so far nothing has worked reproducibly.

    – Evidence of something having been created.

    – Any kind of reproducible phenomenon that could only be explained by resorting to some kind of supernatural force.

  5. Cassandra permalink
    6 September 2007 8:20 am

    “- Evidence of something having been created.” Many cosmologists have put forward theories of continuous creation of matter (out of nothing) to bolster the steady-state theory of the universe. (One of them, Fred Hoyle, later wrote a book in which he seems to be hovering on the edge of theism.)

    On the other side of the debate, proponents of the Big Bang often seem to be saying that the whole catastrophe came — bang! — out of nothing. They get quite angry if one dares to speculate about what came before the Big Flatulence.

    In spite of claims every now and then that scientists studying the brain are on the point of explaining where consciousness comes from, or even what consciouisness “is”, it is obvious that consciousness can in principle not be explained in terms of material processes or anything else. It is what it is, not something else. We know that at first hand — in fact it’s the only thing we know with absolute certainty. Try developing a language, or meta-language, that can be used to explain the redness of red to a person who is blind — or just colour-blind. If he doesn’t already know at first hand what redness is, he can never know. Or try to resolve the fundamental question of semantics — what is the meaning of meaning? Attempts to answer these questions inevitably end up in a circular argument. Some respected mathematician tried to “define” the number three (or perhaps five …) by using the concept of “the set of all things with the quality of three-ness …” In all seriousness!

    On the other hand, seeing an angel proves nothing. It could simply prove that you’re suffering from hallucinations — or telling fibs. The authors of the Book of Revelation, the Book of Mormon and the Qu’ran probably all fall into either category — they were either hysterics, paranoid schizophrenics with hallucinations, pathological liars, or simply smoking something their mothers told them to say “no” to ….

    Americans regularly see angels. Some American person even printed a list of things to look out for if you want to know if the angels have dropped in — such as an unexplained white feather under your bed. (This person probably doesn’t have a cat.)

    The thing that puzzles me is the overkill of the human brain or mind. How does natural selection explain our ability to understand and appreciate complex music? It doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly makes one uneasy about pat theories and pat theorists. Talking of “pat” — has anyone ever tried to read the boring, endlessly repetitious, amateurish rantings of Richard Dawkins? Even evolution scientists get annoyed with him for his distorted and amateurish presentation of evolution.


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