Concerning David Bentley Hart's "Atheist Delusions" and the review thereof

This started out as a comment to this thread, but soon grew into a short essay of its own. I therefore felt that it would be better to post it as it its own thread, linking to it from the original. Before posting, I looked through the groups to find the best place to post it, I hope this is the right place for this. Please read the original post before this. Please also note that I have not read the book in question, only the review of it, but I found enough there to go on a long rant which has now carried me long into the next day (it is now 6:15 am were I am, in Stockholm, Sweden). My thoughts on the book as presented in the review follow.

A lot of that irritated me. The only possibly good points he made concerned christianity's historical role in scientific advancement. I am no historian and so can not comment on the details of this, but it does seem possible that some scientists (and artists too for that matter) were motivated by their religious beliefs in a way that perhaps they would not have been were they not religious. We should be willing to investigate this objectively without going into arguments about the moral and philosophical issues of faith, so that we can reason about whether we would have come as far, not as far, or further, without christianity, with some other religion taking its place, or without any religion at all. This would be interesting as an historical investigation, and it is important to seperate this aspect of the relation between science and religion from the philosophical debate.

Now, concerning the philosophical debate. Religious beliefs inevitably entail adherence to some dogma, whereas science does not. There is of course a world of difference between the modern vaguely christian deist and the fundamentalist, and the latter's beliefs are certainly far more detrimental to the scientific discourse that the former's, but even the former's belief system constitutes some sort of dogma (even if it is that person's self invented, well thought out dogma). Scientists, of course, are not immune to dogmatic thinking, and the ideal of science as a perfectly objectively unbiased investigation is not reality (one need only read this to be disillusioned about that), but at least science as a concept does not refer to any dogma, only a method of obtaining explanations. Religion, on the other hand, even as a vague concept embodying the least common denominator of religious belief, entails at the very least a belief in some thing that is immaterial, outside the experimentally investigable world and which is believed in as a real thing, but with no justification that strengthens the likelyhood of the reality of said thing (the justification that ones beliefs make one feel good and safe has, of course, nothing to do with the reality of that which one believes in).

This is where I take exception with his statement that "we have no real rational warrant for deploring the 'credulity' of the peoples of previous centuries toward the common basic assumptions of their times while implicitly celebrating ourselves for our own largely uncritical obedience to the common basic assumptions of our own". The lack of belief in something does not constitute an assumption! The move from belief to lack of belief is not some Kuhnian paradigm shift from one set of assumptions to another, with both paradigms equally supported or unsupported; it is progress from less justifiable statements (there is a creator) to more justifiable statements (there's neither evidence nor need for a creator). This is just like the move from a belief in physics in the ether to a disbelief in it. We can hardly blame scientists of the time for believing in something that seemed to be necessary to explain observable phenomena, but after Einstein came along, we made progress in our understanding and hence got rid of an unnecessary entity in our conceptual model (please bear with me if my short summary of this is faulty, I am no physicist). The "assumption" that the ether is not necessary is not comparable to the assumption that it exists, the fact that people before Einstein can be excused for believing in it does not excuse present day people for believing in it.

As for his apparent claims that secularism is to blame for Stalin and Pol Pot, this argument is so old and so stupid that I no longer know what to do with myself upon reading it. Secularism, just as disbelief, does not constitute anything other than a prescription not to take a stand on the ontological status of deities. In the case of disbelief, the prescription applies to the individual, in the case of secularism, to government. Hence, secularism can not be blamed for any doctrine since it is itself not a doctrine. On the contrary, the totalitarian states mentioned are run like religious organizations, only without the superstition. North Korea is the perfect example which is, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "one figure short of a trinity" (having a father, who is still after death the true ruler, and a son, thus lacking only the holy ghost). Religious institutions on the other hand, rely on a whole lot of doctrines written down in their respective holy books. Even modern, moderate christians must acknowledge that the bible endorses tyranny, genocide and rape, even if they personally do not subscribe to the values in those particular passages of the book. Crimes commited in the name of religion may be in part due to faults of man, but they are also in large part due to the religion in the name of which the crimes are being committed. This is not the case when it comes to secularism.

A final point of error (final in my rebuttal, probably not in the short review of the book, and almost certainly not in the book itself) concerns the old myth that morality is somehow intricately connected to religious belief, and that it is (at least in part) these moral values that are being attacked by atheists, either explicitly (this misconception seems based on the idea that an attack on god given moral absolutes constitutes an attack on any concept of morals) or implicitly (which in the mindset of some people is inevitable since the fall of god would cause the concept of morals to tumble down along with him). This becomes evident in at least two places:
* First, when Hart writes ironically about the "Christian 'superstition' that every life is of immeasurable value". When nonbelievers speak about superstition it refers to belief in actual entities such as gods or demons or angels, not moral and humanitarian concepts such as the equal value of all people.
* Second, when he writes about the supposed hope that christianity offers, but which is apparently lacking in atheism. First of all, I feel a need to again mention the impossibility of attaching any set of values to simple disbelief since it is not a doctrine, it is therefore impossible to make any claim as to whether atheism delivers hope or not. The only real questions regarding the relationship between religous belief or lack thereof, and the presence or absence of hope in an individual, are the question of whether there can be religious adherents without hope and the question of whether there can be nonbelievers with hope. The answer to the latter question seems obvious. Surely people without religious beliefs can find hope in the possibility of a happy life? The latter question is equally simple to answer. We need only one example: Mother Teresa. A woman who, as we learned after her death, not only struggled with serious doubts (as I suspect many christians do), but actually proclaimed an utter inability to believe, thus finding, apparently, no hope. Readers wanting to argue that this contradicts my earlier claims of the possibility of hope without belief need consider the faith Mother Teresa had been indoctrinated in, which claims the impossibility of just that, probably rendering her unable to find hope without faith. Seeing thus that there is no intricate connection between faith and hope, the only possible connection would be one of tendency. By this I mean to refer to the possibility that religious adherents are more prone to hopefulness than nonbelievers. This is possible but should not be assumed (which we can say with certainty must be the weakest possible assumption we could interpret from Hart's statements, a stronger one being the assumption of an intricate connection, meaning the absolute impossibility of hopeful nonbelievers), instead, an empirical study would need to be conducted to see whether such a connection exists. (If anyone knows of such a study, please inform me of it.)

In conclusion, if Hart wants to argue that the so called new atheists are misrepresenting history, putting too much blame upon, and not giving enough credit to, christianity, then he can do so, and I'm sure the discussion will be very interesting and enlightening. As to the rest of his attempted rebuttal of the arguments of atheists, it is very poorly done.

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Replies to This Discussion

To Leo Horovitz:
You go boy! Very few people EVER write longer posts/comments than I do. I didn't even notice any spelling or grammar mistakes and your outrage/annoyance/disgust (whichever ones sound most complimentary) was right on! These people are ninnies. Their dogma is nonsense and their so-called intellectual leaders are either charlatans or quasi-delusional. And yet they manage to keep billions of otherwise reasonably intelligent people under their spell! I can't figure it out either but I am trying and I am glad you are too! Now, how did a nice Jewish (I'm guessing. Is the "v" vs. a "w" messing me up?) young man like you, writing impeccable American English find himself in Sweden writing passionate critiques of religious trash on an atheist website into the wee hours of the morning? Just curious. Kind regards and great post!
Thanks for the compliments, that made it worth it to mess up my sleep schedule! Now, there were a few questions there.

First, yes the name is jewish but I don't consider myself jewish, and if I am, it's only in part. My maternal grandfather was a hungarian jew who came to sweden when escaping the nazis in the 1930s, but he was only jewish in blood, not in religious beliefs, he was an atheist as far as I know. The rest of my grandparents were swedes, and I guess, christian by tradition, but none of that really found its way to any of the grandchildren so I've pretty much been an atheist all my life. That almost seems to be the norm here in Sweden, I have only one friend who is truly a christian, and he's very modern in his beliefs, he believes in science, accepts gays and so on.

As for the comment about the "impeccable english", thanks again for you compliments! I guess we're pretty good at english over here, I've heard many times from natively english speaking tourists that swedes are among the best non-native english speakers they've met (excuse me for getting a little caught up in the "greatest nation in the world" thing there).

Now why did I spend the night writing critiques of religion? Well, I originally found this site through Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) a while ago, and have been hanging around ever since. Last night, the plan was to try to get asleep fairly early and just read one more post before that, when I found the above mentioned review, which irritated me so much that I had to write a rebuttal immediately, with the previously mentioned messed up sleep schedule as a result. Thanks a lot Hemant! :)
Thanks for your response Leo. It is good to know I will have someone to look up if I ever get to Sweden. If you make it over to the US and find yourself in central Florida, please look me up. I would love to buy you lunch and discuss religion and politics with you. Are you on Facebook? I'll look you up and add you as a friend.
Your friend,
Jack Kolinski




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