Sunday, 11 November 2007

The new atheism, and that old-time religion

Sunday is our regular religion day here at Not PC, and the award-winning Gus van Horn has an interesting take on religion and the so called 'New Atheists' (chaps such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) "who have gotten so much press lately for their writings against religion," but who "fail as intellectuals," says Van Horn, "by dismissing wholesale everything normally associated with religion."
In doing so, the 'new atheists' make it easier to swallow such arguments as Theodore Dalrymple's that we must abdicate reason in order to hold lofty ideals or experience sublime emotions.
That would be a dangerous package deal to accept.

Dalrymple argues that western civilisation is and has been underpinned by the values of religion for so long and so essentially, and since human reason undercuts the faith of religion, then to rail against faith and against religion is to rail against civilisation. As Gus says, this is in essence
the common conservative notion (to which I do not subscribe) that one should avoid ideological consistency (or "extremism"); the notion that purpose necessarily comes from something "greater" than man; and the common idea that decency and something Dalrymple calls "gratitude" must necessarily come from religion.
The 'new atheists' make it easy for such arguments to be swallowed, argues Gus, because they reject what it is in religion that has had meaning.
Thus you have some very bad and some very good stuff here tied up into a huge knot, and for all Dalrymple's praise of the religious heritage of the West, it is within this knot that is the best of our religious heritage! (The fact that this is bound up in a knot is not a good thing!)
As long as it's accepted that it's necessarily faith that underpins values, (and the 'new atheists' leave that link untouched) then one is quite entitled to either dismiss reason as a basis for forming and defending human values (as the religionists do), or to open the door to nihilism and to dismiss values altogether. But this false dichotomy is only possible if "the ideas of another major atheist intellectual whom Dalrymple completely misses" are overlooked. That person is Ayn Rand,
who takes a completely different tone with respect to the higher ideals that receive short shrift by modern intellectuals, and who also, unlike the moderns, understands that religion, for its fundamental flaws (e.g., its basis in faith), is in fact an attempt to satisfy some of man's needs.
My favourite short example here was Rand's answer to Phil Donahue on his TV show, when he asked her if she would object to someone saying to her, "God Bless You." One can easily imagine Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris taking umbrage at such an expression -- or religionists imagining that every atheist would necessarily take umbrage -- but Rand's response shows her recognition of religion's secular meaning. Why would she object? she answered, since that person was wishing her what they thought of as the highest possible.

The point to reflect on is that it's as important to demolish error as it is to ensure you're not tearing down all values that allow humans to stand tall. Here's a further example of Rand's approach, answering a question about religion in a Playboy magazine interview in 1964:
PLAYBOY: Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?

RAND: Qua religion, no -- in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very -- how should I say it? -- dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.
And this is just one example of the thoughtful exploration of religion that Rand conducted over the course of her intellectual life. Here are just two others from the same page of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, which has just recently been published to the Internet:
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy. ("The Chickens' Homecoming," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 46)

Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy -- an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality -- many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. ("Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, 25.)
I will add, although it will seem repetitive to my regular readers, that Ayn Rand also extensively discusses the question of man's purpose in life. The answer, which she arrives at through reason, is both exalted and this-worldly, and it is within the grasp of any man.

And that is why it is a shame to leave Ayn Rand out of any discussion about atheism (or religion, for that matter). For Dalrymple, however imperfectly, is making some good points against the emptiness of modern philosophy here, but he never can quite break free of the faith-forged chains of ignorance, which are, by the way, one of the many negative aspects of the religious heritage of the West. He and others like him are doomed to consider reason, man's means of living a happy life on this earth, as impotent for that very task!
It's worth reading both Dalrymple's piece and the award winning Gus Van Horn's two reflections on it on it in full to properly reflect on the point:
And do make use of the extraordinary resource that's just been made available online, and from which most of Rand's quotes on religion used here have been sourced. The Online Ayn Rand Lexicon is an extraordinary resource that makes Rand's views on almost every topic imaginable easily available and swiftly sourced. As she quipped to the compiler of the hard copy version before she died, "People will be able to look up BREAKFAST and see that I did not advocate eating babies for breakfast." Add it to your bookmarks.


  1. Just to note one contradiction of many... Rand 'the tolerant' would accept the blessing "God bless you", as Good will yet calls faith "a malevolent base".

    What is really funny is even if Rand had found 'the holy grail' of morality, it would never undermine the Christian God but vindicated Him!
    It would merely prove the reality that underpinned his moral tenants, the very reality which justifies them and remove any atheist accusation as to the capricious/arbitrary nature of Gods statutes.
    We Christians know that God has moral principles underpinning all His activities and given us the Liberty to live by Moral choice.
    Like the discovery of the wheel, Rand’s discovery might be a revelation to some (to the Nihilists that morality is real), but no surprise to God. Such a discovery would in fact increase reason for faith in the Bible!
    Rand is Bogus!
    Tim Wikiriwhi

  2. My point being that Rand herself knew Faith was not necessarily malevolent, which is why she rightly accepted the Godly blessing.
    Tim Wikiriwhi

    Re My statement: ..."Just to note one contradiction of many... Rand 'the tolerant' would accept the blessing "God bless you", as Good will yet calls faith "a malevolent base".

  3. Tim

    You are tying yourself up in knots, twisting and turning to justify an arbitrary faith. It just won't work.

    Read again what was written. Rand said that when someone says "God bless you" she would not object as that person is communicating goodwill and best wishes. That does not mean that there is a God and that God is the font of all morality. It means that Rand accepted that some miguided people may believe in religion. Her position was that were such a person to wish her well, she would be gracious enough to recognise their sentiments.

    Consider you error thus: Were I to tell you to "go to Hell" would you conclude that since I used that turn of phrase, Hell (along with imps, demons, devils, Lucifer etc etc) exists?

    An aside. A point not elaborated on this occasion is that comments like "God bless you" are commonly used throughout society, even by non-believers. They have become a king of slang. I know several people who say such things but who haven't been involved in any religious obsevance for decades. There is one old dear who, if asked, would admit she does not think there is a God and isn't realy interested either way. She uses the "God bless you" utterance on occasion. It's merely an expression. It does not require one to be a rabid God bothering Christian, Islamicist, Pagan, Satanist or anything else.

    Regarding the source of morality and eithics; such ideas are not sourced from an imaginary God. The notion of God is Man-made. Ethics and morality are also Man made. The former is not required to derive the latter. You should try to understand that Ethics and morality do not come from an imaginary friend, a spirit-monster-ghost-monster, an imiginary realm of supernatural dragons and demons etc. They come from Man.

    Rand's position was that morality and ethics could be understood in the context of philosophy. She took the view that ethics and morality could be derived and established by careful consideration of the Nature of Man and went on to demonstrate how. There was (and is) no need to invent a supernatural realm populated with spirit-monsters, angels, devils etc in order to establish morality and ethics.


    You say "We Christians know..." Actually you do not know. What you do is believe. You should have written, "We Christians believe..." Big difference.

    You posit a God who is always moral (that is, all good) and is the source of all good. Consider:

    Is God omnipotent? Yes or no?

    Is God omniscient? Yes or no?

    If you have answered yes to those two questions, then you have necessarily refuted the idea that God is good. Therefore your God can't be the source of morality at all. In fact such an entity (assuming it could exist) would be evil.

    Think carefully on it.


  4. John. F. Minto12 Nov 2007, 08:52:00

    LGM : Is God omnipotent? Yes or no?

    I think that God is Impotence.

  5. I think your best post on religion so far pc, at least not the usual ranting and raving.

    But I just can't stop remembering the famous atheists of the 20th century and what mark they have left on the world. They were guided by reason as well, evolution in their case. Of course I'm talking about Hitler and Stalin.

    I see little reason for optimism if reason becomes the sole guide. Isn't it easy to believe you are rational while acting irrational? It's so very easy to deceive yourself, and libz are not exempt from that.

    For example babies in the womb receive no protection. What about the inform, the elderly, the lame, the sick and the blind?

  6. Berend

    Stalin was a religious man, a seminarian. He left the seminary to seek power. He found with a new religious elite, the state worshippers.

    Hitler was no atheist. He belived in an afterlife and all that mystic mumbo-jumbo stuff theists take soooo seriously.

    Next time get your facts straight before posting.

    Anyway, you have no argument. Smearing of the type you just engaged in does not validate your beliefs in spiritualist superstition.


  7. After going through Gus' articles, he misses the point by a wide margin.

    And here a quote that sums up Gus take quite well: However, it is one thing to note that both Christians and Nazis persecuted Jews, and to liken Nazism to a religion: It is quite another thing to explain what about Nazism and religion make them similar to each other and similarly dangerous to man and how religion might have set the stage for Nazism.

  8. lgm: Stalin did not believe in a god, but was not an atheist.

    Yeah right we may add.

  9. Berend

    re Stalin

    Perhaps you ought to consider what the man actually told his closest confidants and also what he wrote in his own notes and diaries BEFORE you start posting your revisionist version of history.

    Any way you cut it, you can't avoid the fact that the guy was the product of a religious education. What he learned he leared from religious instruction. Then, he evaluated it and applied the obvious conclusions to be drawn from it.

    One could sugest you take a look at your own bible to see how religion was the cause of genocide and atrocity- much of it demanded by your god-thing. It's all in there plainly claimed and proudly explained. "Kill thy son," "Leave none to live," and so on.


  10. John Minto (you're not THE John Minto are you?)

    Interesting comment. Care to elaborate?


  11. Berend

    You ask, "Isn't it easy to believe you are rational while acting irrational?" Apply that to reigious belief and the answer is, "Yes it is very easy." Too easy.


  12. John. F. Minto13 Nov 2007, 06:33:00

    LGM : John Minto (you're not THE John Minto are you?)

    No, I am not that one who loves publicity (PhD in protest) and who protests against everything that is good for the advancement of civilization.

    God is impotent because he/she/it only impregnated Mary (Jesus's Mother) once since the Big Bang. With all the billions of women he/she/it had created, he/she/it hasn't impregnated anymore women to date. Reason, he/she/it can't get the thing up after Jesus was born. If I were God, I would be having sex from sunrise to sunset, and that means the planet would be populated with Jesus-like messiahs to preach the Gospels.

  13. John

    Ah, I understand.



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