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:
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:PLAYBOY: Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?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:
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.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)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.
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.)
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!
- What the New Atheists Don't See - Theodore Dalrymple
- Religion's Gordian Knot - Gus van Horn
- Count the Skulls for Jesus- Gus van Horn