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The Atheist Onslaught

November 19, 2006

Sometimes it’s good to step away from the safety of tribal Catholic security, that is, away from the conventional issues that peculiarly affect Catholic life such as moral questions, liturgical crises, doctrinal hair-splitting, etc. I’d like to make a few comments on a trend that is anything but innocuous for the Catholic and non-Catholic theists alike: the recent publications of popular science literature designed to extinguish the very existence of religion. Sure, that’s a tall order and it is likely that such an effort will never come wholly to fruition. Nevertheless, this trend has won and is winning a number of converts (ex-verts?) to agnosticism and, more fashionable still, atheism.

This year, two of the most influential voices in issues of the intersection (or collision, if you prefer) of science, philosophy and religion have published large, best-selling volumes on what they deem to be the crippling and irrational effects of religious belief and its utter foolery. I am speaking of Daniel Dennett, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dennett and Dawkins form what may be called the two consuls of atheist academia. Both are perhaps the most recognized and respected in their fields, Dennett in cognitive science and evolutionary theory and Dawkins in evolutionary biology and ethnology. Both possess a piercing intellect and are capable of penetrating some the most complex ideas, philosophical and scientific. Thus, Dennett and Dawkins are not your typical atheist-next-door types who enjoy the sensation that manufactured freedom from social norms fleetingly provides. Dennett and Dawkins are formidable thinkers, and this year, they have teamed-up to attack the very heart of religiosity–the existence of God.

Earlier this year, Dennett published his now infamous volume, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which is available at any major bookstore in the philosophy section. I do not exaggerate when I say that his is perhaps the most acute and well-reasoned assailing of religion that I have ever seen. Dennett combines his philosophical prowess with a remarkable understanding of evolutionary theory and genetic psychology in attempt to show that religious belief, far from being the product of human speculation as many other atheist philosophers have tried to show (e.g Feuerbach, Marx, Russell), is the circumstantial by-product of human evolution. Religion became a means for survival among primitive humans, resulting from highly sensitive hyperactive agent detection devices found in complex animals (genetic) and the process of natural selection that occurred when acceptance of belief was necessary for primitive humans on account of the fact that all health-healers happened to be priests (adaptive). Thus, if you were not a believer, you did not get cured of physical infirmary.

Dawkins just published his The God Delusion last month, and it instantly became a New York Times bestseller. From an evolutionary view of the world coupled with a dabbling in child psychology, Dawkins argues that religion is, to a large degree, a social and psychological trap that captures the mind and prevents it from every completely reaching its capacity for free-thought. This book is wholly unlike any of Dawkins’ previous efforts. He takes on everything from religious experience and emotion to Thomas Aquinas’ and Anselm’s proofs for the existence of God. This volume, I would say, is Dawkins’ most concerted effort ever to leave in the world his legacy as a, for lack of a better term, professional atheist.

Breaking the Spell and The God Delusion are not two volumes that the true Christian philosopher or theologian can just ignore without some degree of irresponsibility. Why? Because these volumes are circulating wide and far, further than any book on the reason for belief in God ever has (not even Alister McGrath’s books against Dawkins and atheism get around like this!). Dennett and Dawkins have published through two of the most widely distributed publishers in the book market today: Viking and Houghton Mifflin, respectively.

There is no question that these volumes will soon have a trickle-down effect, supplying even the common person with doubts, concerns and questions on theism in general. If you are the type who desires to be one who can address these doubts, concerns, questions and attacks in a coherent, intelligent and forthright manner, do not neglect reading these volumes. The incredible faith that contemporary Western society places in science creates the perfect forum for the voices of Dennett and Dawkins. Do not underestimate these two thinkers.

But before you pick these volumes, be sure you are prepared to have your theism put to the test. Dennett and Dawkins are no theological or philosophical dilletantes. I have been reading through both volumes, and while I have not second-guessed any of my own convictions, I have recognized that conventional philosophy of God and lackluster apologetics will not do the trick. The assumptions and presuppositions that go unanswered in Dennett’s and Dawkins’ works are enought to call into question their entire enterprise, and many of their assertions are no more credible then those of the same primitive religions conquered by the rationale of Greek philosophy and Christian thought. Dennett and Dawkins are not being disingenuine; it’s simply that they are just as trapped in a particular thought-form as many others who cannot think beyond their frontyard.

Nevertheless, we need creative and thoughtful minds to counter their work. As formiddible as their work is, take it from one of their readers, it is not impenetrable or watertight stuff. But make sure you are capable of thinking philosophically and un-emotionally about the issues presented should you attempt to tackle the lastest efforts by Dennett and Dawkins. These volumes are not for the faint-hearted, yet someone of the theist persuasion is going to have to grapple with them. Theism is on the defense until further notice.

Occasionally, I hope to post remarks here-and-there on my reading of Dennett and Dawkins. I’ll leave you with Dawkins’ most audacious words to date:

“If this book (The God Delusion) works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

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