Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What is your drug of choice?

I am currently reading a book by Alister McGrath called The Twilight of Atheism. It is a somewhat heavy but worthwhile read that traces the philosophical underpinnings and history of atheism, including its meteoric rise in the 19th and 20th century and—as the title of the book suggests—the beginnig of its decline. I will not attempt to synopsize or otherwise do justice to the book in a single post (To be honest, I am not finished reading it!), but rather focus on two of the fallacies pointed out by McGrath:
  1. The assumed tension or enmity between science and faith;
  2. The notion that belief in God or theism is the natural result of man’s fear of death and desire for immortality
Scientific discovery through the ages has advanced precisely because of theistic thinking, as scientists have investigated on the assumption that an ordered world and consistent universe flow from a First Cause and Ultimate Controller of the laws of natures. It was not until Darwin’s Origin of the Species suggested the possibility of a natural evolution of man without a divine agent that there arose a perceived tension between science and faith. But this tension was not necessary. Darwinism merely suggested a theory of natural history that differs from literal interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts, but that is nothing new. Theologians as early as Augustine were careful to point out centuries before Darwin that Genesis need not be taken literally.

Science--if it is true to itself and therefore limits itself to that which can be observed, measured or replicated--cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God. Scientists can observe evidence for and against and draw a conclusion, but either conclusion will necessarily involve a leap of faith, and those who call themselves scientists are about equally divided in their conclusions. As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould noted, “Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.”

Taking advantage of the false tension between science and faith, the atheist may attempt to explain the origins of theistic belief. He may put forward a plausible case of how pre-historic man was terrified by the untamed world around him and particularly by his own mortality; and therefore invented the concept of a god and an afterlife in order to cope. The more politically oriented atheist would describe this phenomenon in political and socio-economic terms as well, seeing the afterlife as a false comfort for the poor and oppressed, a lie foisted upon them by the ruling classes. Wasn’t it Marx who called religion the opiate of the masses?

Yet there are two sides to that argument. It can be equally argued that there are things that are more terrifying than oppression and death. The unknowns of an afterlife can be pretty frightening, particularly if an afterlife means accountability to a Creator. And even if we don’t think too much about the afterlife, there is something in us that chafes at the idea of a Creator running our lives.
Alduous Huxley in Ends and Means was honest enough to admit:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption….The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he should personally not do as he wants to do…. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation….
McGrath also quotes Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who having lived under both Nazism and Stalinism, experienced the oppression of rulers who felt unaccountable to God. In "The Discreet Charm of Nihilism", Milosz wrote:
Religion, opium for the people! To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness and serfdom, it promised a reward in afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death--the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.
If they are honest, many atheists will admit that they prefer that God not exist. Actually, the general sentiment is not limited to atheists. Whether we are theists or atheists, there is something in humanity that wishes to live life on its own terms. Even if out of personal preference or for utilitarian reasons we subscribe to a moral lifestyle, we still would rather not have God holding us accountable.

How do we deal with this? The theist has two choices: (1) come to terms with God and who He is; or (2) invent a god in his own image, a less troublesome god that is more to his own liking. The atheist, on the other hand, takes the second option a step further and does whatever it takes to convince himself that God does not exist and therefore cannot have any claim or authority over his life.

In essence, we have two competing world views that have both been described as opiates, a means of escaping or coping with an unpleasant reality. Which is your drug of choice? Which of these world views comes closer to representing ultimate Reality?

1 comment:

JD Curtis said...

Great post MDC. Nothing in science negates the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. If religion disappeared altogether, then science would have to invent religion in order to regulate it's ethical use.