Seeking certainty is a lifelong quest. To live life as we should, we must understand it. But sometimes when we seek certainty, we see what we want to see. And, sometimes we do this because we have already made up our minds. And when we see what we want to see, it leaves us with certainty, a certainty that relies not on truth, but on belief. It leaves us with certitude without substance, with a certainty that is more like silliness than real wisdom.
Now, the prominent “heralds” of atheism, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, all claim to have looked for God and not found him. They claim believing in God is a delusion, for “religion is man-made” as Hitchens tells us. And such belief is a plague for believers and unbelievers alike. Hitchens claims religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant.” And these delusions and plagues must be stopped for the survival of our species.
Well, there are two crucial issues at work in their rhetoric: the question of God’s existence and their moral criticisms. But how do they know God doesn’t exist? And how do they know their moral criticisms are truly moral? It all comes down to how these things can be known.
Regarding God, their criticism entails a relentless demand for “demonstrable” evidence. Often, they limit what may be known to the physical world of science. “Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence,” Dawkins states. And sensory evidence is the only form of evidence allowed. That is what they mean by “demonstrable” evidence. They want us to “show them God.”
Well, we know, God is not physical. So, we cannot “show them God.” But we can point to evidence of God’s existence as the uncaused causer or in the order, tuning and complexity of the universe. But, despite these compelling facts, the atheists think the case is closed. But it isn’t. For the debate is about knowing, just as much as it is about God.
Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. cast the debate about God as a conflict between science and faith or between reason and faith. This is a manifestation of their beliefs. They see these conflicts because they are atheists. But, Catholics do not see conflicts between faith and science or reason. We embrace a harmony of knowing, bringing together the physical and the mental, the senses and the mind. The division and conflict between reason and science and faith these atheists see arises from their beliefs about how we can know. For us, such conflict is absent.
For these atheists, “demonstrable” proof must come through our five senses. This is why they readily reach for science to defend their beliefs. And, if something is not observable directly through our senses or indirectly through technology, then that something is a mere mental phenomenon. And so, they often dismiss reason and logic, unless they are linked to science.
They do this because the scientific method stresses the gathering of evidence and the generating of hypotheses to explain the evidence. This certainly entails the use of reason. But, for them, reason is only valid when tied to observed evidence. And, while science relies on reason and mathematics, science also is grounded in philosophy. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser identifies such philosophical assumptions as “a physical world existing independently of our minds,” that “our senses are at least partially reliable sources of information about this world,” and that “there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the objective world.” These atheists seem oblivious to these philosophical assumptions in science.
While these atheists employ mental things such as reason and mathematics, they limit their utility to science. And by doing so, they severely reduce reason’s explanatory power, confining its usefulness to physical observations and experiments. By confining their arguments against God to science, they avoid philosophical argumentation altogether and implicitly diminish the power of reason.
On the other hand, philosophical argumentation uses reason to prove propositions much like mathematicians develop theorems in geometry that are irrefutably true. If certain premises are valid and the argument is logical, then the conclusion must necessarily be true. For, 2 + 2 = 4 is true, just as “there are 180 degrees in every triangle” is true. And these truths can be demonstrated through logic alone. So, how do you explain such mathematical and logical truths in terms of a materialist universe? As Feser puts it, “If universals, propositions and mathematical objections are eternal and necessarily existing entities that cannot plausibly exist apart from a mind, and such a mind could not … be a finite or limited mind like ours, it follows that they must exist in an eternal and infinite mind.”
We would call that mind “God.”
But, by distorting science and avoiding philosophical argumentation, the “heralds” do not afford a proper place to reason in their theory of knowing. And they can’t give any sound reasons for this without contradicting their theory. For they must rationally justify why reason can’t be used in and of itself, why reason is only valid when linked to tangible observations. If they use reason independent of science, they indulge in philosophical argumentation, proving the truth of reason’s principles. And, they tacitly make the case for intangible truths; for truths arising through reason and mathematics can only come from an intangible source outside the physical universe, as Feser notes. And it raises the possibility of an eternal mind behind the physical universe.
Also, because they tacitly deny reason’s capabilities, they fail to harmonize the senses and reason. This error has nothing to do with science and everything to do with philosophy. But the “heralds” do not state their philosophy up front. They commandeer science injecting their philosophy with power and legitimacy. For instance, Dawkins’ materialist philosophy is implicitly evident when he describes the “universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Notice his emphasis on sensory observation. Notice how he summarily dispenses with significant philosophical questions of order, meaning and morality by his appeal to materialism. And notice how he implicitly wraps this in science. Many of the “heralds’” followers are duped by their unsophisticated view of science and by its misappropriated rhetoric. And, in the process, they miss how the “heralds” distort science’s explanatory limits and authority.
When it comes to philosophy, these “heralds” are also less than rigorous. It is all too easy to form a philosophy if you leave out a whole dimension or diminish its value as like they do with reason. It is a much more difficult thing to incorporate a theory of knowing affording reason and the senses their proper and ordinate place; it is a vastly more difficult thing to show how the senses and the intellect harmonize and inform one another. But it is a more accurate, a more truthful thing to bring these ways of knowing together in pursuit of certainty.
This atheistic distortion of knowing is a part of the atheists’ problem in constructing an accurate worldview. For the scientific method represents a harmony of mental and sensory knowing, a blending of the intellect and the senses, an ordinate balance between the tangible and intangible. For science is a rational endeavor. But for Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, their view of knowing and of science leaves them without a robust and rigorous role for reason. And it leaves them no way to appeal to reason, as reason. Thus, their worldview becomes irrational, for they do not accept reason as a form of knowing independent of the senses. And their worldview becomes blind because it is without a clear, reasoned defense. In the end, their atheism seems like the myopic zealotry, the blind faith, they insist we have.
But what about their moral critique? Like science, their moral critique uses familiar words and distorts their meanings For example, Harris’ perspective is that “Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured and killed people in the name of God for centuries.” This series of verbs are all words describing immoral actions. Harris uses them as rhetorical accusations, without establishing such moral distinctions as legitimate within his materialist worldview.
This tactic avoids the difficult task of explaining morality’s existence and nature. His rhetoric assumes common moral sensitivities without explaining where these come from, what each moral belief means or how these moral beliefs are applied. He avoids explaining the truth of morality and is impotent in describing its moral content.
What Harris and the other “heralds” do is borrow the language of morality, distort its teaching and emphasize the most popularly appealing aspects. This is why they cannot see the flagrant contradiction of supporting abortion while decrying the Crusades. This is why it is more often about individual rights than it is about love and its accompanying moral obligations and imperatives.
They also make no real case for the source of morality other than arguments from adaptation and primitive sociology. With this adaptive basis, morality has no real objective nature other than social expediency and cultural norms. Morality and its principles become mere social conventions without any basis in objective truth. So, because morality is culturally driven, it often is bent to the individual as the primary determinant of morality. As a result, any person is free to decide what morality is. Again, there is no real truth here, just opinion.
Also, if we are just matter and energy, morality is simply and solely biochemical — and so is the reason that explains it. So, even if morality is culturally determined, it really is biochemical at its core. And it is just here that morality, like reason, becomes another blind belief.
They also often criticize Catholic morality from two general vantages. First, they deride our prudery, control and guilt. Along these lines, they cast our morality as fear-and-reward driven. Second, they take exception to our many moral failings. They outline the persistence of slavery, the Inquisition and the Crusades as prominent but typical examples of Catholic morality. So, we are too moral. And, we are too immoral. Oddly, they think we are both.
Latent within this odd combination of criticisms is the unspoken desire to define morality in terms fitting contemporary sensibilities, a new morality whose foundation is the individual. And this thrust of contemporary morality dependent on individual preference diametrically opposes the Catholic view. In our Catholic moral view, morality is both timeless and timely — for the foundation of our morality is the very nature of God’s loving and perfect being. And his commandments to us are not arbitrary or the product of his whim. It is the very nature of his being and loving hope for us.
Unfortunately, these atheists’ worldview leaves them a universe that is matter and energy. And this materialist certainty they trumpet with such optimism devours all human experience leaving only what we can see, only what we can measure. Even things we experience as being real are just mere phenomena arising from the interplay of matter and energy. Nothing else truly exists but these.
And we are left with the certainty of one thing and a silliness beyond belief and proportion. Were it not for the seriousness of this atheistic view and its rising influence, it would be a laughable, ridiculous fiction. But it is promoted as a serious certainty, and there is no silliness in that. It is cause for alarm not amusement, a cause for confrontation not comedy.
To meet their challenges to our faith, we must equip ourselves with a thorough, sophisticated understanding of their beliefs and a rigorous, relentless defense of our faith. And we must meet their incursions at every turn, unmasking their rhetoric for what it is — a manipulation of our morality and a distortion of science and reason.
Former atheist Frank Cronin writes from eastern Connecticut. He has a master’s degree in theology from Regent University. His post-master’s studies include Harvard, Columbia and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2007.