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The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism

Belief in an ordered universe is hard to reconcile with a tragic view of life

By on Friday, 3 August 2012

Richard Dawkins poses on a London bus displaying an atheist advertisement (PA)

Richard Dawkins poses on a London bus displaying an atheist advertisement (PA)

I remember sitting up and taking notice of something Richard Dawkins once said, which was to this effect: “When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’”

The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it, or the occasion and context of him saying it. He may not have said it at all. If anyone can give me a reference (the link above, which is hardly satisfactory, is all I can find) then I would be grateful. It would be interesting to unpack the meaning of the words.

Hunting down the quotation, I did of course come across others, collected, for example, here. Again the lack of context makes them rather strange, and one wonders what so many of them mean. Words like “religion” are not of themselves univocal. It all depends what you mean by religion.

Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

What the statement seems to be conveying, rather than a scientific observable truth, is an existential statement of belief about the nature of the universe. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

What this might all boil down to are opposing interpretations of experience. Some may feel that they are being protected by a benign Divine Providence and that even when they suffer this suffering can be turned somehow to good. Others may feel that life teaches them that there is no purpose to anything, only blind, pitiless indifference.

This strikes me as being the essential difference between comedy and tragedy. The characters in a tragedy frequently experience this Dawkins-like sense of desolation. Remember the Duchess of Malfi? “Look you, the stars shine still” – in other words, the heavens are indifferent to human suffering. Indeed, the characters in tragedy often call upon the heavens for justice, but answer comes there none.

And yet comedy is radically different. In comedy there is justice done at the end, each gets what they deserve. Some may find it hard to join the harmonious human community, such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who leaves the happy final scene of reconciliation with the words “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” But comedy depends on a firm belief in justice and truth and that these are possible on earth.

It seems to me that if Professor Dawkins believes in pitiless indifference as the presiding spirit of the universe, then he is clearly in the camp of an earlier professor, Friedrich Nietzsche. This is a serious matter, because the Nietzschean vision is one that not only contradicts the idea of Divine Providence, but it also makes science of any sort nonsensical, in that it seems to deny intrinsic meaning to physical phenomena, attributing meaning only to human will.

In other words, a Nietzschean would say that any theory of meaning is in the head of the person who holds it, not in the phenomena themselves. Or to sum up the tragic view of life in the words of Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this what Professor Dawkins believes? Is this what modern atheists believe? It does sound pretty close to the quote from Dawkins above. But if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    PS: misattributing ideas to me and then calling me a liar? Classy.

  • karlf

    Yes he was citing Genesis.
    This was my question “So how do you know that Jesus didn’t believe that the flood and Jonah’s whale adventure were real events?”
    Now can you answer it please? (no avoidance tactics this time please Raven)

  • Jonathan West

    Did the disciples see Jesus? Was water changed into wine? Was Lazarus raised form the dead? Were the lepers cured, the blind made to see? Did Jesus walk on water?

    All these events, if they happened and were caused by God, are interventions in the world, ones which can be detected by humans. I don’t in the least care whether you choose to classify them as “material” or “non-material”.

  • Subsilico

    So… you are saying that they aren’t engaged in the “empirical discovery of ethics?” Interesting, because that seems to be exactly what they are engaged in. Perhaps you think they are just going to read about ethics in some ancient book or perhaps they are going to pretend to understand ethics through divine revelation and then call it a day?

  • Subsilico

    Haha! I have this river in egypt i can sell you.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    You’d have to get out of “de Nile” first before you could sell it to anyone.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    You’re going to need to look up the word “empirical”.

  • Subsilico

    Wow. Is that a yes or a no or a maybe?

  • Subsilico

    Does “non-material inputs” mean “God?”

  • Subsilico

    Why am i denying again? I thought i was asking for evidence. If none is forth coming then i guess i have my answer.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    No. Guess you’ll needed to add quantum mechanics to your ever-growing reading list.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Evidence of what? The post that I was replying to, above, just contained a bunch of unevidenced assertions.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    It’s a “you need to read your source material”.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    There is nothing in the Gospel accounts that you have cited to suggest anything other than a metaphorical understanding of those event.

  • Subsilico

    Yes because clearly I am the one who
    doesn’t understand that the uncertainty principal is as much a critique on the electromagnetic
    measurement regime as it is on what imparts position and momentum to
    observables. And because I clearly don’t understand how its possible to create
    models of those observables based purely on an understanding of subatomic forces,
    despite scientists doing just that. And because it is I who clearly doesn’t understand why these scientists are so excited by the allure of a theory of
    quantum gravity given that it would likely provide them a non-electromagnetic
    measurement regime for which to tests their theories. Yes, its me being the totally
    clueless one. You got me! 

  • Subsilico

    Yes? No? Maybe?

  • Subsilico

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.2642 For an example of why your ideas about uncertainty are terribly flawed.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Yes, I have.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Yes: you definitely need to read your source material.

  • Subsilico

    Lol!

  • karlf

    Ok, I’m all ears. How do you support your claim?

  • Subsilico

    Haha!

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    The flood, the whale are used as metaphors, they are being used in contexts where the literal truth of each story is irrelevant to the teaching being expounded. If I say, Karl, that you are attacking this question as Don Quixote tilted at the windmills, that statement neither relies on the the reference to Cervantes being true not does it infer that I believe it to be a literal truth. It simply uses Don Quixote as a common cultural reference point.

    Now your turn: you’ve repeatedly argued your quotations demonstrate a belief in the literal truth of these stories, now please state your evidence.

  • JabbaPapa

    Richard Dawkins is no more than just another liar.

  • JabbaPapa

    Next time, just say “no”.

    “No,I did not even TRY to understand the points that have been made, multiple times, about material versus immaterial.”

    Have you ever seen anybody’s soul ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Yes, and it’s you refusing to accept anything but Newtonian causality when defending your indoctrination.

  • karlf

    How have you shown that Jesus did not take these stories literally?
    Jesus said “in the beginning the Creator made them male and female” – evidently with reference to “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them”. How is this anything but accepting Adam as a historical reality (as with the other quotes above)?

  • karlf

    How have you shown that Jesus did not take these stories literally?
    Jesus said “in the beginning the Creator made them male and female” – evidently with reference to “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them”. How is this anything but accepting Adam as a historical reality (as with the other quotes above)?

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    You’ve already tried this line of attack and it didn’t work before. All that you’ve proven is that you are in desperate need of a decent English Literature course and that you don’t know when your argument has disappeared up its own fundament.

  • Subsilico

    I will accept anything once it is demonstrated sufficiently. I don’t have blind faith in a bunch of unproven assertions. So sue me!

  • Subsilico

    Let me summarize pretty much every point i’ve read made by The Raver. “Tides come in, tides go out… You can’t explain that!” 

  • karlf

    It’s not a line of attack – just two simple questions, which you can’t or won’t answer.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Oh, how sweet: you cut and pasted that just for me.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    I’m a mug, I’ll give you one last chance. Why do you think that using an allusionary reference is evidence of belief in the literal truth of the reference? Your point is a nonsense.

    If I say that a colleague, who has just found a way around a complex problem, “you’ve cut the Gordian knot” that doesn’t mean that I accept the story of Alexander and the Gordian philosophers as truth; if I say of a friend who has done something impressive “the force is strong in him”, it doesn’t imply that I believe in the Jedi or that Mr Lucas’s films are accounts of literal history.

    As I say, your point is a nonsense.

  • karlf

    You can give a nice example of a metaphor, and that’s fine. But how do you show that Jesus is using metaphor here:
    ‘He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’
    and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’
    But even if Jesus was speaking metaphorically in some way, what would his alternative beliefs had been for the origins of man without the divine creation of Adam? – hardly a point of nonsense Raven

  • Subsilico

    I’m sorry, you are totally right. Angels did it!

  • theroadmaster

    What are the beliefs and rituals that all Atheists share because they are Atheists? Atheism is a scientific approach to the question of a god. Many Atheists think there is more than the material world, Quantum physics is showing us that there is certainly a lot more than we ever imagined. I agree that all people believe in some ideology but Atheism is not an Ideology or belief.
    Died-in-the-wool atheists believe dogmatically that God does not exist and that materialist explanations will only suffice. Their rituals consist of the the scientific method in which they profess their belief publicly and their “bibles” are such works as “The God Delusion” by such “high priests” of atheism as Richard Dawkins.
    Your argument that “Atheism is the Null hypothesis, before you say Atheism is exactly the same. The null hypothesis for the question of god is this, as of this time there is no proof that any divine being exists, thus we must conclude that no divine being exists, is a fallacy in itself. The absence of proof of something is not an indication that it does not exist. You should try Pascal’s Wager if in doubt. As the great religious philosopher, Blaise Pascal stated- “..If you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God’s existence but by diminishing your passions. You want to find faith, and you do not know the road. You want to be cured of unbelief, and you ask for the remedy: learn from those who were once bound like you and who. now wager all they have. . . . They behaved just as if they did believe..” Geraldo

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Not metaphor, allusion.

    Christ is making a true statement – we are made male and female – and alluding to Genesis as this will be a reference that has cultural resonance for his hearers: if I am asked about a pet dog I might say “he’s shuffled off his mortal coil” to express the truth that the dog is dead, using a cultural reference, but it would be wrong to impute that I believed that Hamlet was a literal truth.

    The use of the quotation that you keep banging on about is not probative or indicative of the speaker’s understanding of the base text that he is alluding to.

    And you keep asking me, a Catholic Christian, to speculate as to what the “beliefs” of the second person of the Trinity were: you need to understand that your question is nonsensical.

    Now unless you’ve got something new or better to offer, we will leave things there, because your argument doesn’t work and you are too stubborn to accept that.

  • Gypsycook

    The “Materialism” argument which theists are so fond of is obsolete;scientists don’t use it. Quantum Mechanics deals in subatomic particles and energy. if you insist on using your terminology, then these are obviously “material” entities.
    In the persistent absense of direct evidence for the existence of God, and the improbability of that hypothesis, then REAL direct evidence should br obvious in spades, (not assumed circumstantial evidence) . Therefore atheism is indeed the null hypothesis.
    Pascal’s Wager is rubbish:
    1. Wrong God?  It might be Tlaloc, not Yahweh.
    2. It assumes God is an idiot and you can hoodwink him by pretending to believe just so you can get into Heaven.
    3. It is intellectual cowardice; believe any rubbish in case it happens to be true. This is the Argument from Ignorance,–it assumes God exists if it cannot be proved that he doesn’t; that is neither science nor logic.

  • JabbaPapa

    P.S. It doesn’t deal with a scientific hypothesis. You certainly have no idea what science and what a hypothesis is.

    You can say that again !!!

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Slight overreaction there, I think! Dawkins does think that evolution strips out the sort of immanent teleology that (eg) Thomism finds in natural substances -that certain goods and orientations towards the good are hardwired into the universe. Instead, meaning is created by human minds and imposed on that passive, meaningless, purely material universe. 

    This brings us back to Nietzsche: if meaning -truth beauty and goodness- is made by human beings and their minds, what sort of implications does this have for human life, particularly the pursuit of science and morality? Nietzsche tries to think this through and rightly concludes that the implications are pretty radical. Dawkins seems pretty much unaware of any problems.

  • karlf

    What I’m demonstrating here is that you just don’t know – but you pretend that you do, with the backing of the Church

  • Gypsycook

    “, what sort of implications does this have for human life, particularly the pursuit of science and morality?”

    We would still do science and have morality in order to male our lives more pleasant and interesting, and in order to get along with each other; purely utilitarian; one does not need to get all metaphysical about it.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    They have got rid of the Christian God, and now think that they have to hold on to Christian morality more than ever: that is an English form of consistency, and we do not want to blame the moral little females à la Eliot for it. In England, every time you take one small step towards emancipation from theology you have to reinvent yourself as a moral fanatic in the most awe-inspiring way. That is the price you pay there. – For the rest of us, things are different. When you give up Christian faith, you pull the rug out from under your right to Christian morality as well. This is anything but obvious: you have to keep driving this point home, English idiots to the contrary. Christianity is a system, a carefully considered, integrated view of things. If you break off a main tenet, the belief in God, you smash the whole system along with it: you lose your grip on anything necessary. Christianity presupposes that humans do not know, cannot know what is good for them or what is evil, they believe in God who has privileged knowledge of this. Christian morality is a command; it has a transcendent origin; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth, – it stands or falls along with belief in God. – When the English really believe that they ‘intuitively’ know all by themselves what is good and what is evil; and when, as a result, they think that they do not need Christianity to guarantee morality any more, this is itself just the result of the domination of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this domination: so that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, so that no one can see how highly conditioned its right to exist really is. For the English, morality is not a problem yet . . . .
    – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

  • Gypsycook

    I was going to congratulate you on a very sensible post, but I see it belongs to Nietzsche; but that’s OK because you posted it on his behalf.
    I wonder if one day Science demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the Universe can and probably did arise spontaneously out of what we used to call “Nothing”, (an obsolete term also),-will the Catholic Church still persist in denying the fact, and continue insisting that God-did-it, and thereby risk becoming more absurd and out of touch? Or will they ditch the nonsense of Theology and instead modernize and become a real force for good in the world by concentrating on good works alone,-and cease trying to manipulate Science?

  • Gypsycook

    And what is wrong with the question? It is scientific and logical, which is appropriate to the religious claim that there is a God, and that he created and interacts with the world. What caused the world?–God.So what caused God? Only if you do a theological trick and say “the buck stops here”, or, “we are drawing a line under God because He is unassailable to logical enquiry”,-then you are cheating.  All causes have antecedent causes, including an arbitrarily defined “First Cause”. Causes terminate retrogressively in quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle;–in just the same way that the “laws” of Physics tgerminate retrogressivly in the Big Bang (or something similar).

  • Gypsycook

    Maybe when Dawkins said he “knew” God did not exist, he meant it on logical grounds alone, eg the Theodicy;-an Omnimax God cannot exit logically, –given the fact the “evil” things happen,-whether natural or man-made. The claim that he gave us Freewill is another pathetic attempt to circumvent the problem. It is only a problem for theists: if there is no God, then Freewill is not a metaphysical property, but the consequence of having evolved conscious brains, (and then mostly overuled by determinism.
    Most people consider God as omnimax, and this is supported by scripture. But some theologians try to equivocate by demoting God’s attributes, so that he has now become “simple” (Richard Swinburne) or weak, and ignorant of some things, and therefore entirely pointless, as no longer to being as the Optimo Maximo of the Universe.
    Of course God cannot be proved not to exist empirically,-but then neither can anything else,-eg Russell’s teapot;;-so it is a vacuous argument.

  • Gypsycook

    James H

    “Don’t bother, there aren’t any. You won’t find any Catholic school teaching creationism, for example”.

    They don’t need to teach it; it is assumed as a “given”.
    What then is Theistic Evolution?-if it is not Creationism?
    It is no use claiming to accept Darwinian Evolution if you then deny it is naturalistic, and say God did it anyway, and then go on to insert souls here and there at various points (unspecified) in human evolution.

  • Gypsycook

    No they torture and burn them instead; –until recently.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Karl, all you have demonstrated is that there are people who want to read something into the Gospels that isn’t there and that you reject the tradition of the Church going back to St Paul and the Fathers.