Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Does the New Atheism Fail?

10/23/2009--the following selection is from a manuscript that I writing that will be entitled Higher Law in the Public Square: How the Higher Law Tradition Can Resolve the Establishment Clause Crisis and Save Secularism [does anyone know a potential publisher?]. In this section, I am discussing the work of some of the New Atheists, including Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens:


[I]n the end, I’m not sure Stenger answers the question of how we are to live in the Godless universe. Stenger does not intend to criticize the experience of depth in human life as false or an illusion. He claims that such experiences are “purely physical” but he does not seem to mean that they are therefore any less real.

Why is it that Stenger fails? He fails for the same reason that all the New Atheist writers fail. They all deny that human beings need to “fit into some grand, cosmic scheme.” But Stenger’s one example of genuine joy and fulfillment in life is Richard Dawkins, who plainly does “fit into some grand, cosmic scheme.” Here is Stenger’s quote, from Dawkin’s book, Unweaving the Rainbow, in which Dawkins describes meaning in his life:

"Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born?"

Why you were born? That question could just as well be stated as, what grand, cosmic scheme am I a part of? Dawkins is a part of a grand cosmic scheme: humanity wakes from its preEnlightenment slumber and begins the adventure of understanding the universe through the natural sciences. It is an epic story. And it is a story that gives meaning and structure to the life of the scientist.

So does the story of John 3:16 for the believer: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The point here is not to decide which story—the scientific or this religious one—is true. The point is to convince Stenger that a story is needed. Humanity lives from such stories and ultimately cannot live without them. Our religions teach us such stories. If secularism is to flourish, it must be able to do the same and not just for a scientific elite. Dawkins’ story is a grand one, but it would have to be greatly modified to be accessible to most of us. And, in any event, people like Stenger, who presumably would be doing the modifying, do not yet see the need to offer such a story to secularists.

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