In defense of religion

Dec
23
2011
by
Lynne McTaggart
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Last week the journalist Christopher Hitchens died.  Thousands of column inches have been written about Hitch – brilliant journalist, iconoclast and, most noisily, atheist.  For Hitch, like Richard Dawkins, was a bully atheist – not simply a non-believer, but an anti-theist, desirous of crushing the all notions of faith in anything other than what has been scientifically ‘proven.’ 

Although I found many of Hitch’s ideas about organized religion and religious myth refreshingly contrarian, like many atheists, Hitch confused religion with belief in the divine or indeed a sense of the spirit. To him all spiritual or religious devotion began and ended with literal belief in the white-bearded being sitting on a cloud.

 

Last week the journalist Christopher Hitchens died.  Thousands of column inches have been written about Hitch – brilliant journalist, iconoclast and, most noisily, atheist.  For Hitch, like Richard Dawkins, was a bully atheist – not simply a non-believer, but an anti-theist, desirous of crushing the all notions of faith in anything other than what has been scientifically ‘proven.’

Although I found many of Hitch’s ideas about organized religion and religious myth refreshingly contrarian, like many atheists, Hitch confused religion with belief in the divine or indeed a sense of the spirit. To him all spiritual or religious devotion began and ended with literal belief in the white-bearded being sitting on a cloud.

Like John Diamond

Hitch reminds me of the late British writer John Diamond – both sharp as a needle, forthright in their unshakeable opinion; both claimed by the same disease – cancer – in the same place, the throat; both profoundly materialist.  The only difference was the target of their bile.  For Hitch it was organized religion; for John Diamond, alternative medicine.

Both, ironically, were profoundly religious, but they had placed their faith in the infallibility of science.  Diamond, for instance, had been assured by his doctors that his cancer was easily treatable. Over the years, he submitted to all the best that modern medicine throws at cancer: chemotherapy, radiotherapy and several rounds of mutilating surgery that eventually left him without a tongue and consequently the ability to speak.

And through all of years of treatment, John kept up a running commentary in his column of all the pain, humiliation and degradation of modern orthodox cancer treatment, all the while constantly reaffirming his faith in it as the only possible recourse.

So unshakeable was Diamond¹s faith that when orthodox treatment turned out not to work, he refused to seek any alternative treatment and stoically accepted his fate.  How are you, people would ask.  Dying of cancer, he would respond. Technological medicine had spoken and he, the willing disciple, felt compelled to obey.

Snake Oil was to be Diamond¹s final oeuvre, a broadside attack on alternative ‘ologies’ of all varieties. He got as far as a rant, but died with the words ‘Let me explain why’ lit up on his computer screen.  He never did provide a shred of evidence in support of his views, but that didn¹t stop the press from lauding his book as a refreshing return to sanity and rationalism.

 It was as if believing that nothing exists beyond current human knowledge or understanding represents a type of metaphysical machismo -  ­ the hard-man

realist ­ compared to the quiche-eaters among us who happen to believe that another paradigm, even if we don¹t yet fully understand it, may be out there.

 

A totalitarian concept

Hitch’s views were strikingly similar.  Hitch once wrote that an atheist could ‘wish that belief in god were correct,’ but that an antitheist ‘ is someone who is relieved that there's no evidence for such an assertion.’ As Hitch argued in his book God is Not Great, any belief in the concept of a supreme being is a totalitarian concept that crushes individual freedom.

Scientific discovery and freedom of expression, in his view, should replace religion as a means of providing a moral frame work and the story of human civilization.

The problem I have with most atheists is an intellectual one.  First, they do not understand the limitations of science – that science is, at best, an approximation of the true story.  Atheists regard science as an ultimate truth when science is finally just a story, told in installments.  New chapters refine — and often supplant — the chapters that have come before. In placing so much faith in science, they simply replace one religion for another.  God simply becomes Newton.

The second problem with atheism is that the arguments in favor of nothing out there are usually specious and easily dismissed.  Christian philosopher William Lane Craig made mincemeat of Hitch during a public debate. When he offered to debate Richard Dawkins, Dawkins, at the last minute, pulled out – and small wonder. Craig uses philosophical principles to hoist atheists by their own petard.

Why God exists

Craig, who went ahead and debated Peter Millican, Dawkins’ stand-in, argued, among other points, that

 

  1. the cause of the universe must be transcendent and supernatural.

It must not have been ‘caused’ by anything because it had to start somewhere and there cannot be an ‘infinite regress’ of causes.

  1. It must be eternal, because it created time.
  2. It must be non-physical, because it created space.

 

In other words, what was here before the Big Bang? There are only two possibilities for such a cause –  an abstract object or an agent. Since abstract objects cannot cause effects, the cause must be an agent.

 

  1. God must exist because there is an objective morality; ie, we all know that it is wrong to kill.
  2. God must exist in order for evil to be in the world.

 

Craig goes on with a number of intellectual arguments that cannot really be countered by philosophical argument, but perhaps most persuasive to me is recent evidence that Nature has designed us with a God Spot – an in-built ‘bias in the mind’ toward viewing the world in religious or spiritual terms and a belief in the afterlife.

 

Hard-wired for belief

This was confirmed by a three-year study carried out by University of Oxford’s Center for Anthropology and Mind.  According to Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford and co-director of the project, ‘The mind is open to supernatural agency.  It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture – in other words, the way we think.’

The project found that children naturally believe in supernatural agents and both adults and children naturally imbue the natural world with purpose and design.

Nevertheless, noted Trigg, humans are not necessarily monotheistic.  This supernatural ‘instinct’ could manifest in polytheism or other belief systems.

This project, called the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, led by Justin Barrett of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford and Trigg, comprises 57 researchers who conducting more than 40 studies in 20 countries consisting of both atheist and religious societies.  Basically, concludes Trigg, their evidence shows that ‘you cannot separate religion and public life.’

What this study suggests is that although our sense of God is not hardwired into any specific place in the brain, a fundamental aspect of the human experience is a sense of awe and a desire for the transcendent, one that can never be reduced to F=Ma. That experience may be intensely individual, but the sense we all have of something larger than ourselves is an essential part of
being human.

To believe anything less is to be guilty of, well, fundamentalism.

Have a blissful holiday, filled with transcendent awe, and a happy, healthy, abundant New Year.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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