Thursday, September 25, 2008

When Attacked, Consider The Source

Here's a link to the "printable" version of a very recent article from the September 29 issue of Newsweek magazine.

In the article, the well-known atheist Sam Harris attacks Sarah Palin, strongly implying that the fact that Palin attended Assemblies of God churches for decades constitutes de facto proof that she is unqualified to be the Vice-President.

Harris admits that millions of Americans share Palin's belief "that the Biblical God consciously directs world events," but he then goes on to imply that none of those Americans are qualified to serve as Vice-President or President, on account of those beliefs. He then describes McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate as "unconscionable".

Of course, the use of the phrase "unconscionable" implies that people do in fact have consciences, and that there is such a thing as objective morality (and, by implication, objective immorality).

It is here where atheists such as Sam Harris flounder big-time. If there is no God, as they claim, then beliefs about right and wrong are merely the results of social conditioning. If there is no God, then morality is infinitely malleable, and subject to changing conditions, such as the popularity (or lack thereof) of particular ideas about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

If humans alone determine what is right and what is wrong, then it logically follows that majority opinion is invariably correct when it comes to morality. Yet, paradoxically, atheists claim to be objectively right about their belief that there is no God, in spite of the demonstrable fact that they represent a tiny minority of all of the people living in the world. This internal inconsistency might best be described as "cognitive dissonance".

One doesn't need to read the writings of atheists such as Sam Harris for very long before one is struck by the utter arrogance of such people. Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins describes himself and other like-minded unbelievers as "brights," as if there haven't been plenty of devout believers with IQs every bit as high as his own.

Just for the record, my own IQ has been tested at 140. I'm not sure how that compares with the IQs of Harris or Dawkins, but I think that the general consensus is that 140 is a fairly high IQ. But I'm smart enough to know that what I know is miniscule in comparison with what I don't know. And I'm smart enough to believe that the entirety of human knowledge is miniscule in comparison with the knowledge of the One who created the universe and who sustains the life of every single human being, in spite of the fact that some of those human beings forfeit their right to such ongoing sustenance on account of their perpetual defiance of the God who made them.

In my view, the arrogance of atheists such as Harris and Dawkins is caused by a remarkable lack of self-awareness on their part, insofar as their own limitations are concerned. That lack of self-awareness seems to be tied to a lack of awareness of the intrinsic limitations of empiricism, which seems to guide and shape most of their assumptions to a great extent. The idea that there might be realities which cannot be measured or proven with the tools and methods of empiricism seems to be beyond their abilities to conceive.

In 2003, Dinesh D'Souza wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Not So 'Bright'". I think that the article is well worth reading.

The Sam Harris article in Newsweek reeks of snobbery, condescension and anti-Christian bigotry, but that should be no surprise, in light of the things which Harris has written in the past.

I find it particularly interesting that an atheist such as Sam Harris seems to have a strong interest in promoting the election of Barack Obama, in spite of Obama's claim that he's a born-again Christian, and in spite of his many attempts to capture the votes of devoutly religious people by using language calculated to accomplish that purpose.

Yet, I don't really find it surprising that Obama is the candidate preferred by atheists such as Sam Harris. In Obama's view, one's religious convictions ought to be confined to the purely private realm. In Obama's view, such convictions shouldn't influence public policy.

But real life isn't that cut and dried. Most of the greatest political issues of history, including the issues of slavery and civil rights for African-Americans, have had a strong religious component. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of any great social reform movements in America which were led primarily by atheists. As for the social reform movement of atheistic Communism in the Soviet Union, we all know how well that experiment worked out.

To treat religiously devout people such as Sarah Palin as second-class citizens who are undeserving of leadership positions is to ignore the rich tradition of religious faith which has made it possible for people such as Sam Harris to enjoy the liberties they enjoy. In fact, the very concept of human rights in America has always hinged on the assumption that God is the source of all human rights, and that it is that fact which obligates all human beings to respect those rights, since we will be held accountable for how we have treated one another.


phatp said...

so according to you the only reason to grant another a right comes only on the fact that one day you will have to account for it? Christians never seem to be able to be kind or protect someone else's interests/rights without a threat from an angry judgemental God watching waiting from the sky ready to pounce. Strange.

Mark Pettigrew said...

To "phatp":

What I find strange is the fact that you use the word "only" twice in your first sentence, in spite of the fact that I didn't use that word at all when I was discussing my belief about the source and origin of human rights.

I didn't say that the only reason to grant rights was that one would one day be judged. Certainly, it is possible to make a case for the idea that we have obligations to one another, even in lieu of a belief in a God who will hold us accountable for our actions. But it's a relatively weak case, compared with the case which can be made by the millions of people who believe in the inevitability of divine judgment.

It's been my experience and observation that when people define morality in a manner which excludes God, they do so in such a way as to open the door to a host of rationalizations. More often than not, their definitions of right and wrong tend to be tailor-made in order to enable them to behave the way they want to behave anyway. To unbelievers, concepts such as "self denial" don't seem to make much sense, because they don't believe in the idea of an eternal reward which will eventually compensate them for having made such sacrifices.

I think that the abortion issue in this country furnishes a perfect example of that type of rationalization. There's a reason why people who don't believe in God are statistically far more likely to be supporters of legal abortion.

Most atheists will tell you they think that it's immoral to hurt other human beings. But they seem to be quite adept at finding reasons to make exceptions to that principle, judging by the way that they've used arbitrary criteria in order to exclude unborn children from their conceptions of what it means to be a human being.

Having said that, let me also acknowledge that it is not necessary to be a Christian or even a believer in God in order to grasp the fact that unborn children are part of the human race, and in order to grasp the idea that they are therefore just as entitled to legal protection against murder as any other human being. In fact, there are some people (such as former abortionist Bernard Nathanson) who have reached that conclusion primarily or solely on the basis of secular or humanistic considerations and principles, long before they were eventually led (as Nathanson was led) to embrace Christianity.

That's one reason why I believe that the objections of people on the "pro-choice" side are bogus. If indeed the only way to defend the pro-life position was to resort to arguments which hinged on a belief in God or in Christianity, then perhaps pro-choice people would have a point when they claim that a nation which respects freedom of religion and freedom of conscience has no business prohibiting abortion. But they are wrong when they argue that that's the case. One need not resort to biblical quotations or to religious dogma in order to make a strong case for the idea that abortion and infanticide are blatant violations of the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Nevertheless, I do believe that what sets America apart from other nations is that America's founding fathers were the first people to articulately propose that human rights were "endowed by the creator" and that all human beings, without exception, were created with those rights.

If human rights are of human origin, then it logically follows that human beings are just as free to withdraw those rights as they were to grant those rights in the first place. So while I agree with you that it's possible to find reasons to grant rights to others even if one doesn't believe in divine judgment, I would argue that the foundation upon which such rights are built is shaky indeed. It was for that precise reason, I believe, that the founders of our nation appealed to the authority of a higher power when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. Their contention was that even though England was incontestably the ruling authority of the day, there was a higher authority (namely, "the Creator") to whom even the leaders of England were obligated to submit.

It is no accident that the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement were both led by Christian leaders, both here and abroad. People such as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr. were acknowledged by the people as moral authorities, and it was that fact which enabled them to elevate the discussion beyond a mere contest between competing human interests.

You write about an "angry judgemental God watching waiting from the sky ready to pounce". Is that your conception of God? If so, I feel truly sorry for you, because that is not my conception of God at all, nor is it the conception of God which motivates most Christians. God is not "ready to pounce". He is indeed judgmental, but only to the extent that judgment is necessary in order to insure justice, and in order to insure that those who choose to obey him (and to receive his gift of mercy) can look forward to a day when the trials and tribulations of this earth will be no more.

God takes no pleasure in punishing sinful people. He loves us more than you can possibly imagine. If God did not love us, why do you think he would send his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die on our behalf? "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." That's what the scriptures teach. If you see God as angry and hateful, perhaps you should try reading the Bible from beginning to end. I think you would find that it is your misconceptions about God which are hindering you from experiencing his love.

I want to thank you for visiting my blog, and for asking your pointed questions, because it gave me the opportunity to share my ideas more fully. Feel free to visit again any time you like.

Anonymous said...

I was following you until paragraph 5:
"If humans alone determine what is right and what is wrong, then it logically follows that majority opinion is invariably correct when it comes to morality. Yet, paradoxically, atheists claim to be objectively right about their belief that there is no God, in spite of the demonstrable fact that they represent a tiny minority of all of the people living in the world. This internal inconsistency might best be described as "cognitive dissonance".
The first sentence is an inaccurate characterization of the way the evolution of morals and ethics in group behavior works. It isn't what's most expedient or only what the majority of the group believe. It is what works best in the propagation of the species. It is much, much more complicated than you have implied.
In the second sentence you switch the subject from what one might think about morality, a subjective topic to what one might think about the existence of some god, which is an objective topic, therefore subject to the rules of science and evidence. When you make a statement of subjectivity, one is free to postulate at will. When one makes a statement of objective fact "My god is real", then you have made a scientific claim and it is up to you to provide evidence of that claim. The reason non-deist pay no attention to your claims is because you have yet to back them up with evidence that survives scrutiny and can be used for prediction. We may be cognitive, but we are not dissonant.

Mark Pettigrew said...

To Anonymous:

You write, "It isn't what's most expedient or only what the majority of the group believe. It is what works best in the propagation of the species." So it would seem that you believe that there are occasions in which minorities of people are justified in imposing their views on the majority in the name of the preservation of the species. You apparently don’t believe that such people need to justify such usurpations of democracy by appealing to any principles rooted in traditional religious beliefs.

You aren’t alone in that belief. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others have argued that an elite group of human beings is entitled to define what is right and wrong for the rest of humanity. Conveniently, they just happen to belong to that elite group, virtually without exception.

It seems to me that such an argument begs a number of questions.

For instance, upon what basis do such people claim that the preservation of the species is a value which invariably trumps all other values? Is it conceivable that there might be cases in which it would be better for the human species to perish rather than to commit certain abominable acts in the name of survival? If not, why not?

My point in asking the questions in the preceding paragraph is not to suggest that the survival of the human species is not important, but simply to point out that your premise is based on a subjective value judgment which may or may not be true in all cases.

Another question: Even assuming that the survival of the human species is the ultimate good to which all other goods are subordinate, what entitles the members of any particular elitist minority to declare that their ideas about what is best for humanity in terms of survival are superior to the ideas held by people who belong to the majority?

If it is their knowledge or education which somehow makes their judgments superior to the judgments of others, I would hasten to point out that some of the most evil atrocities in the history of mankind have been propagated by highly educated and knowledgeable elitists who thought that they alone possessed insights into what was best for mankind. Such people do not have a very good track record in terms of insuring the survival of the species, unless one believes that the murder of millions of people is the best way to insure that the human species survives. I would argue that the arrogant beliefs of such elitists regarding their alleged superiority to "ordinary" people played a significant role in their rationalization of the abuse of power.

I find it fascinating that men such as Richard Dawkins excoriate Christianity on account of the religious wars waged in the name of Christianity, considering that pogroms launched by decidedly atheistic people such as Stalin killed far more people during the 20th Century than any misguided religious zealots ever dreamed of killing.

You write, "When one makes a statement of objective fact 'My god is real', then you have made a scientific claim and it is up to you to provide evidence of that claim. The reason non-deist pay no attention to your claims is because you have yet to back them up with evidence that survives scrutiny and can be used for prediction."

I do indeed believe that there is evidence which can survive scrutiny when it comes to the existence of God, but I dispute your extremely limited ideas regarding what constitutes evidence. I would also dispute your notion that claims about objective realities can invariably be evaluated in a reliable way using the scientific method.

As you know, each scientific discipline uses the term "evidence" differently. What might count as evidence to a chemist, for instance, would be utterly useless for the purpose of determining the validity of a proposition pertaining to the science of sociology. The criteria regarding appropriate evidence vary from one discipline to another because the nature of the things being evaluated varies from one discipline to another.

The problem with atheistic attempts to debunk the existence of God is that atheists insist that believers prove the existence of God using methodologies which, by their very nature, cannot ever prove (or disprove) the existence of God, who (according to Jesus) is NOT a material being, but "spirit".

Furthermore, even if God were a material being (and it could be argued that Christ is in fact such a being, since the Bible speaks of his resurrected body), it would not necessarily follow that any of the five senses possessed by human beings were sufficient for the purpose of experiencing or observing those particular material realities.

It is not uncommon for science fiction writers (who often reflect the consensus of the scientific community, in spite of the fact that they sometimes take conjectural liberties for the sake of a good tale) to postulate the existence of alternative, parallel universes which cannot be directly experienced by people living in our own universe because we do not possess the physical senses which would be needed for that purpose.

Some would concede that it is theoretically possible for such alternate universes to exist, but they would argue that it is one thing to say that they might exist and another thing altogether to argue that one knows that they do in fact exist. And I agree. But I believe that there is strong evidence which suggests that such alternate realities do in fact exist, in what might be described as the "heavenly" realm. My reason for that belief is that history strongly suggests that there have been interactions between our dimension and other dimensions from time to time.

When evaluating truth claims about history (such as the claim that John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, even though there isn’t a person alive today who has directly experienced that event), one of the most crucial pieces of evidence is the veracity of the witnesses, along with the plausibility of the stories told by those witnesses. These types of evidence have nothing to do with experiments which can be performed in a laboratory, but they count as legitimate evidence nevertheless.

With that in mind, I would strongly suggest that you read books such as "The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict" by Josh McDowell and "Who Moved The Stone?" by Frank Morrison. I personally find such arguments to be extremely compelling on an intellectual level.

Some things can be experienced through direct observations. Other things, such as the wind, can best be experienced by observing their effect on other things.

I cannot see the wind, but I can see the effects of the wind on the world around me (and on my own sense of feel), so I know that it’s real.

If you want to know whether or not God is real, you merely need to observe the world around you in order to see that God is a powerful reality in the lives of many believers, in spite of the fact that one cannot capture a photograph of God or perform laboratory experiments which will prove that God exists.

Regarding your insistence upon evidence which "can be used for prediction," I can predict with a fair amount of confidence that if you will stop making excuses for your unbelief and fully commit yourself to the God of the Bible, you will experience all of the proof you could ever desire or need.