There is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart.
- Blaise Pascal
Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (the book) and Bill Maher's Religulous (the film) are hysterical -- not hysterically funny, just frenzied. If you didn't know better, you might think that rabbis and priests were pursuing these guys through the salons of Georgetown and the gin mills of West Hollywood, threatening them with bris, baptism, or brimstone. They protest too much. Indeed, they seem to be self-anointed missionaries for nihilism.
The Hitchens book and the Maher film are just two examples of a post-9/11 cultural bloom that seeks to argue that Islamic barbarisms are logical outcomes of the ignorance and oppression of Judaism, Christianity, and related Imperialism. The premise of their arguments is moral equivalence -- that is, all religions are equally evil -- wellsprings of barbarity.
Maher is also a self-styled expert on moral courage. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, while bivouacked at ABC, Maher charged:
We [Americans] have been the cowards. [The U.S. military] lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building [i.e., the World Trade Center], say what you want about it. [Islamists are] not cowardly.
Maher also claims religion is a "neurological disorder." Yet a son who ambushes his Jewish mother to mock religion surely quacks like an atheist. So let us review the arguments for rational atheism -- their theology, if you will.
For starters, atheists reject the historical consensus on God. Never mind that every culture, large or small, believes in some sort of deity. Secondly, they reject the common consensus that is the faith of their peers. As a practical matter (see Pascal's Gambit), the vast majority of people believe in some kind of superior being. They do so not out of fear or ignorance, but out of humility -- the certainty that humans can not be "as good as it gets." Experience and common sense tell us that Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens can not represent the apex of evolution. Another axiom for militant atheism is invective -- laying the history of bad behavior at the feet of traditional religion. This is more than a little like blaming war on soldiers and crime on cops. A corollary of invective is ad hominem attacks -- cherry-picking religious figures to vilify. The Pope, Mother Teresa, and Talmudic scholars come to mind. They are every contemporary liberal's favorite whipping posts -- as if name-calling were an argument.
Yet Hitchens saves the best of his worst for Blaise Pascal, the brilliant 17th-century mathematician and physicist who examined the limits of reason, especially in matters of faith. Pascal celebrated and defended "the expected value of faith" and the "infinite" value of belief against any utility of relying on reason alone. Pascal argued that reason provides neither certainty nor truth. Hitchens calls this "sordid" and likens Pascal to "hypocrites and frauds" who abound in the "Talmudic Jewish" (sic) tradition.
Polemicists like Maher and Hitchens confuse God with religion. Our entire ethical, legal, and democratic tradition is a linear descendant of Judaism and Christianity. A temple or church is only one of many public institutions, each populated with saints and sinners. Yet without these influences, democratic capitalism is impossible. Indeed, it was an Augustinian monk (Erasmus) who raised the most profound and lasting defense of free will and free choice. Rational atheism, on the other hand, is a kind of moral anarchy. Ethical autism has a long history with science, now compounded by the electronic autism of Eric Schmidt (Google as God). George Orwell would feast on such carrion!
Many modern anti-religious zealots, unlike Pascal, are not tempered by humility or doubt. They cannot say, I do not know. The cannot say, I may never know. What they do say is that all that will be known shall be known by people like me: an enlightened, progressive, liberal, rational, scientific, intellectual elite. This group will take all of the credit and none of the blame for the mixed record of reason and science since the Enlightenment. They seldom note that the ABCs of modern warfare (atomic, biological, and chemical weapons) were not created by nuns, monks, or rabbis.
The heart of evangelical atheism is cowardice. What many cannot say is what they truly believe. They believe that they, and only they, know the way forward -- all others are backward. They believe that they should not be constrained by "arbitrary" ethics, morality, or law; sounds too much like religion. Hitchens uses the phrase "unfettered scientific inquiry" to describe his vision of the future. Josef Mengele would be comfortable with such a charter.
A profound -- some would say fatal -- conceit infects secular rationalists: the belief that there could not be any intelligence superior to their intelligence. They also believe what tyrants and oligarchs have always believed since the birth of philosophy: they are the philosopher kings (Plato), they are the vanguard (Lenin), and they are the master race (Hitler). They believe that they should do the thinking for the rest of us. They believe that men like Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky are as godlike as it gets. Hobbes called them necessary, and Nietzsche called them supermen. Hitchens disinters Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg in his rant against religion. This is typical Left logic, which confuses radical with significant. The only possible service Trotsky and Red Rosie provide is to illustrate how the atheist Left deals with apostates. Trotsky ended his days with a socialist axe buried in his skull. Someone might also point out to Hitchens that Karl Marx was not so much a descendant of the "rabbinical line" as he was a product of Teutonic philosophy and a virulent, self-loathing anti-Semite.
National Socialism and Soviet Communism shared anti-Semitic roots. And now, at the start of a new century, anti-Semitism is again the legit motif of yet another "ism" -- Islamism. Indeed, the convergence of the secular left and the Islamic right is one of the great ciphers of the new millennium -- a merger where ecumenicism and suicide pacts are interchangeable.
Things get very unscientific very quickly when you ask an atheist to define objectivity and reason. How do they separate their minds from the things they try to understand? Are rationalists capable of some out-of-body experience where they are devoid of inherited knowledge, historic influences, emotions, bias, prejudice, and all the other sensibilities and tangential influences that plague ordinary mortals?
If you listen carefully, you would never know that reason is just one tool, like arithmetic, that we use to understand. And you will seldom hear that much "research" is a smokescreen for junk science -- secondary or derivative compilations. Primary research and reproducible experiments are rare, very expensive, and time-consuming. Yet as long as academics get something into print, nobody seems to notice.
In their hearts, so-called secular rationalists may not believe in consensus, may not believe in the wisdom of crowds, may not believe in history or tradition. And if you have visited any modern American university campus recently, you will understand that they sure as hell do not believe in tolerance, free speech, or democracy -- at least not in any recognizable forms. Truth is what we choose to believe. And the most difficult challenge for all inquiry is to bridge that gap between analysis and acceptance. Any belief is more potent than any new idea. And what we believe always has more to do with faith than reason; we cannot test every belief or every premise for every action. We believe in many things so that we do not trip over everything. The alternatives are chaos or inertia.
In the end, the liabilities of atheism are twofold: philosophical and practical.
Although separated by centuries, Pascal and Thomas Khun (1962) noted that reason often creates parochial blind spots where the quicksand of irreconcilable paradigms is obscured. Pervasive efforts to minimize the blatant political threat of Islamism are symptoms of this philosophical necrosis today. Here, atheists and Islamists share compatible illusions: they believe they are omniscient, they harbor similar conceits, and they worship many of the same false idols.
On a practical level, the "school house" test is also revealing. Rationalists seldom consign their children to shabby state institutions, like the secular schools that they mandate for less affluent citizens.
Indeed, even "community organizers" send their kids to private or "religulous" schools. Faith is just another word for trust. Civilization is impossible without it. Thank God!