Soulless Atheism

Soulless Atheism

Atheism has no soul.

I write this neither to be patronizing nor offensive, but I am sure I've managed to accomplish both. What I mean by that statement is that there is nothing about atheism that can stir the innermost part of me, that can inspire me to create either art, poetry or music. There is no atheist Dante, Kepler or Beethoven. Isaac Newton is known to us as the inventor of physics, but his greater pride was not the Principia, but a detailed topography of hell and his fascination with biblical prophecies.

The "New Atheists" to me are the same as the old ones, only this time, atheists don't need to live in fear for their lives or livelihood. In fully democratic societies, an atheist may still suffer the stigma of non-belief (especially if he's running for elected office) but he's not going to lose his job because of it. And it should not be any other way: a democracy that takes itself seriously will not discriminate against believers or non-believers because everyone is equal before the law. The days of the influence of clergy in politics has long passed and should not return.

I am not writing to trot out the usual arguments about atheists, but rather to consider that atheism, as a non-belief system, offers nothing that can appeal to the irrational mind. Now, this may seen patently obvious, but we humans are curious creatures. We can think abstractly and communicate those ideas through language, one of evolution's greatest achievements. But we are also irrational creatures, driven by what we consider to be mysterious and calling it ineffable. Our societies, when not killing one another, have been enriched because of our imagination, not only in the arts but also in other fields. If it weren't for a curious student, the way the world works might never have developed into what we call science. Wonder, as the Greek proverb goes, is the beginning of wisdom.

There's a current ad campaign going on this holiday season with an image of the Nativity accompanying the legend: "You know it's a myth. This season, celebrate reason!" My rejoinder to that is as man does not live by bread alone, he also doesn't live by logic alone. How does one "celebrate" reason? It reminds me of one of the side effects of the French Revolution, when clerical influence was repudiated along with the monarchy and the goddess Reason was established as part of the social overhaul. And this also brings to mind the story of the Golden Calf: "Here are your gods, o Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." A substitute for the removal of religion is still a substitute attempting to accomplish the same thing. You can throw out the Nativity and the concept of celebration at winter time, but insisting that we should celebrate "reason" is a dry, dull idea that wants to do the same thing only with far less panache.

How exactly does this work? What compelling narrative does reason or science have to replace the story of the birth of humanity's savior? I have no problem accepting the idea that evolutionary theory is enough to move someone's soul, but is that it? Is there nothing more? When I look at the night sky with my child and whisper "How great are Thy works, O Lord..." should I correct myself and say this is all just the product of physical law, nothing to wonder about and go home? If we have the capacity to leap beyond logic, should that be considered a character flaw that needs to be eliminated?

Put another way, so what if it's a myth? If I were to say, "What's the harm?", I'm sure my e-mail inbox might be flooded with a litany of complaints that the harm of religion causes anger, violence, elitism and other unpleasant charges. It's not that the myth is harmful, the argument might go, but the concept of the myth alone is symptomatic of a thinking disorder that keeps us down. In short, the myth of the Nativity is as damaging as blowing oneself up in the assured belief you're going to heaven. It is irrational, it is superstition and nothing good comes from that.

In his recent book "The New Atheism," Victor Stenger insinuates that a scientist who goes to church on Sunday is shutting off a part of his brain to deny or avoid the contradictions between the two realms (compartmentalization). That he's merely fooling himself. Heaven forbid that this scientist has something that he needs that goes beyond his daily work, something that has no real name, something that motivates him without there being a logical explanation. To describe this drive as nothing more than a physiological or psychological response is the reason why the new atheists won't be making any more headway in society than in times past. Hinting that people are foolish because they go along with these myths is hardly conducive to getting people to back your side or effect social change no matter how well you present your arguments. A person who teaches evolutionary biology by day and teaches the Gospel at night is not a compartmentalizing fool, or trying to have it both ways. He's answering something that he needs that goes beyond a rational explanation for life on Earth and his own existence. This is supposed to be a bad thing?

Contra the humorist Ricky Gervais, science is not humble. Like other human endeavors, it is subject to arrogance and abuse. It's hard to believe that Nazi doctors were anything but humble putting Jews into tanks of freezing water to study the effects in order to apply that ill-gotten knowledge to keep German aviators alive should they shot down over the ocean. It is difficult to accept that Robert Oppenheimer was humble when working on the Manhattan Project, whose deadly bloom vaporized hundreds of thousands of people. He and the others knew exactly what they were doing. The fact that he spent the remainder of life arguing against nuclear proliferation does not negate how it all started. The same science that explains the origin of the universe or offers string theory is the same that can be used for lethal means. Just like religion.

Every single person on this planet is afraid of death. Anyone says they aren't is either lying or needs to be avoided. If belief alone were able to comfort people in times of death, no one would cry at a funeral. By the same token, a non-believer who admits he is stardust and will return as such is making a metaphysical statement under that rational veneer. Because the world has changed as well as attitudes about religion, we should be able to understand that a person who can deal with the irrational and the rational is not suffering from a mental defect. On the streets of Constantinople during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, people would go about their daily business and have heated discussions about the exact nature of the Trinity. In a way, we are the same people. It should not be a question of picking one side or the other, dismissing those who can put the irrational in their otherwise solely rational lives. This is what makes us human. It's what makes us, us.