Friday, March 27, 2009

Sister Mary Wisteria

Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Bill Maher’s Religulous 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 and brimstone. They protest too much. Indeed, they seem to be self anointed; bi-coastal evangelists for nihilism.

So let us review their arguments for rational atheism, their theology if you will. In the first instance, they reject the historical consensus on God. Never mind that every culture, large or small, has believed in some sort of deity. Secondly, they reject the common consensus (and common sense); 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 also out of the certainty that humans can not be ‘as good as it gets’. Experience and common sense tells them that Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens can not be the apex of evolution.

Another axiom for militant atheists 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. The corollary of invective is ad hominem attacks; cherry picking religious figures to vilify. The Pope and Mother Teresa come to mind; 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 questioned the uses 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” tradition.

Polemicists like Maher and Hitchens confuse God with religion. Our entire ethical, legal and democratic tradition is a direct descendant of Judaism and Christianity. A Church is only one of many public institutions; each is populated with saints and sinners. Yet, without these influences, democratic capitalism is impossible. Indeed, it was an Augustinian monk who raised the most profound and lasting defense of free will and choice.

Rational atheism 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 could take another bow!

Many missionary atheists, unlike Pascal, are not tempered by the humility of doubt. They can not say; I do not know. The can not 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 humanity and science since the Enlightenment. The ABC’s of modern warfare (atomic, biological and chemical weapons) were not created by nuns and rabbis.

The heart of evangelical atheism is cowardice. What many can not say is what they truly believe: they believe that they and only they know the way forward – all else is 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 this euphemism.

A profound, some would say fatal, conceit infects secular rationalists; the belief that there could not be any intelligence that is 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 Marx, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in his rant against religion. This is typical Left logic; one which confuses secular saints with significance. The only possible service Trotsky and Red Rosie provide is to illustrate how the Left usually deals with apostates. Someone might also point out to Hitchens that Marx was not so much a descendant of the "rabbinical line" as he was a product of Teutonic philosophy and a virulent anti-Semite to boot.

Things get very unscientific very quickly when you ask many atheists to define objectivity and reason. How do we separate our minds from the things we 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 most scientific method is a smoke screen for junk science – derivative research. Original research and controlled experiments are rare, very expensive and time consuming. Yet as long as academics get something into print, nobody seems to give a damn.

In their hearts, these intellectuals do not believe in consensus; they do not believe in the wisdom of crowds; they do 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 or democracy – at least not in any form you would recognize.

Truth is what we choose to believe. The most difficult challenge for all study is to bridge that gap between analysis and acceptance. Any belief is more potent than any idea. And what we believe always has more to do with faith than reason; we can not test every premise for every action. We believe in something or trip over everything. The alternatives are chaos and autism.

Here’s a common sense test for all those who think that reason trumps faith. If you have a choice between a committed rationalist with a PHD and a nun with a high school diploma; who would you trust to instruct your child? Sister Mary Wisteria wins this contest every time. Even community organizers send their kids to ‘religulous’ schools. Faith is just another word for trust; civilization is impossible without it.

Thank God!

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