Criticism of atheism
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Criticism of atheism is criticism of the concepts, validity, or impact of atheism, including associated political and social implications. Criticisms include arguments based on theistic positions, arguments pertaining to morality or what are thought to be the effects of atheism on the individual, or of the assumptions, scientific or otherwise, that underpin atheism. Criticism of atheism is complicated by the fact that there exist multiple definitions and concepts of atheism (and little consensus among atheists), including practical atheism, theoretical atheism, negative and positive atheism, implicit and explicit atheism, and strong and weak atheism, with critics not always specifying the subset of atheism being criticized.
Various agnostics and theists[who?] have criticised atheism for being an unscientific, or overly dogmatic and definitive position to hold, some with the argument that 'absence of evidence cannot be equated with evidence for absence'. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that a failure of theistic arguments might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism, and points to the observation of an apparently "fine-tuned Universe" as more likely to be explained by theism than atheism. Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox holds that atheism is an inferior world view to that of theism, and attributes to C.S. Lewis the best formulation of Merton's Thesis that science sits more comfortably with theistic notions, on the basis that Men became scientific in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th century "Because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.' In other words, it was belief in God that was the motor that drove modern science." The leading American geneticist Francis Collins also cites Lewis as persuasive in convincing him that theism is the more rational world view than atheism.
Other criticisms focus on perceived effects on morality and social cohesion. The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, a deist, imagined the implications of godlessness in a disorderly world ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"). The father of Classical Liberalism, John Locke, believed that the denial of God's existence would undermine the social order and lead to chaos. Edmund Burke, a name associated with both modern conservatism and liberalism, saw religion as the basis of civil society and wrote that "man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long". Pope Pius XI wrote that Communist atheism was aimed at "upsetting the social order and at undermining the very foundations of Christian civilization". In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II criticised a spreading "practical atheism" as clouding the "religious and moral sense of the human heart" and leading to societies which struggle to maintain harmony.
The advocacy of atheism by some of the more violent exponents of the French Revolution, the subsequent militancy of Marxist-Leninist atheism, and prominence of atheism in totalitarian states formed in the 20th century is often cited in critical assessments of the implications of atheism. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke railed against "atheistical fanaticism". The 1937 papal encyclical Divini Redemptoris denounced the atheism of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, which was later influential in the establishment of state atheism across Eastern Europe and elsewhere, including Mao Zedong's China, Communist North Korea and Pol Pot's Cambodia. Critics of atheism often associate the actions of 20th-century state atheism with broader atheism in their critiques. Various poets, novelists and lay theologians have also criticized atheism, among them G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. A maxim popularly attributed to Chesterton holds that "He who does not believe in God will believe in anything."
Definitions and concepts of atheism
Atheists cite a lack of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. Rationales for not believing in any deity include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. In general, atheists regard the arguments for the existence of God as unconvincing or flawed.
Agnostic atheists contend that there are insufficient grounds for strong atheism, the position that no deities exist, but at the same time believe that there are insufficient grounds for belief in deities.
Ignostics propose that every other theological position (including agnosticism and atheism) assumes too much about the concept of God and that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.
Atheism and the individual
In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal criticizes atheists for not seeing signs of God's will. He also formulated Pascal's Wager, which posits that there is more to be gained from wagering on the existence of God than from atheism, and that a rational person should live as though God exists, even though the truth of the matter cannot actually be known. Criticism of Pascal's Wager began in his own day, and came from both atheists and the religious establishment. A common objection to Pascal's wager was noted by Voltaire, a Deist, known as the argument from inconsistent revelations. Voltaire rejected the notion that the wager was 'proof of god' as "indecent and childish", adding, "the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists."
In a global study on atheism, sociologist Phil Zuckerman noted that though there are positive correlations with societal health among organically atheist nations, countries with higher levels of atheism also had the highest suicide rates compared to countries with lower levels of atheism. He concludes that correlations does not necessarily indicate causation in either case. A study on depression and suicide on depressed inpatients suggested that most of those subjects without a religious affiliation had higher suicide attempt rates than those with a religious affiliation. According to William Bainbridge, atheism is common among people whose social obligations are weak and is also connected to lower fertility rates in some industrial nations. Extended length of sobriety in alcohol recovery is related positively to higher levels of theistic belief, active community helping, and self-transcendence. Some studies state that in developed countries, health, life expectancy, and other correlates of wealth, tend to be statistical predictors of a greater percentage of atheists, compared to countries with higher proportions of believers. Multiple methodological problems have been identified with cross-national assessments of religiosity, secularity, and social health which undermine conclusive statements on religiosity and secularity in developed democracies.
The influential deist philosopher Voltaire, criticised established religion to a wide audience, but conceded a fear of the disappearance of the idea of God: "After the French Revolution and its outbursts of atheism, Voltaire was widely condemned as one of the causes", wrote Geoffrey Blainey, "Nonetheless, his writings did concede that fear of God was an essential policeman in a disorderly world: 'If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him', wrote Voltaire".
In A Letter Concerning Toleration, the influential English philosopher John Locke wrote that "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all...". Although Locke was believed to be an advocate of tolerance, he urged the authorities not to tolerate atheism, because the denial of God's existence would undermine the social order and lead to chaos. According to Conservative intellectual Dinesh D'Souza, Locke, like the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky after him, argued that "when God is excluded, then it is not surprising when morality itself is sacrificed in the process and chaos and horror is unleashed on the world".
The Catholic Church believes that morality is ensured through natural law but that religion provides a more solid foundation. For many years in the United States, atheists were not allowed to testify in court because it was believed that an atheist would have no reason to tell the truth (see also discrimination against atheists).
Atheists such as biologist and popular author Richard Dawkins have proposed that human morality is a result of evolutionary, sociobiological history. He proposes that the "moral zeitgeist" helps describe how moral imperatives and values naturalistically evolve over time from biological and cultural origins.
Critics assert that natural law provides a foundation on which people may build moral rules to guide their choices and regulate society, but does not provide as strong a basis for moral behavior as a morality that is based in religion. Douglas Wilson, an evangelical theologian, argues that while atheists can behave morally, belief is necessary for an individual "to give a rational and coherent account" of why they are obligated to lead a morally responsible life. Wilson says that atheism is unable to "give an account of why one deed should be seen as good and another as evil" (emphasis in original). Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, expressed this position by describing a lack of faith as “the greatest of evils” and blamed atheism for war and destruction, implying that it was a "greater evil even than sin itself."
Atheism as faith
Another criticism of atheism is that it is a faith in itself, as a belief in its own right, with a certainty about the falseness of religious beliefs that is comparable to the certainty about the unknown that is practiced by religions. Journalist Rod Liddle and theologian Alister McGrath assert that some atheists are dogmatic.
In a study on American secularity, Frank Pasquale notes that some tensions do exist among secular groups where, for instance, atheists are sometimes viewed as "fundamentalists" by secular humanists.
In his book First Principles (1862), the 19th-century English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer wrote that, as regards the origin of the universe, three hypotheses are possible: self-existence (atheism), self-creation (pantheism), or creation by an external agency (theism). Spencer argued that it is "impossible to avoid making the assumption of self-existence" in any of the three hypotheses, and concluded that "even positive Atheism comes within the definition" of religion.
Talal Asad, in an anthropological study on modernity, quotes an Arab atheist named Adonis who has said, "The sacred for atheism is the human being himself, the human being of reason, and there is nothing greater than this human being. It replaces revelation by reason and God with humanity." To which Asad points out, "But an atheism that deifies Man is, ironically, close to the doctrine of the incarnation."
Michael Martin and Paul Edwards have responded to criticism-as-faith by emphasizing that atheism can be the rejection of belief, or absence of belief. Don Hirschberg once famously said "calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies atheism as a violation of the First Commandment, calling it "a sin against the virtue of religion". The catechism is careful to acknowledge that atheism may be motivated by virtuous or moral considerations, and admonishes Catholic Christians to focus on their own role in encouraging atheism by their religious or moral shortcomings:
- (2125) [...] The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.
The Bible has criticized atheism by stating "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good." (Psalm 14:1). Francis Bacon in his essay On Atheism criticized the dispositions towards atheism as being "contrary to wisdom and moral gravity" and being associated with fearing government or public affairs. He also stated that knowing a little science may lead one to atheism, but knowing more science will lead one to religion. In another work called The Advancement of Learning, Bacon stated that superficial knowledge of philosophy inclines one to atheism while more knowledge of philosophy inclines one toward religion.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, a name associated with the philosophical foundations of both modern conservatism and liberalism wrote that "man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long". Burke wrote of a "literary cabal" who had "some years ago formed something like a regular plan for the destruction of the Christian religion. This object they pursued with a degree of zeal which hitherto had been discovered only in the propagators of some system of piety... These atheistical fathers have a bigotry of their own; and they have learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk." In turn, wrote Burke, a spirit of atheistic fanaticism had emerged in France.
We know, and, what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good, and of all comfort. In England we are so convinced of this [...] We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and among many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
Atheism and politics
The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that during the twentieth century, atheists in Western societies became more active and even militant. They rejected the idea of an interventionist God, and said that Christianity promoted war and violence, though "It tends to be forgotten however, that the most ruthless leaders in the Second World War were atheists and secularists who were intensely hostile to both Judaism and Christianity" and "Later massive atrocities were committed in the East by those ardent atheists, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. All religions, all ideologies, all civilizations display embarrassing blots on their pages".
Early twentieth century
From the outset, Christians were critical of the spread of militant Marxist‒Leninist atheism, which took hold in Russia following the 1917 Revolution, and involved a systematic effort to eradicate religion. In the USSR after the Revolution, the teaching the faith to the young was criminalized.Marxist‒Leninist atheism and other adaptations of Marxian thought on religion have enjoyed the official patronage of various one-party Communist states since 1917. The Bolsheviks pursued "militant atheism". The Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin energetically pursued the persecution of the Church through the 1920s and 1930s. Many priests were killed and imprisoned. Thousands of churches were closed, some turned into temples of atheism. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution. The regime only relented in its persecution following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Pope Pius XI reigned from 1922 to 1939 and responded to the rise of Totalitarianism in Europe with alarm. He issued three papal encyclicals challenging the new creeds: against Italian Fascism, Non abbiamo bisogno (1931; 'We do not need to acquaint you); against Nazism, "Mit brennender Sorge" (1937; 'With deep concern'); and against atheist Communism, Divini redemptoris (1937; 'Divine Redeemer'). The papacy during the era of Hitler and Stalin was critical of the efforts of the two totalitarianisms to eliminate religious education. In the Soviet Union it was made a criminal offence for priests to teach a child the faith. In Nazi Germany, priests were watched closely and frequently denounced, arrested and sent to concentration camps. By 1939 all Catholic denominational schools in the Third Reich had been disbanded or converted to public facilities.
We too have frequently and with urgent insistence denounced the current trend to atheism which is alarmingly on the increase... We raised a solemn protest against the persecutions unleashed in Russia, in Mexico and now in Spain. [...] In such a doctrine, as is evident, there is no room for the idea of God; there is no difference between matter and spirit, between soul and body; there is neither survival of the soul after death nor any hope in a future life. Insisting on the dialectical aspect of their materialism, the Communists claim that the conflict which carries the world towards its final synthesis can be accelerated by man. Hence they endeavor to sharpen the antagonisms which arise between the various classes of society. Thus the class struggle with its consequent violent hate and destruction takes on the aspects of a crusade for the progress of humanity. On the other hand, all other forces whatever, as long as they resist such systematic violence, must be annihilated as hostile to the human race.
— Excerpts from Divini Redemptoris (1937), by Pope Pius XI
In Non abbiamo bisogno, Pius condemned Italian Fascism's "pagan worship of the State" and "revolution which snatches the young from the Church and from Jesus Christ." The central figure in Italian Fascism was the atheist Benito Mussolini. In his early career, Mussolini made violent pronouncements against the Church, and the first Fascist programme, written in 1919, had called for the secularization of Church property in Italy. In office however, he moderated his stance, and permitted the teaching of religion in schools and came to terms with the Pope.
According to Richard J. Evans, the Hitler regime had sought to reduce the influence of Christianity on society. While the regime did not publicly declare itself for state atheism (despite the urging of leading Nazis like Martin Bormann), it did encourage some party functionaries to abandon their certain religion, and persecuted religious groups - including Jews, Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses. Richard J. Evans wrote that Hitler emphasised his belief that Nazism was a secular ideology founded on modern science and that "'In the long run', supposedly [Hitler] concluded, 'National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together'". Despite the encouragement of the Nazi system, the great majority of Nazis did not leave their churches and Hitler kept "Gott mit uns", which is German for "God with us", as the official motto of Germany.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI issued his anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, and said:
It is on faith in God, preserved pure and stainless, that man's morality is based. All efforts to remove from under morality and the moral order the granite foundation of faith and to substitute for it the shifting sands of human regulations, sooner or later lead these individuals or societies to moral degradation. The fool who has said in his heart "there is no God" goes straight to moral corruption (Psalms xiii. 1), and the number of these fools who today are out to sever morality from religion, is legion.
— Excerpt from Mit brennender Sorge (1937) by Pope Pius XI
Pius XI died on the eve of World War Two. Following the outbreak of war and the 1939 Nazi/Soviet joint invasion of Poland, the newly elected Pope Pius XII again denounced the eradication of religious education in his first encyclical, saying "Perhaps the many who have not grasped the importance of the educational and pastoral mission of the Church will now understand better her warnings, scouted in the false security of the past. No defense of Christianity could be more effective than the present straits. From the immense vortex of error and anti-Christian movements there has come forth a crop of such poignant disasters as to constitute a condemnation surpassing in its conclusiveness any merely theoretical refutation."
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny
— Speech by Pope Benedict XVI, Britain, 2010
The British biologist Richard Dawkins denounced the Catholic Church in response and wrote that Hitler was a "member of the Roman Catholic church" because he "never renounced his baptismal Catholicism", and said that "Hitler certainly was not an atheist. In 1933 he claimed to have 'stamped atheism out', having banned most of Germany's atheist organisations, including the German Freethinkers League whose building was then turned into an information bureau for church affairs." In contrast, the historian of the Nazi period Richard J. Evans wrote that the Nazis encouraged atheism and deism over Christianity, while historian of the German Resistance Anton Gill has written that Hitler wanted Catholicism to have "nothing at all to do with German society" and closed all Catholic organisations that weren't "strictly religious" - including schools and newspapers. Similarly, Hitler biographers Alan Bullock, Ian Kershaw and Laurence Rees have concluded that Hitler was anti-Christian, a view evidenced in documents such as the Goebbels Diaries, the memoirs of Albert Speer, and the transcripts in Hitler's Table Talk compiled by Martin Bormann. Bullock wrote that Hitler was a rationalist and a materialist with no feeling for the spiritual or emotional side of human existence: a "man who believed neither in God nor in conscience". The Nazi leader restrained his anti-clericalism only out of political considerations, wrote Bullock, and once the war was over intended to "root out and destroy the influence of the Christian Churches".
According to Dinesh D'Souza, "Hitler’s leading advisers, such as Goebbels, Heydrich and Bormann, were atheists who were savagely hostile to religion" and Hitler and the Nazis "repudiated what they perceived as the Christian values of equality, compassion and weakness and extolled the atheist notions of the Nietzschean superman and a new society based on the 'will to power'.” Yet, when Hitler was out campaigning for power in Germany, he made opportunistic statements apparently in favour of "Positive Christianity"). In Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Bullock wrote that Hitler, like Napoleon before him, frequently employed the language of "Providence" in defence of his own myth, but ultimately shared with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, "the same materialist outlook, based on the nineteenth century rationalists' certainty that the progress of science would destroy all myths and had already proved Christian doctrine to be an absurdity".
According to Tom Rees, some researches suggest that atheists are more numerous in peaceful nations than they are in turbulent or warlike ones, but causality of this trend is not clear and there are many outliers. However, opponents of this view cite examples such as the Bolsheviks (in Soviet Russia) who were inspired by "an ideological creed which professed that all religion would atrophy ... resolved to eradicate Christianity as such". In 1918 "[t]en Orthodox hierarchs were summarily shot" and "[c]hildren were deprived of any religious education outside the home." Increasingly draconian measures were employed. In addition to direct state persecution, the League of the Militant Godless was founded in 1925, churches were closed and vandalized and "by 1938 eighty bishops had lost their lives, while thousands of clerics were sent to labour camps."
After World War II
Across Eastern Europe following World War Two, the parts of Nazi Germany and its allies and conquered states that had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, along with Yugoslavia, became one-party Communist states, which, like the Soviet Union, were antipathetic to religion. Persecutions of religious leaders followed. The Soviet Union ended its truce against the Russian Orthodox Church, and extended its persecutions to the newly Communist Eastern block: "In Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries, Catholic leaders who were unwilling to be silent were denounced, publicly humiliated or imprisoned by the Communists. Leaders of the national Orthodox Churches in Romania and Bulgaria had to be cautious and submissive", wrote Blainey.
Albania under Enver Hoxha became, in 1967, the first (and to date only) formally declared atheist state, going far beyond what most other countries had attempted – completely prohibiting religious observance, and systematically repressing and persecuting adherents. The right to religious practice was restored in the fall of communism in 1991. In 1967, Enver Hoxha's regime conducted a campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania; by year's end over two thousand religious buildings were closed or converted to other uses, and religious leaders were imprisoned and executed. Albania was declared to be the world's first atheist country by its leaders, and Article 37 of the Albanian constitution of 1976 stated that "The State recognises no religion, and supports and carries out atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people."
In 1949, China became a Communist state under the leadership of Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China. China itself had been a cradle of religious thought since ancient times, being the birthplace of Confucianism and Daoism. Under Communism, China became officially atheist, and though some religious practices were permitted to continue under State supervision, religious groups deemed a threat to order have been suppressed - as with Tibetan Buddhism since 1959 and Falun Gong in recent years. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao instigated "struggles" against the Four Olds: "old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of mind". In Buddhist Cambodia, influenced by Mao's Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge also instigated a purge of religion during the Cambodian Genocide, when all religious practices were forbidden and Buddhist monasteries were closed. Evangelical Christian writer Dinesh D'Souza writes that "The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth." He also contends:
And who can deny that Stalin and Mao, not to mention Pol Pot and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a Communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic? Who can dispute that they did their bloody deeds by claiming to be establishing a 'new man' and a religion-free utopia? These were mass murders performed with atheism as a central part of their ideological inspiration, they were not mass murders done by people who simply happened to be atheist.
In response to this line of criticism, Sam Harris wrote:
The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.
Richard Dawkins has stated that Stalin's atrocities were influenced not by atheism but by dogmatic Marxism, and concludes that while Stalin and Mao happened to be atheists, they did not do their deeds "in the name of atheism". On other occasions, Dawkins has replied to the argument that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were antireligious with the response that Hitler and Stalin also grew moustaches, in an effort to show the argument as fallacious. Instead, Dawkins argues in The God Delusion that "What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does." D'Souza responds that an individual need not explicitly invoke atheism in committing atrocities if it is already implied in his worldview, as is the case in Marxism.
Theodore Beale has argued that approximately 148 million people were killed from 1917 to 2007 by governments headed by leaders who were atheists, a total which is three times more than the deaths from war and individual crimes in the whole 20th century.
In a 1993 address to American bishops, Pope John Paul II spoke of a spreading "practical atheism" in modern societies which was clouding the moral sense of humans, and fragmenting society:
[T]he disciple of Christ is constantly challenged by a spreading "practical atheism" – an indifference to God’s loving plan which obscures the religious and moral sense of the human heart. Many either think and act as if God did not exist, or tend to "privatize" religious belief and practice, so that there exists a bias towards indifferentism and the elimination of any real reference to binding truths and moral values. When the basic principles which inspire and direct human behavior are fragmentary and even at times contradictory, society increasingly struggles to maintain harmony and a sense of its own destiny. In a desire to find some common ground on which to build its programmes and policies, it tends to restrict the contribution of those whose moral conscience is formed by their religious beliefs.
— Pope John Paul II, 11 November 1993
Journalist Robert Wright has argued that some New Atheists discourage looking for deeper root causes of conflicts when they assume that religion is the sole root of the problem. Wright argues that this can discourage people from working to change the circumstances that actually give rise to those conflicts. Mark Chaves has said that the New Atheists, amongst others who comment on religions, have committed the religious congruence fallacy in their writings, by assuming that beliefs and practices remain static and coherent through time. He believes that the late Christopher Hitchens committed this error by assuming that the drive for congruence is a defining feature of religion, and that Dennett has done it by overlooking the fact that religious actions are dependent on the situation, just like other actions.
Atheism and science
Early modern atheism developed in the 17th century, and Winfried Schroeder, a scholar of atheism, noted that science during this time did not strengthen the case for atheism. In the 18th century, Denis Diderot argued that atheism was less scientific than metaphysics. However, since the 19th century, both atheists and theists have said that science supports their worldviews. Historian of science John Henry has noted that before the 19th century, science was generally cited to support many theological positions. However, materialist theories in natural philosophy became more prominent from the 17th century onwards, giving more room for atheism to develop. Since the 19th century, science has been employed in both theistic and atheistic cultures, depending on the prevailing popular beliefs.
According to historian Geoffrey Blainey, in recent centuries, literalist biblical accounts of creation were undermined by scientific discoveries in geology and biology, leading various thinkers to question the idea that God created the universe at all. However, he notes that "Other scholars replied that the universe was so astonishing, so systematic, and so varied that it must have a divine maker. Criticisms of the accuracy of the Book of Genesis were therefore illuminating, but minor". Various critics or doubters of atheism point to the fact of the "Fine-tuned Universe" as more likely to be explained by theism than atheism. The American philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains the argument thus:
Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life. For example, if the force of the Big Bang had been different by one part in 10 to the 60th, life of our sort would not have been possible. The same goes for the ratio of the gravitational force to the force driving the expansion of the universe: If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.
— Alvin Plantinga, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, 2014
Blainey wrote that scientist critics of religion today often echo the optimism of their predecessors at the beginning of the 20th Century - who assumed the inevitability of progress through scientific education, but whose expectations were shattered by a violent century and two wars in which "science and technology had been enlisted to help warfare as never before. Moreover, two of the new anti-Christian ideologies - Soviet Communism and German fascism - placed a low premium on human lives, especially those of their civilian enemies. The deadliest sector of World War Two, the scene of far more atrocities than any sector in the preceding war, was the Russian front, where the two secular creeds confronted one another".
Sociologist Steve Fuller wrote that "...Atheism as a positive doctrine has done precious little for science." He notes, "More generally, Atheism has not figured as a force in the history of science not because it has been suppressed but because whenever it has been expressed, it has not specifically encouraged the pursuit of science."
Physicist Paul Davies of Arizona State University has written that the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place: "Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way." Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox has argued that science itself sits more comfortably with theism than with atheism: "as a scientist I would say... where did modern science come from? It didn't come from atheism... modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe, and of course people ask why did it happen there and then, and the general consensus which is often called Merton's Thesis is, to quote CS Lewis who formulated it better than anybody I know... 'Men became scientific. Why? Because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.' In other words, it was belief in God that was the motor that drove modern science."
Francis Collins, the American physician and geneticist who lead the Human Genome Project argues that theism is more rational than atheism. Collins also found Lewis persuasive, and after reading Mere Christianity, came to believe that a rational person would be more likely, upon studying the facts, to conclude that choosing to believe is the appropriate choice. Collins argues "How is it that we, and all other members of our species, unique in the animal kingdom, know what's right and what's wrong... I reject the idea that that is an evolutionary consequence, because that moral law sometimes tells us that the right thing to do is very self-destructive. If I'm walking down the riverbank, and a man is drowning, even if I don't know how to swim very well, I feel this urge that the right thing to do is to try to save that person. Evolution would tell me exactly the opposite: preserve your DNA. Who cares about the guy who's drowning? He's one of the weaker ones, let him go. It's your DNA that needs to survive. And yet that's not what's written within me".
Atheists usually answer this criticism by pointing out that evolution as a process is able to develop both selfish and altruistic traits in organisms (see Dawkins in Criticism of atheism#Morality).
Statistical data on Nobel prize winners in science between 1901 and 2000 revealed that Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers have won 7.1% of the prizes in Chemistry, 8.9% in Medicine, and 4.7% in Physics; while Christians have won a total of 72.5% of the prizes in Chemistry, 65.3% in Physics, 62% in Medicine and Jews have won 17.3% of the prizes in Chemistry, 26.2% in Medicine, and 25.9% in Physics.
In the early 21st Century, a group of authors and media personalities in Britain and the United States - often referred to as the "New Atheists" - have argued that religion must be proactively countered, criticized so as to reduce its influence on society. Prominent among these voices have been Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bill Maher and Sam Harris. Among those to critique their world view has been American-Iranian religious studies scholar Reza Aslan, argued that the New Atheists held an often comically simplistic view of religion which was giving atheism a bad name:
This is not the philosophical atheism of Schopenhauer or Marx or Freud or Feuerbach. This is a sort of unthinking, simplistic religious criticism. It is primarily being fostered by individuals — like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins — who have absolutely no background in the study of religion at all. Most of my intellectual heroes are atheists, but they were experts in religion, and so they were able to offer critiques of it that came from a place of knowledge, from a sophistication of education, of research. What we’re seeing now instead is a sort of armchair atheism — people who are inundated by what they see on the news or in media, and who then draw these incredibly simplistic generalizations about religion in general based on these examples that they see.
— Reza Azlan, 2014.
Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Jack David Eller believes that the four principal New Atheist authors - Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet and Harris - were not offering anything new in terms of arguments to disprove the existence of gods. He also criticized them for their focus on the dangers of theism, as opposed to the falsifying of theism, which results in mischaracterizing religions; taking local theisms as the essence of religion itself, and for focusing on the negative aspects of religion in the form of an "argument from benefit" in the reverse.
Professors of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey, take issue with "the evangelical nature of the new atheism, which assumes that it has a Good News to share, at all cost, for the ultimate future of humanity by the conversion of as many people as possible." They find similarities between the new atheism and evangelical Christianity and conclude that the all-consuming nature of both "encourages endless conflict without progress" between both extremities. Sociologist William Stahl notes "What is striking about the current debate is the frequency with which the New Atheists are portrayed as mirror images of religious fundamentalists." He discusses where both have "structural and epistemological parallels" and argues that "both the New Atheism and fundamentalism are attempts to recreate authority in the face of crises of meaning in late modernity."
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- Simon Blackburn, ed. (2008). "atheism". The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2008 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none.
- "atheism". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
- Rowe, William L. (1998). "Atheism". In Edward Craig. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-07310-3. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. So an atheist is someone who disbelieves in God, whereas a theist is someone who believes in God. Another meaning of "atheism" is simply nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God. ...an atheist, in the broader sense of the term, is someone who disbelieves in every form of deity, not just the God of traditional Western theology.
- *Nielsen, Kai (2011). "Atheism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
for an anthropomorphic God, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is a God; for a nonanthropomorphic God... because the concept of such a God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, incomprehensible, or incoherent; for the God portrayed by some modern or contemporary theologians or philosophers... because the concept of God in question is such that it merely masks an atheistic substance—e.g., "God" is just another name for love, or ... a symbolic term for moral ideals.
- Edwards, Paul (2005) . "Atheism". In Donald M. Borchert. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). MacMillan Reference USA (Gale). p. 359. ISBN 978-0-02-865780-6.
an 'atheist' is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not his reason for the rejection is the claim that 'God exists' expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than that it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes, too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious, and there are many other considerations which in certain contexts are generally agreed to constitute good grounds for rejecting an assertion.(page 175 in 1967 edition)
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In sum, with the exception of suicide, countries marked by high rates of organic atheism are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by nonexistent rates of organic atheism are among the most unhealthy. Of course, none of the above correlations demonstrate that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills. Rather, societal health seems to cause widespread atheism, and societal insecurity seems to cause widespread belief in God, as has been demonstrated by Norris and Inglehart (2004), mentioned above.
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- See, e.g., United States v. Miller, 236 F. 798, 799 (W.D. Wash., N.D. 1916) (citing Thurston v. Whitney et al., 2 Cush. (Mass.) 104; Jones on Evidence, Blue Book, vol. 4, §§ 712, 713) ("Under the common-law rule a person who does not believe in a God who is the rewarder of truth and the avenger of falsehood cannot be permitted to testify.")
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- "Where morality is divorced from religion, reason will, it is true, enable a man to recognize to a large extent the ideal to which his nature points. But much will be wanting. He will disregard some of his most essential duties. He will, further, be destitute of the strong motives for obedience to the law afforded by the sense of obligation to God and the knowledge of the tremendous sanction attached to its neglect – motives which experience has proved to be necessary as a safeguard against the influence of the passions. And, finally, his actions even if in accordance with the moral law, will be based not on the obligation imposed by the Divine will, but on considerations of human dignity and on the good of human society." "Morality". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
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Atheists have appealed to science in defence of their atheism since the first avowedly atheistic manuscripts of the mid seventeenth century. However, as the German expert on atheism Winfried Schroeder has shown, the relationship between early modern atheism and science tended to embarrass rather than strengthen the fledgling atheism's case." ; "The renowned Denis Diderot, atheist and deist in turns, could still say in 1746 that science posed a greater threat to atheism than metaphysics. Well into the eighteenth century it could be argued that it was atheism and not theism which required a sacrifice of the intellect. As Schroeder has pointed out, atheists were scientifically retrograde until at least the mid eighteenth century, and suffered from their reputation as scientifically unserious." ; "As John Hedley Brooke has pointed out, for every nineteenth century person considering these issues who followed figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley or Francis Galton in regarding evolution as devastating for religious belief, there were others, such as the Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore, who regarded Darwin's evolutionary theory as an opportunity for religion.At the beginning of the twenty first century the situation remains very similar:..
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