The fallacy of atheism

Laïcité — débat québécois

Atheism is getting a good press these days, but under false pretenses. Remember the Monty Python skit where a bishop and an atheist wrestled to decide "Whether God exists?" The decision was: "God exists, by two falls to one submission." That's funny because - as the Pythons' Oxbridge students knew - such "solid knock-down arguments" do not apply to this question.
Ever since Aristotle we have known that there are two kinds of rational arguments. One is demonstration, used in the sciences, and the other is reasonable judgment proper to other disciplines. The old philosopher said: "It is equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proof." And he added: "not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues lack of education." So we have two kinds of rational thinking, not just one. Science might provide knowledge about reality, but it's not the whole truth.
Today, the creed of atheism is promoted widely - even a summer camp (motto: "Beyond All Reason") - charging that religion is outmoded, suitable only for the unlettered or naïve. The fallacy here is what renowned philosopher Antony Flew called "the presumption of atheism," as if a scientific age requires us to begin by assuming atheism. Recently Flew himself has turned, acknowledging that the idea of a creator is logical.

Having spent my working life in academia, in a discipline studying belief and unbelief, let me suggest an alternative view. First we should note that the hallowed halls of the campus are supposed to be where Reason is king, above petty emotions. I discovered, however, that it is just as much run by self-interest and narrow viewpoints as anywhere else (one need only attend senate meetings to find out). But the real danger is that too many faculties operate with a philosophy called Positivism - only what is posited before our senses is "real."
That's why measurement is king; even the social sciences justify their claim to be scientific by devising ways of measuring human behaviour. C.S. Lewis once remarked: "Our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world alone."
In its earlier form as Logical Positivism this view claimed that only statements of definition ("a bachelor is an unmarried man") or sense data ("there is a cat in the next room") make sense. All others - poetry, morals, religion - are "non-sense." They cannot be tested, i.e. measured. This kind of reductionism had a short life, as language analysts showed how much richer human discourse really is. Today we recognize that each discipline may respond to reality in its own appropriate way, not reducible to merely physical categories. This takes nothing away from science, but shows a wider and more complex truth.
My favourite philosopher is David Hume, star of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. He is the "father of skepticism," whose brilliant analysis showed that one cannot prove cause-and-effect, it's rather a habit of mind based on experience. (Will the sun rise again tomorrow? Probably.)
Now this destroys proper demonstrative proof, so that science is no longer arbiter of right speech. Since the radical breakthroughs of the early 1900s (relativity physics and quantum mechanics), the strictly inductive method of what Einstein called "the youth of science" is outmoded. Now it works with deductive models, analogies, even paradoxes. And if string theory is at all correct, it unveils a multi-dimensional universe where fantasies such as folds in space and wrinkles in time might be discussed as possibilities.
If science is constrained by its own limits (saving it from becoming the ideology of "scientism"), what about other disciplines? Are our moral values and religious beliefs mere products of evolutionary human being? What kind of sense do they make? If Aristotle was right to distinguish two kinds of reasoning, both equally valid, then the discourse of morality and religion - and poetry, too - has its own inner logic, its own proper take on what is real. Therefore the myths and symbols that have haunted the imagination since cave-dwellers are in fact responses to a deeper understanding than mere sense knowledge.
But we must also acknowledge faults in religion. Traditional atheism was largely a reaction to the idea of an omnipotent deity: If God controls everything, why is there evil? (Of course, if theists have to live with the problem of evil, atheists face "the problem of goodness.") This will not do: the popular image of a "God of the gaps" filling in bits of our ignorance, or "God of the zaps" interfering when things get rough - such naïve images require correction. A reasonable faith demands better theology than that, showing a God whose presence in our world affects us through not coercive power but persuasive love.
Thus will it be attuned to the dynamic worldview of modern science, worthy of playing its partner in understanding this mysterious universe.

Modern atheism, however, reacts also to the "religion-and-violence" thesis. Certainly the rise of fundamentalism, which even accepts violence in its agenda, is clear. But the thesis is wrong because it fails to define religion in acceptable terms. After all, the very term "religion" is a modern invention of academics, who separated a belief-system from its cultural matrix. While it is questionable whether it's fair to blame religion for conflicts that have political and economic causes as well, the real question is whether one can assign blame to a supposed entity called "religion" rather than to "nationalism" as the cause of most modern wars. My faith does not tell to me to kill, but my nation does.
Definitions of religion tend to be too narrow or too broad, proving that one needs to shift ground, distinguishing a "cumulative tradition" from "faith" as Wilfred Cantwell Smith did. We must admit that "tribal religion" can spoil both faith and patriotism, but surely in its nobler essence and higher aims faith in a benevolent God must be tolerant, peacemaking. Good religion has to be as self-critical as good science. Or better: genuine "faith" remains a valid interpreter of reality even when "religion" is faulty.
Among the last words of Socrates are these: "We must take the best and most indisputable of human doctrines, and embark on that, as if it were a raft, and risk the voyage of life, unless it were possible to find a stronger vessel, some divine word on which we might journey more surely and securely." Faith, in short, is the logical response to such a word, carrying the deeper meaning of human being. It's not "other-worldly" so much as seeing the "extra" dimension hidden within this world of the "everyday." Faith sees the world as gift, and divine presence as giver - so we have gratitude for this grace.
Faith reveals the "sur-réal," the unutterable Beauty, ultimate Truth.
Joseph McLelland is McConnell professor of philosophy of religion emeritus at McGill University. Among his writings is Prometheus Rebound: The Irony of Atheism.


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Joseph McLelland is McConnell professor of philosophy of religion emeritus at McGill University. Among his writings is Prometheus Rebound: The Irony of Atheism.

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