Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why I'm not an atheist, part 1: Logical inconsistency

This series of posts was inspired by some recent conversations I've had with atheists, some of them family members, on the topics I plan to address here. I want to say, first off, for those who don't know: I used to be an atheist. I was a "functioning atheist" (meaning non-praying, non-church attending, non-religious) for the majority of my life, having been raised as one, and I was a "believing atheist" (meaning having an active belief in the non-existence of God) for several years before becoming a Christian.

I also want to state, for the record, that I think atheism is actually a very good option in some cases, as it was in mine when I was a "believing atheist." When faced with the false "gospel" (which is really no gospel at all) of much of American (pseudo-)Christianity, with its angry "Father" demanding the blood of a righteous man to satisfy his wrath and ordering that all either love him or suffer eternal torments in hell, atheism really is the compassionate, logical option to take.

Having said all of that, I have found the True Gospel (thanks be to God): the Orthodox Faith, as taught by the Holy Apostles and Fathers of the Orthodox Church. And, in retrospect, I see many flaws with my previous choice of atheism. Modern atheism is logically inconsistent, philosophically bankrupt, and historically flawed, and my goal in this series of posts is to demonstrate each of these points. In this post, I will explain, in part, what I mean when I say that modern atheism is logically inconsistent.

The logical inconsistency of modern atheism is largely found in its notions of morality. The vast majority of modern atheists, I'm sure, are more than willing to say that, to focus on a single example for the sake of demonstration, infanticide is morally repugnant. The problem that the modern atheist encounters here, however, is that he has no objective standard by which to deem it immoral.

Infanticide was not only rampant in the ancient pre-Christian world, but widely accepted and, in many cases, even lauded. Infanticide was practiced in nearly every pre-Christian culture, but it is Greco-Roman culture, being the cultural milieu in which Christianity eventually took most firm root, that especially concerns us here. In the ancient Roman Empire, when a child was born, it was immediately presented to the pater familias, the male head of the household. He then made the decision as to whether the child was to live or die. If the child was unwanted by him for any reason, including economic reasons, or perhaps that the child was a female, or that he suspected it to be illegitimate, or any other reason, no matter how arbitrary, it was taken away to die. The Twelve Tables, the foundation of Roman law, in fact obligated the pater familias to send away any infant with visible deformities to die.

Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744.G, a letter from a husband to his pregnant wife written while he was away on a business trip, demonstrates the callousness and casualness with which infanticide was treated in the ancient Greco-Roman world; he writes:
"I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it."
The exposure here referred to was the preferred manner of disposing of unwanted infants in the Greco-Roman world. The most common means of exposure included placing the child in remote places where it would likely be eaten by wild animals or placing the infant into a clay jar and leaving it outside the house to die of asphyxiation or dehydration.

One of the most remarkable features of early Christianity, a feature for which they were noticed (and often mocked) by their non-Christian neighbors, was the opposition of early Christians to the practice of infanticide. Two first century Christian documents, the Didache and the Epistle of St. Barnabas, both issue the same commandment to Christians, an absolute ban on infanticide (as well as prenatal infanticide, i.e. abortion):
"Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion, nor again shalt thou kill it when it is born."
The first laws in the Roman Empire which banned the practice of infanticide were enacted by the first Christian Roman Emperor, St. Constantine the Great, in AD 318. In AD 374, the Christian Roman Emperor Valentinian made infanticide a capital crime. The notion of infanticide as a terrible crime became, because of Christian opposition to it, ingrained into the Western worldview to the point where the thought of murdering a defenseless little infant turns stomachs amongst modern Western people; this was not so in the pre-Christian world and would not have been so but for Christianity.

So why did Christianity so actively oppose infanticide? Why did it break from what was then the commonly accepted practice and choose the diametric opposite course? Because of Christianity's two great revolutionary ideas, one of them derived from its Jewish inheritance and the other an innovation all its own, a strengthening and solidifying of its Jewish inheritance:
  1. That idea derived from the Jews is that man is made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26). This image gives man a special stature and sanctity all his own; this stature and sanctity does not depend on one's health, wealth, power, beauty, strength, or anything else other than simply being a human being. Each and every human being, from the most insignificant peasant working his farm in the countryside of Judea, to the greatest and most powerful king, reigning from his throne in Jerusalem, is of value and possesses inherent and intrinsic worth and dignity. What a revolutionary idea! So completely different from everything before it and around it!
  2. The uniquely Christian idea in this equation is the Incarnation, the belief that God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ. In taking on human flesh, God in fact sanctified all human flesh, imparting divinity to it; through the Incarnation, humanity became sacred, not only created in God's image but now sharing in his divinity. This all is intimately bound up in the early Christian belief called "recapitulation," a belief which Orthodox Christians cling to today as one of the central mysteries of the Christian Faith but which most of Western "Christianity" long ago either pushed to the back burner or discarded entirely. The doctrine of recapitulation consists of the belief that God assumed, and thereby redeemed and sanctified, the various aspects of humanity and of the material world. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Christian bishop and apologist, explains the doctrine of recapitulation in reference to the various ages of human beings thus:
    "... not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself—all, I say, who through Him are born again to God—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise." (Against Heresies, book 2, chapter 22)
Had it not been for the early Christian beliefs that man was created in the image of God and that God had become man in the Incarnation, infanticide would have continued as the common and accepted practice that it was in the ancient world; it would be a normal part of everyday life for all of us. We would not feel this visceral revulsion we currently feel at the thought of leaving an infant to die by being eaten by wild animals or placed into a jar to dehydrate or asphyxiate.

This makes for a conundrum for the modern atheist. The average modern atheist desires to retain the Christian morality which views infanticide as a horrible crime, while removing the theological basis upon which this morality is built. This like trying to remove the bottom blocks on a Jenga tower while hoping the tower doesn't collapse; as the saying goes: "you can't have your cake and eat it too." This is what I mean when I refer to the logical inconsistency of modern atheism.

There are some, however, who are gradually beginning to realize that there cannot be Christian morality without Christian theology. The effects are simultaneously frightening (to those of us who desire to maintain Christian morality as the standard) and logically laudable (for their attempts at an honest atheism). And we are witnessing, currently, the rotten fruits of this absurdity of modern atheism in our culture as we slowly slip backwards into paganism.

Not only has abortion (i.e. prenatal infanticide) become a legal and acceptable practice, already there are voices, and not fringe ones but prominent and mainstream ones, who are advocating for the return of infanticide. Here is Peter Singer, a prominent atheist voice and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University:
"In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings. We saw in our discussion of abortion that the potential of a fetus to become a rational, self-conscious being cannot count against killing it at a stage when it lacks these characteristics - not, that is, unless we are also prepared to count the value of rational self-conscious life as a reason against contraception and celibacy. No infant - disabled or not - has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time." (Practical Ethics, 2nd edition)
As morally despicable as this is, at least it is logically coherent and consistent, more than can be said for most modern atheism. Although not advocating for infanticide, here is a somewhat lengthier selection from one of the writings of Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous and prominent modern atheist, in which he compares human infants to aardvarks and questions why the former should be automatically considered of more value than the latter, and, in the final paragraph of this quoted selection, points a mocking finger at the Christian notion that humanity has inherent value and dignity:
"Sir,

You appeal for money to save the gorillas. Very laudable, no doubt. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that there are thousands of human children suffering on the very same continent of Africa. There'll be time enough to worry about gorillas when we've taken care of every last one of the kiddies. Let's get our priorities right, please!

This hypothetical letter could have been written by almost any well-meaning person today. In lampooning it, I don't mean to imply that a good case could not be made for giving human children priority. I expect it could, and also that a good case could be made the other way. I'm only trying to point the finger at the automatic, unthinking nature of the speciesist double standard. To many people it is simply self-evident, without any discussion, that humans are entitled to special treatment. To see this, consider the following variant on the same letter:

Sir,

You appeal for money to save the gorillas. Very laudable, no doubt. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that there are thousands of aardvarks suffering on the very same continent of Africa. There'll be time enough to worry about gorillas when we've saved every last one of the aardvarks. Let's get our priorities right, please!

This second letter could not fail to provoke the question: What's so special about aardvarks? A good question, and one to which we should require a satisfactory answer before we took the letter seriously. Yet the first letter, I suggest, would not for most people provoke the equivalent question: What's so special about humans? As I said, I don't deny that this question, unlike the aardvark question, very probably has a powerful answer. All that I am criticising is an unthinking failure to realise in the case of humans that the question even arises.

The speciesist assumption that lurks here is very simple. Humans are humans and gorillas are animals. There is an unquestioned yawning gulf between them such that the life of a single human child is worth more than the lives of all the gorillas in the world. The 'worth' of an animal's life is just its replacement cost to its owner — or, in the case of a rare species, to humanity. But tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible, embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, uncomputable value." ("Gaps in the Mind," in The Great Ape Project)

The atheist, plainly stated, has no means by which to argue against this, no matter if he recognizes the moral repugnance and absurdity of such statements. For the atheist, man is not created in the image of God and can bear no inherent value or dignity. Since man is not divinely endowed with value and dignity, man only has the value and dignity which he is granted by other men. Atheist morality naturally tends to utilitarianism, as a morality of utility is the only truly logical atheist morality.

Logically speaking, a child born with Down's syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, or any number of other disabilities and disabling diseases has little if any utility. An infant born with Down's syndrome will cause great amounts of grief, sorrow, and economic hardship to its parents; it will be a lifelong economic, emotional, and physical burden. There is no good logical reason why such a child should not be killed. The same can even be said of healthy infants who are born to parents who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not support and raise the child without significant hardship.

In an atheist worldview we are animals, hence Dawkins' unwillingness to value the life of a human infant as worth more than that of an aardvark. This is only logical; aside from its utility, one animal has no more value than another. According to the standard of value-by-utility, a healthy workhorse is of infinitely more value than an infant with cerebral palsy; if faced with a decision over whether to feed one's workhorse or one's disable infant with one's limited resources, the obvious logical option is to feed the workhorse and let the human infant die.

This is the startling, stomach-churning truth about the modern atheist worldview. That many modern atheists refuse to look this truth in the eye and make their choice between amorality and Christianity is only the product of their own incapacity for philosophical reasoning and unwillingness to be consistent at the cost of their deeply-ingrained Christian moral worldview. In the end, though, this is nothing short of hypocrisy and cowardice.

Whether they are able to summon the philosophical subtlety and intestinal fortitude to face up to these hard truths or not, the fact is that there are some (like Peter Singer) who are more than willing to do so. And, of more consequence, all people will eventually do so unconsciously as the atheist worldview continues to gain ground in our culture, hence the previously mentioned slow but steady slip of our culture backwards into paganism. People will continue to ask "why?" whether consciously or unconsciously and, without the theological underpinnings that Christianity has provided to modern morality, there is no logical answer to that question.

I will close with a short selection from one of the writings of perhaps the only honest atheist in all of history: Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the only atheist I have ever encountered who had a truly consistent philosophy. He was willing to allow his famous thesis that "God is dead" to be carried through to its logical conclusions, namely, that all God-ordained morality has been abolished along with God. Nietzsche advocated fiercely in his writings for a return to the brutality and selfishness and "might makes right" attitude of ancient paganism; he was not shy about admitting that he admired the people famous for their gladiator contests and oppression of the weak. He declared that the "slave morality" (as he called it) of Christianity should be abolished and replaced with this pagan morality. Here is a taste:
To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one's will on a par with that of others: this may result in a certain rough sense in good conduct among individuals when the necessary conditions are given (namely, the actual similarity of the individuals in amount of force and degree of worth, and their co-relation within one organization). As soon, however, as one wished to take this principle more generally, and if possible even as the fundamental principle of society, it would immediately disclose what it really is—namely, a Will to the denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.

Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation;—but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?

Even the organization within which, as was previously supposed, the individuals treat each other as equal—it takes place in every healthy aristocracy—must itself, if it be a living and not a dying organization, do all that towards other bodies, which the individuals within it refrain from doing to each other -- it will have to be the incarnated Will to Power, it will endeavour to grow, to gain ground, attract to itself and acquire ascendancy—not owing to any morality or immorality, but because it lives, and because life is precisely Will to Power. On no point, however, is the ordinary consciousness of Europeans more unwilling to be corrected than on this matter, people now rave everywhere, even under the guise of science, about coming conditions of society in which "the exploiting character" is to be absent—that sounds to my ears as if they promised to invent a mode of life which should refrain from all organic functions.

"Exploitation" does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society -- it belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life—Granting that as a theory this is a novelty—as a reality it is the fundamental fact of all history -- let us be so far honest towards ourselves! (Beyond Good and Evil, 259)
This should be disturbing to every person with a moral sense, but perfectly acceptable to every atheist who wants a consistent worldview. Modern atheism turns the saying of Christ that "with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26) on its head, declaring in its stead that "without God all things are permissible."

In my next post in this series, I will continue to address the issue of morality as it relates to atheism and to Christianity, but with a slightly different focus.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read some of your reasons for leaving Atheism behind, some of them are similar to mine for leaving Atheism. Just found your blog through a link at Tektonics. God-bless, Daniel

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