Friday, August 17, 2007

Hitchens and Atheism

Interesting essay on Christopher Hitchens and his new book on atheism.

Some snippets:
Hitchens seems to hold that believers think of the Creator as a simple-minded Geometer, a Rationalist Extraordinaire, a two-times-two-equals-four kind of god, a flawless Watchmaker, a bit of a Goody-goody, a cosmic Boy Scout. If that is so — Hitchens leaps for your throat — then evidence is overwhelming that this Creator botched things up, like a rank amateur. In short, evidence all around us shows there is no such god.
But suppose God is not like the Hitchens model. Suppose that God is not a Rationalist, a Logician, a straight-line Geometer-of-the-skies. Suppose that the Creator God deliberately made a world of probabilities and failures, of waste and profusion, of suffering and hardships and frustrations. Suppose that He loved the idea of an unformed history, slowly developing (almost like an organism), nearly everything good won the hard way. Suppose that He loved chance, crossing chains of probabilities, freakish accidents, wild and unnecessary profusion, contingencies of every sort — to keep even angels guessing. Suppose He desired a world of indetermination, with all its blooming, buzzing confusion, so that within it freedom could spread out its wings, experiment, and find its own way.
A Perfect World would have no freewill. And otherwise, what would an afterlife be for?

In the moderating habits that Judaism and Christianity partly learned from pagan ethical systems, and considerably deepened with their own resources, Alfred North Whitehead saw the roots of the asceticism, self-denial, discipline, long years of study, dedication to honesty, and limpid transparency which are so necessary for sustained scientific work. Here he also found the conviction that everything in the universe, being the fruit of a single intelligence, is in principle understandable and to be worth all the arduous efforts to try to grasp it.
As a scientist I find that particularly compelling.

Here other scholars (Boorstin, Landes) have found the conviction that it is the human vocation, in the image of the Creator, to be creative, inventive, and to help complete the evolving work of creation.
That last bit puts one in the mind of the old argument over the purpose or need for "Good Works", a whole topic unto itself!

For the atheist — for Hitchens — though, does the problem of goodness create an intellectual problem? If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least so often as to be quite striking? Put another way: Isn’t it unlikely that random chance alone has arranged the world so that many human qualities — the very ones that Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jews and Christians find good on other grounds — should also work better for the survival of the human race? It is at least mildly interesting that philosophy, revealed religion, and random natural selection lead to many of the same moral principles. Perhaps that explains why some atheists are so nobly good (the “secular saints” of Albert Camus), and why some insist on being credited (by believers) with being good. Some do seem to hate it when believers borrow that awful line from Dostoevsky: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

On the other hand, Judaism and Christianity do add insights and virtues that derive from other forms of intelligence than narrow reason. It was against common sense and practical reason for the Americans in 1776, without an army and without a navy, to make war on the greatest naval and military power in the world. But their Declaration did fit with the faith that the reason God created the world was to offer his friendship to every woman and every man; and as Thomas Jefferson put it, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” (Or in the words of William Penn: If God gave us friendship, then also freedom.) Our Founders concluded that even when they prayed to the same Providence as the British, those who fight for freedom are better in tune with God’s ultimate purposes than those who, though apparently stronger, fight to repress it.


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