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On Science, Morality, and Wonder, an Atheist Rebukes Other Atheists


I’ve ordered (from the library; sorry!) the latest from atheist philosopher John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, in which among other things he dissects the New Atheists. Peter Hitchens delightfully reviews the book for the journal Modern Age.

On evolution and morality:

This brief, dry, droll book contains many enjoyable mockeries of various earnest and ridiculous (and failed) attempts to create substitutes for religion, from Auguste Comte to Ayn Rand, who seems to have turned smoking into a sort of sacrament. Even more enjoyably, Gray teases those who try to build a morality on evolution by natural selection, pointing out how that theory has been used in the past to justify what its modern supporters would rightly denounce as appalling racial bigotry and perhaps worse than that. He reminds us of T. H. Huxley’s typically clear-eyed and undeceived warning that evolution “is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

A Child in a Great Library

Hitchens cites a wonderful image from Einstein. This is worth reading:

I think Professor Gray is pretty free of the illusions of modern liberal atheism. Because he has a genuinely original and questioning mind, he seems to me to demonstrate a certain fondness for a sort of pantheism, close to Albert Einstein’s agreeably modest refusal to endorse atheism because it is so banal.

I myself love Einstein’s words because they demolish the assumption that scientific knowledge somehow mandates atheism, or that atheism is the only reasonable consequence of cosmic knowledge. I quote them here because they are not nowadays widely known, and they are greatly relevant to any serious discussion of this matter. In an interview published in George Sylvester Viereck’s book Glimpses of the Great, published in 1930, Einstein responded to a question about whether he defined himself as a pantheist:

“Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvellously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”

Professor Gray, likewise, plainly finds Spinoza appealing (who cannot?) because he separates the monotheistic idea of God from the idea of God as such. In much the same spirit, he likes the equally attractive George Santayana, who was rich and clever enough to be able to watch the clash of ignorant armies from a safe distance, smiling indulgently as he did so. He described his atheism as “true piety towards the universe,” which “denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.”

Gray summarizes Spinoza in a way that seems designed to rebuke the noisy and angry “New Atheists” (whom he dismisses in a few short, scornful pages). He says of Spinoza’s thought, “No one who understands God can hate God, but no one can ask God to love them in return, since they and God are not different things.” Gray, it seems to me, thinks himself too clever to believe in the Christian or Jewish or Muslim God. Even so, he is not too clever to observe that atheism is a bald, blank, and incurious response to entering the great library of Einstein’s parable.

The mental picture of the sublimely mysterious library is sensitive and beautiful. By contrast, setting science aside, New Atheists like Dawkins and Coyne have always struck me as shallow, dulled to wonder, and despite not being young men, strangely immature. “Banal” is the right word.

Photo credit: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons.

H/t: Rod Dreher.