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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 12/1/09

Dawkins' Atheism Is OK, But So Is Theism

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 29, 2009 — On November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin's book "The Origin of Species" was first published. To commemorate the event, CNN ran the story "Darwin and the case for 'militant atheism'" based on various comments about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection made by Richard Dawkins. Some of Dawkins' comments in the article come from his books, but most of the article features a recent interview with him. Dawkins is himself one of the militants atheists dubbed by the media as the new atheists.

But atheism has been around for centuries, so we might wonder what the case is today for militant atheism and what it has to do with Darwin. As Dawkins explains, "to own up to being an atheist is tantamount to introducing yourself as Mr. Hitler or Miss Beelzebub." In short, atheists have gotten bad press from religion, and religious-type people have felt free to use sharp invective to denounce atheism. Ann Coulter, for example, has published a book titled "Godless" (2006) — as though there is something wrong with being godless.

As is well known, the ancient Jews were the original exemplars of God-fearing people, as distinct from godless people (i.e., people who did not believe in the monotheistic God). They considered all non-Jews to be Gentiles, or godless atheists. When Christianity emerged historically, Christians began to refer to godless atheists as pagans. When Islam emerged historically, Muslims began referring to godless atheists as infidels. Over the centuries, godless atheists have gotten a lot of negative press.

However, in the final analysis, I agree with Paul the apostle that "[t]he real Jew [i.e., the consummate monotheistic believer] is one who is inwardly a Jew, and his circumcision is of the heart, spiritual not literal; he receives his commendation not from men but from God" (Romans 2:29 REB). Paul's insight is of paramount importance for defending atheists against the charge of being godless.

To paraphrase Paul a bit, even atheists today such as Dawkins can have inscribed on their hearts and consciences what God commends (Romans 2:14-15). For this is how Paul envisions God working.

But for all practical purposes, this strikingly resembles the way in which Plato envisions "nous" working. In contrast with the historical Jesus, Paul was evidently educated in ancient Greek and Roman philosophic thought, as Troels Engberg-Pedersen shows in his book "Paul and the Stoics" (2000). So perhaps this striking resemblance should not surprise us after all.

In other words, according to Paul's way of thinking, Jews, Christians, and Muslims today who explicitly believe in the monotheistic God do not thereby have a theoretical monopoly on what God commends. For in theory, according to Paul's way of thinking, God may inscribe on the hearts and consciences of godless atheists what God commends.

Indeed, Coulter to the contrary notwithstanding, we should all be thankful if as Paul says God may inscribe on the hearts and consciences of all people everywhere what God commends. Instead of berating atheists such as Dawkins for being godless, we theistic believers should advance our understanding of what God commends and argue robustly with atheists such as Dawkins about whatever they understand to be commended by their hearts and consciences.

In any event, Paul's description of how godless atheists work out their own thoughts strikingly resembles what Plato and Aristotle describe as philosophic dialectic, the process by which we clarify our thinking. Paul says that godless atheists (a.k.a. gentiles) "show that what the law [of Moses] requires is inscribed on their hearts, and to this [inscription] their conscience gives supporting witness, since their own thoughts argue the case, sometimes against them, sometimes even for them" (Romans 2:15 REB).

In short, the process of wrestling with the demands of one's conscience proceeds by pro-and-con debate about the possible alternative courses of action that are available, just as the process of philosophic dialectic envisioned by Plato and Aristotle proceeds through pro-and-con debate. In certain Roman Catholic circles today, the process of pro-and-con debate described by Paul is referred to as discernment of spirits. Moreover, for all practical purposes, the discernment of spirits involves what Plato refers to as "nous" — our way of understanding what is good under a certain set of circumstances.

I myself am a theistic humanist, not an atheist, but I support Dawkins' basic desire to allow the atheist option to be a respectable option, not a disreputable option, as Coulter and others make it sound.

We might wonder why religion has been militant toward atheism. Why can't religious-type people mind their own business and leave atheists alone to mind their own business? We have religious freedom in the United States. But shouldn't we also allow people to be free from religion and be atheists or agnostics if they want to? Why should we Americans privilege freedom of religion over freedom from religion?

Nevertheless, I also want to examine certain comments Dawkins makes in the interview reported in the CNN article.

Christianity is not explicitly named in the article. However, Dawkins does mention that religion is far more popular in the United States today than it is in other western countries. But unnamed the dominant religion in America today is Christianity. So we might wonder why atheism has gotten bad press in Christianity.

As is well known, Christians for centuries have disagreed with one another. Oftentimes, those disagreements have led one group to assert their position to be the correct one and to assert that those who disagree with them to be heretics. From the standpoint of the right-thinkers, the heretics are the wrong-thinkers. At times, heretics were executed, a fate far worse than bad press that Dawkins complains about.

Atheists by definition disagree with Christians about the basic tenet of God's existence. In the Christian tradition of thought, God is understood to be the transcendent divine ground of being. No God = no existence. No God = no evolution.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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