Novak doesn't understand atheism

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Michael Novak reviews several atheist books at AEI (h/t: Richard Dawkins) under the title "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village." Novak writes a calm and reasoned hit piece on three books (Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Dawkins' God Delusion), but it is still a hit piece nonetheless.

Novak claims of the three authors that "none of them ever put their weak, confused, and unplumbed ideas about God under scrutiny," but those words ring truer of theists than of atheists. He goes on to claim that atheists are guilty of "misreading the literary form of the Biblical passages at stake, whether they be allegorical, metaphorical, poetic, or resonant with many meanings," but we atheists are merely examining fundamentalists' truth-claims. Novak writes that "The Bible almost never pretends to be science, or strictly literal history," but that is false; many believers still insist on a literal reading of the bible with no exceptions for allegory or metaphor:

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

(Articles XI and XII of "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy")

Novak criticizes Dawkins' attitude toward believers, saying that "He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them." I ask--tongue only slightly in cheek--what, exactly, can be learned from those who ask no questions about the only book they read? Novak complains that the three authors "present a quite primitive idea of God," but it is from Novak's bible that this primitive idea is derived.

When Novak attacks Dawkins for not writing a pro-religion book, his piece veers into the nonsensical. When Novak complains that "a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair," he is correct. What Novak ignores, however, is that Dawkins provides a counterweight to the tonnage of "Christian nation" revisionism that currently weighs down the modern mind. For all the "great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor," there are schools stunted by the mind-numbing recitation of dogma; for all the "thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past," there are erasures of scientific manuscripts and their overwriting with prayer-prattle; for every building of a Vatican Library there is a Library of Alexandria burnt to the ground by zealots; for all the "learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology" there are enforced silencings, tortures, and murder of those who would not mouth the correct cant. Novak claims that "[t]he path of modern science was made straight and smooth" by religion, he somehow does not notice that its path was also confounded and misdirected by unthinking adherence to myths and metaphors.

Novak later parodies his opponents rather than dealing honestly with them, claiming that "the pretenses of atheism" require a universe where "everything is irrational, chancy, without purpose or ultimate intelligibility," and calls this "the self-contradiction at the root of their lives." Only a few paragraphs later, however, Novak glories in the randomness of a theistic worldview:

The world of His creation is riven through with absurdities and contradictions, species that die out, and the teeming, blooming, buzzing confusion of contingencies and chance.

He earns no points for consistency when he posits that:

Atheism is in the main for comfortable men, in a reasonable world. For those in agony and distress, Christianity has seemed to serve much better and for a longer time, not because it offers "consolation" but precisely because it does not.

Dies he seriously believe that a brief lifetime of struggle followed by an eternity of joy is not a belief of ultimate comfort and a claim of ultimate consolation? Does he not notice that his beliefs contradict his argument?

Later, Novak claims that atheism forces one to "limit one's attention and understanding" and "limit one's point of view, and the sorts of questions one asks." Atheism is not limiting; religion is. Instead of pretending that the more difficult questions in life are answered with an endless repetition of "god did it," atheists look for real evidence and real answers in the real world. This is hardly a limitation on one's attention, understanding, or point of view.

In a tired trope, Novak calls German Nazism a "self-declared atheist regime" in an effort to whitewash the Nazis' Christianity. Continuing his misrepresentation, Novak caricatures Harris as claiming that "delusional atheists are not really atheists." Catholics are not atheists, except when theists are trying to disclaim responsibility for Hitler. When trotting out the old imprecations of atheism's relativism, Novak observes that: "the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoevsky's: 'If there is no God, everything is permitted.'" I am compelled to state the obvious "naturalistic fallacy" rebuttal that evidently did not occur to Novak: Commonality does not equal correctness.

We atheists are indeed a minority, but that neither invalidates our atheism nor validates Novak's theism. Novak makes many errors in this piece, and puts forward many arguments that never approach a proof. Is this the best he has to offer?

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on March 20, 2007 4:35 PM.

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