North Eastern Atheism

Gallup recently updated a regular poll they do on how religious each state in America is. Their most recent ranking places Vermont as the least religious, unseating New Hampshire from its recent place atop those rankings. Combining this poll and other larger surveys showing the secularization of America in general and the North East specifically, much has been said and written trying to analyze the findings.

One op-ed piece that ended up making the rounds is written by Brandon Phinney, a State Representative in New Hampshire. He is responding to others who are worried about the decline of religious sentiment in the North East, and in doing so he makes his brand of atheism clear. The reason his op-ed caught my eye is that it is replete with the talking points of the most popular atheists over the last decade. In his constrained word count he manages to throw everything and the kitchen sink at religion, concluding that it is actually a really good thing for culture if it trends more secular. Two of the paragraphs go like this:

I fail to see the problem with this cultural shift. In an age of information, scientific progress and exploration and the understanding of the workings of our world, it is difficult and to be frank, rather foolish, to hold onto archaic beliefs that deny reality. In these modern times of religious extremism, I do not see the value of belief systems that consistently devalue others by telling them they’re bad people for not believing the same things or having some sort of moral superiority. Also the amount of hatred from these groups that manifest into violence turns people away. People are rejecting religion because it just does not coalesce with our modern times.

The reliance of self is something to be celebrated. By being able to rely on ourselves instead of unseen forces that cannot be proven to exist, we encourage personal responsibility, personal freedom and autonomy with others. Love, morality, justice, etc. are not strictly religious doctrines, but originate in our human nature to do good for ourselves and for others.

One of the reasons I quote him at length is because I believe each assertion of his deserves attention (thought that would take too much space), as does the flow of his argument. Is he right? Is his view, as expressed, coherent?

First, he argues that because we live today instead of yesterday, we can’t hold to yesterday’s belief. The point is something like, “we know more stuff now, which makes old beliefs false.” This is a view expressed often, but I don’t think it passes muster. In order for this argument to be true, something like this has to be the case: “Advancement X in technology or scientific discovery has shown religious view Z to be false.” This cannot be shown to be true for several reasons, but is often used by those who have not thought enough about the kind of God they are trying to disprove. Often it is argued that because religion is a “God of the gaps” faith, and we have filled in the “gaps” with science, we no longer need God. But that view needs refining. It is true that we no longer need Thor to explain lightning, but the God of the Christian faith is not like Thor. In no way is he a “God of the gaps.” You can fill in all the gaps you like, but you have still done nothing to disprove the existence of the God that Christians believe in.

One might say that we are too advanced (whatever that means) to believe in something like the virgin birth. But there again, I am not convinced this has been thought through. The ancients knew exactly where children came from and were never under any mythological delusions about the biology of making children. That is, in fact, why the doctrine of the virgin birth was so remarkable to them as well – they wouldn’t have believed it, either.

Then another generalization follows with his comments on “religious extremism.” This is another move that strikes me as a bit heavy-handed. What does that phrase refer to? I think it can be reasonably inferred that he means some kind of terrorism, but if he does, he is referring to one interpretive branch of only one of the world’s religions. Thus, to refer to them all with that phrase is simply intellectually dishonest. It is curious to me that atheists make reference to Islam in order to gripe about Christianity.

His assertion that “Love, morality, justice…” originate in our human nature is especially dubious. He may or may not be aware of all the philosophical work done through the ages trying to make that very case, but very few of them are convincing, much less succeed without qualification. Every one of those items he lists is a moral truth crucial to human survival. If he wishes to propose that we are all subject to these moral truths, he needs to appeal to a trans-cultural authority that every one of us answers to. If he doesn’t, he is simply expressing his opinion. It is common to understand that the only place to go in order to make sense of genuine moral truths is the existence of a Moral Law Giver – God.

And then, finally, the flow of his argument folds back on itself in an unflattering way. He begins by labeling religious faith as archaic, presenting his view as superior. Then he argues against religion because it presents itself as the moral high-ground, saying everyone else is wrong. He just committed the very sin he complains about. So, which is it?

One of the primary reasons the rash of “New Atheists” in the last decade has subsided is that they never really did the work of making good arguments or refining their views in light of better arguments – even from fellow atheists. This op-ed piece is just another example of that failing intellectual stream.

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