How to be a Package-Dealing

How to be a Package-Dealing Theist — In a recent NRO essay, Michael Novak accuses atheists of trying to have the cake of theism, while eating it too. Novak's analysis is such a well-distilled statement of common confusions, that it's worthwile working through the worst of it. Novak says,

Atheism is a long-term project. It is not completed when one ceases believing in God. It is necessary to carry it through until one empties from the world all the conceptual space once filled by God. One must also, for instance, abandon the conviction that the events, phenomena, and laws of the world we live in (those of the whole universe) cohere, belong together, have a unity. What is born from chance may be ruled by chance, quite insanely.

Most atheists one meets, however, take up a position rather less rigorous. To the big question — Did the world of our experience, with all its seeming intelligibility and laws, come into existence by chance, or by the action of an agent that placed that intelligibility there in the first place? — the run-of-the-mill journalistic atheist replies, By chance.

Problem is, such fellows blink at the point grasped so fearlessly by Nietzsche. If the answer to the Big Question is chance, then all the coherence among the little questions may mean nothing at all — is intelligible only in appearances, and is otherwise a big lie. Courage is not really any better than cowardice; that's only a preference. Hate is not really worse than love; to think so is merely a weakling's prejudice. Freedom is no better than slavery; both are equally absurd. Destructiveness is no better and no worse than creativity.

Most atheists, of course, would rather get rid of God, but still keep the rationality in the universe that comes from actually having a God, Who understood all things before they were, and then made them to be. Atheists of that sort would even like to keep the Jewish vision of community, justice, and compassion, as set forth in the Prophets. All this, without keeping the God of Israel.

A nice deal, if you can negotiate it.

Novak starts out in magnificent error. Atheism is not a long-term project. It is completed when one ceases to believe in God. The reason why a philosophical atheist becomes one is that there is no conceptual space filled by God. The postulate explains nothing. Novak says, “One must also, for instance, abandon the conviction that the events, phenomena, and laws of the world we live in (those of the whole universe) cohere, belong together, have a unity.” But why? Clearly phenomena do cohere. That is why they are explicable by laws of nature. And the laws by which we have come to explain the universe do not mention God, do not need him in the inventory of things in order to do their explaining. Physics, chemistry, biology and so on, do just fine. God does not help here. We may ask where the laws came from. And likewise, we may inquire into God's provenance. To say that God just exists, period, is no better than to say that the world and its manifest order just exists, period.

Indeed, to bring in God is to make it worse. We've just postponed our questions. God is not an explanation until we explain how God explains the coherence of nature, and until we explain God. To argue that God is a mystery beyond our ken is but a lazy evasion. We have in effect said, “Got something to explain? Well, let me tell you, there is something that explains everything. But what about that thing? Well, don't worry about it; just relax and go with it.” This does not satisfy understanding. Again, where did that thing come from? Is it the way it is of necessity, or chance? If it didn't come from anywhere, and if it is the way it is because it has to be, then why isn't that explanation just as good for the universe sans God? It's surprising how many people are taken in simply by adding something else to the universe, and then moving explanation back a step

Is the Godless universe governed by chance? To say so is to say that there is another way things might have been. I do not know that there is another way things might have been. In fact, the fundamental laws of nature create the space for how things are. The laws are the frame in which the universe is the picture. To say that the fundamental laws could have been different is grammatical, but I doubt it's a meaningful claim. You've bumped up against the bounds of sense. You're making meaningful-sounding noises, but you aren't meaning anything. But, more to the point, how does lack of belief in God entail a belief in the ultimate chanciness of the universe? It doesn't. That there is order is a datum. Whether God explains it is the question. It begs the question to assume that no God, no order — or to assume that if God, then necessarily God.

Next we get this, the tired canard that atheists must be nihilists — that according to the free-thinker, “Courage is not really any better than cowardice; that's only a preference. Hate is not really worse than love; to think so is merely a weakling's prejudice. Freedom is no better than slavery; both are equally absurd. Destructiveness is no better and no worse than creativity.”

Again, all the relevant questions are begged. Dubious packages are dealt. Novak's assumption is: if values, then God. But this really is absurd, isn't it? There is something it is like to have a happy meaningful life, to be satisfied with life as a whole. And that experience of happiness, meaning, and satisfaction has a lot to do with courage, love, creativity, and freedom. True, the value of these things is not underwritten by the deep structure of reality. It is underwritten by human nature and the nature of human social life. And that's deep enough, if you're human.

I'm sure Novak was not intending to write something compelling to an atheist, because the tendentious circularity of his reasoning is transparent. But you can safely assume what others would ask you to demonstrate when your intention is merely to rally those who share your assumptions against an imagined enemy. I do not disagree with Novak that religious stories, religious tradition, and religious inspiration played an integral role in creating liberal American institutions. But I won't let him get away with this package either. The question is not whether religion has played a role in the creation and defense of liberal institutions, but whether it is necessary to support those institutions. Novak assumes, no God, no America. But he's wrong here too. Neither virtue nor liberty needs to be mythologized to be loved. Human intelligence does not need to be so demeaned. Virtue and liberty are what people need in order to have satisfying lives, and each of us are capable of seeing this, whether or not we do.

With gargantuan condescension, Novak says that “One must feel sorry for atheists. They seem so lonely. Alone not only under the vast stars of a summer's night, in all this immense cosmos. And passing through it as we do all, as evanescently as fireflies. But alone also in this religion-drenched country, most of whose public spaces reek of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” True, it is not easy being just in a world of injustice, nor is it easy being clear-headed in a world of delusion. But I prefer justice over injustice, and clear-headedness over delusion. I could feel sorry for those who prefer delusion, who are willing to use it — to use the church house, the myths of ubiquitous love — to medicate their loneliness. But I don't feel sorry. I just feel a little sad that people aren't taught, and so never learn, that they are strong enough to walk without the crutch, to engage the world as it is, to find the beauty that's really out there, free for the taking.

[Update: Recommended remedial reading for Novak, and those like him: here.]