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Posted on Apr 15, 2012

Atheism in the dock

Atheism in the dock

The high priests of New Atheism are in town, subjecting us to more of the same. The faithful have responded to the fatuous bus posters to gather at the (not-so-global) Atheist convention, taking place in the same country twice in three years, with the stated purpose of ‘celebrating reason’. An admirable pursuit.

It is difficult to understand, I must confess, what those who define themselves by a negation will be celebrating. Atheism, as a negating proposition, does not carry the onus of proof, but equally does not have anything to offer except critique of the positive assertions of others. Perhaps this is being passed off as a celebration of reason?

Of course, everyone knows that finding fault with the positions of others is the easiest of tasks, particularly when you feel no need to offer an alternative. Critique in the context of presenting a stronger alternative is the difficult task that truly reveals the calibre of one’s reason.

There is a patent inanity in defining oneself in negation of an idea, as opposed to defining oneself in affirmation of an idea. Imagine being an ‘acommunist’ or ‘asocialist’, instead of being a capitalist, or being an ‘aliberal’ instead of being a conservative. Sound silly? Well it is. But it does make life easy. All you have to do is find fault with the ideas you define yourself in opposition to, and sit back making claims to a higher rationality. If ever asked to provide an alternative to what you find so objectionable, all you have to do is remind the questioner that the onus of proof is not on you. And it isn’t. The onus of proof is on the one who asserts.

As for the onus of reasonableness, if you will, that’s a different story. Any idea is proposed in order to answer an underlying question or solve a problem. Negating that idea is only to object to its being the right answer. It does not answer the question or solve the problem. Providing an alternative answer does.

Theism answers the fundamental questions about the reality of the world in which we find ourselves, recognising that nothing contingent, finite and dependent can account for its own existence, and that an infinite series of such things can not be the source or basis of its being. Atheism, in turn, merely negates the given answer (on fallacious grounds, as demonstrated elsewhere), but fails to answer the question. Why do contingent beings exists? What is the reality of the universe? Is it created? Is it the source of its own existence? Or it is eternal, having always existed?

Thus far, there is little by way of rigorous answers, and more by way of ideology – unsubstantiated on its own merits – being passed as science.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, for example, an American theoretical physicist and one of the main items at the convention, notes in an article he wrote last year that it is hard to think of a grander claim than the existence of a divine being. Clearly, this is a matter of opinion. An opinion based on a bias in favour of the natural against the supernatural. An opinion which prejudices the conclusion before the inquiry is even made. In the same article, he wrote,

“…in science when one is trying to explain and predict data, one tries to explore all possible physical causes for some effect before resorting to the supernatural.”

Yet one should not ‘resort’ to anything when undertaking sincere inquiry. Rather, one follows the evidence and affirms that which it leads to, and in doing so, to preference natural explanations over supernatural ones is ideology plain and simple, and reveals the materialist and naturalist underpinning of much of modern science. There is no rational reason why the supernatural should be a last resort. The ‘supernatural’, after all, is simply that which is extra-spatial and extra-temporal, that is, beyond space and time, which define the natural world.

Ideology being passed as science is noticed in cosmology too. An editorial in the New Scientist from January this year notes,

“Over the years [cosmologists] have tried on several different models of the universe that dodge the need for a beginning while still requiring a big bang” [emphasis mine].

Expressing similar sentiments, Stephen Hawking, at a symposium convened earlier this year to honour his 70th birthday, said about this beginning of the universe, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.”

Lisa Grossman, reporting in the New Scientist on a paper presented at that very meeting, wrote,

“…[It] suggests that the universe is not eternal, resurrecting the thorny question of how to kick-start the cosmos without the hand of a supernatural creator.”

Note how the question is not ‘what is the origin of the universe?’, but rather ‘how do we kick-start the universe without the hand of a supernatural creator?’

As for where ideology is not being passed as science, Atheism faces immense problems in answering the aforementioned fundamental questions and the assertions made, implicit if not explicit, lead to absurd conclusions.

Negating the existence of God leaves only two options with respect to the origins of the universe – either it is eternal or it came from nothing. But is the universe eternal? Can an infinite regress of temporal causes actually exist? Even presuming it can, on what grounds would you ignore the bulk of modern astrophysical evidence that points to an absolute beginning?

Or did the universe come from nothing? Can something come from nothing? An absurd proposition, in order to get around which the new trick is to re-define ‘nothing’. Dr. Lawrence Krauss – with whom I had the opportunity to contest these ideas at a forum at the ANU in Canberra this week – is the latest proponent of this disingenuous re-definition, whereby nothing becomes something but keeps the label of ‘nothing’.

What Dr. Krauss does, in his new book, is to describe the quantum vacuum as ‘nothing’, and then appeal to the modern findings of quantum mechanics – the rigour of whose mathematical structures is only matched by the highly-speculative nature of their interpretation as to real-world implications (but never mind that) – to suggest that the origins of the universe may be this type of ‘nothing’.

Evidently, this is nonsense. The word ‘nothing’ in the English language is a term of universal negation, meaning ‘not anything’. It cannot be given as a label to something. The quantum vacuum is, excuse the double negative, not nothing. The quantum vacuum has properties. It comprises of space and energy. It fluctuates. It is subject to laws and the equations of quantum field theory. It has properties that are describable, predictable and falsifiable. It is definitely something.

So if the universe is not eternal and could not have come from nothing, the atheist is left with naught but to acknowledge that he or she is without explanation, but not without the faith in science and its ability to possibly provide an explanation at some point in the future. Fine. But is not a reasonable explanation, even if not absolutely conclusive in your mind, better than no explanation?

Negating the existence of God also leaves the atheist with little choice but to adopt secularism and humanism, which are affirmative propositions, requiring positive substantiation, of which nothing rigorous has been presented.

In the end, Atheism asserts that human beings are just accidental by-products of matter plus time plus chance, who have evolved on an iota of dust lost in a hostile and mindless universe, doomed to eventually perish. A doomed race in a dying universe, no more significant – except for any significance we conjure up for our hapless selves – than a swarm of mosquitoes or flies.

The rational extension of this, one would imagine, would be do whatever you want! Make the most of a short and meaningless existence. Yet, by some leap of faith, atheists still assert the need to be good, to act morally, and to hold global conventions trying to convince others of atheism.

One would expect that the high priests of New Atheism preach, at these conventions, a worldly salvation gained through the embrace of noble lies by which people can overcome the meaninglessness of their lives. But no, pretending there is no issue is too enticing an easy way out.

Predictable, perhaps, that those clumsy about rational validation would rather ignore the rational extensions of their ideas. Then again, everything about New Atheism is rather predictable. Be as it may, these are some of questions and issues faced by Atheism, particularly the ‘new’ garden variety, which demand answers if indeed its proponents have anything to do with reason, the empty celebration of which is evidently easier than its proper use. Will the answers be forthcoming? We’re all ears, but we’re certainly not holding our breath.

Uthman Badar is a writer, activist and the media representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia.

[This piece was published on the ABC Drum on 15 Apr 2012]

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