How Do You Know?
This weekend, a friend alerted me to an interesting DVD special where four of the more prominent atheists out there right now (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) get together for a round-table discussion. The two hour unmoderated discussion is, interestingly, entitled “The Four Horsemen“—a reference, presumably, to the protagonists’ understanding of themselves as the agents entrusted with the hastening of the demise of the blight upon human history that is religion.
From the bit that I watched, the special seems to be mainly about these four guys sitting around congratulating themselves on the obvious superiority of their views, ridiculing religious people, and sharing stories about the “persecution” they’ve experienced from those who have not yet attained their level of intellectual development. I watched twenty minutes or so of the first hour on YouTube and found it fairly uninteresting—mostly, I presume, because I’ve read each of their books and they don’t really say anything in their discussion that they don’t say in their published works.
One part that did interest me, however, was near the end of the first hour when Sam Harris asked his fellow atheists if they had ever come across an argument that gave them pause, that planted even the smallest seed of doubt in their minds that their militant assault on religion might be misguided. For the most part, they said that they could not. Dennett just bluntly said “no”; Dawkins and Hitchens said something to the effect that they sometimes wondered about the political ramifications of angering religious groups, but not one of them claimed to have ever come across an actual argument that wobbled the foundations of their atheism in any way. One gets the sense that it is literally beyond their capacity to imagine how or why any intelligent person could possibly not see thing the way they do.
The new atheists are frequently accused of a rather breathtaking and condescending form of arrogance in claiming to understand and diagnose the “disease” that is religion, but for me, their arrogance is most obvious in their implicit view of the history of human thought and experience. They really do portray themselves as representing the absolute pinnacle of human intellectual development; they, alone, occupy the privileged position of surveying the human condition with absolute clarity, free from the superstitious fantasies that have clouded the judgment of the overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever inhabited the planet.
C.S. Lewis once said that one of the things he found most troubling as an atheist was the view he was forced to take with respect to how others think. In Mere Christianity, he says:
If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.
The “Four Horsemen,” it seems, have no such misgivings. They simply know the truth; the only issue is how to break the news to the rest of us—how to relieve us of our delusions in the most painless manner and avoid stoking the flames of religiously-fueled violence.
In each of the new atheists’ books that I’ve read, the author expresses astonishment at how religious people can claim to have certainty about their beliefs. After reading their books, observing a few of them in debates, and now my brief exposure to their discussion amongst themselves, I can only wonder where the epistemological humility they plead for from religious folks is. John Stackhouse, in a word of warning to those tempted toward claims of certainty in the arena of faith, has recently posted on the importance of recognizing the epistemic limitations faced by all human beings, religious or not. Here’s a summary passage:
This is, finally, the point of it all. We Christians “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)—and so does everybody else, actually, since no human being can transcend our common situation of epistemic finitude. In fact, if we enjoyed all the certainty (in the former sense) that some Christians say we should claim, well, then, we wouldn’t need faith anymore. We would just know things, and we would know that we were entirely right about them.
I think that a little more humility would be a very good thing, on both sides of the atheist/theist divide. We simply are not the sort of creatures who can know, with 100% certainty, that we are right—especially when it comes to metaphysical questions of meaning and purpose. A kind of “fortress mentality” is as evident in “The Four Horsemen” as it is in the most dogmatic circles of religious fundamentalism. In response to the ambiguities and complexities of the real world, both retreat to the safety of certainty, simply declaring (louder and more angrily if necessary) that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
The problem is that the certainty being sought and claimed (on both sides) is illusory. As Stackhouse reminds us, it simply is not possible to transcend the inherent limitations of being human. A wider appreciation of this truth could lead to the welcome recognition that conviction and commitment can be held and articulated humbly and graciously, without demonizing, ridiculing, or questioning the intelligence of those who do not share it.