The New Atheism – Part II

As I noted in “The New Atheism – Part I”, one of the New Atheism’s most striking flaws is its inability to account for the essential elements of being human. For example, one retreat director noted that, after an arduous mountain climb, he met a hiker from a completely different culture. He and his companion gazed in awe at the magnificent scene below. No words were exchanged, but the kinship of shared wonder was evident. According to the New Atheism, both hikers were simply products of the evolutionary process – more highly evolved, but not possessing a “nature” distinct from primates or lower evolutionary forms. Yet monkeys, crows, and earthworms do not pause in shared awe when they encounter majestic mountain scenery. Mountain goats don’t get giddy over the beauty (nor the height, presumably) of the Colorado Rockies. An appreciation of beauty has no evolutionary value whatever: in the Darwinian struggle, artists are no more likely to survive than uncultured ignoramuses. So why would such a peculiar and unpragmatic quality survive the eons of evolutionary time? And why only in humans?

On a broader level, how is it that the qualities that we admire and love most in humans are the ones that are the most useless in terms of survival? Why do we recoil from Nietszche and Nazism’s brutal “might makes right” philosophy, in which the weak and “unfit” are murdered or discarded, and the perfect and “genetically pure” are given special privileges? Wouldn’t it be better for the species, evolutionarily speaking, if we did eliminate the weaker, less intelligent, less skilled, less fit from the population?

To be fair, many are doing just that: most babies with Down’s syndrome or other genetic defects are being murdered in the womb, so they don’t have to clutter up our streets and schools and homes. The ailing elderly are routinely euthanized in Holland. In Belgium, the state, with or without the parents’ consent, can kill infants up to one year of age if they are deemed too disabled to have a decent quality of life. In the United States, the consistent message to the disabled or very ill that (by not being young, beautiful, and medically perfect) they are unwanted and better off dead leads many to seek assisted suicide in states where this has been legalized. Those doing the elimination, of course, are acting out of compassion: the elderly, the infants, those with MS, are suffering so much. It’s pure mercy to put them out of their misery; it’s not that we’re sparing ourselves the difficulty of loving and caring for them in the long term.

The elimination of the above  “difficult” populations is scarcely a higher state of evolution: it represents a desensitization to the uniquely human qualities of compassion for the suffering and the desire to help those in special need. It is admirably human to tear up at the joy of a special needs participant whose team has won a relay at the Special Olympics; for one’s heart to ache and be moved when entering the Missionaries of Charity’s Home for the Dying and Destitute; to be horrified at the mountain of concentration camp inmates’ shoes at the Holocaust Museum. The New Atheism simply cannot account for these reactions. In one debate, Christopher Hitchens stated that such responses needed no explanation. He argued that compassion and decency and other moral qualities are “innate”. “Innate” apparently means, in this context, “something Hitchens can’t for the life of him account for.” A strict evolutionist should expect our “innate” qualities to be “qualities that give me a better chance of surviving long enough to reproduce”: neither pity nor mercy qualify, by that standard.

The Atlantic, a magazine I formerly respected for its thoughtful articles and sound moral approach on controversial issues, lost that respect with an article about the “hookup culture” on college campuses. The writer approved of – nay, reveled in – the practicality of college students who wanted sex but were too busy for relationship. The article stated that the average woman has 10 hookups (that is, one night stands with no expectation of commitment by either participant) during her college career. The crudity and in-your-faceness of the interviews implicitly condemned any reader who experienced repugnance or moral qualms about the hookup culture and the depravity it embodies. A morally unanaesthetized society would be outraged and shut the magazine down. We, instead, experience (perhaps) some minor discomfort and turn the page. I would argue that such progressive moral desensitization is dehumanizing: it makes us less human. It animalizes us. But the New Atheism allows for no such boundary between the human and the animal.

The New Atheism prides itself on its rational approach. The primary evolutionary advantage that humans have over other primates, in their view, is our greater intelligence. But the most admired and loved humans are not necessarily  the most intelligent ones. With some groups – e.g., scientists, engineers, and some academicians – this may be the case. But regarding Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Albert Schweitzer; Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; St. Francis of Assisi, John Paul II and Mother Teresa: some of these people were quite intelligent, but they are admired most for their compassion for the unfortunate, their integrity, their courage, their holiness, or their commitment to reconciliation. Brilliant people who lack these qualities – e.g., who are also arrogant and selfish – may still be admired, but with strong reservations. Qualities like commitment to reconciliation or courage may be evolutionarily adaptive in certain situations: but for the advancement of the individual, if not the species, honesty and protection of the weakest (except infants and children) are evolutionarily maladaptive. Why would such traits survive? Are they genetic faults? If so, why are they generally admired?

The situation of the New Atheism is analogous to a detective who has solved every aspect of a murder – except: who did it; why he did it; and how he did it. The New Atheism fully accounts for human nature – except its most crucial aspects.  It is a profoundly unsatisfying, shallow approach, often fueled by contempt and intellectual pride, whose proponents’ lives, if at least marginally moral, are morally inconsistent with their philosophy; or who are sociopathic and depraved  when consistent with their philosophy. In contrast, Christianity and its account of reality satisfies every desire of the human heart and mind; and those who practice it most deeply are the most deeply admirable of people – we call them “saints”.


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About admin

I am a Catholic clinical psychologist with a solo practice in Omaha, NE. In the Franciscan seminary, I completed about 2/3rd of an M.Div./MA in Scripture. In my 3rd year of temporary vows, I discerned a call to the married life. My lovely wife Mary and I have a son, Michael, as well as a number of children preceding us to Heaven through miscarriages. We are delighted to be in the Omaha archdiocese and love the Heartland.
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