Why All Atheists aren’t Monsters

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, seems to have become the darling of the media. His articles pop up everywhere. His latest screed against religion carries the title “Atheists surely aren’t monsters.”[1] He begins by claiming, “Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.” Harris is here to tell theists that none of this is true. In order to support his claim, he wants us to know “that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society.” Because of this, he continues, “it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.”

The first myth Harris wants to dispel is “Atheists believe life is meaningless.” He argues that “Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived.” He is arguing in a circle. How does he know when life is being really and fully lived unless he first assumes life is meaningful? I suspect that any number of people—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot—believed they were living life to the fullest, and life would be more meaningful if certain people didn’t share it with them.

I won’t question his claim that he believes life is meaningful, but as an atheist he must account for the meaningfulness of life given the naturalistic presuppositions he most assuredly shares with other prominent atheists. Consider, for example, the opening comments in John Gribbin’s book The Scientists:

The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the Universe is that we are not special. . . . While all this was going on, biologists tried and failed to find any evidence for a special ‘life force’ that distinguishes living matter from non-living matter, concluding that life is just a rather complicated form of chemistry. . . . For human life turned out to be no different from any other kind of life on Earth. As the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace established in the nineteenth century, all you need to make human beings out of amoebas is the process of evolution by natural selection, and plenty of time.[2]

According to Gribbin, at the biological level, science has not been able to distinguish between a human and a hammer. Both can be studied solely in terms of chemistry defined by the elements of the periodic table. So then, the burden of proof is on Harris and all atheists to account for “meaning” given the materialistic assumptions of Gribbin and the naturalistic presuppositions articulated by top-dog atheist Richard Dawkins:

In the universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.[3]

Since according to Gribbin and Dawkins we are only “complicated chemistry” and DNA that “neither knows nor cares,” then logic leads to the inevitable conclusion that said products of chemistry and DNA (humans) “neither know nor care.” Life, therefore, given naturalistic assumptions, is meaningless.

The reason most atheists aren’t monsters is that they are not consistent with their atheistic assumptions. Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Southern Presbyterian theologian, wrote, “To borrow [Thomas] Carlyle’s rough phrasing:[4] ‘If mine is a pig’s destiny, why may I not hold this “pig philosophy”?’ Again, if I am but an animal refined by evolution, I am entitled to live an animal life. Why not? The leaders in this and the sensualistic philosophy may themselves be restrained by their habits of mental culture, social discretion and personal refinement (for which they are indebted to reflex Christian influences); but the herd of common mortals are not cultured and refined, and in them the doctrine will bear its deadly fruit.”[5] Because Christianity had so impacted nineteenth-century society, as it still does today to the benefit of all, including atheists, the ethical and cultural effects of Darwinism were at first minimal. In time, however, as consistency began to be demanded of the new naturalistic worldview, the evolutionary dogma impacted the world in ominous ways. The non-monster Harris has been caught in the matrix of a Christian worldview that he cannot escape. If he ever does, he will join the ranks of Monsters, Inc. who were consistent with their atheistic presuppositions and unleashed untold hardship on the twentieth century.

Footnotes:
[1]
. Sam Harris, “Atheists surely aren’t monsters,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (December 28, 2006), A21.
[2]
. John Gribbin, The Scientists: A History of Science Told through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors (New York: Random House, [2002] 2006), xvii, ix.
[3]. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 133.
[4]
. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) described Utilitarianism as “Pig-Philosophy” (see his “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” 1850).
[5]. Robert L. Dabney, “The Influences of False Philosophies upon Character and Conduct,” in Discourses (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Pub., 1979), 4:574.
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