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Atheist's Scoundrels

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In 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt the author makes the following claim:

For anyone scanning the past and surveying the current world scene, it is nearly impossible to find any outstanding person—except for popes, archbishops, kings, and other rulers—who says the purpose of life is to be saved by an invisible Jesus and to enter an invisible heaven. But it is easy to find many among the great who doubt this basic dogma.[1]

When I first read this I thought it was a joke. Is this man ignorant, deceptive, or just plain stupid? Jesus is no more invisible than anyone else who has lived. The historical record is clear on this. Mr. Haught has trouble believing in reason and logic, and they’re invisible. He writes off anyone who professes to be a Christian. But the logic cuts both ways. From the Christian perspective, the majority of doubters he extols were skunks, scoundrels, and scum, not because they didn’t believe in Jesus but because of what they did. Karl Marx, an outstanding person? And when he comes across one of the worst bottom dwellers of history, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Haught goes out of his way to make Promethean excuses for him.

Apparently, during a rare visit to a brothel, Nietzsche contracted syphilis, which caused him to go insane at the end of his life. After his death, his genius finally was recognized. However, the Nazi claim that his Übermensch [Superman] meant the “master race” of Aryans was another societal fraud which Nietzsche would have renounced. He despised anti-Semitism, militarism, and nationalism, the pillars upon which Nazism stood.[2]

Hitler understood Nietzsche even if our author doesn’t. Nietzsche “believed that truth is merely a cultural necessity,” that “there is no moral truth.” And since there is no moral truth “there can be no absolute notions of good and evil.”[3] Like the author, Nietzsche believed that “greatness and excellence—rather than good and evil—should be used to measure value.”[4] Can anyone say Adolf Hitler?

In addition to the book’s title, the first paragraph of the introduction caught my attention:

Intelligent, educated people tend to doubt the supernatural. So it is hardly surprising to find a high ratio of religious skeptics among major thinkers, scientists, writers, reformers, scholars, champions of democracy, and other world changers—people usually called great.[5]

Of course, much depends on how “supernatural” is defined. I’m a doubter because I dismiss most of what is touted as “supernatural” today. Harry Houdini, Andre Kole, and Dan Korem are the models for healthy “supernatural” skepticism. This does not make me either an atheist or an agnostic. Not all supernatural claims are valid. This is one of the major flaws in this book. The author quotes numerous theists—those who believe in the supernatural—who object to the way the church and its leaders have conducted themselves. If this is the definition of a doubter, then Jesus Himself fits the category. He saved His greatest verbal assaults for the religious leaders of His day (e.g., Matt. 23; Mark 7:1–7).

The author dismisses the greatest of the greats as if they never existed. There is no reference to Bible-believing scientists like Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin, and Louis Pasteur, to name a few; artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse whose first words over the telegraph were “What hast God wrought?”; inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright; Supreme Court Justice David Brewer who declared that America, based on the historical record, should be defined as a “Christian nation”; scholar, Christian apologist, social commentator, and fiction writer C. S. Lewis; social reformer William Wilberforce. The list could go on.

What would happen if we followed the author’s starting point? Let’s suppose that everyone believed the following:

The universe is a vast, amazing, seething dynamo which has no discernible purpose except to keep on churning. . . . But it seems utterly indifferent to any moral laws. It destroys as blindly as it nurtures.[6]

If there are no moral laws, then whatever is is right. Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists, has declared that evolution is “morally neutral.” In fact, since there are no moral laws, right and wrong are simply categories to distinguish the varied responses of pain receptors in the body. But a short bout of pain might be a good thing if long-term issues are at stake. Beating your two children with a hammer so they won’t experience a life of disappointment could be the noble thing to do.

Footnotes:
[1]
. James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 14.
[2]
. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 178.
[3]
. Martyn Oliver, History of Philosophy: Great Thinkers from 600 B.C. to the Present Day (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998), 124–125.
[4]. Oliver, History of Philosophy, 125.
[5]. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 11.
[6]
. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 324.

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