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A Theistic Defense of Atheism

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Today I had the good fortune to stumble upon a post by mapantsula over at DailyKOS. Evidently he is a professor at Virginia Tech, and an atheist. His posts are responses to a Dinesh D'Souza over at AOL News Bloggers who made some remarks that were in incredibly poor taste regarding the Virginia Tech massacre.

Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing.

Dinesh then goes on to explain Dawkin's gross materialism as the essence of atheism – that there can be no values, no explanations, no psychological reassurances without a belief in God.  And more surprising, he offers up the problem of evil as something atheists simply cannot answer.  I assure you, Mr. D'Souza, theists are no better at explaining the problem of evil either.

Atheism, like theism, is not a monolithic entity, and more to the point, many of the philosophies that most of us do live our day to lives with do not require God to equate into them.  Some people may believe that "everything happens for a reason" in a theistic sense, but far more of us (I imagine) believe that things happen because they happen – people make choices, earthquakes cause tsunamis, etc.  For emotional context, for some sort of answer to the horror of our brother's suffering people often look to God – but I tell you, as a student of religion and philosophy – the problem of evil is one of the greatest problems in theism.  It may provide visceral relief, but further reflection simply stirs up greater problems – "how can an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God allow such evil?" to put it bluntly. 

By way of all this, I do not seek to criticize theism (I am a theist, after all!), but rather that simply because one is an atheist do not think they do not feel there is meaning in their lives, or what happens to them. 

Mapantsula says it so beautifully:

We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.

Since my initial story about it on Saturday, I have since seen Mapantsula's defense in many quarters, all of which reacting to the beauty of his explanation.

I should state here that as a theist my reaction to this news in no way involved God. I’ve resolved, for myself at least, the issue of theodicy and do not have the temperament to find relief for this horror in God. Last weekend, in a private celebration of the Sabbath, I prayed for a few moments and read the 11th Psalm which seemed appropriate. But, my response to this evil was purely within an philosophical/existential framework and not in a theistic one. My personal theology tells me that these issues are ours and we must come to terms with them on our own.  We must seek to understand them within our own existence and our own universe, and perhaps one day find a way to stop them.  I do not expect to find the Hand of God in either its cause or its end.

D'Souza, on the other hand, makes it clear that the gross ignorance of Dawkins is not limited to atheists.  In fact, in circles concerned with the study of religion, Dawkins is essentially viewed as "perhaps a good biologist, but a rather naive student of religion."  I believe the same may be said of Mr. D'Souza, or like Dawkins, ideology simply leaves gaping blind spots.

Read More:

An Atheist at Virginia Tech

Where is Atheism When Bad Things Happen? 

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About Gideon Addington

  • Dr Dreadful

    I can hear the zealot’s answer to Mapantsula’s post now: “The gift of compassion comes only from God. Yet still this man denies Him!”

    Just a forewarning. There’s no getting through to some people.

  • Thanks… But honestly, I think such people are so sufficiently removed from the conversation that even if they did… so what? You can’t argue with a fanatic or a skeptic.

    The rest of us must continue to have the conversation in their absence, and hope that cooler heads prevail.

  • melvin polatnick

    Debating over the issue of gods existance is an avoidance of better spent energy.If the people that believe in god also believe that we were created in gods image,shouln`t they do gods work,and make it a kinder world? Atheists can also be godlike and pitch in,the existance of kindness is all that really matters.If we wait for a god to make it a kinder world we would be avoiding our responsibilities to be a kinder person.

  • Refreshing clarity, Mr Addington.

  • Bob

    You talk about the “gross ignorance” of Dawkins. I’m sorry but this indicates to me that you obviously only know the pastiche and reactionary characterization of his writings which is presented by folks exactly like Dinesh D’Souza!

    Dawkins may sometimes be blunt about his views on religion, but he is precisely one of the atheists who talks — as you do, as Mapantsula does — about the humanistic values and meaning that atheists can have.

    It’s deeply ironic that in this otherwise rather sweet article, you buy into the very kind of demonizations of athiests that you are valiantly trying to call D’Souza on.

  • I’m not arguing his grounds on Humanistic values, but have you read the God Delusion? It’s a polemic, argued poorly and generally launching more firebombs than saying anything remotely useful.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve actually liked a number of Mr. Dawkins books, and find him a very fascinating writer. But the “God Delusion” was pretty much garbage. I’m not even arguing the issue that religion may be a sort of biological adaptation, or a viral meme – but simply that he misses the point entirely. He treats religion as something sui generis, which is ironic given his opinions, and not as simply another ethos. Modern history has proven God doesn’t need to be involved for unspeakable horrors to occur.

    Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi in the UK put it this way:
    “I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.

    Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.”

    But religion is also responsible for a great deal of the good that happens in the world. And perhaps it is some sort of delusion, but those people who use religion as an excuse for evil would simply find something else as an excuse. Politics, economics, tribalism, the eternal other.

    So, understand, it is not a demonization of atheists in general – it is a critique of Dawkins, whom (to me) is a bad example of an atheist. The place for atheism isn’t some sort of ridiculous war against religion, but is working towards those humanistic values.

    If he wants to discredit creationism – be my guest, I still have the “Blind Watchmaker” on video and enjoy it. But “The God Delusion” takes him out of his expertise, and makes him look ridiculous.

  • I may have worded a phrase poorly, Bob.
    “Dinesh then goes on to explain Dawkin’s gross materialism as the essence of atheism – that there can be no values, no explanations, no psychological”

    I meant by that, that Dinesh uses the basic materialism presented as the only thing atheism asserts, not that it is the only thing that Dawkins asserts.

  • neonmagek

    I haven’t read any of Dawkins books, so I am not going to say he does or does not have a case when it comes to religion. I think what you wrote was rather well thought out. I would like to thank you for not slanting it.

    As far as whether religion is good, bad, somewhere in between, that is a whole differant bowl of wax (I am refering the reponse you posted to Bob).

  • bliffle

    Religion has proven so futile at dealing with good and evil that it has just become a distraction, a waste of time.