Atheists versus believers: The God debate heats up

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ROME (ZENIT) -- The attack against religion started by Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion” shows no sign of letting up. In recent months a number of emulators have published books that continue the polemic.

In “God: The Failed Hypothesis,” Victor J. Stenger purports to provide a sort of scientific proof that God does not exist. Stenger, a retired professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, alleges that scientific reasoning has now progressed to the point where it can offer “a definitive statement on the existence or nonexistence of a God having the attributes that are traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.”

God, he contends, should be detectable by scientific means, because of the role he is supposed to play in the universe and human life. An examination which, he argues in the books’ chapters, that God fails.

Another contribution is from English philosopher A.C. Grayling. In a collection of brief essays titled “Against All Gods,” he purports to provide an alternative to religion, based on the Western philosophical tradition.

Grayling declares his objection to religion both in terms of a belief system and its institutional role. Moreover, he accuses apologists for faith as being “an evasive community, who seek to avoid or deflect criticism by slipping behind the abstractions of higher theology.”

In addition to his criticisms of faith, Grayling contends that religion is now in its death throes, soon to be replaced by a far more benign humanism.

Further polemics against faith came in “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens. The quality of the arguments in the book, however, was found severely wanting by many reviewers. For example, a review by Michael Skapinker, editor of the weekend edition of the Financial Times, described the work using terms such as “intellectual and moral shabbiness.”

That hasn’t stopped the book from being successful. According to a June 22 report by the Wall Street Journal, the book had sold almost 300,000 in its first seven weeks.

Christian letters

The atheist attacks have not gone unanswered. In recent months two slim books by evangelical Christians were published in the United States in reply to the 2006 essay by Sam Harris, “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

The first is “Letter from a Christian Citizen,” by Douglas Wilson, a minister and senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College, Idaho. In the foreword Gary Demar echoes a common opinion among those who have reviewed the current spate of anti-religious books. “The same tired arguments that have been answered convincingly by any number of Christian writers over the centuries have been trotted out in the vain hope that atheism will find a new audience,” he observed.

Wilson accuses Harris of selectively quoting texts from the Bible in an effort to embarrass believers by highlighting outmoded cultural norms. A more unbiased study of the Bible, particularly the New Testament Wilson argues, shows the revolutionary nature of Christianity, which subverted many of the unjust pagan cultural practices.

Wilson then notes that Harris reduces morality to a calculation involving happiness and pain. If human conduct is to be regulated on this basis it will easily be led into committing abuses against others.

Among other criticisms Wilson also accuses Harris of a superficial interpretation of the problem that evil poses for a believer. According to Harris the mere existence of a single evil act is enough to cast doubt on the idea of a benevolent God.

The second reply to Harris is “Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point,” by R.C. Metcalf. Harris, he observes, makes a number of points based on arguments related to Old Testament laws, slavery and human sexuality in an attempt to discredit religion. Metcalf deals with each of these issues, in general by showing how Christianity has been a force for good in society.

Moreover, Metcalf argues, Christianity provides the most secure foundation for morally upright behavior. By contrast an atheist has no such grounding.

Religion’s contribution

Another recent defense of religion came from Canadian Archbishop Thomas Collins. Archbishop Collins received his pallium from Benedict XVI on June 29 after being installed as Toronto’s archbishop in January.

On May 31 he gave a speech to the Empire Club of Canada titled “The Contribution of Religion to Society.” The archbishop introduced his talk by referring to the way in which religion enables us to perceive the meaning of both the material world and of human life.

“We live in a web of relationships, and through faith see the pattern of connections that show the purpose of our brief journey through this world,” he said.

This is particularly relevant in today’s world “in which we can so easily become lonely individuals, without purpose or direction, disconnected, rootless, and going nowhere faster and faster,” the archbishop continued.

The main part of his speech was then given over to presenting four contributions which religion makes to society.

1. Religion enhances local communities in which human relationships can flourish.

The Catholic Church, he explained, places great stress on subsidiarity which fortifies smaller communities. This helps people relate to one another in a more humane relationship, based on reverence for the personal dignity of each of the children of God.

The ultimate community, said Archbishop Collins, is the family, today under great pressure. The Catholic Church celebrates marriage as the stable covenant of a man and a woman faithful in love and open to the gift of life, he explained.

2. Religious communities make massive contributions to the common good of all society through deeds of charity and social action.

Imagine what would happen, he asked his audience, if suddenly Toronto were deprived of the social assistance offered daily to the most vulnerable by the religious communities and organizations. Christians undertake such works of charity motivated by the words of Jesus: Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.

3. Religious communities bring to bear on current issues the wisdom of their heritage.

Religious people do disagree on important issues of doctrine, explained Archbishop Collins, but they do share reverence for the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, and have in common a tradition of working together to address social issues.

There is a wisdom in religious tradition, he added, composed not only of elements stemming from faith, but also made up of experience and the use of reason.

“Whatever the irritation caused to those who profess a secularist faith -- and secularism is itself a kind of faith -- it is of great value to any healthy society that a strong religious voice speak out on all issues of public concern,” the archbishop affirmed.

He also referred to arguments against religion based on the misdeeds committed in the name of faith. It would be more just, however, to base our judgment on religion looking at those who strived to live fully the reality of their faith. “Fairness dictates that religion be judged by its saints, not by its sinners,” the archbishop maintained.

4. Religious communities endow society with beauty.

Beauty, truth, and goodness are both signs of God’s presence and of that which is greatest in humanity, Archbishop Collins explained. Religious communities endow society with beauty through art, works of music and literature.

In conclusion the archbishop asserted that what most matters in life are not the things that can be weighed or measured on a material scale. Unlike materialism, which he termed “the ultimate delusion,” religion enables us to perceive harmony, beauty, and above

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