Saturday, May 24, 2008

Atheists of the world, Unite!

Or so one might style the intent of one Norman Levitt, over at ( whose review ("Give Me That Old Time Irreligion") of John Paulos' new book, Irreligion: A Mathematican Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, caught my attention. Paulos is famous--or at least known--for his entertaining, popularizing books on mathematics. But both the reviewer and Paulos, in their rationalist hubris, think they understand far more than they do.

Norman Levitt believes his case for what he claims is a recent (since mid century) recrudescence of oppressive religiosity is made by pointing out that Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln were not fundy bible thumpers; that the 19th century had writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Beirce; and that H.L. Mencken's skepticism and barbed wit graced the early part of the 20th. All this on the way to showing that once upon a time in America, the president did not need to bow and scrape before the "fundamentalist ayatollahs" who now, we learn from Mr Levitt, control almost all of American social, cultural, and political life. Ah, for those halcyon days when the villiage had not only its idiot, but its atheist as well!

Aside from the bizarre starting point on presidents--Chester Alan Arthur's belief was uncertain--take that, you slack-jawed, stump-toothed, snake-handling holy rollers!--Levitt's drive-by history lesson seems to establish a narrative suggesting that only in these latter days has success in the public square come at the cost to public figures of at least the appearance of some religious orthodoxy. But perhaps he didn't notice that the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980's was in response to the secularist onslaught that continues til today its death-by-a-thousand-cuts attack on all our institutions, traditions, and beliefs. Funny, I thought Gotterdammerung meant that it is all things Christian are on the run, being forced out of the town square, the public schools, courthouses, work places, even private homes, if one's church is deemed too weird. But no, true Reason, and the heroic wielders of that Reason--Norman Levitt and John Paulos--are only now braving the abuse and vitriol certain to come, and taking a stand for nihilism! Proud of their bravery in facing the abyss, they seek with Nietzchean virtue to buck up the rest of us with their bracing discovery--no god exists, and we know this because no philosophical argument can establish it. So, eat drink and be merry, for everything is...meaningless.

This leaves out of account two things. First, the proof of God's existence is not susceptible to scientific or philosophical discovery or verification. As Eric Voeglin put it, "the proof of the truth of the revelation is its content"--not a formulation likely to satisfy such as Messers Levitt and Paulos, but there it is. As Ripley was wont to say, believe it...or not. Christian theology has its proof internal to itself, and does not seek the validation of the reasoning power of the human mind, even though, pace Herr Levitt, faith in God is not anathema to reason.

The second thing is God tells us himself--that is, those of us who believe it is actually Him speaking in the Bible--that he will frustrate the wisdom of the wise, and use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. It is thus possible that He intended the truth to be hidden in plain sight so to speak; He leaves enough clues laying around to alert people that something more than material reality is at work: one such clue would be the deep structure of order implied by the existence and ontological status of mathematics, and its uncanny correlation with discovered-- not invented--physical laws. God is both ironic and subtle: deus absconditus anyone? He has not deigned to allow any slam-dunk, mathematical or philosophical proofs of his existence. Maybe this is because He desires faith of creatures given personal responsibility and free will--"blessed is he who believes and has not seen".

Atheists like Levitt and Paulos make a mistake similar to the builders of the Tower of Babel; they attempt to reach up to heaven on the strength of their own reason, and, finding nothing there but thin air, they declare for the negative and call it a day. The pathetic shortfall of the effort would be humorous, were it not for the seriousness of the consequences. God is not mocked, even by super smart book reviewers.

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