Tony Snow on the New AtheistsMarch 15, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Ex-White House Press Secretary Tony Snow finds time in his busy schedule to explain to Christianity Today why he thinks the New Atheists Are Not Great.
While the chief atheists write beautifully, their works share a telling defect. They seethe with disapproval of God. Dawkins captures this trend in describing the YHWH of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Such invective clings like chewing gum to atheist polemics and raises the question of why these people are so worked up about a creator they don’t believe exists. [Links added.]
Ironically, he does not try and claim that such accusations are wrong, exactly. He just thinks its somehow wrong of the New Atheists to mention it.
Obviously, of course, atheists don’t object to fictional characters per se, they object to the idea that sane people in the world should be required to obey the “divine will” and “moral” teachings of an alleged god who reflects such low standards. In God’s defense, however, Snow cites Dinesh D’Souza’s attempts to give Christianity credit for everything Western civilization has accomplished in the past 2,000 years.
He describes how Christian principles of free choice and human dignity laid the groundwork for democratic political systems built on inalienable human rights. They inspired free markets in economics and intellectual pursuit. Christian theologians fathered modern science. The world even now takes for granted America’s uncommon generosity, especially in times of disaster and crisis. These traits spring directly from our faith.
Oddly, though Christianity has been around for a couple millennia, it never quite realized it was promoting inalienable human rights, free choice, human dignity (serfs anyone?), and so on, until after the rise of humanism and the Enlightenment. Likewise with science. And though Snow (and D’Souza) want to give the Church credit for “fathering” modern science, there’s little doubt that many Christians prefer religion’s firstborn son, Superstition. How else can we explain conservative Christianity’s suspicion and reluctance to embrace the conclusions that science leads to? If they really think “fathering” science is such a great accomplishment, shouldn’t they be doing more with it than just claiming credit for it?
D’Souza also refutes the common charge that Christianity has unleashed humankind’s most murderous impulses. The most-cited atrocities are either overblown or misrepresented: the Inquisition claimed 2,000 lives over three and a half centuries. The Salem witch trials produced fewer than 25 executions.
He goes on to use the same tactic as Vox Day, in arguing that if any other factors are involved in religious conflicts, religion is thereby automatically off the hook, regardless of what role it might play in provoking and sustaining hostilities in (e.g.) Ireland, Palestine, the Holocaust, etc. The assumption is that a certain amount of religiously-inspired violence is quite ordinary and acceptable: sure, it did play a significant role in the Crusades, the Inquisition, and so on, but it didn’t produce an unreasonable amount of violence. Silly me, I thought that the Body of Christ (who is supposedly the Prince of Peace) ought to be more involved in preventing violence than in causing it. Snow’s standards are apparently a lot lower than mine.
D’Souza takes up a second major tenet of the New Atheism—that religion and science cannot coexist. He defangs Darwinists by demonstrating the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian doctrine, and reiterates Aquinas’s assertion that reason and faith complement each other.
I bet Dembski is saying, “With friends like Dinesh…”! Snow seems to have overlooked the fact that this argument only supports the claims of true science supporters like Ken Miller and shoots down the arguments of Ben Stein and the Discovery Institute folks. Thanks Dinesh! Snow dismisses the atheistic rebuttal with a very strange argument.
It also dodges the big question: If reason can explain everything, why can’t it explain where things come from?
That’s like saying “If Christianity can explain everything, why can’t it explain where sin comes from?” Science explains where things come from all the time, unlike ID arguments which simply attribute things to God without explaining how God actually got them there. And since we know that both time and the material universe began at the same Big Bang, it logically follows that there has never been a time when the material universe did not exist. Consequently, questions about how the universe got here are meaningless, since it has been here for all time. But if you think that Snow’s argument above was odd, check this one out:
Ethics produces an even greater quandary. Moral laws have changed less over the millennia than the recognized laws of physics and mathematics. The ethical principles that undergird the Ten Commandments’ prohibitions against stealing and murder are recognized by people in New York, New Guinea, Timbuktu, and even bin Laden’s cave, while scientific theory has undergone numerous revolutions—and will continue to do so.
I know I for one just wish that the Law of Gravity would settle down and pick some, oh I don’t know, “gravitational constant” so that we could know where planets and spacecraft and stuff were really going to go instead of just wandering randomly around like that. It ought to be more predictable, like the moral principles about slavery and genocide, which were ok in Biblical times, but are wrong today (unless God decides to allow it again).
To listen to Snow, Christianity deserves credit for creating a “science” that is always changes its mind and can’t be trusted to tell you anything. Or maybe he’s already forgotten that he tried to give Christianity credit for fathering science? At the very least, this should dispel any rumors implying that Snow thinks fathering science was a good thing.
Whopper follows whopper:
D’Souza states the obvious: “Religious faith is not in opposition to reason. The purpose of faith is to discover truths that are of the highest importance to us through purely natural means.”
You would think, if that were the case, that faith might have noticed by now that God does not show up in real life, and that everything people believe about God, they get from the purely human sources of fantasy, intuition, superstition and hearsay. If we could give D’Souza a good dose of truth serum, though, he might want to rephrase the above claim into something more along the lines of “The purpose of faith is to convince people that our dogmas are scientifically valid.”
Snow rambles on about how atheism fails as a creed (duh, not believing in god(s) fails as a creed for the same reason not eating broccoli fails as an eating plan), and blames atheism for everything from the Reign of Terror to Stalinist Russia (as though there weren’t other political, economic, and ethnic factors involved in these periods just as much as in the Crusades, Inquisitions, and other religious conflicts). His arguments in favor of Christianity are no less propagandistic.
Christianity, in contrast, offers the divine “I Am”—God, speaking through Scripture, saying what he means and meaning what he says. In the person of Jesus Christ, he taught. He ministered. He saved. He chased away the moneychangers and wept at the news of Lazarus’s death. He lived so boldly that he had to be killed—yet did not stay in the tomb.
Snow’s argument is that Christianity has what atheism lacks: an argument from experience. Yet the evidence he cites is not any experience of God that any of us can share in. Rather, he offers only words, the stories men tell about a God who, despite His allegedly great love for us, never shows up in real life to tell us He even cares enough to say hi—a point that even Snow cannot deny.
Every child has felt a shiver of God as night closes and the world grows quiet. Adults, amid the bustle and din, know he’s there. When trouble comes, we whisper his name. We cannot see, hear, or yet walk with him.
“But,” claims Snow. There’s always a but, and it’s a pretty feeble one: “But from time to time we experience a presence that defies description.” In other words, a vague, subjective feeling that is totally unlike what the Bible presents to us as being what an authentic experience of God ought to be like, with pillars of cloud by day and columns of fire by night and so on. Spooky, superstitious feelings are not “discover[ing] truths that are of the highest importance to us through purely natural means,” as D’Souza claimed about faith.
And that gives us a pretty good example of the fundamental problem with Christianity. Tony Snow, defender of Christianity, gives us what he considers to be “perhaps the strongest argument against atheism,” and it boils down to gullibility about the Gospel, and a superstitious experience so vague that even Snow has to agree that it “defies description.” Snow makes a good case for the subjective, irrational, and impervious nature of Christian faith, but given the distortions and double standards he has to invoke in order to defend the content of his faith, I can’t say he’s given us any reason to doubt the conclusions of Dawkins, Harris, and company.