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The Soft Science of Atheism: Armchair Psychology

Updated on November 6, 2012
Cheers to Nietzsche.
Cheers to Nietzsche. | Source
New Atheists smash their way into intelligentsia.
New Atheists smash their way into intelligentsia. | Source

It's a curious time for intellectuals. On the one hand, the ivory tower is crammed with its assorted postmodernists decrying the notion of absolute truth as something completely passé and even primeval. Anyone who asserts that they know that philosopher's stone of "truth" - clasping it firmly within their own palm, even - is scoffed at wildly. "Oh?" they say, taking an informal sip from their cabernet to mask their snobbish chortle. "It's 2012, and you still haven't read your Derrida or even your Nietzsche?" On the other hand, the ivory tower has its bad boy antitheists - you know, The Clash of academia - who say that not only is there no true religion, but it should be forcefully overturned and smashed like the guitar at the finale of a punk concert.

Relativism, on the contrary, doesn't leave much room for this rebellion and mutiny. Cool things like riots with thermite regrettably don't bode too well with this laidback ideology. When all philosophies and religions are legitimately up for grabs, there really isn't much to do in your spare time but to sit around and surreptitiously sneer at those that differ from you. (Surreptitiously, lest anyone know that you really think it's true that there is no truth.) So while the postmodernists passively grade their term papers and swivel in their full grain leather chairs for amusement, the New Atheists are marching on stage in full black attire and ripped jeans. Guitars in hand, they say that not only is there no God, but they won't allow you the comfort of that belief anymore. Smash.

This befuddled hodgepodge of contemporary paradigms has been termed "Post-Postmodernism" by Dr. Alan Kirby of Philosophy Now magazine. We can now be said to be rather tightly and confusedly in between the monocle-wearing postmodernists and the band tee sporting antitheists. It is the latter that poses the most serious claims in opposition to Christianity and religion in general. Enter Alvin Plantinga, the quiet and bookish Christian philosopher who sees all-too-clearly through the smoky haze of the concert venue. New Atheists love to cite Freud and Marx to provide substantiation for the thesis that their hip and trendy philosophy isn't just about image - no, it has historical depth to it, too. In the early 20th century, Freud "proved" that religion was really the product of a primal horde and "wish-fulfillment". As he writes,

"These [religious beliefs], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impressions of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place."

And Marx, of course, said something strikingly analogous back in 1843 in his famous "opium of the people" speech:

"The basis of irreligious criticism is man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and the self-feeling of the man who has either not yet found himself, or else (having found himself) has lost himself once more. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world. . . .

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion [Marx's emphasis]."

Alvin Plantinga, however, notably asserts that for a belief to have epistemic "warrant" it must arise from "cognitive faculties that are functioning properly according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth." As you can see, Marx and Freud think that Plantinga's Christianity diverges rather extensively from his thesis of proper warrant. Plantinga isn't exactly sweating. He knows that logic begins with axioms, and the Marx & Freud crowd are simply sneaking in an axiom that isn't by any stretch of the imagination universal - materialism. Their criticism, unfortunately, is guilty of the logical fallacy of begging the question. According to Plantinga, humankind is unanimously endowed with John Calvin's sensus divinitatis (Sense of Divinity), a natural knowledge of God that has been tainted by sin, and yet is still possible to usurp by being born again in Christ. This is his axiom. "Seventy years of determined but unsuccessful Marxist efforts to uproot Christianity in the former Soviet Union tend to confirm this claim", he calmly argues. The significant thing to note is that this belief is not arrived at by any kind of logical inference, making the accusation of an "appeal to emotion" by the F&M crowd (Freud & Marx) a straw man. The belief in God is "occasioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them." He goes on in Warranted Christian Belief,

"I don't take my guilt as evidence for the existence of God, or for the proposition that he is displeased with me. It is rather that in that circumstance—the circumstance of my clearly seeing my guilt—I simply find myself with the belief that God is disapproving or disappointed. In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief. Consider the first. I look out into the backyard; I see that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom. I don't note that I am being appeared to a certain complicated way (that my experience is of a certain complicated character) and then make an argument from my being appeared to in that way to the conclusion that in fact there are coral tiger lilies in bloom there. (The whole history of modern philosophy up to Hume and Reid shows that such an argument would be thoroughly inconclusive.) It is rather that upon being appeared to in that way (and given my previous training), the belief that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom spontaneously arises in me. This belief will ordinarily be basic, in the sense that it is not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions.

The same goes for memory. You ask me what I had for breakfast; I think for a moment and then remember: pancakes with blueberries. I don't argue from the fact that it seems to me that I remember having pancakes for breakfast to the conclusion that I did; rather, you ask me what I had for breakfast, and the answer simply comes to mind. Or consider a priori belief. I don't infer from other things that, for example, modus ponens is a valid form of argument: I just see that it is so and, in fact, must be so. All of these, we might say, are starting points for thought. But (on the model) the same goes for the sense of divinity. It isn't a matter of making a quick and dirty inference from the grandeur of the mountains or the beauty of the flower or the sun on the treetops to the existence of God; instead, a belief about God spontaneously arises in those circumstances, the circumstances that trigger the operation of the sensus divinitatis. This belief is another of those starting points for thought; it too is basic in the sense that the beliefs in question are not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs [Plantinga's emphasis]."

Interesting. Far from being derived from scientific empiricism, it would appear that, in light of Plantinga's argument on epistemic basicality, New Atheism's argument for the overturning of outmoded and status-quo religion is rooted in nothing more than armchair psychology. It's only logical when you consider that one of their prominent forefathers is, in fact, Sigmund Freud. This trendy fashion of rebellious New Atheism seems to be full of nothing but cigarette smoke and feedback noise after all. At least they have their insubordinate image and sweet hairdos. Us ostracized Christians, on the other hand - uncool as we may be - will rest content with our intellectual integrity intact.

Books By & On Plantinga (Amazon)

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    • jreuter profile image

      Jason Reuter 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Ahhh...this is a breath of fresh air! You've done an excellent job here highlighting the inadequacies of the New Atheist movement. I'm impressed. Voted up!