The so-called “New Atheism” boasts a generation of brilliant, eloquent, scientifically-minded, critical thinkers of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Steven Hawking, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Through their best-selling books, sold-out conferences, and public debates, these celebrity intellectuals have influenced many a young mind to embrace the New Atheism and pile onto the bandwagon of disenchanted souls aspiring to eradicate religion from the face of the earth. As a result, many young amateurs have been inspired to produce a-critical videos like this one:
Two big unfounded assertions underlie the views presented in this video: first, that logic and belief can simply be reduced to neuronal structures in the brain; second, that belief systems (which he claims are produced by neurons in the brain) cause brain damage and that this claim is established by scientific evidence.
Neuroscience can tell us many things about the correlation between some thought processes and certain types of neuronal activity, which often vary from person to person, due to the plasticity of the brain (i.e., the brain’s ability to adapt and establish new synapses between neurons). Science has established that in all humans, the limbic system in the lower part of the brain secretes hormones that generate emotions, while the frontal lobe houses a network of neuron connections that facilitate the rational process. These distinct areas of the brain interact with and influence one another in ways beyond our conscious awareness or our ability to control them.
Belief is one of those gray areas where the emotional and rational parts of the brain work together in a reciprocal manner. Moreover, belief also involves the assent of the will to things that are not entirely evidenced by reason and sometimes go against our emotions. Inasmuch as belief requires willful assent, it is not bound to a fixed set of neuron-firings in the brain.
It takes an unscientific quantum leap (of faith, perhaps) to say that logic, let alone belief, is “merely the brain doing its job” (or not doing its job in the case of belief). No neuroscientist can point to a specific area of a person’s brain and say, “Look! A syllogism!” or, “These exact synapses and neuron-firings indicate that this person believes in God; sorry, there’s nothing we can do to fix that at this point.” For one, everyone’s brain is different, in this regard. My neuron firings, when I’m exercising my faith, do not necessarily look like yours when you exercise yours. There’s no fixed pattern in the brain for the equation a2 + b2 = c2. Nor is there any recognizable function within the frontal lobe that suggests that a person understands the truth of this equation (for it’s one thing to produce a mathematical equation, something a calculator can do, whereas it’s a completely different thing to “get it,” something only humans do).
Belief is not about imposed doctrines that literally scare the hell out of people. Religious belief also involves the religious experience and the freedom of the will to say “I may not entirely get it, but I assent to something (or someone) greater than my little self and I lovingly accept it.” It’s hard for a man or woman who has not had this experience to relate to this point. But Mickey Robinson can. Please, take the time to watch this inspiring video:
Mickey was not taught to fear hell or believe in God as a child. He did not have religious views imposed on him. According to him, his faith came about through a mysterious encounter with the divine. Whether you believe it or not, his testimony cannot be discounted by science.
The view that religion is the product of childhood indoctrination ignores the fact that many adults who never believed in God convert to religion for various reasons. It does not take a traumatic experience to accept that God exists or believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world. One only needs to accept one’s creatureliness in the face of a more transcendent reality, which does not defy logic nor presuppose the prospect of eternal damnation if one chooses not to believe.
The flip-side to the argument presented in the first video above, is that atheism could also be the product of a hardwired brain, and for that reason, it is not a purely rational choice. It is equally possible, according to this man’s postion, that atheism can be caused by negative influences or traumatic experiences, either during childhood or afterwards when one becomes hardened as an adult. Furthermore, if there’s any truth to his reasoning, then his own belief system (namely, that of atheism) is just the result of a neuronal process. If he chooses to identify his beliefs with a neuronal process, then there’s no way to scientifically prove that his beliefs adequately correspond to the actual state of affairs in reality. So his reasoning lacks scientific evidence to confirm his belief.
Any way you look at this man’s type of reasoning, you are still free to believe.
Great article. I think the most important assumption that the first video makes is founded on a very general point: The proposition “some (we might for the sake of the argument even say all, though we know this isn’t the case) people believe in God because they fear the alternative” does not exclude or address in any way the proposition “God exists.” The most it can do is take away ‘intuitive’ credibility from “God exists” being true, since a more immediate cause for “God exists,” is being found.
It is also worthwhile to point out that the maker of the video mentioned he was a fundamentalist Christian at some point. After making the above clarification with regard to a merely modern scientific approach, it is important to point out that the man probably has no understanding of knowledge/science in the broad sense which would include recognition of the telos, or natural tendencies/orientation, of objects as being valid. This I believe is the point of departure. When taking a positivistic approach found in the video, I think God is basically unnecessary. But when you introduce the concept of causa causarum God, as an absolute being, becomes not only a ‘scientific’ possibility, he becomes logically necessary.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts as to the place of metaphysics (if any) in responding to new atheists!
Keep up the good work.
Great comment, Jon! I agree that the proof for God’s necessity needs to be argued on a metaphysical rather than on a mere scientific plane.
The problem with using metaphysical arguments to dialogue with new atheists is two-fold. First, if they are already working on the assumption that physical science can and potentially will explain everything that can be explained, they have already ruled out the possibility of metaphysics, a priori. So one would have to invest the time to get them to even consider the feasibility of metaphysics.
Second, any debate allowing metaphysical arguments would have to be preceded by an explanation of terms, since metaphysical notions such as actuality, perfection, primary and secondary causation, etc…. You would have to familiarize the opponent with philosophical terminology, show how these terms can overlap with yet differ from scientific terminology, and then get them to accept the proper use of that terminology within its proper sphere.
As an alternative one could explain the metaphysics in terms that a high-schooler would understand, which is easier said than done. One also runs the risk of oversimplifying arguments or over-explaining things until they sound to convoluted to even consider, thus not doing any justice to the metaphysical approach.
In sum, I think that the metaphysical approach is the best route for proving God’s existence. However, if you are dialoguing with those who either don’t understand or accept that approach, the next best route is to argue dialectically. But we should still investigate ways to make the traditional metaphysical arguments more understandable to everyone.
Thanks again for your insightful comment!