When Atheists Get Religion Wrong

What, in these benighted modern times, ought faithful Catholics to make of atheism? Robert Tracinski’s recent piece, “What Atheists Have To Offer The Right,” gives us occasion for reflecting anew on this question.

Tracinski is speaking primarily about politics, and in this realm, making common cause with atheists seems clearly warranted in our time. As he points out, some of the political right’s most respected personalities identify as agnostics or atheists, including Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Charles Cooke, Heather Mac Donald and Walter Olson. Tracinski himself is a fine writer (and my fellow contributor at The Federalist), and he often offers incisive insights into political affairs. It’s good to hear that conservative atheists feel welcome on the political right.

As strange as it might initially seem, there may also be a sense in which Catholics and atheists are natural cultural allies. As I have argued elsewhere, modern people rarely have the audacity to reject religion wholesale. Rather, they allow it to degenerate into a soft declaration of good will towards men, which has no serious metaphysical foundation and no power to combat the many errors of our benighted age. Most people today, in other words, prefer sloppy, insincere professions of faith to honest disbelief. This explains why atheists remain disreputable, despite the left’s general contempt for organized religion. Understanding this, I can admire the avowedly godless for their willingness to fess up to their real spiritual state, and to admit that metaphysics does matter.

Disappointingly, though, Tracinski’s piece soft-pedals the latter point. In some respects he is sympathetic to religious people. He declares them to be “annoyingly nice” critics, and implies that they are amiable fellow travelers on the political front. Nevertheless, in spelling out the unique contribution that he thinks atheists are most qualified to make, he reveals certain regrettable misunderstandings concerning the nature of religious belief. It may be worth clearing these up, in order to better facilitate dialogue and provisional cooperation amongst atheists and people of faith.

At the core of Tracinski’s argument is a claim that may seem commonsensical or even obvious: secular arguments are more useful than religious ones on the political front, because they have more broad-spectrum appeal. Secular arguments cultivate common ground. They don’t require people to settle contentious metaphysical issues concerning, for example, the existence of God, or the legitimacy of revelation.

“Ask yourself, is appealing to religion more likely to settle an issue, or inflame it?” he challenges. “Even if you believe that God exists, when it comes to asking what God is and what He wants, you have to rely on the testimony and interpretations of human beings—who differ enormously on every detail. So you’re back to the same problem.”

Instead of consulting our catechisms for insight into the state of the world, Tracinski suggests that we argue political and moral positions on the basis of empirical observation. “My point,” he explains, “is not just that it is possible to offer a secular defense of free markets and liberty and the moral values that support them. My point is that these arguments have a power to persuade that cannot be matched just by quoting chapter and verse from the Bible.” He goes on to discuss how salutary it would be, in particular, to dispel the notion that the natural sciences are somehow most properly the domain of the left.

I agree completely that we cannot settle deep disagreements on political or moral questions by dragging in extraneous metaphysical disputes. It’s pretty obvious that, say, a non-religious pro-choice person will not be persuaded to change his mind through appeals to divine authority. I agree as well that the secular left should not be allowed to claim dominion over the natural sciences. I just have one lingering question: what does any of this have to do with atheism?

The atheist is defined by his belief that there is no God. This is a metaphysical position, exactly as belief in God is a metaphysical position. Neither one is either more or less directly relevant to the political and empirical questions he raises, and there is no reason to suppose that either theists or atheists have a specially heightened capacity for empirical observation (either of the natural world or of human society). There is no interesting sense in which an argument is “secular” simply because it doesn’t include a direct appeal to divine or scriptural authority. Naturally, everyone seeks common ground with their interlocutors when attempting to persuade them on a given issue, but again, there is no reason to think that either atheists or committed secularists are particularly advantaged in this respect. Atheists and theists both hold controversial metaphysical views that would (in most contexts) unnecessarily complicate an argument on, say, welfare reform, or the most promising way to treat Ebola.

I think it’s worth issuing a gentle correction in this matter, because even though Tracinski doesn’t intend to belittle religion, his piece does in fact lend support to the widespread notion that religious people are reality-challenged. He thinks that our belief in a loving Creator somehow makes it especially difficult for us to study that Person’s handiwork in a disciplined way. He imagines that we can make empirically based moral or political arguments only if we start by checking our religion at the door.

In fact though, religious people have long understood the importance of organizing knowledge in disciplined ways, and of imposing methodological constraints on what kind of data can be considered within the realm of a given discipline. This has nothing to do with secularism; it’s just good scholarship. If properly trained and educated, religious people have no difficulty sorting out these varied commitments and constraints. It is only secular liberals who, in our time, have muddled the lines between different realms of study by allowing their methodological constraints to morph into metaphysical commitments.

This is why church-going scientists do not consult their Bibles or pastors before interpreting lab results. It is the reason why Christian sociologists or economists do not piously erase empirical data out of fear that it may get them into trouble with their Magisteria or holy books. There are of course occasions on which disciplines rub up against one another in complex ways. Cosmology and evolutionary science have gone through “sticky metaphysical moments” of that kind. Those episodes warrant a more extended discussion than I can offer here. But they are the exceptional cases.

As a rule, theistic (and Christian) belief is completely compatible with empirical study, and indeed has contributed enormously to the development of the natural sciences. It’s not coincidental that the natural sciences as we know them emerged out of a Judeo-Christian culture that embraced the natural world as the creation of a good and rational God. If you believe that the world was created in large part as a home for human beings, and that its Creator also endowed humans with rational powers that would enable them to thrive here, you can go forth to study it with a confidence your efforts are likely to prove fruitful. Natural science has repaid that confidence one hundred fold, showing again and again that the world is deeply ordered, and penetrable by human reason. Today nobody needs religion to reassure them that the Scientific Method “works.” But we shouldn’t forget the theistic premises that made its development possible.

There are, in fact, unique ways in which atheists can contribute to our political and cultural debate. Perhaps I can detail these in another column. With respect to the issues raised in this particular column, however, I fear they have no more to contribute than the ordinary, run-of-the-mill pew-sitting Christian.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God” painted by Jan Matejko in 1873.

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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