Somebody called Charlotte Allen wrote a column in the LA Times recently that has succeeded in what one assumes was its primary intention of pissing off atheists everywhere. It has gone massive in the Godless blogosphere over the past couple of days. I might as well join in the fun. Allen's argument isn't particularly original or well thought-out, but it is forcefully expressed - so forcefully that it can be held up as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the case against the so-called New Atheists. Sam Harris dismissed it as "one of the most embarrassingly stupid attacks on the “new atheists” to be published in a major newspaper".
Allen claims that atheists are "crashing bores" who are always whining about being "oppressed", thus demonstrating "boo-hoo victimhood". They are obsessed with "the minutiae of Christian doctrine"; their blogs focus on an "obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain". Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are constantly going on about how clever they are and, by comparison, how stupid religious believers are for believing stupid things. And they sound so angry, probably because they had bad experiences in childhood.
"The vitriol is extraordinary", she writes, ironically for someone who begins her column with the words "I can't stand atheists".
Whatever the deficiencies of her general argument, Allen does at least identify a striking duality in the case made by atheists. Here is what she writes:
And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in "The God Delusion," accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God -- and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently -- why does it matter whether he's good or evil?
The case for atheism does indeed seem to consist (usually, at least) of two logically quite separate propositions:
1) There is no God
2) Religion is a bad thing
The first is a question of fact, or of something very like fact. Either there is a God, in the sense of a Supreme Being who ordains the universe, or there is not. The existence or otherwise of the deity may be inferred from the nature of the universe, or it may be known more directly (for example, by God, or gods, speaking to individuals - though this itself raises severe problems of proof). Either way, though, there is some objective sense in which "Is there a God?" is a question that in principle has an answer, even if it is impossible, in this world at least, to resolve.
But atheists, at least the celebrity atheists and a high proportion of those committed to atheism, aren't satisfied with that. They want to go further, to argue that religion has harmful consequences. It encourages ignorance and laziness, for example. It is responsible for wars and acts of terrorism. It leads to damaging guilt about sex. It wastes time and intellectual energy that might be spent on more useful thoughts. It is a tool of the powerful to oppress the masses (this is usually a left-wing critique). Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great is largely taken up with arguments of this kind - which, given the state of the world today, is hardly surprising.
That is the short answer to Allen's question. Even if God does not exist, it matters a great deal what sort of personality is ascribed to him, because God represents for believers an ideal to strive towards. The double argument of the atheists ("there is no God" + "God is not Great") is only the mirror image of the equally mashed-up argument of believers, which is in turn concealed by the double-meaning of the very word "believe". To "believe in God" means, almost invariably, both to believe that God exists (as one might "believe in" Bigfoot) and to believe that religion is morally virtuous and worthwhile (as one might "believe in" the Labour party). Whether or not God exists, religion undoubtedly does. Asserting the non-existence of God, then, is one plank (and not an essential one) of the broader and more pressing argument against religion.
It is of course possible to be an atheist yet hold to the view that religion is useful and beneficial to society. One might look at the great works of music and architecture that belief has inspired, to the example of religiously-motivated charity workers, or to the role that religion has undoubtedly played in maintaining social cohesion. Thinkers from Seneca onwards have argued that the social utility of religion is what matters, not whether it is true. Or one can ruefully say, considering the beauty of religious myths, or the idea of a loving God welcoming his children into an eternity of bliss, "if only it were true, if only I could believe it". But such thoughts are most unlikely to propel one towards a position of campaigning atheism. So it is only to be expected that people who make a big deal of their lack of belief should also point out the downside of religious belief.
There ought, logically, to be a fourth belief-position: that God exists, but is a complete bastard. There would seem to be abundant evidence for such a belief. If you take, as many do, the Bible seriously as a source for information about God, you don't have far to look for examples of divine bad behaviour: cruelty, murderousness, capriciousness, hypocrisy, lying, genocidal tendencies, racism (to say nothing of misogyny and homophobia), above all perhaps a bullying sense of entitlement. And not just in the Old Testament, either. The God of the philosophers isn't much better: he created, or appears to have created, a world of pain and suffering, in which the weak go to the wall and the evil prosper, in which nature is red in tooth and claw and the lives of most people throughout history have been nasty, brutish and short. Believers can sing hymns all they like about the mercy, compassion, greatness and fundamental goodness of God - but isn't that so much whistling in the dark? Even if there is a God, why should we fondly imagine that he cares about us?
Needless to say, many believers recognise these points. Even Charlotte Allen, who writes, "atheists don't seem to realize that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses". To theists of her persuasion, the struggle to reconcile belief in a loving God with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is something of point of honour: it shows how serious and intellectually committed they are, how they want to engage with deep questions. It is almost heroic. The persistent complaint from believers and their supporters (such as Terry Eagleton) is that atheists (or at least atheist arguments) are necessarily shallow because they can't be bothered to spend time trying to "get it". Being religious, for these sophisticates, is a perennial struggle to continue placing trust in an infinitely wise God despite, perhaps even because of, the weakness of the case. They like to see themselves as being more subtle thinkers than non-believers, who are stuck in a literal-minded world where straightforward questions might lead to straightforward answers. This position, of course, is every bit as "arrogant" as the mocking tone sometimes affected by atheists when ridiculing religion.
For their part, most atheists seem just as committed as believers to a view of God which, by definition, elides his existence with his supposed goodness. Take, for example, David Attenborough's reply to religious correspondents who chide him for not crediting God with creating all the wonderful animals he has spent a lifetime filming:
They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.
Attenborough seems to be saying that the cruelty of the natural world, or at least its amorality, is an argument against the existence of God. But it's clearly not an argument against a Supreme Being. A wholly objective God would be as interested in the welfare of the worm, who does after all have to survive in the world, as in the child. It is merely an argument against an idea of God who wishes to make the world as nice as possible for human beings. Yet believers will not be satisfied with such a refutation. They will want to say that in the great cosmic scheme of things God has his purposes, that the world as a whole demonstrates the goodness of God.
For believers, goodness is one of God's essential attributes. If you say that there is a creator or a supreme being who is not essentially good, then you are not merely denying a particular property of God, you are denying God's existence as firmly as if you were to say that the origin of the universe needed no outside intervention. God, in other words, cannot simply be defined as a Supreme Being, or as a Creator. God is a good Supreme Being, a good creator. By the same token, to deny the existence of God is to deny goodness itself. Nonsense, of course, but nonsense encoded in the DNA of language itself.