One of the intellectual problems encountered by atheism, though not one that is frequently mentioned, is its tendency to reductionism. If the universe is closed, then ultimately the story of things is much less complex than they might otherwise be and far more predictable. Indeed, the atheist account of reality is frequently boring. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s now famous description of the stars: “Billions and billions” (no one else could do as much with the letter “b” as Carl). The sadness of his account was that bigness somehow was made to substitute for the wonder of everything. In the end, finite is still just finite.
Most recently, one of the new champions of atheism (and they are getting a bit bolder these days), Daniel Dennett, has offered a book: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It is devastatingly reviewed in last January’s First Things by David Hart, an Orthodox lay theologian. Hart is among the more deft of contemporary writers with an insight into both theology and contemporary culture that is masterful, to say the least. I only hope that if I ever write a book, and it were reviewed by Hart, that it would be a book he liked. When he dismantles something, it is pretty much done for.
Dennett’s thesis is to put forward the idea that religion is merely a natural phenomenon that evolved like everything else. Hart deconstructs Dennett’s thesis as thoroughly as I could imagine. I offer a short quote:
Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.
In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer (the “cui bono? question,” as Dennett likes to say) is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.
Hart is a masterful writer, occasionally dense to the reader – but always worth spending the time to follow the paths he makes. The entire article may be read here. I heartily (no pun intended) recommend it.