Monday, May 23, 2011

The New Atheism And The Gulag

I was glad to hear about a new book, The Godless Delusion, by Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hensley (OSV Press). In this book the authors confront the “new atheists”–contemporary scientists and others–who have made a splash in current popular culture with their books, articles, blogs, and websites. Rather than simply defending Christian or theistic arguments against their attacks, however, Madrid and Hensley take the offensive, venturing into the territory of the atheists themselves and arguing that atheism is rationally and humanly incoherent. I look forward to reading this book. Already, its theme and some of its content have inspired a few random reflections of my own, which I shall set forth below.

One of the book’s arguments is that by denying God and any transcendent reality, atheists lose the rational basis for making binding moral assertions. The “new atheists” argue that religion is “wrong,” that affirming God is “bad” for human beings and society, that it would be “good” to give up religion and concentrate on this world. But if they refuse to go beyond the material world, then what basis do they have for asserting the need for “right” and “wrong,” for “good” and “bad”? And why should anyone care? The atheists are cheating; they are sneaking in transcendent concepts of good and evil without admitting it. This is very important point.

But I have another question: Haven’t we already tried this idea of giving up religion and transcendence and concentrating solely on this material world? Indeed, haven’t we already pushed this experiment to the limit?

Without God, the foundations of the moral order cannot be upheld. This is something fundamental that the “new atheists” have to confront. The old atheists knew the moral abyss that was a consequence of the denial of God. Ivan Karamazov knew it 150 years ago: "If there is no God, then everything is permitted." Lenin knew it too; hence his ethic of expediency in the advancement of “scientific materialism,” which was the foundation for Stalin and Mao and the whole bloody 20th century.

Some think that if they deny God, they can escape from the transcendent consequences of moral actions, and avoid dealing with the reality of punishment for sin. But if atheists are trying to avoid the authority of God and the reality of sin, then I have a literary work I would like to recommend to them.

I think they should grapple with what could in a certain respect be called the modern version of Dante's "Inferno," namely, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's epoch-defining masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago. Here is a world without God: human persons are degraded and reduced to animals–on a huge scale–because Stalin needs to carry out the massive industrialization of the Soviet Union, and therefore requires a steady supply of cheap, expendable labor. Who is to tell him he is wrong? He has the power and he determines what is necessary. To whom can the atheist appeal against him? The atheist has no rational grounds to invoke any law beyond the criteria that serve the aims of those in power. If all that exists is the material world that we see, hear, touch, and measure, then there is no basis for affirming the dignity of the human person in the face of power. In the material world, power is supreme: the strongest forces prevail, and the only morality is survival of the fittest. It’s not surprising that the communists condemned themselves in Stalin’s show trials. They knew and submitted to the logic of the moral abyss.

The “new atheists” and those tempted by them should confront seriously the witness of Solzhenitsyn and others like him, all of which has been vindicated by the cold hard facts–now publically available to everyone–of the atheist totalitarian state and its massive slave labor program. By reading about the horrors of the labor camps, people may discover that their guts know there is a God even if their minds deny it.

Solzhenitsyn’s titanic literary achievement, The Gulag Archepelago, has not lost its relevance for the 21st century. I shall speak more about the relevance of Solzhenitsyn in another blog entry. But for now I want to emphasize this aspect of his testimony: the brutalization of the human, presented in such relentless and concrete detail, can shock a person out of the sleep of moral relativism, and awaken him or her once again to the “mystery of iniquity” and the transcendent need of the human heart for “justice”–and also, for mercy. The atheist has no explanation for these needs, or for the conscience of the human person that always speaks of the transcendence of the origin and fulfillment of reality.