Can you prove it?

The ‘Militant atheists are wrong’ mould has turned out another cookie.

In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens, among others) that a visitor from another planet might think America was in the iron throes of priestly repression.

Yes – four or five books, maybe even six or seven if you count Stenger and Onfray. Gee wow. Compared to how many books celebrating God, belief and religion itself? Any guesses as to the number? Something tells me it’s more than six, or even seven.

If anything, you could imagine these assaults on religion becoming infamous in the Muslim world, confirming for fundamentalists that the West is every bit as godless – and hostile to Islam — as they thought.

Ah well now that’s a compelling argument. The Islamists will think we’re godless, so shut up.

Voltaire and his colleagues attacked the dominant values of their day, at great risk to themselves. By almost comical contrast, the new anti-religionists are safely needling the dominant liberal culture’s favorite bete noire.

Meaning what? You’re not supposed to attack (or, more accurately, argue against) something unless doing so puts you at risk? That’s a strange (and demanding) criterion.

But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

No they’re not. They are not contemptuous of ‘any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved’; that is a grossly stupid misunderstanding – an endlessly recycled one, but that doesn’t make it any better.

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

No, it doesn’t, because they are not demanding proof, and because ‘God’ is not just any old ‘unseen thing.’

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means.

Yes, yes, yes. But (again) ‘proof’ is not the issue, and God is not the same kind of thing as ‘truth, beauty, goodness and decency.’ Some theists like to claim it is when they’re cornered, but the rest of the time it’s a spiritual person who answers prayers.

For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

And Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and the rest are not disputing the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane, much less demanding that they be ‘proved.’

But then – I’d forgotten this, but a reader reminded me: Lee Siegel is the infamous sock puppet, ‘sprezzatura’ – the one who posted on The New Republic’s blog saying how brilliant and wonderful Lee Siegel is. TNR suspended him for awhile, then let him come back. Acute embarrassment; exile; return; then before long, back to writing fatuous dreck, without a blush in sight. Not one of the great minds of the century, perhaps.

The same silly trope was deployed in a debate with Dawkins just the other day. They don’t get tired of it, do they.

Some of the exchanges were funny, as when Mr. Lennox suggested that his opponent believed that his wife loved him even though it’s not scientifically provable.

Oh very droll, very fresh, very original. Sparkling as the dew on the grass.

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