Monday, August 6, 2007

"A power out of ourselves"

Harvey Mansfield, in the current Weekly Standard, discusses some of the recent atheist books, and the arguments found in them that theism is not only unnecessary to good government, but that religion is the source of tyranny. From the article:
The atheists say that God is unjust because He allows injustice to exist, to thrive. Worse than that, God is complicit in injustice. The reason why "God is not great," in Christopher Hitchens's book title, is that God allows himself to be used, hence diminished, by His believers. Note that the atheist Hitchens, like a believer, wants God to be great. A God of limited powers is not God; God must be omnipotent to ensure that justice triumphs in the world. Hitchens doesn't believe in God, but that is because he does believe in justice. Justice must be realizable if the reproach to God is that He is unjust.

Now we must take a further step guided by human reason alone. Edmund Burke said, with a view to the atheism of the French Revolution, that we cannot live justly and happily unless we live under "a power out of ourselves." By this he meant a power above us, transcendent over our wills and our choices. We must choose to live under a power that limits our choices. In America we have a Constitution that limits our choices, not so much by forbidding things as by requiring us to make our choices through a political process of checks and balances, enforced by a separation of powers. But Burke means to argue that humanly contrived constitutional limits are not enough. Human government is not viable or sufficient without divine government above it in some unspecified relationship.

Is such a divine, transcendent power possible? The atheists say it is not. They say that man is by nature a tool-maker, not a religious being who yearns to worship God. In their view worship is nothing but a tool to get what we want; the power allegedly over us is "out of us" in the sense of originating in our selves. "Religion poisons everything," says Hitchens in the subtitle of his book, because every believer's private desires are given terrific force over others' desires without their consent. Religion makes believers into tyrants. The source of religious tyranny is therefore human, when men conceive of religion and convince themselves while fooling others that they deserve to have what they can get. Atheism uncovers the fact of human tyranny that uses religion as a mask. ....

Today's atheism ... goes on the attack. In its criticisms of God it claims to be more moral than religion. But it cannot do this without becoming just as heated, thus just as susceptible to fanaticism, as religion. Today's atheism shows the power of our desire for justice.... But it ignores the power of injustice.... Atheists today angrily hold religion to a standard of justice that the most advanced thinkers of our time, the postmoderns, have declared to be impossible. Some of those postmoderns, indeed, are so disgusted with the optimism of atheism that, with a shrug of their shoulders, they propose returning to the relative sanity of religion.

It is not religion that makes men fanatics; it is the power of the human desire for justice, so often partisan and perverted. That fanatical desire can be found in both religion and atheism. In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today - and science too - need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.
Atheist Tracts

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