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So, apparently, atheists are equivalent to the tone-deaf

May 8, 2009

So, I was just casually looking through updates from people I follow on Twitter, and Francine McKenna, who normally has updates relating to accounting or things in the business sphere of things (she runs the excellent, if not amazingly depressing blog Re: The Auditors), had a peculiar update:

When atheists die, does anyone hear them sigh?

And she had a link to an article at the New Statesmen, and I can’t be sure what I was expected about the article before I read it, but I know that as I got further and further into it, I subtly became more and more enraged because of how silly it was (yet how sure the author was of his points). So, now, I’m trying to figure things out.

…as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what satisfactions were on offer. For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse…If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world – that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that “this is all there is” (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself – go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

I should’ve seen it coming. From even this passage early on, it seems that A N Wilson fell into this trap of thinking that atheism is some kind of hyperrationalism that extinguishes all wonder from the world (which I try to argue that it is not). And I guess I can’t blame him, since he seems to equate the likes of “new atheists” such as Chris Hitchens or Richard Dawkins with atheism as a whole. Because of this, he makes very strong atheist stances like “absolutely no god,” which also isn’t representative of atheism as a whole. And he makes appeals to materialism and antitheism. Sigh. Sometimes, I don’t like what the new atheists have done because then people start getting the wrong idea.

But it just gets worse!

Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer’s Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi’s own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi’s, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense. Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?

All of a sudden, atheism (and of course, he combines it with a strict materialism that makes it sound surgical, hyperrational, and hyperlogical) is a “bleak, muddled creed” that denies and rejects all of the fatty, touchy feely aspects of being human. It is a rejection of music or a rejection of a sense of music. And then, as the instruments of his arguments, he suggests that theists are more interesting and live fuller lives than atheists. Are you kidding me?

When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion – prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.

No, it appears that he actually believes that atheists are people who have no ear for the obvious reality of god in the way that those who are tone-deaf have no ear for music or those who aren’t in love do not understand it.

…the worst part is that he really thinks he’s pinpointed it. And he really believes that atheism is some kind of pervasive worldview that has no wonder in it. And he’s going to show, as an example of this trampling of wonder, how evolutionary scientists try to discover the natural development of language — according to Wilson, language is a proof that we are spiritual beings, in the same way love and music are proofs for the same conclusion for him. Then he pulls out a morality argument!

In the end, I realize that Wilson is at this particular stage of life. He feels about what he does and it makes sense for him, so I ultimately can’t take this away from him. But ultimately, I don’t understand why people like Wilson are so certain that a god must be necessary for things of such wonder like music, love, etc., and that it is inconceivable to think of any instance where someone could account for these things without such a dubious source. I don’t understand why Wilson thinks that not having a God-shaped hole in your heart means that you lack a heart to feel music and feel love.

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