The empiricists and their rubes

Or why atheists don’t have a corner on reason

Catholic World Report recently published my mischievously titled “Why we’d all be Catholic if we really thought about it”, to which no small number of atheistic empiricists replied with loud roars.

There’s no lack today of atheistic empiricists who loudly and insistently proclaim that they’re the only ones who know how to think and reason, and that religiously inclined people can’t, or don’t. When I speak of empiricists, I’m talking about people with a materialistic view of the world and life, where only what we can measure is real, often combined with anti-religion. They are proud and evangelizing atheists. And many of them are productive members of society, colleagues, family members, and friends. So long as the conversation doesn’t descend to name-calling or bluster, I enjoy talking to them, debating them, listening to their perspective. And yes, I myself have to be vigilant against bluster.

First, a few of the atheistic empiricists’ blind spots. Others have ably demonstrated that atheism—the assertion that God doesn’t exist—is irrational. To deny (as compared to agnostic questioning) the existence of God requires conclusive proof that God doesn’t exist. As the universe is a pretty big place and as there are more than a few things we don’t know about it and as many of the things we once thought we knew are now known to be other than what we once thought, making the bold statement that there is no God is irrational, according to the definition of the word. Think of how hard it would be to conclusively prove there are no 6-toed purple, yellow, and red frogs on Earth, just one planet in one galaxy. In what little nook or cranny might such a frog exist, even if just one mutation?

Second, many atheistic empiricists accept on “faith”, i.e., the witness of people they deem credible, scientific principles such as black holes and related theories about the retention of fundamental particle information in black holes or at their event horizons, dark matter, string theory, that they themselves don’t understand, meaning they can’t follow the advanced mathematical proofs themselves. Thus, these beliefs become a matter of trusted testimony rather than evidence.

Third, many atheistic empiricists ascribe social ills, wars, and human rights abuses to religion, while neglecting the records of atheistic regimes where religions have been swept out completely or pushed to the margins, like the Jacobins, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and North Korea, defending abuses in these atheistic systems as correctable flaws, while denying the possibility of correctable flaws within religious traditions. (Ironically, as the late Polish philosopher and former communist Leszek Kołakowski noted, “Marxism performs the function of a religion, and its efficacy is of a religious character.”)

I’ve worked in the realm of engineering and science for almost 40 years, taught subjects laden with math, biology, chemistry, physics at the graduate level, and have a keen respect for science and reasoning. I soak up everything I can find on theoretical physics. I’m not an ascetic monk or divinity major. I try to apply a similar level of scrutiny to all my beliefs and conclusions. Unfortunately, to many dogmatic empiricists, reasoning with religiously inclined people like me is an oxymoron, and they are glad to tell us so.

Is there a Creator, a Divine Voice that speaks to who we are supposed to be, how we should behave, what we should do, how we should live our lives?

If no, why should any culturally or socially derived moral code be binding on me? Why should it be considered “good” to adhere to any behavioral code if I can bypass it to my advantage without getting punished? If I can get away with it, why shouldn’t I do what I want to do, no matter how heinous, even if I want others to observe societal codes so my privileges aren’t threatened?

If no, why does human reason have any relevance outside of the realm of mathematics and the quantitative sciences (i.e., physics)? Why debate anything, when everything outside of mathematics and the physical sciences is merely a matter of cultural perspective, or conditioning, or political leverage?

If no, and man is just another animal, why shouldn’t I behave like other animals if it brings me pleasure, or is otherwise to my advantage?

If no, why am I obligated to care about the environment after I’m gone, or even in the here and now if it impacts someone else, not me?

If no, why not assign a higher order of human life to the productive, healthy, and smart, and a lower order of human life to those who don’t produce, the sick, and the cognitively impaired or immature? If man is just another animal, isn’t it irrational to reject this ordering of human life, and imposing restrictions (various slaveries) on the lower orders?

If no, how is history, with all its misery, splendor, and revelation, thousands upon thousands of days of human experience, relevant, or is history irrelevant and disposable? Is the only thing that’s relevant what we can measure today?

If no, why are things we can’t measure automatically excluded from being real or true? Just because the human animal is limited to perceiving three spacial and one temporal dimension, why is the rest of the universe, and anything beyond this universe (multiverse?), automatically constrained to these humanly perceived dimensions?

Nonetheless, empiricists pose legitimate questions about why a person accepts a Divine Voice, how this Voice is discerned, and why so many religionists are led astray or into dark places by “religious voices”. Yes, I’m talking about the dark voices that drive the Paris terrorists and other jihadists.

If yes to the question about a Divine Voice, how can we discern this Divine Voice, distinguish it from other voices—subjective voices in our heads, culturally derived voices, demonic voices (supernatural or human) that masquerade as the Divine Voice?

If yes, do how we behave and live our lives matter? In this life? In another life?

If yes, what should we do when the Divine Voice conflicts with culturally or socially derived voices?

The use of reason isn’t the sole province of the empiricists, as many would have us believe. I defy any atheistic empiricist to say that Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis, believers all, weren’t skilled appliers and practitioners of the art and science of reasoning. There isn’t an intellectual divide between thoughtful and intentional believers and those who rely on reason. Man is meant to plumb what can be plumbed by reason, also to plumb transcendent things that require more than empirical evidence. For the dogmatic empiricists who scoff at anything requiring more than empirical evidence, what do they themselves believe that they cannot know by their own mental aptitude or have experienced themselves, and why do they put “faith” in these beliefs?

Empiricists and believers can agree on something: we’re all going to die some day, maybe in 2015 or 2016, and on that day our lives will radically change. We have this existential experience in common, don’t we, and doesn’t this give us a special bond with each other? And maybe another thing we can agree on is that our views about immigration, abortion, war, Donald Trump, even ISIS, are explicitly or implicitly informed by whether we believe all human beings are children of a Higher Power, created with a Divine spark, able to discern a Divine voice that proposes, in the context of human freedom, how we should live and act; or whether we believe in a Higher Power that imposes strict adherence to rules and laws and who commissions followers to impose these rules on others; or whether we believe humans are introspective animals, subject to irrevocable physical laws, who cease to exist when we die, where right and wrong are determined by cultural conditioning, statutes/laws, or self-interest. To ignore these worldviews produces confusion and useless arguing and “reasoning”, as there’s a vast chasm between what’s allowed and disallowed by these perspectives.

Faith and reason aren’t enemies but “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth” (Karol Wojtyla). No, the atheistic empiricists cannot claim reason as theirs and theirs alone.

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About Thomas M. Doran 82 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.