Paul Wallace of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia wrote for the Huffington Post in a recent article called the “The Real Problem With Atheism”. Wallace, an astronomy professor teaches courses on the intersection of religion and science courses presents a critique of science. It’s too optimistic. In “The Real Problem With Atheism” Wallace presents his case against science as a incomplete philosophy that cannot address questions about morality or the meaning of life. By extension, he also argues that the New Atheists, with their dependence on science to inform much of their philosophy, are held back by these same limitations that plague science. It concludes his article by arguing that one limitation of science is the assumption that human problems are finite, wherein he presents the hypothetical of a “poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or a mother who just lost a child to social services” who, far from needing a shot of optimism, needs the “the full and unqualified acknowledgment of life’s dark underside as a clear and present reality” to offer them meaning in life.
Wallace seems to say in his that atheists don’t have crises. And I think that’s ridiculous. It’s the “There are no atheists in foxholes” argument all over again. That statement is an outdated aphorism and nothing more. There are many, many, examples of people who in times of strife do not need the pessimism of Christianity to comfort them in trying times. Not to mention skeptics like Justin Griffith, the Military Director for American Atheists who spearheaded Fort Bragg’s ‘Rock Beyond Belief’ atheist festival, who has fired back against this fallacy by saying, “There are no chaplains in foxholes.” Wallace fails to mention that atheists, too, face adversity and question the meaning in life, but rather than fall back onto superstition and dogma, they attack their problems head-on with the courage to stand on their own two feet. When he levels a complaint against science being too “optimistic” assuming “that the default condition of human life is peace”, I think that he is oversimplifying here, too. Arguably, it’s not that the default position of human life is peace, but that all life in general is homeostatic in one way or another; humans do not always have peace, but they invariably seek peace. And all humans are predisposed to value peace when they grab on to it and the avoid the pain and chaos that will inevitably bring us off-kilter.
I am inclined to disagree with Wallace, too, when he says science, “is optimistic because of its (sic) refusal to acknowledge the deeper problems of life… presuming that what people really need is to ‘enjoy their lives.’ ” I think that the poster on that bus might be guilty of that optimism, but to borrow a phrase from the Honey Badger video, science just don’t give a fuck. I doubt that the field of science concerns itself with the need for people to enjoy their lives any more than it acknowledges the deeper problems of life. Science is capable of addressing topics, like morality, though, only when scientists put the focus of their research onto morality, which Wallace does not mention. Science has quite a bit to say about morality and our place in the universe, too. In fact, authors like Sam Harris have written extensively on morality and how it precedes religion. Harris has bashed the idea of Christian ethics, saying that like Christian ethics, there is no such thing as Chinese algebra. Concepts like ethics (or algebra), once discovered apply to all and are universal. No one ethnicity or faith can claim ownership over them.
Wallace appears to be accusing atheists of scientism, and I think he’s wrong to do so. Christopher Hitchens put it best when he wrote, “We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.” Science has an enormous predictive ability that relies on the power of reduction to make sense of the world. Science is a magnifying glass, but it must be wielded properly. Because science seeks to be an objective endeavor, it cannot make value statements about whether or not it should be analyzing something. But Christianity cannot be the inspiration that keeps science in check because just like ethics or algebra, science is an endeavor shared by all of humanity. The rules that keep our inquiry in check must also be accessible to all of humanity, not just the portion of the world that believes in a particular scripture. That’s why we need more than science to tackle the deeper problems of life. Atheists are not devoid of inspiration, they just look for secular inspiration in music, comedy, history, poetry, nature, architecture, and literature, but not in God. If we’re optimistic, I think it’s because that optimism is justified by what you can accomplish with science, reason, rationality, and logic.