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The questions that still plague atheism

Declining to answer a question is not more honest than answering it

Matthew Arnold Wikimedia Commons

The questions that still plague atheism
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“Miracles do not happen.” Thus Matthew Arnold, in the preface to the 1883 edition of his short work Literature & Dogma. The English poet and essayist is best known for his 1867 poem “Dover Beach,” which has echoed and re-echoed down the generations as an anguished valediction for the lost faith of the West. When he wasn’t writing poetry, he wrote eloquent prose underscoring his central thesis: that dogmatic Christianity was dead, but Christianity evacuated of doctrine was the way of the future. That is, a Christianity that had given up insisting on the miraculous. Because, well. You know.

Arnold’s ghost haunts a recent three-way dialogue between well-known public intellectuals Douglas Murray, Tom Holland, and Steve Meyer, hosted by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution. Robinson selected “Dover Beach” to bookend the conversation, which was released with the title “Does God Exist?” but might perhaps have been more aptly titled “Can Belief in God Survive?” Robinson and Meyer do their earnest best to convert Murray and Holland in the time they have, which is disappointingly short. Yet their dialogue is still valuable, because they clarify the looming questions of the West’s postmodern age. Further, their approach suggests that answering those questions may require even more questions, daring to probe the axioms that ground our currently acceptable answers.

This is Meyer’s running theme, as he winsomely but firmly keeps pointing out the elephant in the room. To understand why the house is falling down, it is necessary to reexamine its foundation. Matthew Arnold’s poetry is eloquent indeed, but good poetry may still rest on bad philosophy. And its cornerstone is that ironically dogmatic declaration: “Miracles do not happen.”

But neither Holland nor Murray is exactly Matthew Arnold reincarnate. Holland demurs that as a historian, it’s not his place to say whether miracles do or don’t happen. He’ll leave that to theologians and militant atheists. Murray nods to a favorite poet, Rilke, who once encouraged a younger poet to “live in the questions.” Embrace or reject the miraculous if you must. Either way, at least be honest enough to admit what you don’t know. Be open. Check your bias. This is the genteel “New New Atheist” plea.

The New New Atheists still have a problem, though: Declining to answer a question is not, in and of itself, more intellectually honest than answering it. It is not merely the absence of a claim. Rather, it’s the positive claim that nobody should make too-confident positive claims. 

All our instincts rise up to protest that whatever Science says we are, we are more.

Meyer presses this point, channeling C. S. Lewis’s advice to Sheldon Vanauken when Vanauken worried that his judgment was clouded by too strong a desire for Christianity to be true. Don’t let this hinder you, Lewis said. If you think long enough, you could come up with just as many reasons to hope it’s not true. In the end, as Meyer puts it, all of this is “a wash,” because, in the end, this is not just about what we feel. It’s about what we can know. (Thanks, Alistair Begg.)

And yet it was also Lewis, famously, who made an apologetic argument from desire. Robinson pauses at one point in the dialogue to pull up a quote from Roger Scruton that sounds very much like Lewis in The Weight of Glory. Both writers speak to those moments when we are so powerfully surprised by joy, by beauty, that it’s as if a window has opened up on “the winding ill-lit stairway” of our lives, and we seem to glimpse that far-off promised land we cannot enter. But Lewis takes that one step beyond Scruton, saying not only can we glimpse it, but we were also made for it.

This sense of telos, of made-ness, haunts Douglas Murray’s dissatisfaction with the glib Dawkins line that science (or Science) has “solved” us. That is not the human experience. On the contrary, all our instincts rise up to protest that whatever Science says we are, we are more. More than mere cogs in a machine. More than mere consumers in a food chain. 

Tom Holland, for his part, suggests that since not even human rights “objectively” exist on any non-Christian account of the world, perhaps (to use an old English expression) he “might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” On the other hand, if he can have faith in human rights, is it such a stretch to have faith in angels too? Besides, if we do history like evolutionary scientists, Christianity has hung around this long, so why not back the “fittest” horse?

Meyer deftly reframes these intuitions, suggesting they function best not in a pragmatic argument, but in an inference to the best explanation. Nature is trying to tell us something. Our own bodies, minds, and spirits are trying to tell us something. Something which, contra Holland, we do seem to access as an objective reality, as a truth we “can’t not know,” to quote J. Budziszewski.

Must we believe, then? Or can we do no more than “believe in belief”? And be glad that even if we can’t, there remains some serious house on serious earth where someone can—even far away in Africa, like the beleaguered Nigerian Christians Murray remembers watching at prayer? If this is all we can do, is it enough?

Holland says he has faith that it is. Murray, more cautiously, says he has hope. But while they live in the questions, a world waits for an answer that atheism cannot possibly provide.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel has a doctorate in math and is a widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.


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