- The history of religion is rife with wickedness, barbarism and intolerance, often standing at odds with religion's stated ideals.
- Science explains existence better than an appeal to God.
- There is no empirical evidence of God’s existence.
- Religion does evil things.
- Traditional metaphysical arguments for God fail.
To each of these points Hart gives some worthy rejoinders, but what jumped out at me was that these arguments, highly distilled though they be, further distill to two arguments:
- Scientism leaves no room for God.
- The track record of religion in the course of history does not square with the moral ideal.
Now, from this list (1) is little more than a tautology, and (2) raises all sorts of problems, including:
- Recognition of universal human fallibility is foundational to (Abrahamic) religion - no self-consistent Christian claims perfection.
- Fallibility of proponents of worldview X does not by itself amount to a refutation of X.
- To ignore the last point and persist, arguing that the world is worse off due to religion requires some crafty cherry-picking as to what is meant by religion and what bad deeds in history were specifically religious in motivation, as well as some tenuous speculation regarding how things would have been different without it, and also
- Any moral evaluation of religion, then and now, requires, if not recourse to religion itself, then at least a departure from scientism. The moral ideal is not a simple given.
- To ignore the last point and, contrary to the competence of scientism, erect a moral edifice from which to judge the actions of the religious, you're going to find a whole lot of moral ambiguity on the part of scientists, too.
Indeed, that these five-boiled-down-to-two arguments are so easily dispatched leaves me to wonder how adequate Hart's roundup is. Perhaps I am stuck with my original task of constructing a taxonomic tree of atheist arguments after all...
But Hart makes a couple of other points worthy of reflection, too. For one, he contrasts the New Atheists with much more profound exponents of atheism such as Nietzsche, who saw the loss of God as mixed bag: there are many who believe they have let go of God without letting go of Christian-like beliefs. These complacent and shallow souls, these "last men", are like insects who know nothing of the mystery of being and man’s potential. If anything, the New Atheists vindicate Nietzsche here. Hart throws out Hume as another example of this deeper atheism: a skepticism thorough enough to strike at the core of simple faith also strikes at the core of rationality. Clearly there's a lot more to this story, but this contrast serves as a nice starting point.
Another point is Hart's criticism of the track record of the Enlightenment and the heirs of Kant's post-religious perpetual peace. As Hart summarizes it, the hope was that simply by discarding religious authority society would evolve inevitably toward ever higher expressions of life. For Hart it's simply no longer possible to believe in this. I think there's a good point here, but it's also problematic. At least three of my above responses to the fallibility of religious history apply here, too, substituting "Enlightenment" for "religion". Specifically, as concerns what is meant by "Enlightenment", it is clearly inadequate to boil it down to the rejection of religious authority. And there's the problem of implying that the New Atheists are the proper heirs of the Enlightenment.
A parting quotation, which you can hear by skipping forward to 45:00 of the video: "We live now in the wake of the most monstrously violent century in human history during which the secular order both on the political right and on the political left freed from the authority of anything but the imperatives of history and material existence showed itself willing to kill on an unprecedented scale and with an ease of conscience far worse than merely depraved."
Forcefully put, and again worthy of reflection. But these are contentious claims. History is a mess. Steven Pinker, arguably distorting the record, draws a quite different conclusion in his recent The Better Angels of Our Nature. In my humble opinion, history is simply not the place to settle scores. It's too malleable, and even when the facts do look conclusive and damning, you still have the question as to whether your moral ideal is indeed what it ought to be. And beyond this, whether any moral ideal is ever by itself sufficient, for there lingers the question of agency.