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Why atheism doesn't have the upper hand over religion
There are certain experiences that atheism simply cannot explain
 
Can atheism explain self-sacrifice?
Can atheism explain self-sacrifice? (iStock)

In my last column, I examined some of the challenges facing religion today. Those challenges are serious. But that doesn't mean that atheism has the upper hand. On the contrary, as I've argued many times before, atheism in its currently fashionable form is an intellectual sham. As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne's latest diatribe in The New Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he's incapable of following a philosophical argument.

Atheism shouldn't be wholly identified with the confusions of its weakest exponents any more than we should reduce religious belief to the fulminations of fundamentalists. Yet when it comes to certain issues, the quality of the arguments doesn't much matter. The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.

Think of a soldier who throws herself on a live grenade to save her comrades. Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.

Or consider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude's 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

Pick your favorite non-theistic theory: Rational choice and other economically based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude's son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude's sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father's sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son's genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

We feel moved by Vander Woude's sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.

But why is that? What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?

I'd say that only theism offers an adequate explanation — and that Christianity might do the best job of all.

Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.

Why does Vander Woude's act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.

That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.

Don't buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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