A Critique of Dr. Peter Masters' "The Cruelties Of Atheism"
"The Cruelties of Atheism" is a pamphlet from the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, and it caught my eye on a religious stand in Reading market some time ago. The blurb on the back states that within its 14 pages "the author exposes the harmful and unreasonable side of atheism." That, of course, was an offer I couldn't resist, so I overcame my reluctance to subsidise the Church, paid my 40p and read on.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the overall aim of this tract seems to be to secure the faith of those who already subscribe to the author's views, since it will most certainly not convince atheists of the "cruelties" of their position. However, I will attempt to address some of the author's more important points as they are presented.
This presentation is divided into eight categories, and I shall follow the same scheme here.
1. The need to get rid of God
In this section, Masters kicks off by asserting that the "fear of God" is required to turn people away from vile acts or sin. When one is about to commit some dastardly act, "an awareness that God exists may startle the conscience, and a powerful restraint will be felt". While this may be the case, it does not address the possibility that the conscience may be startled by other things, such as rational consideration of consequences, or fear of very real secular authority. It is also limited by the claim that it is the fear of God that does the startling, which tells us nothing about the reality of the God behind the fear. If this is the case, then a purely illusory figure would do just as well as long as the fear was still induced. Many of us suffer from irrational fear of one sort or another, and it is possible to induce fear of illusory figures into children with no great effort. In the majority of cases, these bogie men are dispensed with after childhood, but continued pressure and conditioning into adulthood seems to allow a significant number of people to retain a very real fear.
He goes on to say that "the great objective of atheism is to get rid of this unwanted restraint" and it is this statement on which most of the rest of the pamphlet rests, and ultimately falls. Although some atheists may reject the idea of God for this reason, it is by no means prevalent or indeed common. In my experience, most atheists reject the God concept as simply superfluous, not because it interferes with their conscience. Any atheist that disbelieves solely for convenience of action is treading on very shaky ground - it is similar to Pascal's wager in reverse.
If Masters' thesis really were the case, what would be the effects? Countries with a largely Christian population (and Masters is clearly talking about the Christian God here) should have a much lower rate of "vile acts" than more secular countries. A comparison of the murder rates between the continental USA and the UK may be instructive here. According to recent polls, the country with the clearly higher murder rate is also the country with the clearly higher percentage of people professing belief in the existence of the Christian God. On this evidence, the theory seems to fail.
A final interesting point is raised at the end of this section, where Masters defines an atheist as "a person who is determined to get the instinctive awareness of God completely out of his mind." I would object to this on two counts. First, that there is no evidence that there is indeed an instinctive awareness of God, and secondly that the ridding of this (should it exist) is the purpose for becoming an atheist.
From the first section, we can clearly see where Dr. Masters is coming from.
2. Different kinds of atheist
Here, Dr. Masters presents the standard weak/strong atheist divide, which he refers to as "passive-atheists" and "ardent, aggressive" non-believers. He clearly states that the weak atheists are ignorant dupes who have "been persistently lied to by militant atheism and have absorbed the lies." He goes on to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the media, which he believes to be "controlled by atheists".
He does not back this assertion up with any evidence, although I can see why this might come to pass. Most people today enjoy forms of entertainment not even foreseen by the authors of holy scripture, and since holy scripture is by its own standards infallible, this must therefore be evil. The relative paucity of religious programming in mainstream media is therefore predictable since those with firm religious convictions will automatically avoid it.
This is, however, an aside.
This second section wraps up by stating that the purpose of the pamphlet is "to challenge atheists to see the gigantic flaws and the horrific consequences of the ideas which have been pressed upon them." This is certainly a bold aim! I, for one, was brought up in a household where religion was not frowned upon, and I felt free to express whatever beliefs I felt comfortable with. No-one "pressed upon" me to become an atheist. And I know of many other people who have become atheists in situations where they have been actively "pressed" the other way.
As to how we are to be convinced...
3. Why should atheism be regarded as 'sin'?
"The first point to make about atheism is that in God's sight it is not a credible intellectual opinion, but a sin." [Emphasis in original.] This is the opening paragraph of the third section, and perhaps the most significant stumble that the author makes. If the purpose of the pamphlet, as stated above, is to make atheists see the error of their ways, then appealing that it upsets God is exactly the wrong way to go about it.
This is the exact equivalent of attempting to convince people that Santa Claus exists because if you don't believe in him it makes him really angry. Masters misses the whole point that arguments from authority, especially with God as the authority, will convince no-one of sceptical bent.
He goes on to say that atheism "is worse than the sin of murder", because unbelief is behind every sin including murder. This is specious reasoning, since if unbelief is behind every sin, then believers cannot sin and this is patently not the case. However, it is rare to find attention to the real world in this type of pamphlet, so we may forgive him on this matter.
If the atheist is unconvinced by the argument from God's authority, then he will be equally unconvinced by Masters' additional argument that atheism is "profoundly ungrateful". Here, uncharacteristically, he makes a perfectly valid point. Atheists "owe no gratitude to any Creator", he says, and this does indeed seem to be the case. The context in which it is put shows, however, that he clearly means that atheists decide not to show gratitude to an extant Creator, not (as is the real case), that atheists do not show gratitude to any entity in which they happen not to believe exists, Creator or not.
4. Atheism is wilfully unreasonable
In this section, we see Masters' frustration with the "wall of total unreasonableness" that stands between atheists and theists. It should be fair to say that in the debates that I have witnessed between atheists and theists, the atheists seem just as frustrated. This implies a problem not with atheists per se, but with the total incompatibility of the two world views.
He then justifies his view of this wall as being the atheists' fault because they are unwilling to see "this created world with its order, intricacy and design" and continues into a textbook version of the argument from design. This has been well refuted elsewhere.
He also writes: "It is interesting to see how many leading scientific minds now write to oppose and discredit the theory of evolution as an explanation of life." It certainly would be, but he cites no references nor gives any figures for, say, articles in peer-reviewed journals which do just this. In any case, the theory of evolution has little to do with atheism as it stands. As has been pointed out many times before, God could easily have started the universe off and "designed evolution in", and recently even the Pope (the leader of a popular Christian religious order) pronounced that evolution was "more than a theory". We can therefore discount this part of the argument as being irrelevant.
Following this is a long passage blaming the current status of this country on atheism's "own system of ethics". Of course, the current status of this country is being relayed to him by the atheist media, a fact which he fails to see the irony in. In fact, it is equally plausible to blame the current government for the state of the nation, but unfortunately for him the current government is easily the most God-friendly political party in the UK today. Perhaps we should bring back the state of the nation that prevailed when last the Church had sway over the majority of the country. This was called the Dark Ages, and with good reason. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, "we've never had it so good."
He then continues in similar vein, attacking anti-censorship campaigns as promoting pornography and molestation of children, and fails to realise that the "atheist media" are the ones who, in the last hundred years, have allowed people to see farther than their own local communities. Before the advent of this system, a murder in Scotland would not be reported widely to the Welsh populace, for example. I would contend that a large part of the supposed increase in violent crime in the last century is in fact a large increase in the visibility of violent crime to the man in the street.
At the end of the section, he again comes very close to making a reasonable observation: "Wherever they look, people do not want to see the slightest indication that there might be a God." With the omission of the words "want to", I believe that this sums up the basis for a good proportion of atheism.
5. Atheism always advances by dishonest methods
Again, this section starts off by asserting that atheism is offensive to God. As I have stated before, this is a non-argument.
It continues with an attack on some fictional books exploring the loosening of the marriage ties in society, in which "a line-up of good, friendly, witty, engaging people all needed to get divorced and found themselves obstructed by laws defended by a pack of small-minded, unpleasant bigots." Fiction is not evidence, as he correctly says, but it can be a powerful tool for examining possibilities and for getting a message across. To borrow from Dr. Masters' own belief system, Jesus himself used parables to get his point across. Are those fictions "deceit" and "cheating"?
Furthermore, he continues in similar vein: television scriptwriters "write not only to make money, but also to justify their own way of life, and to persuade all society to scorn moral limitations." It is interesting to reflect that, far from this being the case, most fiction on television results in the bad guys being justly punished, and the good guys the victors of the piece. Even television soaps, which he singles out for special consideration, largely follow the same pattern. He describes television soap writers as "leading painful, unhappy lives, strewn with the heartache of broken relationships, addiction-problems and sexually-transmitted diseases." He then says that atheism has got its message across with "ruthless deceitfulness and distortion." Sure, popular soap writers may not be heroes but they do not deserve to be stereotyped as syphilitic drug-addicts. Is this not an example of the "ruthless deceit" that Dr. Masters so condemns?
6. Atheism is intensely cruel in its effects.
Just as we think that this tirade of overstated arguments cannot get any worse, Masters uses the next section to inform us that atheism has unleashed "lust and violence on a scale that would never exist, but for its influence." He reiterates his theme of child abuse, and adds a politically expedient simplification of the abortion debate.
"Whenever we read about suffering people [...] let us be clear that this is all the cruelty of atheism," he writes. In that case, how can he explain that the largely secular countries of Northern Europe are mostly comfortably off, whereas the Christian countries of South America and parts of Africa have levels of poverty that cause suffering on a gargantuan scale? Are atheists so powerful that they can cause suffering at such distance? Is the suffering in Bosnia the fault of atheism? No, it is due to a struggle between different sects of God worshippers.
To bring the debate closer to home, he blames atheism for poor discipline of children, saying that "atheism insists on their 'inherent goodness', and so outlaws discipline." Although it is well known that the Christian faith is a believer in discipline, does this necessarily mean that atheists automatically reject it? Not at all. In this case, I sense that Dr. Masters is using a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument in that the decline of discipline post-dates the decline of the Church in the UK and thus this must be the cause. As usual, this argument is presented as fact, with no evidence to back it up.
7. Atheism is arrogant and impotent.
This section I shall skip lightly over, as it simply makes the claim that atheism is arrogant because it rejects "God's evaluation of human needs." This is the same non-argument from authority used in two previous sections and I shall not go over its flaws again.
However, he does come very close to making a valid point again when he claims that atheism is "comfortless," and on that point I would broadly agree. It is comforting not to have to see the world as it really is, not to have to rely on yourself, to be told that you are loved unconditionally. It is comforting to belong to a group, to detach yourself from everyday problems, to be assured that you will live forever. If comfort is being lied to like this, then "comfortless" is a compliment.
8. Atheism - escaping its clutches.
Masters continues in similar vein into the start of this next section, claiming that atheism "bribes its way into human hearts." [Emphasis in original.] But he has just claimed it was "comfortless." Are these two statements not contradictory? It certainly seems so to me.
Atheism "tells us that there is no reason why we need ever suffer another pang of conscience." This assumes that basis of conscience must rest only in fear of a supernatural authority. Evidence gleaned by study of humans and animals indicates that it is instead born of societal pressure, upbringing, conditioning and enlightened self interest. The evolution of moral behaviour and justice has been extensively studied, and does not seem to be linked to irrational fear or supernatural influence.
As an aside, this for me underlines the fundamental difference between the believer and the sceptic. The believer will look to scripture (of whatever kind) for answers, and in most cases be content without ever relating what he has learned to the real world. The sceptic observes the world, and changes the "scripture" to fit. Thus the man who reads the Bible (Leviticus 11:21-22) will believe that beetles have four legs. The man who counts the legs on a beetle believes it has six. Believe what you like, but I reserve the right to check it against reality before I believe it too.
As a final shot, Masters tries to frighten us away from "atheistic brainwashing" by painting a bleak picture of the final moments of an atheist's life, as the soul is ushered into the presence of God for judgement. The astute reader should already have the words Pascal's Wager lighting up in their mind, and this is indeed the case.
(For those of you unfamiliar with Pascal's wager, the counter-argument is to ask Dr. Masters what fear and trembling he will experience when he dies and is judged by Allah/Buddha/Odin/Jupiter/Big Juju/etc., since the followers of all these entities make similar claims to his own, with similar evidence.)
Dr. Masters then rounds off the pamphlet by extolling devotion to Jesus as the only way out of this specious dilemma, and apart from the advertisements for some of his other tracts, this is the end of the text.
I was, as I hope you will understand, intensely disappointed with this document. It purports to be a crushing argument against atheism, but turns out to be a mixture of argument from authority (with the authority being the one thing it target audience disbelieves), bald assertion, generalisation, straw-man stereotyping and, as the crushing blow, the thoroughly discredited argument of Pascal's wager.
If this is the most convincing argument the Metropolitan Tabernacle can come up with, then they might as well give up and try to convert believers of other faiths, not atheists.
Now, I wonder if I can convince them to give me my money back...
"The Cruelties of Atheism", Peter Masters, Sword and Trowel 1993, ISBN 1 899046 03 8