June 10, 2024
SF Gate

The New Atheism and the Delusions of Science.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP

Church attendance has been steadily falling in the U.S. and other developed countries for decades, causing a rise in people who tell pollsters that they are unaffiliated with any organized faith. According to the Pew Research Center, about one in three adults identify as unaffiliated.

This should be good news for confirmed atheists, and Pew has found that the number of atheists doubled in the U.S. between 2011 and 2021. However, this represents an increase from 2% to 4% of the adult population, still a statistical sliver.

So with church attendance falling and the unaffiliated swelling in numbers, why has this benefitted atheism so little? The so-called New Atheism boasts some leading figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Daniel Dennett who are not only intellectuals but loud proselytizers. Their failure to convince people of their cause says a great deal about our current unease regarding God, religion, and spirituality.

The drawbacks of the New Atheism come down to several propositions that the average adult, or even the highly educated, don’t respond to.

  • New Atheists denigrate anyone who believes in God, painting them as superstitious, ignorant, irrational, or outright deluded. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to convert people through insults.
  • By extension, to the New Atheists, any spiritual pursuit is considered to be folly. Most people believe that spirituality is well-intended and might lead to something valuable.
  • New Atheism puts emphasis on science as the only rational system of thought. Religion by contrast is condemned as irrational and a primitive throwback to an age of unreason. Yet obviously it is possible to be rational without being a scientist. Moreover, plenty of rational people believe in God or some higher power.
  • Atheism is proudly individual and self-reliant, dispensing with the emotional support provided by religion. This stance strikes most people as sterile. Psychologically, it is very healthy to identify with a cause greater than yourself. The psychological benefit of organized religion is one of its most positive aspects, whatever you might think of religion’s role in the modern world.

With these strikes against it, New Atheism is likely to remain in the wilderness, making tiny inroads but never a major contribution. Even a bright school child accepts that you can’t prove a negative, and proving that God doesn’t exist is just as hard as proving that God does exist. Both sides of the debate are dealing with an invisible, impalpable entity. In the modern secular world, a holy ghost is still a ghost.

It’s a shame that the New Atheism doesn’t incite more people to think more deeply about spirituality. It hasn’t defined a narrative that offers help or hope. Across the board, New Atheists declare that science is the only viable way to understand reality, and this is simply deluded. In our current situation, science and religion have both lost the campaign to explain reality. The supernatural is easy to attack as superstition, but science is just as vulnerable to the opposite charge, the failure of pure rationalism.

At its most basic, a position Dawkins unflaggingly promotes, science is about objective facts proven by empirical data. The physical world “out there” is a given. It is understandable through the laws of nature and the equations of abstract mathematics. In no way is Homo sapiens special in such a scheme, where evolution proceeds through random mutations, just as particle physics is random.

What the New Atheism wants to dispel is the subjective world “in here,” because subjectivity is unreliable, personal, colored by emotions, subject to primitive impulses, idiosyncratic, and clouded by false memories and assumptions. (In my experience, these attributes closely apply to the New Atheists I’ve met and debated against.)

One can accept these criticisms—any mature adult would—without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Subjectivity is the source of all the highest values of humanity, including love, compassion, devotion, insight, curiosity, wonder, creativity, personal evolution, and higher states of consciousness.

Because these values play no part in the New Atheism, it renders itself irrelevant. A pure rational person wouldn’t remotely be anyone’s ideal. Nor is it necessary to say that the highest values of humanity are bestowed by a divine supernatural being. In every culture, there is a conjunction of religion and subjectivity, which means that religion has the historical advantage of containing our highest aspirations.

But we have to be honest, and organized religion has declined for a reason, or rather, many reasons. The modern secular world is based on science and technology. The Holocaust, world wars, and other catastrophes made it harder to believe in a benign God. Dogmas, priests, and absolute faith lost their hold, which is no bad thing.

But science as a worldview is short-sighted and often mistaken. The world “in here” isn’t empirical or physical. No matter how stubbornly you insist that the brain is the mind, this is a fragile assumption, like saying that a piano is music. A piano is an instrument for the mind to use, and so is the brain. The reason that the mind and consciousness in general are beyond the reach of science is the same as the punchline of an old joke, which goes, “Sorry, mister, you can’t get there from here.”

You can’t get to consciousness if you have only physical, empirical data to work from or if you attempt to squeeze subjectivity into the rules that apply to the physical world. There’s a logical mismatch. People intuitively realize this. They don’t say, “I haven’t made up my brain what to eat tonight.” Indeed, the greatest civilizations, East and West, flourished for millennia without any knowledge of the brain. Its very existence depended on cracking open the skull.

In everyday experience, we are aware of our minds instead, and this has worked out very well—the human condition is a mental condition. Creativity occurs in consciousness, as does freedom of choice. The ultimate delusion of science centerson consciousness, in fact. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness arose because of a logical mismatch. There is no problem, certainly not a hard one, once you stop using the wrong lens to inspect consciousness. I have expanded all these ideas in my book The Future of God.

We exist, and we experience life. Begin with these two basic, irreducible truths, and reality unfolds from the right foundation. Of course, science plays its part. Just because the New Atheism makes science the enemy of subjectivity doesn’t mean that the two are at odds. You can be spiritual and rational at the same time. Why not? In the end, the New Atheism is something to be grateful for. It provides a constellation of bad ideas that can be worked through and discarded. As an old axiom goes, once you have stripped away all illusions, what remains must be real.

DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation.  Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution for the last thirty years. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Digital Dharma: How to Use AI to Raise Your Spiritual Intelligence and Personal Well-Being. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”  www.deepakchopra.com

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