The Portable Atheist: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mark Twain
Christopher Hitchens’s book The Portable Atheist is a collection of “essential” writings for unbelievers. I’m currrently posting some of my miscellaneous thoughts about the various works in the book as I read them.
According to Hitchens, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a victim of the theocracy that once ruled Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wasn’t allowed to teach there because he did not profess faith in God. Hitchens sees this as a great tragedy, but after reading Shelley’s pamphlet “A Refutation of Deism,” I’m hardly moved to agree. Yes, Shelley had a great mind, but he focused it to the wrong ends. He came to simple, startling, and incorrect conclusions about the nature of God.
First, the pamphlet argues from the point of view of an eternal universe. This is because, according to Shelley, it is simpler to conclude that the universe is the Uncaused Cause than to reach outside the universe for that Cause. The flaw here is that modern science has unanimously concluded that the universe is not eternal–it had a beginning sometime in the finite past. The universe, because it came into being, must have a cause. Even Shelley concedes that point, and that it is one of the main reasons that he begins his argument with the assumption that the universe is self-existent and eternal.
Since that is not the case, the rest of the argument–founded upon a faulty premise–is incorrect.
However, it remains for me to point out one of the double standards of atheism, and that is the application of Occam’s Razor to the divine. The atheist applies Occam’s Razor to the universe, saying that the Big Bang is the Uncaused Cause–the First Mover that set the universe into motion.
The theist, however, has a much better argument here. The theist begins from the divine as the Uncaused Cause because all that begins must first have a cause. The universe began, and so therefore must have a cause. A cause cannot itself be a part of the effect–think of the Laws of Inertia here. Therefore, the Uncaused Cause is supernatural–outside the order of the universe.
Here is where the atheist retorts, “What created the Creator?” Using this retort is a vicious double standard. The atheist allows Occam’s Razor to be applied to the Big Bang, stating that is the Uncaused Cause. But he doesn’t allow the theist the same leeway to apply Occam’s Razor to the divine Creator. The divine creator, the atheist reasons, must Himself have a Creator, who also had a Creator, who also had a Creator, and so on backwards into infinity.
This is reasonable to the atheist. He doesn’t see the hole in his logic, however. He is using Occam’s Razor to make the Big Bang the First Cause. He refuses to give the theist the same ability to simplify to one deity, in effect requiring a multitude of deities when he only requires one Big Bang.
I also read Mark Twain’s essay, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice.” More of the same old refuted notions–buffet style religion (the idea that we can pick and choose the laws that we follow), slavery, and witch hunts. I agree that religion is many times a very bad thing, but I only wish that atheists would at least represent our side without resorting to argument by outrage as they so often do. These notions are refuted in Lee Camp’s excellent book, Mere Discipleship.