Beliefnet
Aspects of religion are based on articles of faith - things people resolve to believe without conclusive evidence. That God exists, for instance, cannot be proven; there is some evidence, but ultimately, to believe in the divine you must take it on faith.

Rationalists often reject religion exactly because it hinges on articles of faith, asserting that unless a belief can be derived from pure reason or confirmed fact, it is humbug. Now, curiously, a new sort of anti-religion is arising among intellectuals which is, itself, based on an article of faith, or perhaps anti-faith. The new form of anti-religion believes the supernatural simply cannot exist. The dogma of this new anti-religion is that all reports of supernatural power must be fraudulent - not that there are doubts or questions (there surely are), but that belief must be phony. This attitude is itself an article of faith, as surely as it is an article of faith to believe that Jesus is God's child.

An excellent example of this evolving anti-religion is the cover story of a recent Harper's magazine. Harper's, not to be confused with the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar, is a 151-year-old literary publication that stands alongside The Atlantic Monthly as one of America's leading popular intellectual journals. 'FALSE TESTAMENT,' declared the Harper's cover headline. Beneath that was the subhead 'ARCHEOLOGY REFUTES THE BIBLE'S CLAIM TO HISTORY.' The entire Bible disproved - wow! Bible refuted! Prepare to shut down all synagogues and churches. And somebody better tell the Pope.

On second thought, believers can relax. Accounts in the Bible may or may not be historically true: debate is passionate and engaging. But what the Harper's article, by writer David Lazare, represents is a sort of manifesto for a central dogma of anti-religion: not that there are valid questions about scripture, but that the Bible cannot be true. Maybe the Judeo-Christian scriptures are historically accurate, maybe they aren't, maybe scripture is a mix of truth and embroidery. In the new anti-religion, you don't have to think about this because an article of faith tells you everything in scripture must be wrong. Dogmatic priests are the ones who announce the message, in this case priests calling themselves scholars, but the mechanism is the same. There is only one permissible view, that the Bible is made up, and you must believe this because, well, because the believers say so.

To pound the table and insist that religion must be wrong is just as goofy and fallacious as to pound the table and insist that religion must be right. That such an eminent publication as Harper's has now taken the table-pounding anti-religion position makes it important to show why the magazine's cover story, touted as an exercise in disinterested scholarship, is really about a new form of dogma.

The Harper's article begins by grudgingly allowing that the Bible might contain a "kernel of truth" - okay, so the Nile is really a river, and people did once sleep in tents. Matters head rapidly downhill. The second sentence summarily dismisses all reference to the supernatural, announcing, "Obviously Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake."

Obviously? No argument is given for this declaration, which simply assumes that the supernatural cannot exist. Rules of logic are violated here, since to declare the supernatural impossible, you must falsify it. All the great materialist philosophers have begun by admitting that God cannot be disproved; Harper's must know something that has been concealed from centuries of logicians. It's one thing to say that you doubt the supernatural or find mythology a better explanation for supernatural accounts; these are fair points. But to start from the premise that the supernatural simply cannot exist is starting from an article of faith, if anti-faith in this case. It's the parallel to declaring that God must exist because priests say so. And it's as slapdash as, say, trying to argue against evolution by asserting, "Obviously people did not descend from relatives of the apes."

Simply to dismiss the supernatural also misses the key point that what appears impossible from one level of knowledge may be well within physical law from another level. Isaac Newton, if shown pictures of a 747 in flight, would have sworn that a flying object the size of a small town "obviously" could not exist. Copernicus, if told that a device weighing only a few pounds could kill a million people by fusing invisible atoms, would have said such a thing was beyond physical law. Did the Red Sea actually part for Moses? I haven't a clue. But should I baldly assert that parting a sea is a physical impossibility? For all I know, some future tour-guide company will do this for vacationers. Jesus is said to have walked on water; whether he actually did, I have no idea. But I do know that German engineers have levitated an entire passenger train on a magnetic field, as part of the "maglev" railroad project. Levitating an entire train seems rather more daunting that levitating one person in sandals. If told an entire train had been levitated, the leading rationalists of the past surely would have declared that "obviously" could not happen.

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