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Nancy Pearcey on why naturalist atheism produces boring literature where nothing much happens

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Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning

Further to “Were you learning “survival of the fittest” in lit class and didn’t know it?” and to “Yes, you were, from your classic naturalist authors” (but maybe no one felt like pointing that out), here’s Nancy Pearcey again in Saving Leonardo:

(First, our usual caveat: The works discussed are not “literary Darwinism.” That is a version of evolutionary psychology that seeks to subsume all literature into Darwinism, whether the latter was part of the authors’ vision or not. This discussion concerns the acknowledged use of Darwinian theory by literary figures who believed in its basic message themselves. They were simply expressing their own vision; they were not necessarily advancing the view that all the other writers who do not believe in such a vision are really iterating it anyway on some kind of genetic autopilot. That is why their work endures as a worthwhile subject of study.)

Why Atheism Is Boring

Portraying humans as sheer animals “without free will” was not entirely easy, however. It proved difficult to flesh out believable characters who made no decisions but were swept along by social and biological forces—puppets of fate. It also made for characters who were incredibly dull. There can be no real character development if they are helpless victims of their environment. A professor of film studies says naturalism was frankly “boring.” When writers followed Zola’s prescription simply to report on how humans react to the environment, it resulted in the loss of a strong narrative line, creating “dramas which meander and never quite reach a resolution.”

File:Three Sisters cover 1901.jpg An example is Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. The sisters desperately want to escape their provincial town and move to Moscow. But though they keep talking about it through all four acts of the play, they never actually do it. They cannot break free from the trap of family customs and social expectations. In naturalism, explains a drama historian, “man has no freedom from the environment, of which he is a product and helpless victim.” Thus in naturalistic drama, “there is never a decisive beginning or end, never a clear-cut climax or turn, because man is not expected to make a major decision.”

Audiences often find these plays frustrating and depressing. More significantly, however, a deterministic worldview produces characters that are not true to life. In reality, people do make genuine decisions. Much of the drama of human life stems from wrestling with wrenching moral dilemmas. Though naturalism was an offshoot of realism, we could say its greatest flaw was that it was not realistic enough. We all experience the moment-by-moment reality of making choices. The experience of freedom is attested to in every human culture, in every era of history, and in every part of the globe.

When naturalism declares freedom to be an illusion, it denies this universal human experience. But that is not a valid move in the worldview game. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the basic data of human experience, not to deny it.

Even the novelists’ own lives did not fit their professed naturalistic worldview. Yale historian Cynthia Russett notes that the literary naturalists typically kept their intellectual life separate from their lived experience. They accepted “determinism as a theory but not something to live by.”

I would go further and suggest that they could not live by it because it is contrary to human nature.

File:Anton Chekhov with bow-tie sepia image.jpg
Anton Checkhov (1860-1904)

The test of any worldview is two-fold: 1) Is it internally logically consistent? 2) Does it fit the real world? That is, can it be applied and lived out consistently without doing violence to human nature? This second question suggests a biblical form of pragmatism. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the world—to provide a mental map for navigating reality. If the map does not work in the real world, then it is not an accurate guide. Just as you test a scientific theory by going into the laboratory to see what happens when you actually mix chemicals in test tubes, so you test a worldview by seeing how well it works in ordinary life.

Because humans are created in God’s image and live in God’s world, at some point every nonbiblical worldview will fail the practical test. Adherents will not be able to apply it consistently in practice—because it does not fit who they really are. Instead they will find themselves living as though the biblical view of human nature were true—because that is who they really are. You might say that the naturalists’ map of reality is too “small.” It covers only part of reality. As a result, they cannot live according to its dictates. They keep walking off the map and into “terra incognita”—terrain that their map does not account for. (pp. 148–52)

Editor’s note: I liked The Three Sisters because it can be viewed as a profound illustration of how people may simply feel and then act trapped, while the viewer questions how trapped they in fact are.  At Stratford, Canada (a major theatre venue), one director wrote in his introduction to the play that, whereas the two older sisters had ties and responsibilities, Irina, the youngest sister, had nothing to prevent her from going to Moscow, which was her life goal. But for some unexplainable reason, she never actually got up and went. (The director did not offer a naturalist explanation, just an observation.) Never mind the Bible for a moment; Irina would have done better for herself even with the pagan injunction from an ancient Roman poet, “Carpe diem”, that is, seize the day; take advantage of the opportunity available now.

So is naturalism, taken seriously, even more futile than paganism?

4 Replies to “Nancy Pearcey on why naturalist atheism produces boring literature where nothing much happens

  1. 1
    jstanley01 says:

    Whenever it strays very far from the pattern of a protagonist, against overwhelming odds, overcoming some form of antagonist to gain victory and/or redemption for himself and/or others, fiction becomes boring. I’m not sure why; it’s a pattern somehow etched into our psyches I suppose. But whatever the case, the storyline is nothing if not familiar.

    On the comic side of storytelling, I’m talking about, as opposed to the tragic.

    In tragedy, to me, having never read or seen the play, I would nevertheless surmise that a talent like Checkhov’s would be required to make mere laziness as satisfying (though still upsetting, as tragedy by nature must be) in denouement as the reason for a character’s defeat, as, say, an arrow whose flight somehow hit that one vulnerable spot.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    as to this comment:

    The test of any worldview is two-fold: 1) Is it internally logically consistent? 2) Does it fit the real world? That is, can it be applied and lived out consistently without doing violence to human nature?

    As to the second question, (can it be applied and lived out consistently without doing violence to human nature?), ‘coincidentally’, this caught my eye today:

    Existential Argument against Atheism – November 1, 2013 by Jason Petersen
    1. If a worldview is true then you should be able to live consistently with that worldview.
    2. Atheists are unable to live consistently with their worldview.
    3. If you can’t live consistently with an atheist worldview then the worldview does not reflect reality.
    4. If a worldview does not reflect reality then that worldview is a delusion.
    5. If atheism is a delusion then atheism cannot be true.
    Conclusion: Atheism is false.
    http://answersforhope.com/exis.....t-atheism/

    I find the argument put more succinctly here:

    The Heretic – Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? – March 25, 2013
    Excerpt:,,,Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.
    http://www.weeklystandard.com/.....tml?page=3

    In fact, to the extent that atheists would be successful in living out their foundational materialistic worldview consistently, they would be considered psychopathic (i.e. antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for empathy or remorse). This psychopathic characteristic inherent in the atheistic/materialistic philosophy is born out empirically, in that people who claim they do not believe in a soul tend to be more psychopathic, antisocial, than people who do believe in a soul. You can pick that psychopathic study of atheists around the 14:30 minute mark of this following video:

    Anthony Jack, Why Don’t Psychopaths Believe in Dualism? – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?l.....zOk#t=862s

    Moreover, to the extent that atheistic materialism has effected government and social policy, it has had devastating effects for mankind:

    The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, And Hitchens – pg. 240
    Excerpt: “The total body count for the ninety years between 1917 and 2007 is approximately 148 million dead at the bloody hands of fifty-two atheists…..The historical record of collective atheism is thus 182,716 times worse on an annual basis than Christianity’s worst and most infamous misdeed, the Spanish Inquisition.”
    http://books.google.com/books?.....38;f=false

    How Darwin’s Theory Changed the World
    Rejection of Judeo-Christian values
    Excerpt: Weikart explains how accepting Darwinist dogma shifted society’s thinking on human life: “Before Darwinism burst onto the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of the sanctity of human life was dominant in European thought and law (though, as with all ethical principles, not always followed in practice). Judeo-Christian ethics proscribed the killing of innocent human life, and the Christian churches explicitly forbade murder, infanticide, abortion, and even suicide.
    “The sanctity of human life became enshrined in classical liberal human rights ideology as ‘the right to life,’ which according to John Locke and the United States Declaration of Independence, was one of the supreme rights of every individual” (p. 75).
    Only in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth century did significant debate erupt over issues relating to the sanctity of human life, especially infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, and suicide. It was no mere coincidence that these contentious issues emerged at the same time that Darwinism was gaining in influence. Darwinism played an important role in this debate, for it altered many people’s conceptions of the importance and value of human life, as well as the significance of death” (ibid.).
    http://www.gnmagazine.org/issu.....-world.htm

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    (Source: John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, October 11, 1798.)

    As to the first question about worldviews, (Is it internally logically consistent?), besides the fact that naturalism cannot ground our ability to reason in the first place,

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter”.
    J. B. S. Haldane [“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209.

    ,I think Dr. Craig does an excellent job in the following short video of fleshing out atheistic naturalism as internally inconsistent:

    Metaphysical naturalism – (only physical things exist) – is reductio ad absurum on, at least, these following 8 arguments (Of note: the first premise in each argument is taken from Dr. Rosenberg’s own book):
    1.) Argument from intentionality
    1. If naturalism is true, I cannot think about anything.
    2. I am thinking about naturalism.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    2.) The argument from meaning
    1. If naturalism is true, no sentence has any meaning.
    2. Premise (1) has meaning.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    3.) The argument from truth
    1. If naturalism is true, there are no true sentences.
    2. Premise (1) is true.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    4.) The argument from moral blame and praise
    1. If naturalism is true, I am not morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for any of my actions.
    2. I am morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for some of my actions.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    5.) Argument from freedom
    1. If naturalism is true, I do not do anything freely.
    2. I am free to agree or disagree with premise (1).
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    6.) The argument from purpose
    1. If naturalism is true, I do not plan to do anything.
    2. I (Dr. Craig) planned to come to tonight’s debate.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    7.) The argument from enduring
    1. If naturalism is true, I do not endure for two moments of time.
    2. I have been sitting here for more than a minute.
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true.

    8.) The argument from personal existence
    1. If naturalism is true, I do not exist
    2. I do exist!
    3. Therefore naturalism is not true

    Is Metaphysical Naturalism viable? – Craig vs. Rosenberg – video
    http://smashpipe.com/education.....iable.html

    In fact, Dr. Plantinga has used the logical inconsistency inherent within naturalism, along with evolution, to show that naturalism is false:

    Should You Trust the Monkey Mind? – Joe Carter
    Excerpt: Evolutionary naturalism assumes that our noetic equipment developed as it did because it had some survival value or reproductive advantage. Unguided evolution does not select for belief except insofar as the belief improves the chances of survival. The truth of a belief is irrelevant, as long as it produces an evolutionary advantage. This equipment could have developed at least four different kinds of belief that are compatible with evolutionary naturalism, none of which necessarily produce true and trustworthy cognitive faculties.
    http://www.firstthings.com/ont.....onkey-mind

    “Refuting Naturalism by Citing our own Consciousness” i.e. Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism – Dr. Alvin Plantinga – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r34AIo-xBh8

    In summary, naturalism is empty of any true explanatory power!

    Verses and Music:

    2 Timothy 1:7
    For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

    Jeremiah 29:11
    For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

    Hope Set High / Amy Grant
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpB33Q35wUU

  3. 3
    JasonPetersen says:

    Thanks for sharing my article, bornagain77.

  4. 4
    bugginswilliam says:

    I think Francis Schaeffer in his earlier writings (The God who is there) said that without God there is no meaning to life or to being human.
    Granted, being human doesn’t always seem like a good deal, but it has its compensations.
    In sharing my faith with angry atheiests or rejectionists posing as “undecided”, I have found that the real issue is that they want to put up an argument for enjoying their personal freedoms and ignoring things they might be very ashamed of were they made public.
    (those things we have done that like to hide under rocks)

    In short, they want to be their own God.
    So they argue that we all came from “slime” or “star stuff” and that’s all there is to it.
    But they cannot live with their intellectual assertions, because if they did, life would be as boring as hell…… 🙂

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