Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The territory between the New Atheists and the New(?) Theologians

We have now heard aplenty of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etal) and less so of some of the direct responses (such as by Alistair McGrath and John Haught). This is an excellent article that looks at the shortcomings of both positions and presents it through the perspective of William James' personalized religion (which also has its shortcomings...):
First there was Dawkins’ calling an education in religious faith — even moderate faith — “child abuse.” Sam Harris chided religious moderates for being “in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world.” They didn’t simply want an end to fundamentalism or the use of religious doctrine in governmental policy. They treated Christians as if they all believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old, and Muslims as if they were all strapped with explosives. If you pray to Jesus when your world is falling apart, or blame Mercury being in retrograde when your car won’t start, you are part of the problem.

As I read, I kept thinking there was no way all three writers were so na├»ve as to think faith is the real problem, that there wouldn’t always be people who are in a state of vulnerability and manipulators lying in wait to take advantage of them. They created a chasm between believers and nonbelievers that wasn’t really there, and used the same “with us or against us” language that dragged the country into war. They can fling books at each other for as long as they like, but they’re not going to change any minds. Imagine telling someone at the end of their rope, “Suffering has no eternal purpose, we’re just a chemical accident. All you need is math and the scientific method!” The believer is more likely to jump into the chasm than cross it.

And now on to theologian John Haught's new book:
But in God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens theologian John F. Haught reminds us what exactly that means: “In my interpersonal knowledge… the evidence that someone loves me is hard to measure, but it can be very real nonetheless.” I wanted Haught’s entire book to be like this statement: a warm-blooded medium between the atheists’ cold logic and the fundamentalists’ fiery fury.

Instead, we’re back at the chasm. Just as Dawkins et al. refuse to understand that some people have a strong emotional need for faith, Haught cannot understand that for some people the idea of an omnipotent creator would send the logical order of the universe into a cause/effect tailspin. At least he understands that there are problems with how God is used in religion, and how that might send moderates running to the other end of the spectrum. “Sensitive souls in every period of religious history can grow weary of the unsatisfactory ways in which contemporary religions represent their ideal.” He continues, “Reading certain passages in the Bible, including the Christian Scriptures, can be a dangerous and bewildering experience if one has not first gained some sense of the Bible’s overarching themes.”

He is convinced, however, that Christianity is the way. His solution to doubt is “a good college-level course in biblical literature, or being part of a Bible study group informed by up-to-date scholarship.” Haught pities atheists, and it’s quite possible he’s never actually met one. “You would be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.” I imagine he thinks all atheists look like Sartre, existing only on cigarettes and depraved sexual acts.

And this is where James comes in:

Both parties point to Darwin as the origin of the schism, and indeed the debate has been raging ever since “Where did we come from?” had an answer other than “God.” Haught chastises the others for not having read William James’s essay “The Will to Believe.” James wrote it in 1896 in response to “that delicious enfant terrible” W. K. Clifford’s assertion that faith was sinful. “It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind,” Clifford wrote. “That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town… It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Sound familiar? Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, all declare God a failed hypothesis because of “insufficient evidence,” and both Dawkins and Harris accuse the moderately faithful of opening the door to extremism. But while Haught responds with a tangent about the Christian God’s demand for blind faith and that “to worship anything finite is idolatrous,” James does not bother with all that because he is not tied to any religious viewpoint. He is an empiricist. It comes down to a choice: Do you wait for God to hold a press conference before you believe in him, or do you allow yourself to trust that there is a dimension to the world we cannot access? Dawkins would call you a fool for choosing the latter, and Haught might saddle you down with dogma and force order onto your belief. But James simply states:

Believe nothing, [Clifford] tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies… I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. [H]e who says “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe… For my own part, I also have a horror of being a dupe; but I can believe that there are worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world… In a world where we are certain to incur [errors] in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

It’s a much more useful response because James does not picture the people on either side of the debate as fools or cowards or heathens.
Hmm...Why can't we have a discussion like this? After taking the straw men arguments out, some of the agreements and disagreements are mostly about one's faith and/or view of the world. I don't fully agree with James about taking the plunge, but at least there can be a good discussion about it. Read the full article here. (tip from 3quarksdaily)


Matthew said...

“Suffering has no eternal purpose, we’re just a chemical accident. All you need is math and the scientific method!”

As much as I dislike the approach of many of the atheist writers today, I don't get the impression they say this at all. The first sentence is arguably true, if simplistic. The second is meaningless. Things like art and emotion may be products of neurochemistry and biology rather than divine inspiration, but it doesn't make them intrinsically less "good". It simply means they're finite. Am I going to stop loving somebody because it's not eternal?

Elton said...

Much of the conflict between atheism/science and religion/faith to the layperson is of a personal and deeply emotional nature, rather than a cold, logical, intellectual puzzle. This is why smart (and correct) men like Dawkins and Dennett go way over the public's heads with their intelligent, logically reasoned books. The fact that most of the public isn't familiar with his brilliant research and writing only serves to make Dawkins' harsh and blunt TV demeanor that much more difficult to swallow.

American society is biased towards respecting religion and religious leaders, and atheists face an uphill battle. Fortunately, each of us, as we grow up, can choose what to think, even if we were indoctrinated into a certain faith as children. Yes, there are still many injustices to the young perpetuated by religion and faith-based "reasoning" that are tantamount to child abuse (circumcision is a particularly barbaric ritual), but there is not much atheists can do about it other than try to live our individual lives the best we can as freethinking adult citizens. Better to change yourself than to change the world.

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