"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Dopeler Effect: the atheism file

In his hilarious spoof on contemporary advocates of apophatic theology, the blogger "Siris" cites something called "the Dopeler effect": "the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly." Anybody who's spent much time in academia is all too familiar with that phenomenon. Given my interests, I notice it especially in the attacks on "religion" launched by atheistic philosophers, which have been coming rapidly of late. One such philosopher is the hip, charming Englishman A.C. Grayling, who now holds forth at the University of London and with whom I once spent a delightful evening when I was a graduate student at Penn in the 1980s. I really liked him, but sometimes I wonder where he gets some of his ideas.

Last weekend in the "Comment is Free" section of The Guardian Unlimited, Tony took the occasion to launch a general broadside on religion—hence, and of course, on Christianity in particular. I am undisturbed by such attacks largely because I don't think there is any such entity as "religion" or even "Christianity" that, merely as such, merits either praise or obloquy. Only when we get to specifics do things get interesting, and the critics usually get the specific facts wrong at crucial points, at least when it comes to Christianity. To be sure, Tony does have specific targets, about which he is wrong; but I don't have time to show why, in each such instance, he is wrong. I shall focus on the one specific that occasions his article: the claim made by many religionists that "atheism" is every bit as much a matter of "faith" as theism.

Now in one sense, his rejection of that claim is perfectly justified. For in general, not believing that p—in this case, not believing that there are what Tony calls "supernatural entities"—is not an instance of faith, not even of that human faith we evince when we believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow or that doing science is a good way to learn certain things. So much is indeed obvious. But I doubt that, generally speaking, the sort of religious apologist he's criticizing overlooks that. Sometimes confusedly, the apologists in question are saying that reasoned rejection of belief in supernatural entities depends on some-or-other Weltanschauung that is itself a matter of faith—that is, of human rather than divine faith. In various forms, some more refined and some less so, such a Weltanschauung may well be described as that of scientific naturalism ('SN' for short). While Tony seems to prefer describing himself as a secular humanist, his definitions of 'secularism' and 'humanism' would have me, an orthodox Catholic, being a secular humanist too. So I don't think he quite captures the difference between his Weltanschauung and mine.

SN hinges on two coordinate theses: one epistemological and one metaphysical. The former is that whatever cannot be known scientifically cannot be known at all; the latter is that only that sphere which can be investigated scientifically—that which, for want of a better term, we may call "Nature"—exists at all. Such is the more-or-less explicit worldview of popularly known contemporary thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris—just as, since at least the late 19th century, it has been for the majority of philosophers in the English-speaking world. It is in the light of such a worldview that atheistic philosophers, Grayling included, make most of the criticisms of "religion" that they do. For them, religion is belief in entities that are both supernatural and fit to explain why the universe is as it is; since there can be no "evidence" for such entities of the sort that scientific naturalists would recognize as evidence, belief that there are some such entities cannot but seem to them both unreasonable and opposed to science.

It is easy to make the case that SN is a matter of faith. Part of the case is made for us by some SNists themselves. Thus Prof. Richard Lewontin of Harvard:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so-stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (From: “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997).
My ample experience of SNists leads me to believe that Lewontin is thereby being more honest than most. It's not that the evidence intellectually compels them to close the door of knowledge and faith on the Divine Foot; for reasons that vary by the individual case, they just don't want to let a "Divine Foot" in the door. Thus they choose their faith, which is SN.

But we don't even need Lewontin's honesty to learn that. At least as often, the objection of SNists to religion is moral: based, often enough, on the problem of evil. One sees that in Tony's article. But I've rarely found the objections of atheists based on the problem of evil to have the slightest credibility. If there is no God, then morality is a purely human construct whose content will, to some extent, differ from that of this or that religious morality. Atheists cannot fairly fault theists for failing to hold God to a morality on whose content and significance atheists and theists do not even relevantly agree. The so-called problem of evil intelligibly arises only on theistic premises; yet the problem is not one of logical inconsistency among the premises—as even the late philosopher JL Mackie admitted in the end—but of explaining how they are all true. (I expatiate on all that in my paper "The Problems of Evil.") In that case, however, theists face only the explanatory obstacles we must expect if classical theism is true; and in the meantime, the disagreement between theists and atheists remains a moral one, which surely is more a matter of faith than of something called 'science'.

I'd love to have another dinner and beer with Tony Grayling. Since each of us has become more what we once were, the resulting intensity would redouble the delight I once experienced.
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