The following is a conversation that I had recently over at whyevolutionistrue.com, beginning with my comment, here, in response to Jerry Coyne’s post “Critical Mail of the Week”, here. I do not record it as purporting to show that my response is more correct or more able than those of my interlocutors. I record it as what is currently on my mind. I have found myself, over the last year or two, distancing myself more and more from the new atheism, although I was, I think, once associated more closely to it. Part of the reason for this was the anger I felt towards the churches (an anger I still feel) because of their intransigent approach to issues of assisted dying, an approach which made my wife Elizabeth’s torment more tormenting than it need have been, and which, in the end, I believe, dramatically shortened her life. I do not think that a reasoned theological argument can be produced for opposing assisted dying, and I hold Christianity and other religions largely to blame for the way in which my wife was forced to live in fear and torment, as well as for the way that she was forced to go to Switzerland in order to bring her increasingly intolerable quality of life to and end before she need have done had assisted dying been readily available in Canada. So, I adopted a very negative and angry response to religion, and expressed this anger in what I hope were often reasoned posts on this blog, 900 of which I have archived for my own use, but are no longer available here. I may repost some of them in the days ahead.
However, as time went on I found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical. Some of that theology may simply be composed of what have come to be known as “deepities”, though that classification seems to me to have arisen because of the unwillingness of atheists to engage with what theologians and other religious believers have to say in defence of their worldview. And that it is an opposition of worldviews is, I think, something that has been lost sight of.
I think some of this comes out in the following conversation. There seems to be a belief that theology must simply be delusional, because there is no objective supernatural existent corresponding to the word ‘god’ — or at least that no “slam-dunk” arguments can be produced for such an existent. Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.) I do not think this is true, even though I dissent from much that is said in defence of Christianity. Empirical science is not the only source of truth or understanding. Indeed, I believe that the new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm in the course of what Robert Conquest has called The Ravaged Century.
With that introduction, here is the conversation. It is hard to present it in such a way as to be always in sequence, but I am sure that you will be able to find your way. I have not asked permission of those who participated in this conversation for its reposting here, but since it is a matter of public record, beginning with my own comment (you can click on the permalinks to access the conversation in sequence and in their original context, if you wish), that I beg their indulgence in using it as a way of expressing some of my concerns about the new atheism. (In addition to this post I suggest you read the defence of Massimo Pigliucci at aRemonstrant’sRamblings, and follow some of the links in or after that post. In some instances I have edited the following conversation for spelling and added quotation marks to indicate quotations, where this helps to make the bones of the conversation more clear):
In a recent Globe and Mail op-ed — perhaps published in the full knowledge that the Globe intended (within a few days) to publish an editorial which goes clean contrary to Somerville’s point of view — Margaret Somerville repeats her reasons “Why euthanasia and assisted suicide must remain legally prohibited“. They basically boil down to the view, repeated ad nauseam by the Vatican and its supporters, that respect for life demands an absolute prohibition of any decision regarding the termination of life from conception to what they call “natural” death. The belief is that if we do not control the entrances and exits of life with draconian absolutism and totalitarian prescription we will lose our respect for life. The repetition of this claim is tiresome. Of course, no one is suggesting for a moment that we should not take care that assisted dying not become a free for all in which innocent people who do not want to die are sent on their way regardless. But one such protection might reasonably be held to include permission for those in great pain, or suffering what they consider to be an intolerable quality of life, to end their lives if they competently wish to do so. And since it is much harder to kill oneself than many people believe, and since many of the options for killing oneself are horrific and barbarous (such as hanging, drowning, shooting oneself, or jumping from an extreme height), assistance for people to end their lives ought to be provided so that society can at once protect life (because all those expressing a wish to die may be helped to find meaning in their lives after all), and make the departure of those who feel that continuing in life will mean a net loss of goodness for lives already lived, not only more peaceable, but able to be carried out in the company of those they love and by whom they are loved in return.
Somerville’s basic mistake, and it is something she borrows mindlessly from her church, is a play on the ambiguity of the idea of dignity. The belief that human life has inherent dignity is a strange one, on the face of it, since the basis for ascriptions of dignity, even in the Christian tradition, lies in rationality and the ability of humans to make choices for themselves and thus to live morally. To say, of any entity, before it has this capacity, that dignity inheres in it, as in a foetus, or an embryo, is simply to misunderstand the idea of dignity. In Roman Catholic parlance today, the word ‘dignity’ often stands proxy for the word ‘sanctity’, and it should not need pointing out that these terms are not equivalent. Because of this ambiguity, which arises from the frequent conjunction of dignity and sanctity in Catholic moral theology, the aspect of dignity which consists in the ability to make decisions for oneself, and to carry them out, is simply lost sight of. The consequence is that Roman Catholic moral theology tends to downplay the importance of autonomy as well as human rights. This is evident wherever the Roman Catholic Church is in the ascendency; but it should not be permitted to claim the moral high ground on the basis of this bait and switch approach to the issue of assisted dying. For what they are saying is that no one should have the right, for what seem to them good reasons, to bring their lives to an end because of intolerable suffering or the expectation of it. This is a straight denial of human autonomy, and the right of people to determine how their lives will go.
This continues, rather abruptly, at the point I left off in the last installment, so if you want to contextualise this, it would be helpful to read over the last couple paragraphs of the first installment.
I repeat what I just said, so that I don’t forget it, that Boghossian’s conception of faith is simply a straw man. Becuase if faith is, as he says, an epistemology, then it should be a matter of supplying reasons for beliefs, and that is not, by and large, how the word ‘faith’ is used in religious contexts. Faith is much more holistic than that, and concerns a general world-view in which concepts which refer to supernatural entities plays a subordinate part. Religions are worldviews, not lists of beliefs for which reasons are given. That doesn’t mean, mark you, that giving reasons is irrelevant to religious beliefs, but it simply cannot be held that religious beliefs are, one and all, factual beliefs, for which evidence can be provided.
One of the first things that anyone interested in religion must do is actually to look at what religious people claim, and how they account for the various beliefs that they hold. Many of the beliefs that Boghossian singles out for special reprobation are ones which many religious believers do not hold in the simplistic way that Boghossian suggests that they do, and when he illustrates his street epistemology with examples of interventions they almost always turn on simplifications of how “faith” functions in religious contexts. While it is true that some Christians make a great song and dance about the historicity of the resurrection, it is important that many Christian theologians do not, and construe resurrection, based on the accounts we have in the New Testament, as something other than an historically delimited reality. In other words, just reading the accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament (mainly the gospels, though Paul is not to be ignored, since he claims to have seen an appearance of the risen Christ), as factual accounts simply will not do, and nowhere does Boghossian consider any of the things that people have actually said about the resurrection, just that it concerned the raising from the tomb of the man Jesus. Certainly, some believers do believe that that is precisely what happened, but there is no satisfactory evidence that the supposed experiences of the risen Jesus can be dealt with in this way. There is simply too much written about this to do it justice here. But one might do worse than look at an exchange between two Anglican Christians, Don Cupitt and C.F.D. Moule, on the subject of the resurrection, one of them saying that he finds it incredible that there should have been such a movement of Christianity if there had not been an historically verifiable event at the heart of the surprising flourishing of Christianity. This is the so-called “beaten man” argument, which is responded to by Don Cupitt, who justly claims a realistic historical belief in the resurrection simply does not make sense of the sources. (See “The Resurrection: A Disagreement” in Cupitt 1979)
But all one needs to do is to look at the resurrection stories in the gospels and note that they are not coherent together. The accounts do not agree, and there is a clear development of the tradition at work, so that it is reasonably clear that something other than a realistic account must be given of the conviction of the first Christians that Jesus Christ was alive. It won’t do to say that resurrection belief is pretending to know something that people do not know (and perhaps cannot know), since the texts themselves give no confirmation of the supposed events they (only apparently) describe. A body that retains the gaping wounds of the crucifixion, that can walk through locked doors, that is not recognised by his friends: one could go on. Obviously, something other than factual, historical description is at work. Indeed, Dominic Crossan’s book Who Killed Jesus? (Crossan 1995) is a sustained attack on the notion that we are here dealing with anything intended to be an historically remembered account of events that happened in first century Palestine. Instead, he gives good reason for believing that the resurrection is a theological belief, based on the completed life of Jesus and the significance that that life and death had after being passed through the alembic of theological processes of interpretation. And this is Cupitt’s point too. But if that is what the resurrection is – namely, a theological construct – then the simplistic claim that we are dealing here with a pretence to know something that we cannot know is just that, simplistic (and, we might add, misleading). Indeed, one of the things that Boghossian simply ignores is the obvious fact that he ignores everything but the most simplistic way that some people have of understanding religious claims such as the one that “Jesus lives,” something that was only worked out (and is still being worked out) over long periods of time. Religious faith – if we must stick with that expression – is a complex matter in which explicit beliefs about supernatural events (the interpretive or symbolic level of faith) are part of a theologically interpreted account of what actually took place (in historical time). Read the rest of this entry »
I have been reading Peter Boghossian’s book fairly closely over the last week or so. Here is a first instalment of my notes on this book. As you will see, I think there are serious problems with the book. I think it is fundamentally wrong-headed. It is based, in my view, on a mistaken notion of faith, and the consequences are disastrous. These are simply undigested notes from Notabene Lingua Workstation, which is a word processor, note taking, bibliography, text search program without parallel. Well worth your while if you need a place to keep all your work in one place, organised, with a searchable database of everything you have written. And before the new version (Notabene 10) is released within the next couple of weeks, you can get a copy on sale (notabene.com). This critique also includes many of the reasons I have become, over the last few years, much more sceptical of the trend that contemporary atheism has been taking. The following text is very long (some 15000 words in all), but for that I make no apology.
Boghossian, P. (2013) A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing (Kindle edition)
“Hitchens may be gone? but no Single individual will take his place. Instead of a replacement Horseman, there are millions of Horsemen ushering in a new Enlightenment and an Age of Reason. You, the reader, will be one of these Horsemen. You will become a Street Epistemologist. You will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought-out positions. This is work that needs to be done and work that will pay off by potentially helping millions— even billions— of people to live in a better world.” Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 226-227). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition. The reference to “unquestioned faith,” while pretty standard amongst atheists, is not true to a large segment of thoughtful Christianity. Indeed, issues of faith are scrupulously reasoned, tested, argued over, and very often undecided. Fundamentalism, a contemporary distortion of the idea of faith, while it does betray all the signs of epistemic and doxastic closure that Boghossian identifies with faith, is not representative of the Christian tradition as a whole. Of course, many people are guilty of doxastic closure, but religious believers are not the only ones. I have been concerned for some time with what I consider the epistemic closure that has become characteristic of contemporary atheism. Boghossian betrays this tendency, and thus the cause that is so close to his heart.
Most paragraphs begin with a quotation from the Kindle edition of Boghossian’s book. My contribution is in the form of commentary. These are, as I say, fairly undigested notations, and I offer them with appropriate epistemic humility.
“faith … 1. Belief without evidence. “My definition of faith is that it’s a leap over the probabilities. It fills in the gap between what is improbable to make something more probable than not without faith. As such, faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities.” —John W. Loftus, “Victor Reppert Now Says He Doesn’t Have Faith!” (Loftus, 2012)” (Boghossian 2013, 303–308). This may be widely thought to be true, but, while faith is often defined in terms of “deepities”, faith is something that thoughtful Christians discuss endlessly, and by no means conclusively. Take Tillich’s “definition” of faith as an “act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself.” (Loc 283) I couldn’t find it on the page reported by Boghossian (and there is no indication that the Harper Torchbooks edition has a different pagination than the original), but I did find this, in a French translation of The Dynamics of Faith: “La foi est donc universelle, elle se retrouve au cœur de tous les actes humains où le sens de l’existence est impliqué [my italics]. On peut dire que toutes les fois que l’inconditionné, l’absolu, est recherché en quelque domaine que ce soit — esthétique, juridique, social — la religion est présente. La religion n’est donc pas une fonction spirituelle parmi d’autres : toute expérience où il est question du sens profond de l’être a une signification religieuse.” (Tillich 1968, 13) This comes very close to the point that Dworkin makes in his book Religion without God. What Tillich is talking about here is the deep sense of existential awareness, which is presumably what he means by ‘reason reaching ecstatically beyond itself.’ That is, reaching into realms that, while able to be discussed and argued about (endlessly, perhaps), also cannot be decisively decided by reason itself. In other words, faith pertains to that of which we have a deep sense of awareness, without the ability to put that awareness into definitive descriptive or empirical terms. Yet reason, it is supposed, can take us part of the way. What Tillich says is not simply a deepity, if you take the time to unpack it a bit. It is also wrong of Boghossian to ignore the surrounding text, where all the controls of critical history, philology, etc. are being respected. The section from which he quotes is entitled, “The Truth of Faith and Historical Truth.” And throughout the chapter he is contrasting faith with science, and pointing out that theologians should not use science to ground faith. Taking the quotation out of context is basically dishonest. It’s only a deepity if, indeed, it is taken on its own, without the surrounding qualifications. That’s not to say that the faithful never resort to deepities, for of course, like scientists themselves, they do, but it is prevarication to suggest that only religious voices utter deepities. Remarks by some new atheists regarding free will, and the supposedly defective “responsibility system” dependent upon it, are as close to deepities as it is possible to get, and it is irresponsible (I think) to suggest otherwise.
The second definition of faith Boghossian suggests is “pretending to know things you don’t know.” ‘As a Street Epistemologist, whenever you hear the word “faith,” just translate this in your head as, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”’ (Boghossian 2013, 328–329) He suggests the following as an interpretation of “She’s having a crisis of faith”: ‘“She’s having a crisis of pretending to know things she doesn’t know.” Alternatively, “She is struck by the fact that she’s been pretending to know things she doesn’t know.”’ (Boghossian 2013, 365–67) This won’t do, because having a crisis of faith is having an existential crisis, for faith is more about the meaning of life as a whole than it is believing specific things that you don’t know. It’s simply an oversimplification of the way that the word ‘faith’ is used in many religious contexts. And when people are talking about faith, they are not simply speaking about things they don’t know; they are speaking about real experiences in their own lives. This was Tillich’s point too. By reducing religious faith to the belief in a supernatural (yet at the same time an apparently natural) entity, religious faith is torn out of its context. Yes, such beliefs do occur in religious systems of belief, but religious belief systems are much more holistic than that. It is a weakness of modern fundamentalism that it assimilated its belief system to the belief system of science, instead of revising it so that explicitly pertained to the existential instead of to the existent. Indeed, as many contemporary theologians have pointed out, you can dispense with belief in supernatural entities altogether without necessarily destroying religious systems of belief as the framework for functional worldviews.
A clue to Boghossian’s aim is to be found in the following: “When the faithful say, “Jesus walked on water,” they are not saying they hope Jesus walked on water, but rather are claiming Jesus actually did walk on water.” (Boghossian 2013, 379–80) Well, but all sorts of Christians do not pretend to know that Jesus walked on water, or to have faith that he did, nor are they pretending about Jesus’ abilities to defy the laws of physics. Fundamentalists, perhaps, but not everyone who has faith. If he is attacking fundamentalist ideas of faith, then his target is well set up and deserving, but he shouldn’t suggest that this is simply what the word ‘faith’ means. He really must do some more conceptual analysis than this. Notice Tillich’s point: “toute expérience où il est question du sens profond de l’être a une signification religieuse.” This profound sense of being, and the wonder that derives from it, and the sense of existential crisis, if you like, that comes when one is no longer sure that one has a grasp either on its importance or its profundity, is what he identifies as the heart of faith.
Boghossian suggests that the key lies in the idea that the words ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are being taken as synonyms, and he issues this challenge: “Give me a sentence where one must use the word “faith,” and cannot replace that with “hope,” yet at the same time isn’t an example of pretending to know something one doesn’t know.” (Boghossian 2013, 383–384) (By the by, Boghossian, for a philosopher, uses double quotes for mentioning words rather than the more usual single quotes.) But a simple sentence using the word ‘faith’ that cannot simply be replaced by ‘hope’ is this: “I have faith that my life has objective meaning, value and significance.” (This is something like Ronald Dworkin’s secular religion.) I am not pretending to know something in this case, though I am expressing my belief in a certain state of affairs, and am not just hoping that this is so.