Over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia has started a very fruitful discussion on the reasons for the hyper-criticism of people like Berlinerblau and Joseph Hoffmann. And Jerry Coyne has joined in with his post, “Hoffmann debate continues.” I have not indulged much in this discussion since I was busy reading, as a matter of fact (despite Joseph Hoffmann’s careless accusation that I have simply “stopped reading”). Just now I am trying to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest (to use an Anglican phrase) Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs (and have just finished reading David Lewis-Williams’ Conceiving God), so it came as something of a surprise when I read these words from Joe Hoffmann:
Jerry and his fans are probably right. There is no use arguing when they have stopped reading. MacDonald & Coyne are obviously exemplary of the position Berlinerblau characterizes as hper-empiricism. Their view of religion is their under-assessed and totally scientistic caricature of religion, de-historicized and dragged without context into their private psychology. From that vantage point, everyone else is a polemicist.
This is Comment # 38, and I have to admit that I really don’t understand what he is accusing me of. The words ‘scientism’ and ‘scientistic’ are, I think, sadly overused now as terms of abuse, though no one has yet indicated to me what is meant by these words in the contemporary context. Since I have spent a great deal of time making the point that science can certainly not account adequately for love and beauty and various other features of the human, I think it’s just an empty way to dismiss someone with whom you think you disagree, while at the same time not knowing enough about what that person believes about the subject in hand to be able to say anything of particular relevance.
As for thinking of everyone else as a polemicist, it always seemed to me that that is precisely what I am about. I do have a tendency to write polemical screeds about religion and its follies, and whether in doing so I am rightly accused of being scientistic doesn’t really matter to me very much. As to being hyper-empirical — whatever that means — all I can say is that it seems to me that if you are going to make claims that have an impact on individuals and their lives – as churches and other religious institutions do — then they must produce some kind of evidence that what they are demanding is actually required by a reasonable understanding of morality, or by the conditions which are necessary for preserving a free society.
In my understanding of the Roman Catholic position on abortion or assisted dying it does not seem to me that Roman Catholic natural law ethics provide a sufficient grounding for their moral prescriptions such that those prescriptions should be imposed upon those who do not share the particular religious beliefs which accompany them. Roman Catholics, or Anglicans, Baptists, or any other religious group which has an interest in limiting the freedom of people in matters concerning end-of-life decision-making, or the reproductive decisions of women, must provide evidence, and that cannot include the commands of a god. To the extent that religions provide people with a kind of cultural belonging, I have no objection to people indulging themselves in religious ways of life, and even believing the things which those ways of life include, but I do not see how these ways of life and their attendant beliefs, including moral beliefs, may rightly be required of others who do not share the religious presuppositions upon which they rest.
If all this makes me a hyper-empiricist, then a hyper-empiricist I am. However, I think it is up to people like Joseph Hoffmann, who make this accusation — for it is in an accusatory mode that he makes the suggestion — to explain what he means by hyper-empiricism, and to show that it applies to me — and this applies as well to Jerry Coyne, since he has yoked us together as guilty of this particularly heinous thought-crime.
The truth, however, seems to me that, on this occasion, at least, Joseph Hoffman has abandoned careful, analytical thought in favour of a kind of generalised polemicism, attacking a social movement of great energy and power, instead of trying, as a long time non-believer, to introduce his own concerns into the movement, and playing a shaping and influencing role in helping the “new atheism” to gain some maturity — if that is what he thinks is lacking. This seems to me to be generally a problem with energetic contemporary nonbelief, that atheists of long standing, instead of playing their part, as partners in this discussion, moderating it where it seems to them to need moderation, and enlarging the discussion where it seems to suffer from amnesia, have run instead to attack mode, and, instead of using their own wider understanding, and patient wisdom to broaden the scope of contemporary unbelief, have, without much concern for evidence, simply dismissed the new atheism as callow and misguided. Here they are, witnessing a revolution for which many of them have worked patiently for generations, and instead of adding their mature wisdom to the struggle with religious belief, have instead joined the religious in attempting to defeat the revolution, like royalists of old trying to prop up a crumbling ancien regime.
But if Joe thinks I have simply stopped reading, and that all the new atheism is is hyper-empiricism coupled with a kind of historical amnesia, then he either hasn’t read what I have written, or he has read it through a filter of his own devising. It is true that much that I write here at choiceindying.com is polemical. My purpose just is polemical. I believe that religion is the main roadblock to reasonable and humane laws governing end-of-life decision making. Religion is, when it comes to such things as reproductive choice, sexual morality, and end-of-life decision making moribund, and needs to be opposed, and so I oppose it, and I will go on opposing it until my dying breath.
I spent a lifetime in religion, hoping beyond hope that it would wake up to the reality of the world around it. My own conclusion, after that lifetime spent in religion, is that religion is simply unable to adapt to the modern world. It will always revert to type, because, especially in the case of the big scriptural religions, belief that a god has spoken to us in particular words stands in the middle of history, and will not let religion through. Scriptures are always there to pull the church or the mosque or the synagogue back to its old ways and presumed wisdom. I can have no part in this, not because I did not find aspects of religious community attractive or fulfilling, but because, when push came to shove, the church tended to choose the safety of the past, rather than the possibility of the future.
Until Joseph Hoffmann understands this, he cannot understand the contemporary movement of unbelief, which is a large popular movement which, as much as it may respect cultural traditions, and even, to a certain degree, the religious traditions out of which unbelievers have come, no longer sees religious belief as either life-affirming or renewing. Religion reached a dead end when science came, and, as the future I think will show, that end is truly final. It is time to shape a new culture, based on other beliefs than those having to do with imagined beings who are interested in what human beings do. We are now on our own, and, if we had realised this already, perhaps we would be further on the way towards developing ways of life consistent with the reality of the world we live in, instead of, as religion bade us do, keeping a weather eye on what is not of this world. This tendency, of looking beyond life for solutions to life’s problems, has been so destructive of human life that it is now difficult to see how to rectify the problem. That, to my mind, is the challenge of unbelief today, and one that even a Joseph Hoffmann might engage with some optimism.