an attempt at closure

June 24, 2005

Of all the stinging comments I've received in the exchange, the stingingest may have been this:

I see the underlying problem that theists face is that they need some way, any way to work an irrational mode of thinking into validity. If their beliefs are shown to be logically contradictory, they must first question the contradictions, and if that fails, question logic itself. If scientific evidence counters their religious tales, they need to do something similar. The ignorant theist will tend to stubbornly question the evidence. The more intelligent theist takes another approach, though. Instead of questioning the scientific data, they question the method through which the data arose. They will carefully pick and peel away the reliability of logic/empiricism in order to fit their irrational mode of belief into the equation. It all comes back to the need. At some root level, there is a need to have these comforting beliefs, and so these beliefs must be upheld. For ignorant theists, it’s a simple matter of ignoring
logic and denying evidence. For more intelligent theists, it requires complex philosophical weaseling in order to create the illusion that a superstitious framework is indeed just as valid as a rational one.

A lot of common themes come up in this attack. First, religious beliefs are comforting, and the religious cling to them primarily to receive comfort. Second, the Xian distorts the world by forcibly mapping it onto his irrational grid, while I see the world as it is through the lenses of rational thought. Third, “intelligent theists” are arguing in bad faith; they know that their position is weak and so scramble for a fig leaf.

The first makes as much sense as the homophobic cliche that a gay youth must have chosen the gay lifestyle for the purpose of indulging in sexual activity, or because they were overcome by unnatural lust. There is more to sexuality than sexual fulfillment and there is more to religion than religious comfort. It’s true that people cling to their religious beliefs because in them they find comfort. If we consider that primary, then we will have a problem accounting for their continued adherence when the beliefs are a source of affliction. Perhaps the comfort that is truly primary is that of sticking to what one has found true, through ease and adversity, a comfort with which the atheist and the Xian are equally familiar.

The second theme is fine as long as you reject all postmodernity. I would invoke history here. There were two responses Xians could have made to the challenges of modernity. They could have embraced it without reservation, or rejected it by trying to turn back the clock. Liberal Protestants tried the former and fundamentalists tried the latter. No one would applaud the results in either case. I’d suggest that one who tries to maintain that there is still an enlightened standpoint from which one can see clearly, while others can only see the world as they wish it were, is trying to live in the modern world. That world no longer exists.

The third theme is profound. It suggests that some intellectuals, who should know better, are trying to apologize for religious faith in intellectual terms. That may be exactly my situation, and it’s part of why I’m resigning. The problem, however, is not that those who sincerely believe are ignorant. They may be ignorant, but some measure of ignorance is inevitable and most is remediable. The problem is the intellectual believers who are “double-minded,” trying to justify themselves by satisfying the criteria of mere human beings while the call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” lingers in the air, unheeded.

My primary goal going into this conversation was to genuinely understand my opponent’s viewpoint, and before I move on I’m going to give the best summary of it that I presently can.

In the polemic Reason in the Balance, Phillip Johnson articulates what he calls “modernist naturalism,” believing it to be the dominant philosophy in the intellectual world of the West right now. Whether he’s right or not, I’ve found in it some helpful similarities to my interlocutor’s perspective. He agrees with the modernist view that religion is a private matter, a holdover from less enlightened times, and that scientific truth should preside over the public sphere. He also agrees with the naturalist view that nature is all there is, and that science is ultimately the only discipline needed to understand life.

In its own terms, why should modernist naturalism rule?

1.  It’s reality-based.  Science has amassed a huge body of evidence that nature is a closed system of causes and effects.  Any alternative would necessarily be based on an illusion, some supernatural entity from the human imagination.

2.  It’s rational.  Some other system could be logically consistent, but would proceed from metaphysical premises that are simply asserted without evidence.  We don’t have metaphysics – we only have physics.

3.  It’s liberating.  Moral norms can evolve as people grow in knowledge and understanding.  The alternative, of representing outdated cultural norms as somehow of supernatural origin, is oppressive and intolerant.

4.  It makes democracy possible.  As modern naturalists, we rely only on knowledge that is in principle available to every citizen.  If public debate is carried out only on the basis of sense-data and logical extrapolation, then everyone can (in principle) participate and conflicts can be resolved by reason.  If we admit any ideas that cannot be supported with evidence or don’t logically follow from the evidence, we are being irrational and inegalitarian.

5.  It’s tolerant of religion.  As long as religious beliefs are relegated to their proper place in private life, there is no need for conflict.  A government that assumes the truth of naturalism does not encroach on the legitimate sphere of the majority religion, and protects minority religions from the tyranny of the majority.

Do the words God or the supernatural mean anything, then?  Sure.  These are names many people in our world use to make concrete their feeling that their lives mean something.  Furthermore, historically, these terms are essential in understanding how civilization functioned for thousands of years.  All the major cultures of the world, including the West (up until the Enlightenment), considered God’s existence and the reality of the supernatural to be self-evident.  The history of religion is the history of how human beings have given various shapes and forms to their ideas of what life is all about.  The modern naturalist can demonstrate on the basis of the success of Western science that our ancestors were dealing in unnecessary pluralities – superfluous notions.  Now that we have the scientific method, the human race will eventually leave all that behind.

Scratch that.  Unwarranted assumption.  The human race ought to eventually leave all that behind.

Scratch that.  We have no basis for saying the human race “ought” to do anything.  It’s only safe to assume that the human race will do what it can to survive – although we can’t assume that it will succeed in surviving.

So God, as an object, is irrelevant.  I think, as far as it goes, that’s a fair representation of my opponent’s views.

What about God, not as an object, but as a subject?  Religious folks have consistently testified to a variety of events in which people who were interested in knowing about God, where the supernatural was an object of study, suddenly found themselves knowing God, that is, they heard the supernatural addressing them personally.  What if we pick up the Bible, a book which in various ways declares itself to be the utterance of God, and actually hear it speaking to us?

I concede that there is no way of starting with a logical-empiricist viewpoint and arriving at any useful notion of God.  The log-emp stance is that we should look at science in terms of the justification of scientific ideas, not in terms of their discovery.  In other words, we should be empiricist about the world, but we should not be empiricist about science: the observable realities about how science proceeds are not important, only the retrospectively imposed order.  If we study the context of discovery, however, and want to continue to call science “rational,” we have to acknowledge that sense-data and logic are not the only “reasons” at play.  So I think it’s meaningful to say that there are reasons to consider the possibility of God, reasons that wouldn’t fly in a logical-empiricist reconstruction of scientific knowledge, but that are recognizably reasons that would hold up in any number of rational human activities (including science).

So what happens if we, even for a moment, entertain the possibility that God is real?

1. Redefine reality to include the supernatural.  

2. Redefine rationality to include reasoning from metaphysical premises.

3. Redefine liberation to include freedom from cultural and biological determination.  

4. Redefine democracy to make space for religious voices.

5. Redefine tolerance to include divergent viewpoints (as opposed to convergent).

An important secondary argument we’ve been having is not simply about the irrationality of belief, but the terrible consequences to which it leads.  I’m not going to argue that modernist naturalism shouldn’t rule, and I’m really not trying to argue that theism should.  However, I think if my opponent were right that religious belief is an intrinsically bad thing to admit into the public sphere, that would be a good argument for the invalidity of religious belief.  The brief outline above is meant to suggest the potential for a realistic /rational /liberating /democratic /tolerant faith.

The last idea, no. 5, is probably the least clear.  My opponent’s view is that if people weren’t blinded by superstition, and the human race had sufficient time, everyone could come to an agreement about everything – all legitimate views would converge.  The only views that could diverge would have to be speculations arising from a lack of evidence.  What concerns me is that, in the best-case scenario for naturalism, everyone must be in agreement – if you weren’t, it could only be because you were unintelligent or had a mental illness.

In response, I'll present a worst-case scenario.  A Christian majority in the US establishes a de-facto theocracy.  There’s a lot of evidence to think that this would mean a curtailment of sexual and reproductive liberties, more politicians who feel superior to the law, self-righteous and imperialistic foreign policy, etc.  I’d like to dispute that, but the fact is a lot of Christians in this country are making it hard to do so.  What I can say is that the presence of supernatural authority relativizes all human authority: e.g., human rights are non-negotiable because they derive from supernatural authority.  Furthermore, there is good evidence to suggest that Christians, not being a monolithic bloc but composed of evangelicals, liberals, Catholics, Protestants, etc., will always already have to live with schism and disagreement.  According to theism, there is an absolute truth, and no human being, group or society has a monopoly or solid grip on it – not even evangelical Christians.  So by definition, not everyone is going to agree.

I hope this worst-case scenario gives my interlocutor a reasonable doubt that religious ideas must never be admitted into the public sphere.  And I hope my summary of his p.o.v.  was not a caricature.  And I hope he knows that I appreciate all the time he devoted to this discussion, some of which was undoubtedly lost in procrastination (as was some of my time) and some of which was time well spent in love for the truth.

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