Continuing my independent (i.e. not directly for the podcast) reading into the atheism debate:
Nearly done with the Karen Armstrong book. This is a good bit of secondary literature, with short summaries of the views re. God of a really impressively wide range of historical figures. Her overall view is that of apophatic, or negative theology, which is to say that an essential part of our experience is that language has limits, and that it helps us to get through life's hardships if we can engage with this pull within us towards transcendence through devoted practice of some sort (ritual) and symbolic gestures (myths) towards this unknowable. Religious dogma and literalism entirely miss the point, and consequently atheistic attacks on these weak "fundamentalist" positions also miss the point. I've not sorted out exactly what I think about this but now have a number of potential authors for us to look at to explore this position.
I've also started a book Wes likes to bash, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. I am initially pretty amused by it: a great work of original philosophy it is not, but it's more thorough than I expected (given that he's a non-philosopher!), and given that I'm sympathetic with the position on a political level, it doesn't make me gnash my teeth in the way that a pro-religion book of equal erudition might. (And if anyone wants to recommend such a book to me, I might take a look...)
Dawkins's book is not purely political, in that it does try to address, on all fronts, the readers' possible reasons for believing in any kind of supernatural agency, but it surely is political, meaning that unlike Nietzsche or Freud who just found God an indefensible concept that required no refutation in their pursuit of truth, Dawkins is presenting a handbook for atheists to respond to the variety of pro-religious arguments, with the avowed aim of making atheism more mainstream by encouraging atheists to "come out of the closet." He uses this gay analogy more than once.
We should well know by now that, politically, the important thing is not how good the arguments are, but how many people are making them, and how loudly. The arguments against gay marriage are and have always been pitiful, but it's only been as advocates of the practice have become more socially prominent and numerous that the tide of public opinion and law has swept in the direction of its support.
Throughout most of my intellectual life (i.e. through college and grad school), I've cared almost nothing for politics, and in fact saw dwelling on political matters as a distraction from dealing with actual problems in your own life, just like wrapping yourself up in a sports team on which you do not play or any other kind of escapism. With a largely skeptical conclusion about my own powers of certainty and not seeing a lot of practical result of what insights I feel I have gained, using philosophical argument for political purposes seems one of the only potentially useful possibilities left for my experience. Still, most political arguments are themselves impotent: what does it matter if I add my voice, even with some additional subtlety, to the additional voices already out there preaching to the choir against conservatism or war or whatever? Putting on daily re-enactments on one's blog of the Scopes monkey trial would just be irritating.
At this point, I'll just raise contra Wes's post re. skepticism the point that Dawkins's atheism does not involve reaching beyond the bounds of the knowable to make claims with certainty about God's non-existence. We can't KNOW there's no God, but Dawkins thinks that we have reasons to think God's existence highly unlikely, and that's really the point at issue: whether we can, or even must as a practical matter, make rough probability judgments about such matters.
Wes Alwan says
[Mark, I know you’re familiar with most of my arguments, but to clarify for readers …]
I don’t think that there is no reason to think God is more likely or less likely any more than there is reason to think there are proofs of God. God is not the subject of empirical query. Faith is, as James points out, a pragmatic decision in the purist sense. There are two reasons for positing a god: one is explanatory, as in Spinoza: some of us are driven by the principle of sufficient reason. For any phenomenon, we want to know why. Our wanting to know why extends beyond the causal empirical chain to the chain taken as a whole. In the case of the cosmos, the question is “why something, not nothing.” The second reason is a matter of some spiritual need. I think these two threads have a common ancestor (and not that the former is a rationalization of the latter).
The best someone can say is that they’re not interested in such questions. But they can’t show that the conceptual schemes that lead to a propensity to either faith or science are a) inconsistent with each other or b) internally inconsistent.
God is nothing like Dawkins’ spaghetti monster, because the latter plays no conceptual role in either spiritual comfort (for most) or philosophical inquiry (which is to say the domain of rational inquiry is broader than the domain of empirical science — there is such a thing as philosophy).
I also think it’s inconsistent with pragmatism to believe that there are arguments for or against the likelihood of god. (It is however consistent be an atheist — it’s just a matter of being clear that it is the result of interest and need, not of inference from the sciences). A belief for or against follows or doesn’t follow directly from the choice of schemes here. But the point again is that there is no inconsistency between a commitment to empirical scientific inquiry, a broader interest in rational inquiry, and a faith in God; and in fact the latter complement each other when one speaks of God in a sort of Spinozan, abstract way. And there is no implication from empirical facts to the likelihood of god (which is meant to stand outside of the whole set of such facts) any more than there is an implication from the theorems of one axiomatic system to those of another when these systems share no axioms (or logical implications between axioms). Both domains (faith in god and empirical science) overlap — without overlapping each other — that of rational inquiry in general (including faith in reason). Something like that — I’ll have a longer post soon.
[Once again, the typical disclaimer for readers who might see this as a religious debate: I’m not religious. I’m an atheist with respect to a personal God and an agnostic with respect to the abstraction — which is to say, I see the concept as playing an important role as a placeholder for the limits of inquiry (and find it interesting) yet am open to being argued out of that].
Mark Linsenmayer says
Do any actual believers really think that God stands outside of the whole set of empirical facts?
A Christian believes that God interferes in day-to-day events: such and such occurrence happened only because God intervened, as a result of prayer or some plan or His own whim, which implies that you should be able to, e.g., get some sort of statistical correlation between good fortune and subservience to God. As Dawkins points out, any sort of pseudo-science that seems to support the God hypothesis (e.g. I remember as a kid hearing something about evidence for the Biblical flood, and I find this w a quick web search: http://www.christiananswers.net/creation/menu-catastrophe.html) is seized on by believers. The kind of religion you’re defending (says Dawkins), which is entirely divorced from the empirical world and so is immune to any observations or experience for or against it (even if not third-person verifiable/scientific) would be very disappointing to actual believers.
But, again, I’m not contradicting you so much as emphasizing something different, which is essentially a political maneuver, not a philosophical one. It’s akin to the democrat vs. the liberal independent. If I have to pick a side politically (which I don’t; it’s not an election, after all) in the atheism debates, I’d go with Dawkins. I just watched a chunk of the movie “Jesus Camp,” which I may write on here separately. That kind of thing hardens one’s resolve re. the political issue. Extending the metaphor, I’ll vote for the crappy democrat every time rather than shunning all the candidates as improperly nuanced.
Wes Alwan says
I share Dawkins’ (and your) distaste for organized religion. And boy, do I share it — it would take me a long time to describe my failure of tolerance, my impatience. And I think you’re right, that lack of correlation is good evidence for God’s non-intervention. But I think there are even more fundamental philosophical grounds against miracles (the exacerbation of the problem of evil, not to mention Spinoza’s very effective anti-miracle arguments). They lend themselves to a a kind of atheism that I share (and again, shared by Spinoza, who I keep bringing up because we’ll be talking about him tomorrow) about certain qualities some religious people attribute to God.
But that’s not an argument against the more abstract conception of God and the functional role it’s played in philosophical argument. You’re right that many Christians would be disappointed with a non-interventionist (much less the even more stripped-down impersonal) God, but not all would be. Once-popular Deism (founding fathers!) is a case in point (and perhaps something like it persists among religious intellectuals). Nor am I talking about a philosophical rationalization of Christianity or some other religion: the idea of a non-interventionist God plays a role in Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics (as in the unmoved mover, and in opposition to the highly interventionist polytheism of tradition). Can it produce the kind of religious sentiment that I describe as the other reason for believing? Only if you see scientific and philosophical inquiry (Spinoza), contemplation (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), and a certain kind of sublimation (Nietzsche) as partaking of wonder, mystery, divine inspiration, Spirit, etc.; and as critically important to the good life and human flourishing (and an expression of what is most human). I think I’ve just described the traditional philosopher’s religion.
So while I share some of Dawkins’ contempt for and opinions about organized religion, I’m annoyed by his conviction that he can draw broader philosophical conclusions from them (especially when he is so philosophically uninformed). At that point he’s on his own religious quest, and I think it is in fact fundamental anti-rational, anti-philosophical, and anti-intellectual in ways that unite him with the fundamentalists he opposes (which qua psychologists, we would expect). He’s driven by his spleen, not in an interest in reasoning something through. His ideas aren’t new, and at the point where the debate becomes abstract enough to become interesting to me he is simply in over his head.
So, I asked in a different comment somewhere if we are only to concern ourselves with the human and it seems to me that much that is religious answers this question in the affirmative more so that perhaps philosophy might, though Wes says above, “Only if you see scientific and philosophical inquiry (Spinoza), contemplation (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), and a certain kind of sublimation (Nietzsche) as partaking of wonder, mystery, divine inspiration, Spirit, etc.; and as critically important to the good life and human flourishing (and an expression of what is most human). I think I’ve just described the traditional philosopher’s religion.”
So, “the good life” and “human flourishing” is our “end” in living and/or in our “thinking life”?
I don’t find a deity important in respect to the above but rather a step away from that end.
Wes Alwan says
To put it another way, perhaps my anti-religion is simply stronger than Dawkins’ — strong enough to consume his crypto-religious alternative. As Nietzsche pointed out, scientism and certain forms of atheism are simply the most developed forms of Christianity — its nihilistic core, the pit left over after the fruit of religious trappings has been eaten away.
But I think I know how you feel about “scientism”!
Wes Alwan says
Actually I think I’m wrong to limit the possibilities for religious sentiment in the way I did above. I’m reminded reviewing the reading for tomorrow’s podcast that Spinoza God is still a God of love and has other such qualities, and this isn’t inconsistent with his anti-miracle position. Anyway, the kinds of sentiments required to make the concept properly “religious” is just another complex facet of the issue.
As a long-time “fan” of Spinoza’s and James’, a year-long (now) fan of The Partially Examined Life, current Austinite (and UT Prof married to a UT Phil. Ph.D…what more can I say?), I cannot help but ask you to give my book, God Is the Good We Do: Theology of Theopraxy a look-over soon. There are some reviews on Amazon, on the website http://www.godisthegoodwedo.com, and this from Mitchell Silver of UMass Boston: “Benedikt makes a comprehensive case for his theology…He does so with deep learning, intellectual honesty, and humane wisdom, and his may be about the best God a full commitment to rationality will allow.” I look forward to the Spinoza podcast.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Very nice, Michael. I have no problem with your self promoting! (I will at least look at the Amazon preview…)
Mark Linsenmayer says
Wes, Armstrong characterizes what you’re describing as Aristotle’s/Descartes’s/deism’s/etc. God as “the philosopher’s God,” and repeatedly makes the point that, historically, this conception has not provided the punch religious believers require.
Whenever you get an ascendance of this intellectual take on God as a necessary part of a theory (e.g. the unmoved mover for Aristotle or the intelligence who set the planets in motion for Newton), then it rises or falls with theory. I also found myself thinking briefly that deism might be an attractive choice, but I think there’s a reason why that position is dead culturally. Even much earlier in history, whenever a particular god began to be conceived as the all-powerful creator god who now sits out while the younger gods actively intervene (think Uranus), then within pretty short order, that god is all but forgotten in the pantheon.
Spinoza is a weird case, in that his God is the natural world, with all things proceeding according to His unchangeable nature, so he’s kind of like Descartes’s God, but Spinoza also has that bit where he thinks we can participate in godliness by being rational and joyful and seeing things through their eternal aspect, meaning God isn’t remote from human affairs even though “He” is not a personality as such.
Daniel Horne says
You ask, “Do any actual believers really think that God stands outside of the whole set of empirical facts?”
I would answer, “Yes, virtually the entire liberal theological tradition thinks this.”
You assert, “A Christian believes that God interferes in day-to-day events.”
I would reply, “Not necessarily,” and query what gave you that impression.
You assert, a religious belief which is “entirely divorced from the empirical world and so is immune to any observations or experience for or against it (even if not third-person verifiable/scientific) would be very disappointing to actual believers.”
I would reply, “Disappointing compared to what?” What if my atheist/ agnostic worldview leads to a crushing sense of nihilism and despair? (As it does from time to time.) I would assert that _any_ belief in _some_ kind of metaphysical creator can provide more comfort than belief in infinite and eternal white noise.
If that leads me to religious belief solely what may entirely be a Jamesian pragmatic psychological tic, well, so what? Why isn’t that just as much a “true” religious belief as compared to someone who has been indoctrinated into a religion since birth? To go even further, isn’t that perhaps the kind of belief toward which all non-foolish, scientifically educated adults ultimately evolve?
Look, I hear where you’re coming from, and half of me agrees entirely. My experience living in an average American suburb as a child, those Christians I knew (which was pretty much everybody) did not believe God stood outside the whole set of empirical facts. They believed in the “magical” Jesus, who intervenes in your affairs, causes miracles, places a lei around your neck when you pass through heaven, etc. I suspect that’s true of those you met in your childhood.
But those (much fewer) adult believers I meet now tend to believe in a much more abstract God. And yet they don’t consider themselves agnostics or Spinozan deists. They will refer to themselves as Christians, it’s just that they’re unwilling to read the Bible literally, but still feel belief in something that they call a God, and in a religion that they call Christianity. Certainly anyone raised in the tradition of so-called “liberal Christianity” considered themselves true believers, no?
Of course, I live in San Francisco, and not the suburbs, so perhaps that says something right there. But why should less-scientifically educated believers in “magical” God be more “true believers” than more-scientifically educated believers in “unknowable” God”?
It does not follow, for me, that the more apophatic religious types are not truly “religious believers”. Perhaps because we are working from different definitions of what constitutes “religious belief”?
In short, if someone says that they are truly religious, but what objective metric can we declare them to be right or wrong? I’m not concerned about giving or taking offense. Just trying to further the discussion.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for reference, Daniel.
From that wiki page: “Liberal Christianity does not claim to be a belief structure, and as such is not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements.”
Sounds good. Maybe we’ll read one of the folks mentioned there.
As Wes pointed out on his mosque post and subsequent comments, generalizing about the prevalence of other people’s beliefs w/o empirical backing is pretty shaky. The “political speech” I was referring to is, again, pretty much just attacking low hanging fruit, with the assumption that the views being attacked are prevalent enough to warrant a response.
My childhood church was United Church of Christ, which prides itself on being liberal, i.e. “there are many paths to God, and this is one of them,” so there was no talk of non-believers going to hell or creationism or any of that. Still, the last services I attended there (in college) made me just about physically ill. I certainly didn’t catch any “non-propositional hermeneutics” going on there.
The liberal theology described there sounds like the work of independent philosophically minded folks. I’m familiar with Unitarianism (my folks jumped to that ship some years back) to know that something like this point of view can be present in actual church proceedings, so I’ll just admit my lack of experience with this sort of Christianity as an organized force.
Main Christian tropes generally inspire me personally with too much disgust (I’m poisoned both by Nietzsche and by Falwell) to make me apt to give them serious consideration from a hermeneutic/symbolic perspective, but I’m certainly open to argument on that front.