Michael Shermer will debate “Does God Exist” with Father Lucas Laborde today at 7 PM PST at the Oregon State University Socratic Club. The debate will livestream at the link below:
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Dr. Shermer received his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He has authored many books, including Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design
Fr. Lucas Laborde is the pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Portland. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy at the Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino, Argentina, and studied Theology at San Carlos Borromeo Seminary in Rosario, Argentina. Fr. Laborde also spent five years as a Campus Minister at the Oregon State University Newman Center.
Tune in and enjoy. I will be at the debate in person and may even sneak in a question.
One common atheist argument is that you should disbelieve in God because there is no evidence of God. The argument is commonly made by analogy to other mythical creatures like the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster or a celestial teapot. There’s no evidence of the tooth fairy, but that doesn’t mean that we’re neutral about the existence of tooth fairies. We’re pretty sure, based on the lack of evidence, that they do not actually exist. Here’s Richard Dawkins making this case:
It is often said, mainly by the ‘no-contests’, that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal’s wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?
The problem with this argument is that it seems to contradict basic logic: lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. And yet the intuition seems solid. We don’t merely not believe in the tooth fairy, we actually disbelieve in its existence.
Most people either write off the “lack of evidence isn’t evidence of lack” line as a kind of irrelevant technicality or try to treat disbelief as something other than a form of belief. These approaches are sloppy and incorrect, and they create a warped skepticism in which negative beliefs are given an irrational and unearned privilege over positive beliefs. That’s not real skepticism, it’s just inverse credulity combined with dodgy semantics. It makes a mockery of the proud tradition of philosophical skepticism by creating a mirror image of blind faith. In the old days, the existence of God was accepted without proof. These days, a kind of hostile disbelief in God is accepted without proof instead. Meet the new orthodoxy, same in process and approach as the old orthodoxy.
Luckily, however, there actually is a way to reconcile our intuition that we should be skeptical of the tooth fairy (not merely neutral) with the rules of logic. The term that comes to the rescue is compossibility. This is a term I learned from reading an incredibly great sci-fi book, but the term originates with Leibniz. From Wikipedia:
According to Leibniz a complete individual thing (for example a person) is characterized by all its properties, and these determine its relations with other individuals. The existence of one individual may contradict the existence of another. A possible world is made up of individuals that are compossible — that is, individuals that can exist together.
Let’s take a look at how the concept of compossibility can be used to provide a solid rational backing for the intuition that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist without requiring us to contradict the principle that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Except, instead of a tooth fairy, I’m going to go with the proposition that there’s an invisible unicorn in your backyard. Now, should you have:
Belief | You think that there is a unicorn.
Non-Belief | You do not think that there is a unicorn.
Disbelief | You do not think that there is a unicorn and you think that there is not a unicorn.
Here’s how compossibility comes to the rescue. A unicorn is basically a horse with a horn on its head. Horses are large mammals. If you had a large mammal in your back yard then, even if we concede it’s invisible, it would still leave hoofprints and unicorn poo behind, and it would probably also be rather noisy. Do you see any hoofprints? Smell unicorn poo? Do you hear a large 4-legged beast walking around and breathing heavily? Nope? Then you don’t just have a lack of evidence. You really do in fact, based on compossibility, have evidence of a lack. These things should be there, and they are not. Therefore, the invisible unicorn is not compossible with the state of your backyard (e.g. free of unicorn poo).
Now, I might tell you that the reason there are no hoofprints and that there is no unicorn poo is that the unicorn is actually not just a horse with a horn on its head. It’s a magical creature that only looks like a horse. In fact, however, it is light as a feather (no hoofprints) and subsists on love (no material food, ergo no unicorn poo). This new definition of an invisible unicorn is more compossible with the state of your backyard (hoofprint and unicorn poo free!), but it’s actually not more believable because now it’s asking you to believe other things that are not compossible with your experience of the world. Where, if invisible unicorns are common, do the dead ones go? Why aren’t people stumbling and falling over invisible unicorn corpses? Or hitting them with their cars? And if they are rare, how do they keep up a viable breeding density? And if they don’t breed, where do they come from? Etc.
These questions are, of course, all a bit absurd. The point is that our human intuition is, generally speaking, pretty good at doing this kind of analysis unconsciously and quickly. You don’t really need to go through all the specific questions. You can just take the basic concept of a unicorn and see that such an animal remaining undetected is highly improbable. So you’ve got a good reason to suspect that if there’s no evidence then it actually is not present. The more the definition gets altered to make the lack of evidence seem credible, the more the definition itself becomes incredible. You start asking where the unicorn poo goes and you end up asking questions about the thermodynamics of a creature that converts love to kinetic energy to move its body.
So our disbelief in things like the tooth fairy doesn’t come from what we don’t know. It comes from what we do know. It comes from everyday knowledge about biology and human nature and physics. Skepticism of things like invisible unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters or celestial teapots is not properly rationalized by knee-jerk preference for disbelief, but by deliberation about compossibility.
So how does this apply to the real argument at hand: the existence of God? I’m not going to try to convince anyone that God is real using compossibility. I’m just going to differentiate between good arguments for the non-existence of God and bad arguments for the non-existence of God. Bad arguments might take the form of, “Well, there’s no evidence so we should disbelieve.” That’s not a logically sound position to take. It’s just prejudice wrapped up in rational terminology. The argument is bad both because it’s a poor argument but also because it just doesn’t lead to any productive thought or discussion. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.
But a very good argument for the non-existence of God is to rely on something like the Problem of Evil. This turns out to be a compossibility argument again: how are (1) an all-powerful God and (2) a benevolent God and (3) the crappy state of affairs here on Earth all compossible? Just like skepticism of the invisible unicorn in your backyard, skepticism of a benevolent and all-powerful God based on the injustice and miserable suffering on Earth is a skepticism with reason behind it. Such skepticism is good both because it’s logically stronger, and also because it can lead to useful discussion.
The discussion has already become somewhat politicized, but I think that the similarities in Bokovoy’s and Wilson’s approach outweigh the differences. In this post I’ll talk about reconciling them, and also bring in Gee’s important, data-based perspective.
Bokovoy’s primary point is that the struggles young Mormons encounter with their faith are the result of encountering real, problematic facts from Mormon history. As a result, he asserts that:
We need to alter our approach and stop giving students the impression that there is never any good reason to doubt or question their faith. Instead, we need to help students incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.
Wilson, as the title of his post indicates, begs to differ. His primary argument is that “It is not the facts themselves that challenge the youth, but the narratives through which the facts are presented and contextualized that challenge them.” Superficially at least, we have a contradiction between Bokovoy and Wilson.
According to Wilson there’s a deeper problem, however: “The more fundamental problem is that often our youth, not to mention many adults, lack the kind of nuanced approach to information that they require to be able to evaluate the facts in distinction to the narratives about the facts.” He later writes that “both apologetic and critical explanations… are merely provisional explanations.” It seems to me that the nuance Wilson is calling for, and the ability to separate facts from narratives, is primarily about being able to avoid taking academic or scientific claims as non-provisional and authoritative and instead “to incorporate questioning.” (Those are Bokovoy’s words.)
The chief difference, then, is that Wilson wants to prepare youth to question secular authority (“They [members] should feel free to take a cafeteria approach to the secular and scholarly information.”) and he blames Bokovoy for stating instead that they should question prophetic authority. But I’m not sure Bokovoy actually did suggest greater questioning of religious authority and, as Wilson admits, both apologetic and critical perspectives are provisional. The two views can, to a substantial degree, be reconciled.
First, however, let me point out that Wilson’s critique of the role academia and science play in society is absolutely correct. He writes that “’Science’ is functionally little more than an appeal to a culturally acceptable authority which they are expected to accept largely on blind faith.” This is true. Nibley’s words about “the black robes of a false priesthood” apply even more today, and should be expanded to include the white lab coat along with the black graduation gown. This isn’t an attack on reason or the scientific method, but rather an observation that (not necessarily due to anyone’s intentions or desires) the combination of increasingly sophisticated and specialized scientific knowledge and increasing reliance of society on the results of that knowledge have conspired to create a situation where there is a serious risk that any sentiment packaged as scientific will be accepted as authoritative. To a lesser extent, this is true not just of science, but of academia in general.
This means that secularism now functions as a de facto religious outlook without being widely recognized as one. This allows narratives, philosophical claims, and normative judgments made under the banner of secularism to pass as objective and authoritative. This in turn means that secular critiques of religion have an unearned advantage (to Wilson’s point) and also that when religious people encounter troubling facts about their own history that don’t require any particular secular narrative to seem troubling (to Bokovoy’s point), secularism is always there on the fringes as the default fall-back position. In either case: the playing field is slanted towards secularism.
Getting back to a partial reconciliation of Bokovoy and Wilson’s perspectives, Wilson’s central point is a general one about epistemology: “Few narratives can successfully assimilate all of the known data, which, as I have mentioned, is always only a subset of reality anyway.” Or, to use language I’m more comfortable with, we’re all busily engaged in the act of constructing models or narratives from the raw material of the facts and ideas we encounter in our lives. We never succeed in constructing models or narratives that successfully integrate all the facts and ideas that we’re aware of, and even if we could, we’re only personally aware of a very small number of the facts and ideas that are available to be known. Therefore, all our models and narratives are provisional.
Wilson directs this observation primarily at secularism and as a matter of practicality that makes sense. Secular authority is ascendant and its status as quasi-religious authority is largely unrecognized. It cries out for critique. But the observation that all models and narratives are provisional is not limited to secularism, and it includes not only auxiliary, apologetic arguments offered to bolster and positively contextualize prophetic and scriptural statements, but the religious conception of the prophetic and scriptural statements themselves.
Assume for a moment that prophets and scripture are infallible and sufficient. Even in that case, we would still have to go through the messy, error-prone, human process of interpreting and synthesizing their words to construct our own narrative or model. Which means that the resulting narrative or model—even in a world with prophetic and scriptural infallibility and sufficiency—would remain provisional. This means that one can affirm Wilson’s trenchant criticism of secular authority and still make room for Bokovoy’s argument that we ought to “incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.” Not because we ought to necessarily question prophetic or scriptural authority more than we do, but because we need to be prepared to question the provisional models and narratives we construct from those authoritative statements.
This does not, of course, reconcile every difference between Bokovoy and Wilson. The greatest difference that remains is still the question of what is actually causing youth to leave. Is it, as Bokovoy asserts, the mere existence of troubling facts? Or is it, as Wilson argues, a nefarious suite of narratives which accompany those facts? The first response is that the common thread to Bokovoy’s and Wilon’s approach–espistemic humility and questioning–works in both cases. So there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, since the solution to both diagnoses is the same.
It’s still essential to ask the question of what is really going on, however. And what we find is that from a big picture perspective it might very well be that neither Bokovoy nor Wilson are right about the primary problem. This is where John Gee’s post comes in. Gee’s post is based on analysis of data collected by the ongoing National Survey of Youth and Religion. The project involves tracking the religious lives of thousands of American youths and conducting in-depth interviews with them about their religious lives. As Gee notes:
Unfortunately, the data published by the NSYR does not directly address the issue of why some Latter-day Saint youth become atheist, agnostic, or apathetic. It does, however, delve into the reasons why youth in general choose that path.
Gee then outlines the main factors that (for youth as a whole) tend to lead out of religion and into secular life:
Disruptions to routine
Differentiation (e.g. attempt to create separate identity from parents)
Postponed Family Formation and Childbearing
Keeping Options Open
Self-evident morality (i.e. moral truths are so obvious that religion is superfluous)
What is interesting about this list is that for the most part, intellectual reasons play a secondary role in conversion to secularism. This is not to say that intellectual reasons play no role, or that certain actions have no intellectual ramifications. The list is mainly behavioral or event driven rather than philosophically driven. Doubts in religiously held beliefs do not show up on the list.
It’s possible that Mormon youth are very different from the general trend, and that while youth of other traditions leave because of behavioral reasons, Mormons leave because of doubts. But that’s not a good starting point given the data, especially since advances in understanding of human behavior provide us with a model where intellectual deliberation serves as an after-the-fact rationalization of decisions made non-rationally on the basis of psychological, social, and emotional factors.
Luckily, as I’ve noted previously, Mormonism stands out as a group that is able to transmit behavior and information to rising generations better than other faith traditions. Based on our existing relative strength at transmitting theology, culture, and behavior, we are in a good position to pivot and meet this challenge. So let’s get to work on teaching epistemic humility and questioning now. Let’s take Bokovoy’s critique to heart, and prepare our youth to deal with uncomfortable facts. Let’s take Wilson’s critique to hear, and prepare our youth to view secular authority with due skepticism and discernment. And let’s also keep an eye open towards the data-based approaches like Gee’s to see what other changes, especially related to behavioral considerations, we can take to meet the challenge of keeping the flame of faith burning in a secular world.
I’ll just start with my thesis: the only rational and consistent outlook of materialist atheism (hereafter referred to simply as atheism for brevity) is that life is pointless. Believing otherwise inevitably involves some degree of delusion or distraction.
I suppose them fightin’ words need support. First, I would point out the following. I will die. You will die. Everyone we know, helped, or hurt will die. Everything we ever accomplished will disappear. The earth will cease to support life. The sun will go supernova. And eventually the ultimate heat death of the universe will occur, beyond which nothing will ever occur again (at least in this universe, but let’s leave out multiverse theory). In that context, how can anything matter?
The most common response I hear is that you create your own purpose, sometimes followed by quotes from existentialist philosophers. Within an atheistic point of view, that sounds like the equivalent of saying ‘I will believe in stories that give my life purpose or distract me from my inevitable and permanent non-existence,’ which should appear disturbingly similar to the purpose of religion as understood by many atheists.
Furthermore, saying you create your own purpose seems like saying that Sisyphus would’ve had a purpose if the gods had attached a rolling-counter to his boulder to keep him occupied. SMBC wrote a comic to that effect.
Sisyphus could have attached any personal purpose imaginable to his existence, and we would still say his existence is pointless because it has no final point or purpose. The boulder goes up the hill, and then it goes down, leaving Sisyphus with a net nothing. We expect to meet the same fate under an atheistic point of view. We spend our existence pushing our boulder of accomplishments up the hill of life, and whether in a few decades, a century, or a millennium, that boulder will come right back to where it started. We will be forgotten, and everything and everyone we influenced will cease to exist. We ultimately did it all for no objective purpose.
The next response is usually that my opinion doesn’t really count since I’m not an atheist. I would bring up that I was an atheist, and this question mattered to me, but I think it’s more effective to point that this isn’t my opinion originally. It’s the opinion of many atheist and agnostic thinkers throughout history. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Albert Camus that:
Camus sees this question of suicide as a natural response to an underlying premise, namely that life is absurd in a variety of ways. As we have seen, both the presence and absence of life (i.e., death) give rise to the condition: it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction.
Leo Tolstoy searched for meaning in life and ultimately found none within a material framework, bringing him to the edge of suicide before his conversion to Christianity. He wrote in his book Confessions:
I sought in all the sciences, but far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing. And not only had they found nothing, but they had plainly acknowledged that the very thing which made me despair–namely the senselessness of life–is the one indubitable thing man can know.
My question–that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide–was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?”
Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
Somerset Maugham, a famous 20th century writer and agnostic, stated:
If one puts aside the existence of God and the survival after life as too doubtful . . . one has to make up one’s mind as to the use of life. If death ends it all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what I am here for, and how in these circumstances I must conduct myself. Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and life has no meaning.
Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Which I would wager is the most common answer today. I suppose every person feels like they live in an age of unparalleled distraction, but I truly believe that the amount of distraction available to human beings today is greater than almost any period of history. In that context, nobody really needs to bother with whether life has meaning or not.
A brave new world indeed.
Mostly, I write this post as a call for consistency and rationality. I came of age in an atheism that espoused facing the truth, no matter how bleak. Here is the truth. Under an atheistic point of view, life has no objective meaning, so the the options are making up your own (unprovable) story, finding sufficient distraction until you die, or nihilism. Or as my friend Reece succinctly put it:
In my mind, there are really only two kinds of atheists. There is make-believe pretend atheism, and then there is nihilism.
Ultimately, we won’t know until we’re dead who is right. However, we can know in this life who lives consistently with what they believe.
I’ll give Brian Palmer this: in his article for Slate he’s not at all shy about telling us how he really feels. It’s great, he says, that Christian medical missionaries are out there trying to do good works in Africa: “Rather than parachuting in during crises, like some international medicine specialists, a large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans.” And yet, after all the kind words like these he has to say for medical missionaries, they only serve to underscore the weirdness of his central point:
When an infected American missionary was flown back to the United States for treatment… a fair number of Americans were thinking a much milder, less offensive form [thinking that he should “suffer the consequences” or that he was “idiotic”]. I’ll hold my own hand up. I still don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.
So let me point out the first obvious irony, which is for someone flying the proud flag of rationalism and skepticism to be so open and honest about his totally irrational and credulous animosity towards Christians. Gee, if only we had a word to describe irrational, unarticulated prejudices…The sad part is that religious skepticism has descended so far below the heights of freethinking iconoclasm that no one even seems to remember when rejecting theism was a carefully considered intellectual proposition that actually meant something. Now it’s a fashion statement. Some of us don’t like normcore. Some of don’t like Christianity. People are weird, am I right?
I’m definitely not the first to take Palmer to task, and I’m avoiding the most obvious problem with his argument. David French handled that admirably in his piece for the NRO:
In other words, [Palmer] has a problem with medical missionaries because they’re not operating in first-world hospitals with first-world reporting systems and first-world systems of legal accountability? If there weren’t staffing shortages, drug shortages, a lack of large health-care facilities, and all the other issues that dominate developing-world medicine, we wouldn’t need medical missionaries.
French is right, and so I don’t repeat it. Instead, let me raise just one other issue. It’s subtle, I think, until you state it out loud. Then it seems really, really awkwardly obvious. We’re on the threshold of an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Africa with the potential to kill millions (both directly and from the resulting chaos and upheaval) and, on the verge of this nightmare, Palmer thinks it’s a good time to talk about the queasiness with which he regards the religiosity of strangers? That is what the threat of a continent-wide pandemic makes him think is a really pressing issue?
One of the rallying cries of the New Atheists was that–as 9/11 shows–religion isn’t just harmlessly irrational. It’s dangerous.
The logic seemed clear: the more devoutly you believe in God the more likely you are to go and do something violent, stupid, or both in the name of God’s will. The logic was wrong. As the New Statesman reports:
Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? … Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.
This isn’t just speculation or–worse still–some kind of PC effort to protect the reputation of Islam from its own adherents. As it turns out, this conclusion is the same one that was reached by the behavior scientists at MI5:
In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”
But that’s not even the most interesting finding. This is: The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”
In other words: if young, budding terrorists were more religious, they’d be less likely to be terrorists. Terrorism is primarily a socio-political response to insecurity, insecurity that a deep and abiding faith would help to alleviate.
Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose. At least, that is its purest and most minimal essence. There are, of course, practitioners of the trade who possess talents of a higher order—the rare ability, say, to produce complex sentences and coherent paragraphs—and they tend to occupy the more elevated caste of “intellectual journalists.” These, however, are rather like “whores with hearts of gold”: more misty figments of tender fantasy than concrete objects of empirical experience. Most journalism of ideas is little more than a form of empty garrulousness, incessant gossip about half-heard rumors and half-formed opinions, an intense specialization in diffuse generalizations. It is something we all do at social gatherings—creating ephemeral connections with strangers by chattering vacuously about things of which we know nothing—miraculously transformed into a vocation.
So begins philosopher David Bentley Hart’s ripping of journalist Adam Gopnik’s musings on theism. He makes it clear that his comments are “no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers…Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do…[T]here is now—where questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious are concerned—only a kind of habitual intellectual listlessness. ” Because to this, critics like Gopnik never grasp the metaphysics of “pure “classical theism,” as found in the Cappadocians, Augustine, Denys, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Shankara, Ramanuja, Philo, Moses Maimonides . . . well, basically, just about every significant theistic philosopher in human history. (Not to get too recherché here, but one can find most of it in the Roman Catholic catechism.)” Instead, they claim a certain kind of materialism as having “exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge” and “assert rights here denied to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton[.] Or to Arthur Eddington, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Anthony Zee, John Barrow, Freeman Dyson, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and (yes) Albert Einstein[.]”
Hart’s concluding words have much to teach not only unbelievers, but believers as well:
The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players)…Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.
Unfortunately, I think this captures the culture of believers and non-believers alike. This is why Terryl and Fiona Givens find that “militant atheism” and “fervent theism” are “both just as likely to serve as a dogmatic point of departure, as they are to be a thoughtful and considered end point in one’s journey toward understanding…[N]either the new believer nor the new doubter has necessarily progressed or reached enlightenment.” Both theists and atheists should reengage in this “philosophical passion and moral adventure” for the bettering of each other.
This is an older article (Dec 2012) and at the time people figured Higgs was a contender for the Nobel. Now we know he got it. In any case, one of the greatest minds in theoretical physics points out what I’ve been saying for years: that the New Atheists (or at least Dawkins, one of their examplars) are the mirror image of the fundamentalists that they choose to focus their criticisms on. This remark came not long after Dawkins dropped another gem, saying that “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”
I imagine his fans will continue to post his quotes and parrot his arguments for quite some time, but I think his credibility with most fair-minded people is pretty well shot at this point. It should be, at any rate.
Edit: In the first version of this post, I mistakenly attributed a summary of Dawkins comment to Dawkins. The summary read: “Raising a child in the Catholic church was worse than sex abuse dished out to youngsters by priests.” The actual quote is now included in the body above. HIggs’ statement is also more qualified than the headline suggest. He actually said “Dawkins in a way is almost a kind of fundamen- talist himself.”
WARNING: Spoilers ahoy! If you want the context of the play referenced, A Roof Overhead, the majority of the production by ASU’s Binary Theatre Company was recorded and is up on You Tube. It’s not the highest quality recording, and it was a matinee (thus, historically, less audience engagement and laughing), but you get a good sense of that particular production. The Utah production, unfortunately, was not recorded due to technical difficulties (so not even I got to see it!). Of course, I think the issues the essay raises go beyond the actual play, so feel free to read it if you haven’t the time to watch an entire play at the moment.
James Goldberg’s award winning one act play “Prodigal Son” is a stirring play that flips Jesus’ proverb of the same name, showing the relationship between a former Mormon turned atheist and his son Daniel, who joins the faith his father had long since rejected. The tension and conflict caused by the reversal of the parental disapproval is both ironic and effective. Set in this gem of a play is a haunting monologue addressed to the audience by Daniel’s father:
We’re far too casual, I think, in the way we talk about losing. “I’ve lost my keys,” for example, really means you’ve mislaid them. We say we’re “lost” when we’re just disoriented. And we lose our tempers all the time, only to find them again a few minutes later—
I wish we wouldn’t dilute the best word we have for when things are truly and permanently gone. “Lost cause” is a good phrase. It’s a cold, hard dose of reality. No one goes out to find a lost cause. It’s just lost. That phrase understands the power of the word’s finality…
So when I tell you that a long time ago I lost my faith, I don’t want you imagine that I’ve misplaced or that I could be capable of finding it again. Lost faith is like a lost limb…if it’s broken and bleeding, if you try to patch it up and ends up being inflamed and infected…at some point you have to cut it off. And after you’ve lost it the only thing left is the occasional flash of phantom pain.
I lost my faith. Twenty years later I lost my wife. And now maybe I’m losing my son.
Don’t take away from me the only word I have to cope with that.
Coming from a practicing Mormon like Goldberg, the monologue is unusually and beautifully sensitive towards this fictional father’s disbelief in God and religion. It shows a well of compassion and charity on Goldberg’s part towards what really amounts to a religious minority (at least in the United States and other predominately religious countries, although that trend is fast reversing in many places in the world). It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment in a beautiful play.
In this way, Goldberg has shown that he is particularly ready to clarify the way of the atheist to believers, and pleas for understanding on the his atheist friends behalf—perhaps even to the point of being a warm ambassador or a defensive patron when discussing atheism among believers. Thus it makes sense that, in his review of my play A Roof Overhead, he was quick to come to the defense of the doubter, even though such a vigorous and heated defense was hardly needed considering the context of the play’s intended message of tolerance and pleas for mutual understanding.
As Goldberg is not the only critic to misrepresent my representation of atheism, including a handful of antagonistic reviews written against my plays Swallow the Sun and Prometheus Unbound, I feel compelled to address the issue directly. I normally like my plays to stand on their own artistically, so that people may interact with them based on their own experiences and what they personally bring to the play, without constant and intrusive commentary from me.
However, some have tried to tie me to a pattern of intolerance towards atheists, even resorting to rather personal slights and warnings to others against my work. Thus, in the name of my reputation, I feel it best to clear up what my intent is, and what my intent decidedly isn’t, towards atheism and atheists. After all, if I’m to be lambasted on the matter, I would prefer to be lambasted for something I actually believe.
I couldn’t manage even a dozen pages of Dawkins insufferable smugness in The God Delusions, and his ghastly guerrilla interrogation of Brandon Flowers on a talk show is equally painful to watch, but I had assumed that, being a noted academic and so forth, he still had some handle on basic civility and common sense. Apparently not.
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
To wearily engage with his logic briefly: yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of “Muslims”, and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world’s Chinese, all the world’s Indians, all the world’s lefthanded people, all the world’s cyclists.
The whole process of trying to parse the painfully obvious fallacy reminded me of the task of arguing against extremist Muslim clerics when they try to denigrate non-Muslims, the same momentary sense of helplessness and not knowing where to start.
Her logic in point #1 is impeccable and as for her feelings in point #2: they are sadly, sadly familiar. Reminds me of trying to respond to counter-cult accusations about my own faith. It’s sad to see another example–and so prominent!–of this kind of lazy bigotry, but nice to take some solace in commiseration with someone else who gets it.