Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Smarter than thou

August 14th, 2013 | 5 Comments

A recent story that suggested that atheists are more intelligent than religious people has blown up in social media. I imagine some people will want to examine some of the methodology and assumptions behind the study. I’m not going to attempt evaluating the study or its results other than to say that there are several points that could be made about the danger of correlation and causation, and that even if valid the results are not really surprising. The rest of this post will assume the results are valid for argument’s sake.

Several people have now noticed the “gotcha” game being played by this match’s purported victors–with no sportsmanship in sight.  I suppose the idea is that whatever is believed by intelligent people is likelier to be true, perhaps because intelligent people are likelier to discover and know what’s true, and less intelligent people are apt to obliviously embrace nonsense. Statistically speaking maybe this is so, but pushing that point very far is also tantamount to an argument from authority, which actually isn’t all that bright. Ostensibly, the individuals who are the ones pushing the average up on the atheist side are not the ones acting so triumphalistic, but maybe that expectation leans too heavily on a correlation of intelligence with common decency. Which leads me to the point I most want to make.

It’s a sad indictment that the results of this study have been pushed so hard and triumphantly by atheists, with no regard for etiquette, humility, or other forms of thoughtfulness. When you performed well on a test in school, did you rub the nose of a friend or classmate who didn’t perform as well in your superior test score? If that classmate had ignored your advice and followed a study regimen that you had warned them against, would that justify smugly seeking them out to notify them of your results? But even that scenario depends on the idea that the poor performer could have done something different: this scenario suggests that people are religious because they’re mentally less capable of being atheists. That’s like rubbing it in when you perform better than a kid with severe dyslexia or other encumbrance. Saying, “We’re smarter than you” can only be intended to belittle or shame someone into agreeing with you and, as mentioned above, act as an argument from authority. Why else even bring it up?

A Christian friend at work, who’s quiet by nature and not at all argumentative or confrontational, was disheartened and hurt when an atheist friend thought it a great idea to send her that study. She reached out to me for advice on how to respond. I gave her a couple pointers and mentioned the limitations of this particular study. But probably most importantly, I noted that showing love and compassion for others was a much higher virtue than flaunting one’s own intelligence to demean someone else.

It bears mentioning that some of the most atrocious humans in history have been among the most intelligent. Some of the most intelligent people in history have been among the most deluded.

As Arni wrote,

There’s something about our culture that instinctively sees intelligence as a good thing. But upon reflection, in and of itself, intelligence is neither good nor bad. It can serve the good immensely, yes. But likewise it can enable the bad in absolutely horrifying ways. It’s not a virtue. It can be helpful, but only to the extent that its use is shaped by the virtues.

I’ll put this out there as well. I don’t have stats, and it’s a pure hypothetical, but as someone who often has more in common with my unbelieving friends than I do with my fellow theists, I still feel safe in asserting that if this study had concluded the opposite, I can hardly imagine the same sort of reaction from believers. Most Christians I know would of course feel encouraged and more confident about their faith, and they’d no doubt pass the study around to their fellow believers, and I imagine many would even succumb to the temptation of feeling puffed up and superior. Still, I’m confident that only a small minority would even acknowledge the study’s results to their atheist friends, except perhaps to those atheist friends intent on arguing the opposite. Because it’s just wrong to act that way. We poor, dumb religious folk think “pride” is a sin.

I affirm the ability of atheists to be moral and ethical–this isn’t about that. Still, this can hardly help but suggest to me a marked difference in the effect of the respective beliefs and ethics systems of the theist and the atheist. “Holier than thou” is an awful attitude that bespeaks pride, which paradoxically makes those with that attitude less holy in an important way; those with that attitude are thus being self-contradictory, and are admonished by their own belief system. Someone who is focused on being “holy” is focusing on virtues that will improve human relationships. But as the above case suggests, the “smarter than thou” attitude stands to have more adverse affects in that it doesn’t entail any moral obligations. If you’re smarter, you can act like a jerk, and unless you’ve come up with a clever rational reason not to make theists feel stupid and inferior, there is nothing in the world that should keep you from reacting just as so many have to a study like this one.

Given the choice, give me dumb, good-hearted people any day of the week. Of course, what do I know? I’m “religious”.

Moral atheists (Mondays with MacDonald)

May 27th, 2013 | 2 Comments

In his novel, Paul Faber, Surgeon, George MacDonald indicated that he would have agreed with a substantial part of Pope Francis’s recent positive remarks about moral atheists:

But such as Faber was, he was both loved and honored by all whom he had ever attended; and, with his fine tastes, his genial nature, his quiet conscience, his good health, his enjoyment of life, his knowledge and love of his profession, his activity, his tender heart–especially to women and children, his keen intellect, and his devising though not embodying imagination, if any man could get on without a God, Faber was that man. He was now trying it, and as yet the trial had cost him no effort: he seemed to himself to be doing very well indeed. And why should he not do as well as the thousands, who counting themselves religious people, get through the business of the hour, the day, the week, the year, without one reference in any thing they do or abstain from doing, to the will of God, or the words of Christ? If he was more helpful to his fellows than they, he fared better; for actions in themselves good, however imperfect the motives that give rise to them, react blissfully upon character and nature. It is better to be an atheist who does the will of God, than a so-called Christian who does not. [It is not] the atheist [who] will…be dismissed because he said Lord, Lord, and did not obey.

The thing that God loves is the only lovely thing, and he who does it, does well, and is upon the way to discover that he does it very badly. When he comes to do it as the will of the perfect Good, then is he on the road to do it perfectly–that is, from love of its own inherent self-constituted goodness, born in the heart of the Perfect. The doing of things from duty is but a stage on the road to the kingdom of truth and love. Not the less must the stage be journeyed; every path diverging from it is “the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.”

If loving what is good for its own sake is indeed the path to the perfect, then many a moral atheist is further along the narrow way to redemption than those Christians who think that goodness is defined by God’s arbitrary whims and who obey out of the belief that God demands it. Good is done either way, but the faithful child of God will seek not only to obey, but to love what is commanded and recognize its intrinsic goodness.

The objectiveness of goodness that apologists speak of is touted as unaccountable in atheistic morality–yet ironically it is the atheist (or believer) behaving morally just because it’s the unmotivated “right thing to do” who is closer to God’s heart. Believers should certainly find common ground with those who act in the interests of Goodness, which is God, and find that these who are with Him in that way are not at all against Him.

Thoughts on the science/religion rift

December 3rd, 2012 | 6 Comments

Confession: I find less and less about science that thrills me the way it used to.

While I used to – and many people I associate with still do – greet the news of a scientific discovery or advancement with the geeky equivalent of a fist pump, a whoop, and a holler, for me nowadays it’s more like how I feel when a close friend’s child poops in the potty for the first time. Sure, I’m duly glad for the child and happy for her parents, and hopeful about the financial boon attending the chance for my friend to start spending less on diaper purchases. But apart from the notable lack of personal investment in their situation, we parents of older kids know that it’s actually rare indeed that a single deposit in the potty makes the child potty-trained–it may be months before she does it again. There’s satisfaction to be enjoyed at the milestone and what it might mean for the future, but it’s usually premature to declare victory.

This reaction of mine is probably just a phase, as I’m just increasingly unnerved by the triumphalistic fanfares of scientism. A pronounced pro-science movement has sadly been necessitated by resistance to science among Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical Christians, but overcompensation has yielded an overweening, cultish reverence for science, with its most ardent devotees treating every scientific discovery as a nail in God’s coffin. It’s this that’s driving the growth of the New Atheism movement.

I’m always looking for ways to mitigate this overreaction and to integrate a healthy appreciation for science into a similarly cautious confidence in Christian theology. So when I read this recent (now two-month old) article by James K. A. (aka Jamie) Smith in Christianity Today, “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See,” I was happy it added some things to the discussion worth thinking about.

Our sensibility (following the late Robert Webber) should be an “ancient-future” one: The church will find gifts to help it think through postmodern challenges by retrieving the wisdom of ancient Christians. The goal is not to simply repeat ancient formulations while sticking our heads in the sand; rather, the contemporary church—and contemporary Christian scholars—can learn much from the habits of mind that characterized church fathers like Athanasius and Augustine.

The main thrust is that when believers encounter challenging scientific evidence, they shouldn’t close their eyes, cover their ears, and shout their existing theological constructs at the top of the lungs. Rather, we should look to the example of the historical church and learn to “foster the Christian imagination to underwrite more creative approaches.” Smith cites councils such as Chalcedon as having delivered cleverly and creatively derived theological resolutions to science/religion conflicts. The danger Smith is trying to put his finger on more or less amounts to what happens when you pit science and religion opposite one another in a fact fight, in a fashion typical of Western Christianity. He’s arguing that “creative” ways of retooling and upholding earlier agreed-upon beliefs to account for scientific revelations are needed to help heal the science/religion divide.

But I want to shift this a bit: the contentious science/religion divide is only superficially attributable to science offering answers that our theologies have yet to account for. Coming up with clever and henceforth authoritative rationalizations to make sure new data is consistent with what we already believe doesn’t seem all that different from “sticking our heads in the sand” while refusing to admit that this is what we’re doing. This is not a sufficient answer; we must dig a bit further down.

The deeper cause for the rift is trying to use either science or religion as a skeleton key to unlock the answers to both practical and more existential questions. Gould’s NOMA principle is rejected no less by Evangelical Christians than it is by atheists like Jerry Coyne with his fierce denunciation of “accomodationism”. Now, I’m not talking about the dubious apologetic claim about “different kinds of knowing”; I’m referring to “different kinds of questions” which we answer in the most practical ways we can considering the intractability of epistemological indeterminacy. Too many people talk about a “war between science and religion” and in so doing confuse the essentially incidental conflicts between specific scientific data and particular religious beliefs with the more fundamental question of whether science and religion can in theory coexist without falling all over each other trying to better answer the same questions. It’s not, “How do my truth claims need to make way for competing truth claims?” but, “Which kinds of observations are the most useful for which aspects of our lives?”

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in ha...

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window “Education” (1890). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I view discovery of more accurate understandings of our physical universe as a (literal) godsend that should if anything highlight that our dependence cannot be on fallible, ever-changing intellectual assumptions, but can only rest on the basis of our faith, which is God Himself. I see the Church, the Bible, and other forms of tradition as candles that serve as guides that focus our life-efforts by teaching us to reject rationalist/positivist pat answers to encounter the meaning of our God-filled universe in the ways of our ancient forebears. Philosophically, scientific inquiry and religious belief stand much more often back-to-back than face-to-face; the latter stance is usually the result either of religion trying to answer (or dismiss) “how” or science trying to answer (or dismiss) “why”.

I’m not trying to draw too sharp a distinction between “how” and “why” questions: we’re not looking at two different objects, but merely describing the object differently. As Christians we cannot help believe that God is – somehow – a fundamental part of the “how”, and atheists must be forgiven for believing that a material-only universe must generate its own answers to “why”. What needs to be avoided are the turf wars that result from either side caustically belittling the answer the other side gives from within its own area of expertise. We need more theistic and atheistic representatives to agree to avoid flaunting the boundary line.

Unfortunately, the necessary commitment to letting science’s tentative answers to “how the universe works” questions override our forbears’ answers to those questions is dependent on a much less rigid system of doctrines and a much less hegemonic role of influence over our doctrines coming from the historical theological community than much of Western Christianity will tolerate. But Christianity has never been about giving definitive answers to “how the universe works”, nor even all that much about the “how God works in our universe” question. Christianity supplies us with meaning by instructing us “how to live in God.”

When we find scientific data that steps on our theology’s toes, we have to realize that our theology may well have been camped out on the wrong side of the boundary and withdraw gracefully. But we should also be on the lookout and be willing to hold the line when proponents of scientism make invalid claims to our inheritance. There is much work that can be done from within the demilitarized zone.

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Is religion in society dispensable? The Dalai Lama vs. Will Durant

September 10th, 2012 | 0 Comments

This week these words from the Dalai Lama have gone viral:

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

People are reading this quote as though he were saying, “Religion’s taken us this far, but we’ve got it now; reason alone is adequate for the realization of societal utopia from here.” But I think both this understanding of what he’s saying and what I think he might actually be saying are off track.

A lot of the people trumpeting this quote seem to be putting a decidedly “New Atheist” spin on it. And they might be correct. But notice that he still wants to talk about “spirituality”–just a spirituality not based in “religion”, by which I surmise he means religious institutions; of course, he’s not abdicated his own position yet, but he has said that he expects to be the last Dalai Lama. So I wouldn’t understand this as saying that we should abandon all metaphysical discipline because it’s not done the job. It sounds more like he wants everyone to enjoy the benefits of “spirituality” and ethics without depending upon the trappings of religion. But that’s not a particularly bold statement, so maybe the atheistic ethicists are correctly surmising what he intended to say.

Actually, what he did intend to say is a bit muddled. I’m not at all convinced that the degree to which the major religions – Christianity included – have emphasized love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness has yet reached its acme. The enterprise of pursuing those ideals with these religions has, as Chesterton wrote of Christianity, “not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Judaism with its predominant disinterest in public expressions of faith and disavowal of proselytism effectively refuses to allow its people to influence anyone else, so that “inner values” stay locked away inside; on the opposite extreme the Muslim world has been struggling to free themselves of their legacy of forcing their “inner values” under the threat of violence (which in some ways seems like a caricature of what the Tibetan cleric is proposing; see the following paragraph). On the other hand, Buddhism, which may have more society-altering potential than either of those, has only recently risen to a place of influence in the consciousness of the world. And even more so than Buddhism, Christianity is just now coming into its own, with the shackles of correct-beliefs-as-paramount finally falling off left and right, and with the seeds of universal kindship that its philosophy planted millennia ago finally sprouting and, increasingly, bearing the fruit of social concern. Now we want to burn those fields and start over again?

While conceding that religions can help us cultivate “inner values”, the Dalai Lama contends that we need something more nowadays. But what apart from “inner values” can ethics ever be based upon? If he’s suggesting anything coherent, it’s not a non-religious set of ethics, but a non-religious implementation of ethics, ostensibly realized by raising behavioral constraints in society to a higher level than personal convictions. He’s suggesting something tantamount to a secularly imposed structure of ethics – an effective legislation of morality – to fill the gap left by the “inner values” that he apparently thinks have been insufficient to constrain our behavior. So it seems His Holiness is suggesting that people may continue to pursue the goals of personal religion if they wish, but we need an ethical system that has the ability to control behavior without bothering to discipline the character, motivations, and “inner values” of the society’s constituents. You know, the opposite of Jesus’ teaching about the importance of the internalization of morality and the dangers of rote legalism.

Historian and popular philosopher Will Durant, although raised Catholic, lost his faith in the following years, but always maintained a high respect for religion, and particularly for its role in society. Here’s a quote (HT Wikipedia) from his multi-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization.

Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a “conflict between science and religion.” Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

The Story of Civilization, volume 1, p. 71.

Dangerous CliffIt seems our society is perched upon a precipice, with one foot planted on the unmodified, rote religion of our forebears and the other foot posed mid-air, as we yearn to venture off into a secularism that scoffs at the philosophical foundation for those behavioral constraints. Will we, as the Dalai Lama suggests, lunge forward past the cliff’s edge and take flight without any of the intricately designed mechanisms of universal, absolute meaning, morality, and ethics sustaining us, supported only by the breeze and impelled only by our muscles as we beat our arms in self-confident exuberance? Or, as Durant predicted, are we destined to veer headlong and plummet down far below to be gathered with the bones of the societies that preceded us? Or do we still have a chance to turn around, chastened by the hubris of unexamined religion and unrealistic confidence in our reason alike, and walk away to apply ourselves to reworking the land our ancestors left to us?

It’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.

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The sin of mere belief

September 4th, 2012 | 5 Comments

I recently read two articles that, while they’re directed at very different audiences, have a common thread between them that regular readers will recognize as a concern of mine lately.

English writer Francis Spufford is on the press-junket for his book, Unapologetic. This article he wrote for the Guardian (with a tip of the hat to Arni) seems to be setting up an approach toward speaking of religion that consciously and…well, unapologetically avoids putting up faith as “Reason 2.0″ as is done by most Christian apologists. To give you an idea of his approach, which is sure to be controversial among believers and unbelievers alike, here’s a bit from the post:

The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

I have recently been considering that the goal of “breaking down the barrier between faith and reason” may be misguided, at least to the extent to which it tries to blur the line between them. “Faith isn’t against reason: it is reason!” The enterprise of making sure that people don’t conclude that our religious convictions contradict the world of reason too often slides into the quagmire of “proving” our unprovable convictions.

This pitfall comes from the ubiquitous misconstrual of “faith” as “believing”. Faith is not belief, but a commitment to a belief (at least in its dullest form: for the Christian it should be a commitment to the Truth himself). Reason is for believing; faith is for living. I think Spufford was trying to say that we will only live out what we want to, what is emotionally real to us.

To be sure, we don’t want to base our beliefs on things that we know aren’t true (which isn’t the same thing as resting in beliefs we aren’t sure are true). But living without reasonable beliefs is the danger of Scylla to the Charybdis of reasonable beliefs without faithfulness.

It’s the latter danger that I see gobbling up most Evangelicals. Everything important to them about their faith has to do with beliefs about this or that fact or “truth”. If Jesus were to come back today, they’d rather be found committing an act of sin (since we’re all hopeless, dirty sinners) than believing something incorrectly (something about finding “faith” on the earth, wasn’t it?). Completely, utterly, hopelessly backwards.

This observation is behind the other post I wanted to share, a post by Zac Bailes called “Jesus, Truth, and Coffee“. It’s his reflections on a conversation with one of those Evangelicals I was just talking about. Here’s a salient quote:

Christians across the globe have become so concerned with making sure people know the truth about Jesus that they forget what that truth provokes. Love for the neighbor becomes sublimated to a concern about recognizing truth. They remained entombed in the truth of power, rather than the liberation of love.

No wonder our faith seems so trivial to the world! We tell them it’s about believing “facts” without any evidence, often enough in contradiction of evidence, and then we refuse to live as though those “facts” had any value for our lives at all. When the positivists tell us that our beliefs must be proved to be worth anything, we take them at their word and get waylaid as we single-mindedly turn our entire religion into an exercise of maintaining the right beliefs and proving them to others.

Instead, we have despised the only thing that could demonstrate the value of faith, the one unmistakably clear charge given to us by the one in whose name we claim to be acting: devotion to God as expressed by devotion to one another. The most emotional investment we have is put into holding everyone else accountable for behaving in ways that indicate that they believe correctly. This is why, as Spufford notes, the world looks at believers as people doing our level best to shut our eyes, clench our fists, and just believe something. We do not attempt to feel our faith; we are content to believe it. We do not love that in which we believe; we are not committed to it enough to energize it with the affection of commitment.

And in so doing, we demonstrate ourselves faithless.

Tragedy and hope in the X-Files

July 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment

 [Narration after discovering a mass gravesite of abducted children.]

They said the birds refused to sing and the thermometer fell suddenly, as if God himself had his breath stolen away. No one there dared speak aloud, as much in shame as in sorrow. They uncovered the bodies one by one. The eyes of the dead were closed, as if waiting for permission to open. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars, of birthday cake, and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel even for God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world’s not looking?

I wanna believe so badly in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes; in the endless procession of souls; in what cannot and will not be destroyed. I want to believe we are unaware of God’s eternal recompense and sadness; that we cannot see His truth; that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth, but only waits to be born again at God’s behest, where in ancient starlight we lay in repose.

from The X-Files, S7xE11, “Closure”

There is no theodicy; there is only the choice to wait and see.

My friends, you can keep your confidence about the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives and our love, the irredeemability of our pain and our sorrows, the ephemerality of all we hold dear, the transience of even Love itself. I’ll certainly not begrudge you your ability to keep a stiff upper lip while staring into that yawning gap (are your eyes really open?). I readily admit that I don’t have proof to the contrary.

But I stand with the majority of humanity throughout history and rest in the conviction that there is, must be, more than this. I doubt I could even be said to truly love anything whose immortality I do not undyingly await.

So please don’t hold it against me that I have chosen not to feign your practical certainty about the matter; forgive me for not even attempting to be contented by, much less in love with, such a universe as yours. There are times of such goodness and joy that that sort of universe doesn’t even seem plausible, times when existence itself seems too good a gift not to have been granted us by a good Giver. But in the other times, when confronted with the most horrific scenes that humanity or nature can paint, I will not give pat answers or cheap apologetics. I’m not in denial; I know exactly what it looks like. But I will wait and see.

Heads up: Lawrence Krauss vs. Rodney Holder on Unbelievable

April 28th, 2012 | 0 Comments

There have been a few recent discussions in the blogosphere tangentially related to Lawrence Krauss’s recent book, A Universe from Nothing, including an off-handed post by me and a short one by Eric Reitan. Today’s episode of the Unbelievable radio show promises to be interesting. You can probably expect me to give my thoughts on it once I have a chance to listen to it at the beginning of the week. For now, here’s the episode summary:

Lawrence Krauss is a Cosmologist at Arizona State University who describes himself as an “anti-theist”.  His latest book “A Universe from Nothing” has received both acclaim and criticism for its attempt to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Debating the issue with Krauss is Rodney Holder, Course director at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge. An astrophysicist and priest by background.

In a lively exchange they debate whether Krauss’ “nothing” is “nothing”, fine tuning and multiverses, scientific knowledge, miracles and the usefulness of theology and philosophy.