Saturday, May 19, 2007

Atheism

My last post demonstrated, if not sympathy for the devil, at least a little empathy for the atheist, and it seems that the tired (and tiring) struggle between atheism and belief continues unabated. Recently I ran across this Christianity Today debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. I've read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but I haven't read Hitchens, to be fair, and I have no idea who Wilson is.

Still, Wilson fares a little better than Rick Warren in this debate with Harris -- Harris pretty much eats Warren's lunch. This is partially because the Warren/Harris debate is a colossal mismatch; Warren does not, let's be honest, represent the most sophisticated or subtly nuanced form of belief. Isn't there someone out there who can not only match Harris in terms of intellectual horsepower but also do so with resorting to tired fundamentalist cliches in the process?

But there's another reason Harris and Hitchens have the upper hand in their respective debates, and that's that their positions are native to the intellectual terrain on which the debate itself is taking place. Atheism emerged as an option when modern rationalism was born. With the exception of the Greeks, a scant few of whom articulated something similar to atheism but nevertheless populated their philosophical systems with Things That Need to Be Capitalized, atheism simply wasn't on the cognitive map of the Western mind until somewhere around the Enlightenment.

Even Voltaire was cagey about it; "If God did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him" is a pretty roundabout way of saying we probably invented him. Christianity has, ever since, had to continually re-package belief in modernistic terms, and the difficulty of this task is illustrated by the growing multitude of Christianities since the Reformation (the Reformation and the Enlightenment being rival children of Renaissance humanism).

One of Hitchen's points touches on this, when he argues that Christianity, if it is to claim credit for the good done by some of its adherents, it must also take responsibility for the nasty things done in its name (again, shades of Voltaire here, just to help put Hitchens on the map; he also, at one point, recapitulates a line of reasoning from Rousseau). And he has a point. Wilson's response is to say this is like holding a professor responsible for the stupidity of pupils who came late to class and skipped the final paper. It is true that some Christians like to give faith the credit for great discoveries made by people who happened to have been Christians. And there's clearly a certain logic to Hitchens' argument.

But first, let's look at Wilson's rebuttal: the "slacker student" argument suggests that the people who did nasty things in Jesus' name were bad Christians. I'll gladly add my voice to the chorus that wholesale slaughter, torture, deception, and oppression of Muslim forces (wait a second -- am I talking about the Iraq war or the Crusades? Sorry -- got confused for a second) is not really in the spirit of Jesus, and in fact flatly contradicts his teachings. By the same token, however, Buddhists claim that atrocities done in the name of the Buddha are not true to Buddhism; Muslims argue that violence in the name of Allah is not properly Muslim; Marxists argue that Stalin's brutal regime was not really the best example of Marxism, and so on.

In fact, what we're really saying is that, within whatever context we're operating, people who commit atrocities are not good people, which seems kind of redundant. Moreover, even if we might regard these folks as bad Christians, many of them were shining examples of the faith in their day. If we are going to argue that they misunderstood Jesus, then so did the rest of their culture, which was decidedly Christian.

Which brings me back to Hitchens' point. Of course most of the nasty things done in the West were done by Christians, and so were most of the things for which we are grateful, simply because for about a millennium and a half in the West everyone was a Christian by definition. In fact, we can go so far as to say that nearly every contribution to human society was made by a religious person, and nearly every atrocity was committed by a religious person, simply because well over 99% of anyone who has ever lived has been religious in some capacity.

People don't really need religion to be bad or to be good. They will use it, if it's available, but it is not a necessary condition for either extreme. They might need religion for other reasons, or at least like having it around, but religion's contribution to the human experience is something of a red herring, simply by virtue of its universality.

It's a bit like arguing that we should all have our appendixes taken out on the basis that people with them have done bad things, and then having someone make the counterargument that of course many wonderful and brilliant people have had extant appendixes (the proper plural, of course, is "appendices" but this seems confusing when one is speaking of the vestigial organ).

Hitchens should be arguing, if I may be so bold as to make the suggestion, that religion, like the appendix, once served a purpose but is no longer useful, or to push the metaphor further, that it is infected and about rupture, and should be removed forthwith. At this point it would become apparent that Hitchens and Wilson live in two very different conceptual worlds that no amount of mono y mono repartee is going to touch.

They get close to this when Wilson argues the necessity of some kind of transcendent referent to anchor our moral presentiments (my summary, not Wilson's). Hitchens invokes "innate human solidarity" as a basis for ethics. Wilson's challenge on this point is engaging:
"On what basis is innate human solidarity authoritative? If someone rejects innate human solidarity, are they being evil, or are they just a mutation in the inevitable changes that the evolutionary process requires? What is the precise nature of human solidarity? What is easier to read, the book of Romans or innate human solidarity? Are there different denominations that read the book of innate human solidarity differently? Which one is right? Who says?"
This is not as absurd as Wilson wants to make it, but his worldview requires a positive absolute -- Something that explains everything else -- whereas Hitchens' requires a kind of negative absolute -- nothing that can't be verified. What he almost concedes in the wording of his question is that each of these questions can be asked of God, or whatever Transcendent Reality you wish to invoke.

Anchoring our ethical considerations in such a Transcendent Reality only works if our Transcendent Reality happens to the only right one. Where I come from, this is a variant of ethnocentrism. It is attractive to have God on your side in a moral argument, but it simply doesn't hold up: we need God because we can't agree on morality. Fine. But if we can't agree on God, are we really any better off?

[At this point, re-reading this, two things occur to me: one, it's too long, and you've long ago lost interest and are now just being polite. Two, it sounds like I'm saying I could argue atheism better than Hitchens, which seems odd.]

Finally, the very pretext of the debate, "Is Christianity Good for the World?", is unfair to Wilson from the start, and I'll point out that Christianity Today framed the debate in those terms. If Skeptic had offered a similar debate, the savvy Christian polemicist would have declined, or demanded a re-orientation of the terms. Because ostensibly, the argument here is about truth, and not about the pragmatic value of worldviews.

If Christianity (of the variety we are discussing here) is true, does it matter if it is good for the world? Does the truth have to be good for the world? What if the truth is something grim, or something we can't handle, or something utterly bizarre and inexplicable? The terms of the debate presume a kind of pragmatism that is ultimately more congenial to the atheist than the believer.

The world is not going to come to Jesus en masse in a global revival. In most Christian theologies it take some kind of cosmic cataclysm for every knee to bow and every tongue to confess. Even if that kind of Christianity is true, we're not all going to accept it. Likewise atheism. Even if there is absolutely no God, or nothing for which God-language might be an appropriate approximation, we are not all going to throw off the chains of religion and breathe the rarefied air of scientific rationalism. Nor are we going to march into an Aquarian age of spiritual enlightenment.

Most likely, we're going to keep on muddling through, regardless of what may or may not be true. Sometimes we'll find it, sometimes we won't. These questions go all the way down to the ontological bone, and really, they have no answers. The existence of God is not something on which we can hold court. Whatever is, simply is. Neither belief nor unbelief is an inherent form of intellectual sloppiness, though such sloppiness abounds on both sides (and in this essay).

Hitchens' weakness, as is pointed out in more than one review of his work, is that he is picking on what is today a minority view of God, if a powerful voice in American culture and politics, and one that often prides itself in a kind of anti-intellectualism that makes it an easy target. Wilson, to be sure, is a cogent thinker, but doesn't seem able to see past the contours of his own thinking (and neither, to be fair, does Hitchens, and then again, are any of us?), and he's working with material that is a priori flawed from the perspective of scientific rationalism.

Hitchens' straw-man arguments are only justifiable because he didn't have to create the straw man himself -- fundamentalism supplies them in abundance. Knocking them down, ironically, then becomes evidence that the other side "doesn't get it" and serves as proof of human depravity. Or in other words, they take defeat to be victory, which if you think about it (and I'm going to be hopeless misunderstood, I fear) means that at least in this one instance, they manage to be true to the Christian tradition.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Gravity

Gravity is a theory. It is a theory, largely articulated by Newton (though subsequently refined), to account for why things fall, or orbit, or attract one another in ways that cannot be explained by another theory we fondly call magnetism. In other words, it is a story told to make sense of certain observations. Granted, it is a story with rules that govern what can and can't be said, but it is nevertheless a story, and to some extent it is false, or at least incomplete; Einstein would later develop additional theories to account for things that Newton couldn't -- but for big, slow things like bullets, Newton works just fine.

Gravity is such a well-known theory that it serves a kind of shorthand to also describe the kinds of observations the theory is intended to explain. In short, gravity is a theory that explains gravity. Or slightly less short: gravity is both an observable phenomenon and the theory developed to explain that phenomenon. As a phenomenon, gravity does not change. Things fall. Planets attract. Orbit happens. As the theory becomes more subtly nuanced, and may eventually be rolled into a Grand Unified Theory, our little corner of observable reality does not change. Quantum theory suggests that our observation of phenomena plays some kind of role in how those phenomena manifest, but we still can't think our way into defiance of gravity. Show me a person who can levitate, and I'll shave my head and sign up as a disciple.

In the same sense, then: yes, evolution is a theory. It's also -- pay attention, Kansas -- an observable phenomenon. Things aren't the same as they were 5,000 years ago, or (assuming you're not Bishop Usher) 50,000 years ago, or 50 million. Scientists haggle over the details -- far from presenting a unified, conspiratorial front, scientists argue, check each other, challenge prevailing theories and strive for new ways to answer the questions that arise -- but the overall consensus is that thing have changed over time. Yes, religious explanations of the same phenomena get superceded; almost no one argues that Apollo drives a fiery chariot across the sky, and most of us have gotten past the idea that the universe consists of concentric crystal spheres that move according to the proportions of musical intervals.

But only the diehard creationist contends that things just popped into existence, pretty much exactly as they are, within the last 10,000 years. God either has a thing for slow, gradual processes or a bizarre sadistic jones for messing with our heads. (No, wait -- Satan put those fossils in the rock, the diabolical bastard. And here I just thought he was the metaphoric shadow side of monotheism. My bad.) Things went from nothing, or at least a good approximation of nothing, to all of the beauty and splendor and comedy and tragedy we see today. This seems to have taken a long time. Evolution, as I said, is an observable phenomenon. Zeno's arrow might not reach its destination, but personally, I'm still going to duck.

The flip side is that evolution is a theory, or rather, it involves theories, natural selection among them, to explain the observation that things change over time. It's a story we tell to make sense of the world, and to that extent, it is similar to myth, but it follows different rules (the difference between fiction and reality, Mark Twain once quipped, is that fiction has to be believable). Opponents of evolution like to point this out as if that makes it somehow spurious. If it's a theory, they reason, then we can choose not to believe in it. And this it true. We can also choose not to believe in gravity, but then we need a different theory to explain why things fall.

The devil, or at least scientific method, is in details, and of course the more details a theory tries to take into account, the more God gets pushed aside. But this seems to me to only be a problem if you have a surpassingly stupid or petty God, in which case an upgrade might be in order. Whether we like it or not, theology -- that constellation of stories we tell about God -- changes with the times, too, often taking up the slack left by science. It's only when our theology is inflexible, or lacks sense of humor, or can't take a punch, that we run into problems. Unfortunately, that seems to the case most of the time. Sometimes, however, religion and science dovetail nicely: science makes bombs and religion tells us who to drop them on. I feel all warm and happy inside.

Because God refuses to submit to empirical verification, science is inherently agnostic. That is, I submit, simply the way it is, and the way it should be. Without sounding too much like a Deist (which I'm not), if we believe that God is somehow responsible for the whole thing, isn't it somewhat insulting to keep sticking him back in to the equation? That's not only bad science, it strikes me as bad theology. I sincerely hope that people trying to cure AIDS or cancer resist the temptation to believe that God will magically cure people of these diseases, or worse -- that people so afflicted deserve what they get. I'm not saying people can't be healed in marvelous, even miraculous ways, but relying on something like that in scientific research is a dangerous proposition. Trust me on this one; we want our science to be agnostic, no matter what the scientists themselves might believe. Science can't find God, and we should be very, very skeptical of any science that claims to have done so.

It's tempting to claim tolerance and say it really doesn't matter what people believe, that we have the right to believe whatever makes us happy, and this is true after a fashion. But failing to understand gravity can lead to disastrous choices, and failing to understand evolutionary process has led us on a 10,000 year project of trying to be in charge of our own destiny. Like an attempt to jump from a 40-story window without falling, this project is one day going to meet with a tragic end if we continue. In other words, our fallenness (a theological concept) is perfectly explicable in terms of our evolution (a scientific concept). So, too, might a comprehensive response to the human condition be both scientifically informed and theologically robust. These things are not at war in my world, and nobody gets bombed in the process.

Of course many of today's "famous" atheists -- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens -- overstate their case, and commit their share of category errors and performative contradictions (but this is true of all of us, and dismissing a person's argument on that basis is a little like making fun of people because they poop; it's true enough, and smelly, but everyone does it). But look at what they're up against. Using the Bible to prove the Bible is overstating the case, too: there are 500 witnesses to the Resurrection; just ask St. Paul. (If you haven't noticed arguments like this, you either did not grow up evangelical or you have done too many drugs.)

It is fashionable today to say that atheism is just one belief system among many -- or, more daringly, that science itself is -- and then hold rigidly to our favorite dogmas because no one can claim to be right. The irony of this is that it is latched on to by people who would otherwise reject the kind of relativism that makes such a statement possible. Contrary to this trend, I don't think atheism is a belief system. It might be a worldview that does a lot of the same work that belief systems do for others, but I don't think these are the same thing.

Believing in a select constellation of metaphysical truth claims without scientific evidence is not the same kind of thing as refusing to believe any of them without such evidence. Insofar as we accept the terms, atheists and freethinkers are consistent in their assumption that the burden of proof is on the believer. So is the joke, since of course such proof doesn't exist. It can't. Those of us who identify as believers (of whatever stripe) had best learn to live with that. Maybe we can even go so far as to admit that we prefer belief for reasons that are more aesthetic than philosophical, and not scientific at all. Is that so bad? To the charge that belief is subjective, I think we can safely say, "well, duh," and leave it at that. Why do people feel compelled to know less than the atheist in order to justify believing more?

The essence of atheism, as I can understand it, is this: because God is not necessary to explain the universe (and can't we finally concede this? An amazing universe is not intrinsically less explicable than an amazing God who made it all happen), there's no good reason to keep him around. In fact, many would argue (justifiably, I think) that God has just caused trouble. We may disagree with that assessment of things, but it is not stupid or crazy or silly. It is a consistent -- perhaps too consistent -- and viable view of the world. Moreover, when the vast majority of folks we might run into are not atheists but believers of some kind, I'm not sure much breath should be wasted attempting to refute atheism. We might be better off contending for healthier theologies and more helpful ways of talking about God that do less work in proving atheism right.

The problem is not that people might believe the atheist who says there is no God, it's that they have so little reason not to believe the atheist who says that religion is dangerous.