Monday, March 17, 2008

Re: Faith and "logic" (part I)

The same friend writes back. I will henceforth speak directly to him, though the rest of you are more than welcome to listen in.

First, I wish to thank you for participating in what has been, until now at least, a rather civilized discussion. I hope that we can continue charitably.

My attitude toward religion is animated by a tension between, on the one hand, my belief that most theological claims are nonsense, with the majority of the remainder flat-out wrong, and, on the other hand, my belief that it has been in the media of religious thought and practice that humankind has, for many centuries, reflected upon and articulated its highest ideals and most noble aspirations. So, whatever is to be made of this, at least it cannot be said that I don't take the claims of religion seriously, in my own idiosyncratic way.

And yet you recognize its utility, which is just one reason I'm more than happy to continue the conversation. The atheist Camille Paglia captured it well, I think, when she observed that if God doesn't exist, he's mankind's best idea. While I'd be interested to know which claims you find to be "nonsense", it might be more instructive, and also less exhausting, if you could point to anything which you find to make at least some sense. I'm not certain what it would contribute, save that it might palliate my curiosity.

First you cite Chesterton to the effect that thought without religious faith leads to a kind of nihilistic skepticism. But this, I would contend, is simply false.

Since I quoted briefly and a bit out of context, some clarification is needed. Chesterton would assert that atheism leads oftener to paganism. We see this, to an extent, in increasingly post-Christian Europe, though the migrating Muslim hordes might well ensure that many choose the crescent over neo-paganism.

However, you are right in suspecting that I would assert that rationally atheism should end in nihilistic skepticism. Now, Aquinas held man to be a rational animal, even as he lamented that, because of sin, most lived according to the senses. Yet perhaps Heinlein's verdict that man is a rationalizing creature rather than a rational one is most fitting. The reason, I would propose, why atheism so seldom ends in nihilistic skepticism is that man is seldom rational.

There are plenty of atheists and other non-Catholics who enjoy fulfilling lives and lucid ethical relations with their communities. It would have to be shown that these people fail in some crucial way to realize the logic inherent in their position.

Perhaps some further clarification is in order. Catholics view other religions as inherently heretical, which means that they are not imbued with the full sense of Truth, which we profess was revealed in the person of Christ Jesus and which is ever held by the Church. This implies that other churches are in possession of partial truths. Thus, while the Muslim lacks the truth of the incarnation, he is behaving rationally in serving his God. The Protestants are similarly bereft of the transubstantiated Eucharist, but are not behaving irrationally when they refrain from murder. Accepting the premises--that God exists, and that He has offered some commands which must be obeyed--the religious individual is behaving rationally.

The same does not apply to the atheist. Now, I'm not insisting that the atheist should go out and commit murders and rob liquor stores; nor am I insisting that atheists cannot be more moral than religious individuals. However, if you are having "lucid ethical relations", I cannot see how they can be described as rational. As Vox Day puts it:

So the atheist seeks to live by the dominant morality whenever it is convenient for him, and there are even those who, despite their faithlessness, do a better job of living by the tenets of religion than those who actually subscribe to them. But even the most admirable of atheists is nothing more than a moral parasite, living his life based on borrowed ethics. This is why, when pressed, the atheist will often attempt to hide his lack of conviction in his own beliefs behind some poorly formulated utilitarianism, or argue that he acts out of altruistic self-interest. But this is only post-facto rationalization, not reason or rational behavior. - The Irrational Atheist, p. 263

Since you are a student of philosophy, perhaps you can correct my conception. But if you are able to do so, you had best forgo your schooling to publish the book. Serving a centuries old dilemma would be a considerable achievement--and on a Monday!

If I have this right, the atheist's existence is fundamentally absurd. The logical ramifications have had trouble penetrating my theistic mind, but it seems to me that this would nullify any need for ethics based solely in rationality.

The Catholic apologist would then have to present additional evidence and further argument to establish Catholic thought as not only immune to these self-destructive tendencies, but also as the (unique?) solution to the challenges they pose.

I think it's been done. Do you have the time to read 2000 years worth of thinking?

Establishing this would take several volumes, but if I may use hints by way of proof, it is telling that, while the doctrine of infallibility wasn't formally declared until 1870, no pope has ever contradicted another while speaking when infallibility applies. The existence of a two thousand year old institution can not easily be explained; Augustine was using the existence of the Church as proof of its claims a mere four centuries after the Resurrection. How much more inexplicable is the Church's existence two millennia after God became Man! To exist for so long without contradiction is beyond implausible: it is miraculous.

As for the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, I shall merely quote the apostate James Joyce. After explaining his rejection of Catholicism, he was was then asked if he would become protestant. He responded: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" If the Church does not have truth, then who, pray tell, does? To whom Lord shall we go?

Your second defense invokes miracles as evidence for the truth of Catholicism.

I'm not arguing here for the truth of Catholicism so much as the existence of the supernatural. In addition, it suggests that, for a lot of people, the evidence points to the existence of God, whether than away from Him.

I find this unsatisfactory for a lot of reasons. Many religions circulate stories about the supernatural to support the truths of their various, incompatible doctrines.

Definitely. But that doesn't mean all of them are wrong. I hate to appeal to the mob, but the prevalence of some form of religion in every civilization until our present enlightened time may suggest something more than mere utility.

We can get into a doctrinal debate if you wish, but while my knowledge of Catholicism is fairly extensive, I'm far less schooled in faiths not my own. It's an oversight I hope to correct in due time.

Certain social situations and psychological conditions provide ample incentives for more or less self-conscious confabulation: unique contact with the divine exercises a powerful hold on the human imagination, and the idea promises considerable power to those with the rhetorical zeal to make their case.

A grumpy old peasant who sees something in the sky might be self-consciously conflabulating himself--though I note that we'd have no doubt believing him if he were the sole witness to a murder--but 70,000 people suffering mass delusion is even more preposterous than the idea of the sun dancing in the heavens.

I also think you tremendously overstate the power religion holds. The Catholic Church is so powerful that 96% of adult American Catholics ignore her teaching on birth control. And yet, no inquisition.

Being religious myself, I think a large number of people believe in a religion because they think it true. There are others who cling due to cultural inertia or perhaps because they fear trying to find something else, but the latter two aren't the sort which hold a church together for centuries upon centuries.

It is not reasonable to attribute events to divine agency without compelling, independent reasons to believe in such an agent.

But sometimes crying miracle is the most reasonable thing to do. Not all "miracles" are the work of the Almighty of course, which is just one reason the Church is so very careful in confirming that a miracle has taken place.

We have beaten Fatima to death, so perhaps you could offer an explanation for the existence of the Catholic Church, if not by divine agent. If Christ was not who He said He was, then how did a small Jewish cult become such a force in human history?

My mind is a bit shot, so I'll finish this tomorrow. Interestingly enough, tonight's reading in The Imitation of Christ concerns avoiding superfluous words. Oh dear.


PJ said...

All right, this is a lot to respond to, but I'll try to put something together for tonight or tomorrow. To this end, it would be great if you could sum up your main points in the second part of your response.

Right now it looks like what would be most helpful for me to do is (1) to offer some kind of naturalistic account for the existence of religion, (2) to provide some examples of what I think Christianity gets right and wrong, and (3) to sketch a secular ethics.

Just one point of clarification in the meanwhile: where I said that "certain social situations and psychological conditions provide ample incentives for more or less self-conscious confabulation" I should have written "conscious or unconscious confabulation." I'm happy to believe that most people are sincere in their accounts of the miraculous. It's just that I suspect their imaginations are rather more active than they realize.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you might peruse this page:

Even if someone's imagination is particularly active, it takes a similarly active imagination in many more people to get the 'miracle' stamp of approval. Though, regardless of having to convince the investigators, 70,000 people having identically active imaginations and identically dry clothes does seem a little suspect....

Anonymous said...

and if you're bored: