Friday, April 03, 2009

Not by reason alone

I wish to comment upon a piece written by George Williamson, which is a response to a far better one written by Julian Baggini. Most of my words will be devoted to the former, but to give the reader some idea of what Williamson writes about, it helps to quote briefly from the latter. After confessing that he has not read any of the books written by the four horsemen--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens--Baggini remarks:

This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

While admitting that I have only read Dawkins's book, I find myself in agreement with Baggini, at least on this point. Even those who agree with Dawkins may come away from The God Delusion admitting that he is a bit of an ass. Tone is very important in apologetics; while it is utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to be all things to all people and avoid offending entirely, one's audience will be less receptive to one's message if it is delivered with scurrilous condescension. One reason I like Chesterton is that his admonitions are offered with charity, which can only help his apologetics. Perhaps vehemence aids in the selling of books, but it seems less suited to change hearts and minds.

Enough background. Williamson writes:

Perhaps the answer lies in Mr. Baggini’s complaints of the new atheists’ use of reason and evidence. The new atheists “claim reason as a decisive combatant on [their] side only”, and must “recognise the limits of reason” and “acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it”.

That they might claim reason for their own is implausible, considering the diligence and detail in which they have scrutinized the reasoning and evidence of their theist opponents, whose books they appear to have bothered to read, in spite of the likelihood that they have seen much of the same calibre. But the new atheists go on from this examination to assert, on the strength of reason and evidence, that their case is the better supported.

The only problem with the second paragraph is that it isn't even vaguely true. An amateur Thomist, I became quite excited as Dawkins moved to address the arguments of my favorite philosopher. But instead of dismantling the arguments of Aquinas, or even providing an engaging examination, Dawkins squirms away with a rhetorical flourish. As Vox Day points out in The Irrational Atheist:

Dawkins is not actually interested in genuinely considering the question of God’s existence, as evidenced by his cursory perusal of a few of the less complicated arguments for the existence of God. His dismissal of the 3,020 pages of the Summa Theologica in less than three pages is no demonstration of surpassingly brilliant logic; it’s merely waving a dead chicken over the keyboard in an attempt to deceive the ignorant into believing that the argument has been seriously considered and found wanting. This is particularly egregious given that part of those three pages is devoted to a tangent that is entirely unrelated to the quinquae viae. (p.133)

The problem, for Dawkins and others, is that the evidence in favor of a first cause is actually pretty strong. Nonetheless, the God of the philosophers does not appear to be the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob, much to Pascal's chagrin. As St. Thomas asserts, "It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason." Thus, while there is plenty of room for doubt, especially over the claims of specific religions, merely skipping over the arguments in favor of God's existence is intellectually dishonest.

It's also quite disappointing. Dawkins knows a good deal about science, which makes those sections of his book to be fascinating. But if he is representative of the best that can be thrown at the greatest religious thinkers, then atheism, or at least the Dawkins variant, needs to return to the drawing board. In order to write well about a subject, you need to take the time to study it. Contrary to Williamson, they haven't done their homework.

Alas, neither has he:

Believers may be unhappy to hear that religion is behind a lion’s share of the world’s wars, but this doesn’t make it less the truth. Further, not all of the quotes clearly support Mr. Baggini’s claims. He makes much of the ‘arrogance’ of Dawkins’ website slogan, “a clear thinking oasis”, which really seems a bland claim to provide careful, reasoned thought.

First, the minor critique. To insist that one's website is an oasis of clear thinking implies that most of one's surroundings are muddle headed desert. Certainly, both the Internet and the culture at large give ample evidence of muddle-headedness. But to insist that Dawkins can provide one of perhaps only a few realms in which weary travelers may parch their intellectual thirst is a bit much.

Second, although Webster in unable to aid in quantifying "a lion's share", Williamson is revealing his ignorance when he insists that religion has been the cause of so many wars. As Vox points out, religion can only be blamed for 6.92 percent of those chronicled in the Encyclopedia of Wars. (ibid. p.104) That's not a very hungry lion.

Debunking the "religion is the cause of war" canard is important for a number of reasons. To start with the most apparent: if a large majority of wars are caused for other reasons, apostasy isn't likely to prove very beneficial at reducing the body bags produced by aggressive leaders of men. But this erroneous assertion also calls into question a good deal of the thought of Dawkins and company. To be so spectacularly wrong about the causes of war one needs to be fairly ignorant of history, which is regrettably resplendent with bloodshed; to attribute the cause of war to religion one must know very little of what the latter entails. But if an atheist doesn't know very much about religion, any criticism he offers on the topic is bound to miss its aim.

It is perhaps too much to indict atheists for making this mistake. On the other hand, if reason is to be one's god, one should serve her well and faithfully. For this is the crux of the argument Dawkins makes. He writes a good deal about the disutility of religion, but if religion, or at least one of them--however malevolent--was backed up by the evidence, we would be obligated to adhere to it. For the philosopher, the utility of religion may hold academic interest, but it holds no sway over his mind, which must be moved by reason alone. In short, Richard Dawkins is an atheist for the simple and sensible readon that he believes that God does not exist. It follows that the religions of the world are based on deceptions and lies; worse, by insisting that man believe in things which are clearly nonsensical, they prevent his higher faculties from guiding him rightly.

Yet as Baggini points out:

You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

The discussion of religion and war suggests some validity to Baggini's second option. Atheists too can be blinded by "psychological delusion". This observation is instructive, but it is also damaging. If man is not wholly reasonable and rational, attempting to construct a system built wholly on reason is bound to fail. Religion, in its better moments, has traditionally served to aid reason by offering man a good at which to aim, as well as motive for the attempt. There may be something which will provide the same--perhaps better--support which religion offered, but leaving a void in its place is most unreasonable.

This is a lesson humanity should have learned, and one which me might yet learn if we study history closely. After all, the philosophes of the enlightenment voiced many of the same arguments as the four horsemen--and with more wit and erudition. In some respects, Jean Meslier wrote The God Delusion almost three hundred years before Dawkins; even the tone is similar. Writing in 1965, and thus after Bertrand Russell penned Why I Am Not a Christian, Will and Ariel Durant call Meslier's Testament, "the most complete antireligious declaration that even this age would ever know." (The Age of Voltaire, p.617)

Proponents of unaided reason would do well to study the lessons of their intellectual predecessors, laid out in the next two volumes of the masterful study conducted by the Durants. The bloody revolution in France was but one possible outcome of a society attempting to divorce itself from religion; the gulags of the Soviets and the gas chambers of the National Socialists were but others. Since no such attempts have yet proven worthy of our approbation, we should be cautious about expecting a departure from the past in our future experiments sans religion.

I'll allow the Durants, nonbelievers, the the last word. Hear Pope Benedict XIV speaking--not really of course--to Voltaire:

We are convinced -- and the world is returning to us because it is learning -- that no moral code of confessedly human origin will be sufficiently impressive to control the unsocial impulses of the natural man. Our people are held up in their moral life -- though this is uncongenial to the flesh -- by a moral code taught them in their formative childhood as part of their religion, and as the word not of man but of God. You wish to keep the morality and discard the theology; but it is the theology that makes the morality sink into the soul. We must make the moral code an inseparable part of that religious belief, which is man’s most precious possession; for only through such belief does life acquire a meaning and a dignity that can support and ennoble our existence. (ibid. p. 791)

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