posted on 09.18.2006 at 5:34 PM
Something is definitely going on here.
The latest piece of evidence I have collected that the argument against God is being treated with a new respect is a review-essay in Newsweek by Jerry Adler. Adler is dealing with a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, along with a not-so-new book by Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and a forthcoming book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. What's remarkable, for someone who has spent some decades following American journalism, is that while Adler quibbles a bit, he never dismisses the Harris-Dennett-Dawkins point of view.
Religion and Science -- 3
posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM
Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.
Gould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:
the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.
So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.
Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?
posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM
A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:
'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'
In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."
This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:
'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'
Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.
posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM
The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:
Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."
Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:
Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.
New Genes -- I
posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM
The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)
We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.
This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.
Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction
posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.
Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.
Instead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:
"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"
So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.
Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?
Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?
posted on 03.01.2006 at 8:51 PM
Just one more post coming on them:
Before we get, belatedly, to her:
posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM
Now along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:
1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.
Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:
"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."
My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.
Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume
posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM
Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.
This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.
Wieseltier' on Dennett II: Religion and Love
posted on 02.22.2006 at 1:16 PM
Here's something I find hard and interesting to think through. It is an analogy that is never fully made in Leon Wieseltier's surprisingly scatter-shot and shrill attack on Daniel Dennett's new book. The analogy is between religion and love.
Dennett has tried to explain why human societies end up believing in supernatural beings. We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love. (Here I would agree, in other words, with Wieseltier that a merely evolutionary or scientific explanation would fail to capture the whole messy, glorious, infuriating thing.) Do the power, beauty and reality of religion survive, similarly unscathed, attempts to give the causes of religion?
They probably do, don't they? Religion -- as emotion: as piety, awe, humility, sense of the sacred or sublime -- can certainly grip and can certainly be, in its way, lovely. Such responses, even a firm unbeliever would have to acknowledge, are real.
The problem, I think, is that religion wants to be more than just a pretty and deep emotion. It wants to have its view of the universe accepted as fact, just as some lovers insist in trying to persuade us that their beloved really is the most attractive or the only one for them. And here we can rebut with facts: "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Torah since his death is described in them" or "You said the same about your previous lover." Or we might note the factors that have led to the erroneous assertions -- their causes: "False ascriptions of authorship are characteristic of the oral tradition" or "Of course this feels special; you hadn't dated anyone for two years."
Religion also wants to be taken seriously as philosophy. This is what Wieseltier, in his clumsy way, seems to be claiming for it. In which case, we have a right to question biases, premises, groundings, internal consistency, etc. And I fear that by serious philosophic, not poetic, standards the treatises of starry-eyed prophets do not stand up much better than the treatises of starry-eyed lovers.
Science and Religion
posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM
Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:
All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?
Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?
posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM
It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending in his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:
"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."
It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?
Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?
Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)
posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM
A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."
This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.
Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:
"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."
Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?
Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." A "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?
And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.
The Causes of Belief
posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM
In a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:
"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."
But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.
One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.
Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.
Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.
(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)
posted on 01.29.2006 at 12:12 PM
Old question. And, of course, just asking it is a step in the direction of disbelief. The sophist Prodicus, for example, believed gods were a way of explaining natural phenomena. That's different than saying gods do explain natural phenomena.
Discussions of why we have gods can get, I've found, a bit testy. Beliefs in the causes of religions occasionally seem to be held with the intensity of beliefs in religions: "No, that's not it! It is to deal with death!"
The philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book out on this subject. Here's the first explanation for religion he gives, in a New York Times Magazine interview:
"We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof."
That, after reading a book by Scott Atran, is the first explanation I would give. But the point, I guess, is that there is more than one reason why so much of humankind is convinced of the existence of never-quite-seen supernatural entities.
Flurry of Freethinking
posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM
Golden ages of disbelief?
** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).
** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).
And...possibly...now...when orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.