Monday Musing: Taking Sides in the Recent Religion Debates

Look, no matter whether you are religious or an atheist or some other thing, no matter what you believe, I expect you’ll agree with me about the importance of this question: why do so many people believe the wrong thing? The reason I can be fairly sure that this is a question which has deep meaning for you, as well as for me, is that none of even the religions with the greatest number of adherents (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) comprises anything even close to a majority of the world’s human beings (and atheists, of course, are no more than a drop in the bucket of humanity). So, as long as you have some sense of curiosity about other humans, you probably wonder why most people don’t share your correct beliefs. (And this is not even to take into account the many rifts within each religion: Catholic v. Protestant, Shia v. Sunni, etc.) Atheists and the faithful are alike in this: they all hope, sometimes rather desperately, that one day everyone will share their own salutary views. But we’ll come back to this question a little later.

HarrisDawDennett01_3Today, I would just like to set down a few loosely related observations about the debates that have recently raged around the publication of several very high-profile books attacking religion. The most prominent of these have been Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, as well as his Letter to a Christian Nation. (Yes, I’ve read all of them.) What has been remarkable to me is the degree of harshness of the polemic that has been directed at these books by eminent intellectuals as well as journalists and laypeople. Many of these criticisms seem to me to fall roughly into three broad categories, each of which I’d like to examine a little more below:

  1. These views of religion themselves exhibit a sort of fervid faith (in rationality, in science, etc.).
  2. These are theologically naive views of religion from individuals unqualified to examine it.
  3. These views of religion miss the important political underpinnings of recent religious resurgence.


Rationality as a Sort of Religion

This is perhaps the least damaging of the objections but, not only is it very common, it betrays a very basic philosophical confusion endemic to our postmodern era which I want to try and dispel here. But, first, a quick example of what I am talking about taken from the comments section of a post right here on 3QD about the Harris/Sullivan debate on religion:

…there are several unexamined “faiths” at the bottom of Harris’s rationalism. That the world is rational, for one thing. That ontology and epistemology overlap. That all that is “real” is material, and vice versa. That a thing can be known from the sum of its parts. And many more.

Reason works very well once it has been lifted up to a functional level by foundational assumptions. To attribute the “rationalist” perspective to someone like Harris, allows us to make these assumptions transparent, which goes a long way toward making someone like Andrew Sullivan look awfully silly. It’s a charlatan’s game, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

–Deets, April 5, 2007

Here’s the foundational problem that Deets brings up, stated simply: there is no neutral perspective from which science or even rationality itself can be defended or deemed superior to anything else. This is uninterestingly and tautologically true (but leads to much mischief!), as one must be scientific, or at least rational, to show anything at all. In other words, it is not possible to convince anyone of the truth of anything, unless they share certain background beliefs. This means that if someone tells you that AIDS is caused, not by the HIV virus, but by evil spirits whom we must appease by ritually sacrificing cats, for example, there is no way to convince them otherwise without using science, and presumably, a belief in the overall correctness of the scientific method is not something that one shares with one’s interlocutor in this case. So Deets is technically correct in pointing out the “foundational assumptions” here, but there is no need for the sophomoric conclusion that this makes Harris’s arguments a “charlatan’s game.” Indeed, Deets’s line of reasoning could be used to make any- and everything a charlatan’s game. The Earth is not flat, but round, I say. Nope, says Deets, this requires an unwarranted assumption of scientific method. Potassium cyanide is a poison, I say. Maybe, maybe not, says Deets. Sodium metal and chlorine gas can combine to form table salt, say I. I don’t think so, says Deets. I nervously ask, does the sun rise in the east? Says Deets (and I ain’t makin’ this up!):

As you well know, the sun only “rises” in the “East” … from a particular perspective, which our culture long ago rejected as illusory. There is no East, and there is no rising.

–Deets, April 6, 2007

What can one say to Deets? Nothing. One can’t say anything because if Deets is responding in this way, then one does not share enough beliefs with Deets to make communication with him (or her) possible. After all, even just using language to communicate requires that the other agree on what “sodium” is, what “chlorine” is, and even what “is” is. Presuming that we agree on what all these things are, I could try to show Deets that I can repeatedly bring sodium and chlorine together and reliably end up with salt, but that would assume that Deets is impressed with the scientific method, an assumption which I am not allowed to make. (Of course, context is always important to meaning, and therefore to truth, so of course there are contexts in which “The Earth is flat” will be true and others where “The Earth is round” will seem a gross over-simplification or false, which is why there is always an element of good faith in communication.) There is really no point in having such a conversation. There is, literally, nothing one could say. (Okay, I apologize to the real-life Deets for turning him/her into a bit of a caricature for the purposes of my argument, but this really is the outcome of his/her line of thinking.)

The good news is that as human beings we share a huge set of background experiences and beliefs that do make communication possible, and we do agree on many things, and most of us can talk to each other. Even Deets actually has rationality in plentiful supply in his (or her) comments, and carefully follows accepted lines of reasoning in constructing clever arguments. Technical and foundational issues in epistemology or even ontology needn’t keep us from making everyday judgments of truth about all sorts of matters, including whether, say, smoking is bad for one’s health, or whether HIV causes AIDS or evil cat-loving (or hating?) spirits do. (One of the things that human beings all over the planet agree on to a remarkable degree, is science itself. It is a truly shocking–and pleasing–thing to me, that for the most part, scientists in Japan, Malawi, Pakistan, Sweden and Indonesia essentially agree on a huge volume of knowledge and even the methods by which it is produced.) So what is the point of debate about anything, you might ask. It is this: what our project becomes, at least with those people with whom we share a basic understanding of logic and enough background beliefs about the world to be able to assert things like “sodium metal and chlorine gas can combine to form table salt” and have them assent, is an attempt to convince them of something by getting them to be coherent about their beliefs. So if someone says “I agree that sodium and chlorine combine to form salt, but I don’t believe that hydrogen and oxygen gases can be combined to produce water,” I can perhaps try to show that the same beliefs this person shares with me which lead her to believe that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, also entail that hydrogen and oxygen can combine to produce water. In other words, all of us share so large a number of beliefs, that it is not possible to be aware of all the logically possible statements that they entail, so the purpose of argument and debate is (often) to show someone that they are holding contradictory beliefs, one of which should be given up; this is how, despite Deets’s reservations, it is possible to have useful discussion.

You might by now have lost track of what this has to do with the “rationality as a sort of religion” objection. What I’ve tried to explain is that while it is logically true that certain assumptions of rationality or even agreement with the methods of science, etc., need to be made, these are not unreasonable assumptions. It is perfectly legitimate of Harris or Dawkins or Dennett to make an argument of the following sort to a religious person, “Since you agree that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, and you agree that X, and you agree that Y, and you agree that Z, … and you agree that such and such is a good method of deciding these things, and this thing, and that thing, and… then you should also agree that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.” What if they don’t agree that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, or even that the sun rises in the east? In that case, yes, there isn’t much to say.


Theologically Naive Examinations of Religion

This, for some reason, is the objection most dear to the more sophisticated critics of Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris. There are two related ideas here: there is the standard cheap-shot of “What made X an expert in Y?” (As if only astrologists should ever be allowed to judge the claims of astrology!) And then there is the more credible, at least at first blush, idea that important and serious theological ideas and arguments have been completely ignored by these writers. Once again, first some examples. Here’s the very first paragraph of renowned Marxist-and-psychoanalytic-literary-theorist Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins (gently entitled “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching“) in the London Review of Books:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Much of the Eagleton review continues in this vein, getting more hysterical, if anything:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?

And this is H. Allen Orr, also reviewing Dawkins, in the New York Review of Books:

…The God Delusion [is] a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

These gentlemen do protest far too much, but before I get to them let me say another thing: the problem with arguing with a religious person, say a Christian, or to be even more specific, say a Catholic, is that you have no idea what she actually believes. If I tell you that I believe science is correct, you can be pretty sure about a lot of my very detailed beliefs. You can be sure, just to beat this example to death, that I believe that sodium and chlorine can combine to form table salt. You know that I believe that the Earth is close to four billion years old, that the sun is a star, etc., etc. You can be fairly certain that I don’t pick and choose my beliefs in some arbitrary fashion: “Yes, sodium is real, but uranium is just a figure of speech!” On the contrary, as soon as one begins to corner a religious person about one of their more egregiously silly beliefs, they weasel out with some version of “Oh, but I don’t take that literally!” Transubstantiation may be literally true to some, and only a metaphor to other Catholics. Same with pretty much everything, so it is just not possible to examine every way to conceptualize even just the concept of God, which is just one of the things that theology has spent centuries doing. Religious concepts tend to be slippery as they need not cohere even with each other, much less experience, or dare-I-say-it, reality. The constraints (if any) on how one conceptualizes God, or the afterlife, or hell, or sin, are very loose. No one can be expected to argue with every single one of these conceptions that an army of theologians may have produced over millenia.

But maybe they have produced some particularly significant arguments or ideas worth grappling with. Yeah, sure, maybe they have. What are they? It is remarkable that for all the times this objection, that writers such as Dennett and Dawkins and Harris are ignoring sophisticated theologians, is raised, not a single actual idea or argument due to these theologians is ever mentioned. Why not just say, Mr. Eagleton, what exactly in Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eriugena, Rahner, and Moltmann refutes Dawkins’s arguments? Unless this is an empty and desperate display of erudition, why not bring up how these subtle examinations of grace and hope might confute Dawkins? Orr can scarcely believe that Dawkins has written a whole book about religion without bringing up William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example. Well, Professor Orr, he chose not to, but you are certainly free to show us how James and Wittgenstein weaken Dawkins’s case. Why don’t you? No, really, just think about it: suppose you are trying to argue that astrology is nonsense, and someone keeps piping up that you haven’t read this or that work by this or that astrologer (especially if there are millenia worth of output from “astrologians”). What will you say? I would say, you bring it up. Show me how what someone wrote weakens my case.


It’s All About the Politics, Stupid

Actually, this is the only objection to Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris to which I am at least somewhat sympathetic. Roughly, it is really a set of related ideas which go something like this:

  1. I am smart and well-educated enough to know what you are trying to tell me about religion.
  2. Only people like me will read your book, and you are not telling us anything new, so at the least, your book is boring.
  3. The only reason you have written this book now, is that many in the West are fearful of a resurgence of a highly politicized, dangerous, terroristic, and fundamentalist Islam and the infamously imminent “clash of civilizations”, and this is therefore an opportune time to attack religion in general and sell books.
  4. Your examination of religion ignores the victory in the West of an economic system which has resulted in such a skewed distribution of not only wealth, but even opportunity for education, access to healthcare, etc., that to ease their noisy lives of desperation, more and more people turn for solace to religion.
  5. And similarly, your focus on the violent and evil acts of a minority of religious extremists, for example, in the Islamic world, with no mention of the systematic political and economic violence done to their societies in the name of strategic considerations, oil, spreading the shining light of democracy, etc., allows your readers (at least the less religious ones) in the West to ignore these latter political considerations and blame everything bad happening in, for example, the middle-east, on the evil irrationality of religion. [This doesn’t apply only to the middle-east or Islam, but anywhere there is religious conflict. The idea is that even if religion were to disappear, there are underlying political injustices that would need to be addressed, and too great a focus on religion allows us to ignore these.]

I do not agree with items 1, 2, or 3 of this list, but feel that there is something to the last two. The first step is wrong because there is much new material in these books (more on that below), and there are new ways of thinking about familiar problems. The second step is clearly not true, as the books have been on best-seller lists and it is clear that a lot of religious people have read them, to their benefit (even if not with full agreement) I am sure. The third step is just silliness, and anytime is a good time to fight irrationality! As for steps four and five, although one cannot dictate to people what their books should be about, given the demographics of religion (at least in America) and the overall salience of religion in the current geopolitical mess, one wishes that these authors would have had something to say about the factors that have produced a resurgence of such hypocrisies as evangelical Christianity, such odious forms of faith as jihadist-fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam, etc., or at the very least acknowledged that religion does not exist in a vacuum, but is shaped and exploited in reaction to political and other realities. Their not addressing this at all leaves one with the uneasy feeling that an elephant in the room has been ignored.


So, we come back now to the question with which I started these brief observations: why are so many people wrong? We tend to agree with humans everywhere about most things, after all. This is not just true in the realm of knowledge (because of which science is the same everywhere, as I mentioned earlier), but the other two classical realms as well: the moral and the aesthetic. Leaving religion aside, we find the same things morally repugnant: incest, murder, rape, dishonesty, theft, etc., and we even find the same things beautiful: sunsets, poetry, music, Angelina Jolie, whatever. Why then is religion the exception? Well, because religion can be seen as just one more phenomenon in the natural world, this, I believe, is properly a scientific question, and the greatest value of the books I have been discussing has, at least for me, been to present new scientific work in anthropology, in psychology, in neuroscience, and many other fields, which bears on this question and is suggestive of possible answers. I wrote a short account giving a flavor of some of these developments here, if you are interested.

My previous Monday Musings can be seen here.

UPDATE: In all fairness to Deets, he has a post at his own blog about his views on all this here.