Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The New God Debate – Why bother?

Note: This is a work-in-progress I started this morning.

Over the course of the last couple centuries, the subject of the existence of God has periodically emerged as a popular discussion topic in the public marketplace of ideas. Recent books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens1 seem to indicate that now is just such a time – atheism is making another go at popularity and perhaps even some cultural acceptance in the generally born-again United States.

While the “Four Horsemen” (as the authors above have been dubbed) have participated in numerous debates during their respective book tours, the topic is also being taken up in the emerging online community, and battle lines have certainly been drawn. YouTube, once a place useful only for finding hilarious videos of chimpanzees riding Segways, now is the medium of choice for a growing number of video-bloggers, who record videos of themselves speaking into a webcams and taking on whatever topic they feel passionate about (or, often, simply rambling incoherently). YouTube allows not only text commenting on uploaded videos, but it also allows users to “respond” to videos with videos of their own, which seems, in some cases, to create a “discussion” not unlike a formal debate.

Young people (mostly in their early 20s, apparently) aren't just watching debates, they're joining in. This may be a counterbalance to the more stupefying general effects of “social networking” sites, even if it still represents only a tiny minority of Internet usage among 16- to 30-year-olds.

That's a question that can be left for social researchers for the moment. My interest at the moment is in the nature of the debate itself. In many cases, whether the topic is on the existence of God or the soundness of the theory of evolution by natural selection, believers will attempt to appeal – at least temporarily – to logic or science (or, at least what sounds like science). While this makes a certain amount of sense (there has to be at least some agreement on terminology), it remains confusing to me why believers would agree to join the debate to begin with – at least in many cases.

The exercise of proving the existence of God stretches back through the history of philosophy (which in itself may indicate a rather long history of nascent atheism, even in the time of Thomas Aquinas, whose “five proofs” in the Summa Theologica seem to be in answer to some skeptical objections to the existence of God). But why engage the debate? Why construct proofs? Holy books extol the use of faith, not reason, as a means to know God and his will. Having proof positive of either of those would tend to decrease the amount of faith – that is, belief without the support of evidence – required.

It's worth pointing out the distinctions between different understandings of the word “atheism,” of which there are at least two. The first is the strict etymology of the word, a-theist, or “not theist.” Problematically, the “ism” at the end creates the perception that is the second understanding of the word, that “atheism” is a dogmatic and religious set of beliefs. While this dogmatic version of atheism may indeed exist, it isn't the variety being championed by the likes of Harris or Dawkins, and it may be dismissed out of hand as childish religious anarchism or rebellion. Rather, the “new atheism” (and the old David Hume variety as well) is a rejection of the idea of dogma, by which I mean “rules for which there is no explanation given and which must be accepted on faith.” Thus, “dogmatic” atheism is just as repugnant to the first type of atheist as any religion.2

Douglas Adams, in his usual hilarious style, makes an interesting point in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, during a brief side discussion on the marvel of the Babel fish - a small fish that a person can place in his ear in order to understand any alien language:

Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful [as the Babel fish] could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn't thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

What Adams was really illustrating here was the characteristic ridiculousness of logical debates over the existence of God, but the point about faith is important, too. Ultimately, religious belief is, by definition, unprovable. It's belief without evidence – that's why it's called faith.

This is one reason it's so strange to see fundamentalist Christians attempting to assume the auspices of science in proving their “Young Earth” creationism, which holds that the Earth (and universe) are about 6,000 years old and were created in six 24-hour days, as per a literal reading of the book of Genesis. I recently watched an interview of a Dr. Georgia Purdom, who apparently holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State University and now works as a “researcher” at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. During the interview, Purdom said she was looking into the way that bacteria went from benign to “pathogenic,” since this “must have happened after the fall of Adam.”3

Could there be a more farcical parody of real scientific research? Since Dr. Purdom is willing to accept the literal truth of Genesis, what's there to puzzle out? Clearly, if bacteria had to be benign in Eden and now are “bad” because of Adam's sin, then God made it happen, right? Nobody needs a Ph.D. to make that assertion – it's a statement of faith! For some reason, though, the so-called “Young Earth” creationists feel the need to dress up their religious beliefs with the trappings of rational inquiry. But since their starting point is a statement of faith, their attempts at “science” are merely so much pretension – and not very convincing pretension at that. So why the insistence on a “Christian” science?

I'm guessing here, but it probably has to do with the fact that Christianity's explanatory power has necessarily diminished as humanity has gained a better natural understanding of the world and its workings. Science as an enterprise necessarily involves a threat to anyone who believes strongly that scriptures must contain the final answers to any questions that can be posed about the world. Since imprisoning and torturing troublesome scientists has gone out of vogue, a new strategy is required for fundamentalists – and today, that strategy seems to be writing off evolution by natural selection as merely another pseudo-religious belief system (hence the insistence on the term “Darwinism”) and restating their own beliefs in the language of science. This is what has led to trials like Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, or the Texas Board of Education's vote to allow teachers to raise doubts about the validity of the theory of evolution in biology classrooms.

What's sad about this is that efforts to dress religious belief in the language and trappings of scientific inquiry always make the believers come off looking ridiculous – which in this case they certainly are. But they will presumably continue to quixotically use scientific language and engage in “debate,” perhaps only to validate their beliefs to themselves. To do this is to misunderstand the difference between the claims made by religion and those made by science. It's not bringing a knife to a gun fight – it's bringing a carrot to a gun fight so as to make a salad.

Interestingly enough, Christian thinkers as far back as St. Augustine have recommended against a dogmatic and literal reading of Genesis. Here is an oft-cited example, which Augustine penned in A.D. 408:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.4

I've found that intellectually honest Christians (who tend not to be fundamentalist) are much more comfortable with the idea of evolution, and instead are interested in discussing the nature of the beginning of the universe, which is a much more appropriate conversation to have. They realize that Darwin's evolutionary theory makes no claims about the beginnings or nature of the universe itself, and that answers to what Adams might have called the “ultimate questions” are to be sought elsewhere. This, however, is not a topic of biology, but of metaphysics and ontology. The existence of God may be controversial, but Darwin's On the Origin of Species is not.


1 Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, The God Delusion, and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, respectively. Witness also the innumerable rebuttals to these works published in their wake, and my point is more or less made.

2 Indeed, some among the “new atheists” have sought to draw that distinction by discouraging the use of the word “atheist” and in some cases making their own suggestions. I count myself alongside Hitchens, who says he “cringes” at the label bright that Dennett and Dawkins have adopted (as in, “We are brights”). I think “rationalism” is probably a better term.

3 Watch the debate here.

4 The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 1:19–20 [A.D. 408]. Later in the same text, Augustine goes on to say, “Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.” Writing more than a thousand years before Martin Luther was born, Augustine would be viewed by today's creationists as “too liberal.”


samrocha said...

Bravo! I'm on your team. And I am a theist. I do not like, however, that your fancy text with footnotes makes me look like a second grader.

One quibble: "...Christianity's explanatory power has necessarily diminished as humanity has gained a better natural understanding of the world and its workings." is only true if we understand it as something beyond (in a bad way) the normative ontological struggle you aptly assigned to Darwin. But if it offer explanations that are not necessarily mystical in nature, in that they exist as a matter of fact in the world of consciousness, then, it may have stronger answers now than ever...

Liked this very much. Very catholic.

brogonzo said...

Yeah, I'm re-working that paragraph. What I meant was that Christianity (and religion writ large) is less able to explain (through scriptural accounts of creation) the natural, physical world.

And the footnotes are surprisingly easy to transfer from OpenOffice :)

brogonzo said...

Scratch that, they're actually a pain in the ass to make work right. I had to go fiddle with the HTML for them to actually link back and forth to the right page -- they had initially been linking to the "edit post" function in Blogger. Anyway, they're pretentious and important-looking, so I'm keeping them in.

samrocha said...

Understood. Writ small or large is a perfect way to describe our linguistic quibble...

samrocha said...

One more thing, Pascal offers an intermediary and nuanced position in this debate... I would quote stuff, but, for me, its the essence of the entire Pensees.

Rocco said...

As I said in private, and we agreed is a bit outside of your point, it's just as confusing to me why atheists put so much effort into disproving the existence of God. (I think though it would be more appropriate to label folks who do as "anti"-theist rather than atheist.) This is just as much of a fool's errand as proving the existence of God through empirical evidence. So, why bother?

brogonzo said...

It is logically impossible to "prove" the non-existence of God. I think the upswing in atheist "activism" has been something of a reaction to the school board cases I mentioned and the persistence in attempts to get the Ten Commandments post in courthouses. Resentment toward these, I would guess, just eventually reached a critical mass.