bookmark_border“Power Lab” Bible School

While walking around my neighborhood, I noticed a large sign on the lawn of a minister’s house. It said “Power Lab,” with background iconography of an atom and a test tube. But it also said “Discovering Jesus’ Miraculous Power” and “Vacation Bible School.” I googled the lot when I got home. Apparently, you can buy a kit for this in Christian stores. And I noticed a good number of churches, of all sorts of denominations, have web pages up for this as their vacation bible schools.

Fascinating. I don’t know what I should make of it, really. Especially the juxtaposition of science and the miraculous power bit, which apparently is the power to be thankful, help others, etc.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (follow-up)

This is turning into the never ending series, but there are a couple of questions I thought were too interesting to bury in the comments.

Sastra asks, “exactly how are you defining “metaphysics?” I’m not sure if you ever say, specifically. You seem to be taking it as the nature of “ultimate reality” — but the word “ultimate” seems rather hazy and vague.”

It’s got to be somewhat vague, I think. “Metaphysics” isn’t one of those things you define by necessary and sufficient conditions. It’s more of a family-resemblance thing. Better to give some defining examples and understand that there will be many gray areas.

So, I figure a good example of metaphysics is neo-Platonism, with its One, its Forms, its Emanations, and its power of Reason grasping all of these as Necessary Truths. Spinoza did metaphysical system-building. Hume, not so much. A secular applied ethicist will likely be doing little that is metaphysical. Anyone who uses modal logic a lot (unless she’s a logician) is probably doing some metaphysics. Some philosophers recognize a point needs further work, and leave it hanging (that’s OK, it will happen in just about every argument). Some declare a “metaphysical intuition” or announce a “metaphysical impossibility.” (Oh. Right. That clears it up.)

I said some things relevant to this in parts 2 and 3, when I tried to separate what I think is innocous talk of ontology, in the sense of catalogs of objects, from metaphysics in the system-building tradition.

Sastra again: “The second question has to do with the role of “the paranormal” in all this. What do you think the difference is between the supernatural and the paranormal? Is there a clear dividing line? It does seem to be generally conceded that science can rule one way or the other on ESP and PK — by the very same folks who think God is an entirely different thing, and not subject in any way to the same criteria.”

Well, there might be a sharper distinction between supernatural and paranormal if you grant metaphysical talk more legitimacy than I like. Few people try to defend the reality of ghosts by announcing metaphysical intuitions, but God is another matter.

If you try to rehabilitate metaphysics as I suggested, then the supernatural and paranormal shade into one another. For example, I distinguish between naturalism and supernatural views by contrasting top-down vs. bottom-up descriptions. Daniel Dennett gets at the same sort of thing and uses one of the best metaphors around, skyhooks vs. cranes. Paranormal claims definitely have top-down or skyhook-like elements, though they may not be as ambitious as some theistic religious claims. The paranormal is more Low Magic than High. But if you embed paranormal and magical claims in a broader description of how nature and supernature is supposed to work (think of ghosts and souls and a spirit realm going all the way up to God), then the supernatural and the paranormal become much the same sort of thing. As a historical example, neo-Platonism and relatives were very closely entangled with occult thinking.

I can also point to current research on scientific explanations of religion to support a close connection between the supernatural and the paranormal. Especially if you want a broadly applicable theory—something that helps you understand a religion of ancestral spirits as well as religions that go on about God and His Holy Angels—you don’t sharply separate the two. Certainly writers such as Atran and Boyer are as illuminating about the paranormal as the religious.

Speaking of the paranormal, there’s Tom Clark‘s question about sticking with science as is rather than expanding it to include a more supernatural-friendly “richer empiricism.” Well, this reminds me of a regular feature of debates over paranormal and fringe-science claims. There are always creationists who accuse mainstream science of being biased in its methodology, so it automatically ignores supernatural options. There are always parapsychologists who say that science needs a less restrictive method, that it needs to expand its vision to grasp paranormal realities.

I don’t see anything illegitimate about such claims. When skeptics about the paranormal insist that Scientific Method (TM) must be used in all investigations, and if you want to tinker with it, you’re out of bounds, they are being dogmatic. We cannot consider scientific methods to be handed down from on high, or to be written in stone. In science, we make it up as we go along, and are always discussing ways to revise and improve our methods. There’s nothing wrong with that. What methods are appropriate will depend on the nature of what you’re investigating, even when your knowledge depends on what methods you have used.

There is circularity here, but it’s not a vicious circle. It isn’t as long as you allow for learning new things, if you take care not to let your methods predetermine your results, and so forth. But that also gives skeptics a way to now properly criticize paranormalist demands for changes in method. In my experience, these demands are not just a plea to consider an alternative, but special pleading to ensure that favored supernatural conclusions end up affirmed. This goes for apologies for religious versions of supernaturalism as well. That’s largely how I read Haught, though it’s more complicated. In any case, I don’t see any deep mistake with proposals to mess with scientific methods. There are some common themes, but you really have to take each one case by case.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 5)

I’ll wrap this up by saying why I care about the whole metaphysics and naturalism issue. I don’t know if it’s of any wide significance; after all, I’ve mainly been picking out a strand in naturalistic thinking and saying something about why I like it and why it fits my more science-centered prejudices. But in certain debates that I happen to care about, it matters.

What I have foremost in mind is the unending struggle over creation and evolution. Due, I suppose, to the nature of political disputes, defenders of evolution and divine design have both coalesced around what have become standard positions for each. Both involve views about metaphysics.

Almost everyone I know who defends evolution agrees that evolutionary science on its own does not settle questions about the gods. There are broader concerns here that go beyond a narrowly biological context, and certainly beyond anything that can be handled in a science classroom. But what has become the standard position in defense of evolution in education hardens this pragmatic stance. It makes a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical or metaphysical naturalism. Science, in this account, is defined by methodological naturalism, in that it is strictly a search for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Supernatural explanations cannot even be considered within science, and hence nothing in science can count for or against suitably transcendent supernatural realities. Again, this is a pretty hard stance. It doesn’t just mean that the philosophy department is the proper place to discuss the gods. (There may be very good pragmatic reasons why this is true.) It shades into saying that this belongs to the philosophers because it all comes down to a metaphysics of ultimate things, and philosophers are the ones to sort that out, if it can be done at all.

Now, I clearly think this view is mistaken. But I can see its attraction. It draws a hard and fast line to protect science in the classroom. It does not offend liberal religious supporters of evolution, because it blocks science-based critiques of supernatural claims. If a scientist, for example Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution counts against the reality of the gods (without settling the question), they can also be ruled out of bounds. Naturalism becomes just another metaphysical position, and therefore on all fours with other metaphysical positions as far as science is concerned. Politically, in an public environment where creationist sentiment is strong, such a view has a lot to recommend it.

But it has its vulnerabilities, and creationists can exploit them. My chief worry is this. One of the greatest assets defenders of evolution have is how creationism is associated with a lack of intellectual sophistication, even outright anti-intellectual attitudes. Many people who like to identify proper expertise and trust it will support evolution even without a deep knowledge of the science, because they can tell who in the public debate has the signs of substance and who does not. Put crudely, if distrust of evolution is associated with hicks, that can only help. But especially with the intelligent design movement, some of that advantage may be eroding. One reason, I think, is that intellectuals supporting ID spend a lot of effort criticizing the standard evolution-supporting conception of science and metaphysics. Some of that criticism has real bite, because the standard stance is at least unnecessarily hard. And even having a real intellectual debate at that level can only help the intellectual image of critics of evolution.

Now, politically, I’m not sure what is the best way to respond. The advantages of the standard view remain compelling, and I’ll go along with an awful lot that I don’t fully agree with if it helps keep creationist influence down. But those of us who think of ourselves as naturalists, and furthermore want to have an intellectually cogent critique of intelligent design (aside from considerations of political effectiveness), should, I think, move away from the standard view. That conception of science, metaphysics and naturalism is mistaken. In the long run, it may not even be the most effective.

This is just one example—one that is closest to my particular interests. But, as I have been trying to indicate, there are good reasons to think that a nonmetaphysical naturalism makes better sense. Perhaps there are even some more practical contexts, such as the creation-evolution wars, where shifting emphasis away from metaphysics is a good idea.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 4)

Well, what about knowledge apart from science? Can reasoning about morality be reduced to a form of science? Can mathematics? Or the multiple discourses of everyday life, from cooking to religion, that might be nonscientific but no less legitimate on their own terms? Even many naturalists leave these alone, resisting what they view as scientism or reductionism—particularly naturalist philosophers of a neopragmatic bent, such as Kai Nielsen. Pragmatists still shun metaphysics, but then, what if metaphysics is also a perfectly legitimate discourse on its own terms?

Let me start with mathematics, as it is a perennial temptation to metaphysics of a very straightforwardly Platonic sort. Indeed, many mathematicians think of their own work in Platonic terms, so this a view to be taken seriously. Now, as it happens, I find views such as that expressed by Reuben Hersh, that mathematics is a social construction, to be much closer to being on the right track. The reason is that such a naturalistic approach gives us a much better prospect of understanding the process of doing mathematics. The problem with mathematical Platonism (to my mind, a likely unsolvable problem) is that it has to resort to an equivalent of magic or revelation to account for how the timeless truths about abstract objects such as numbers impress themselves on our brains.

Naturalists, in contrast, should get further in explaining what mathematicians actually do. If mathematicians deal with abstract patterns, well, so they do. This is something material brains can handle without a need for an underlying Platonic Reality. And if many of these patterns are not physically realized, so be it. This is no more problematic than scenarios for future events being represented by material brains, scenarios that may or may not come to pass. Abstraction also seems akin to the way we can recognize multiple realizations of a pattern. Indeed, it seems very plausible that abstraction draws on such mundane capabilities of our brains. And then, we can follow Hersh and try to bring the social context into the picture as well. It’s a complicated task, but it seems doable and partly done.

In other words, we can do metaphysical rehabilitation here as well. Platonism always involves claims about how knowledge is acquired. We can bring such claims down to earth, and have them compete against naturalistic approaches that draw on cognitive science and notions such as social constructions. There should be little doubt that, given our present understanding of how the world works, naturalistic accounts of abstract reasoning are more promising.

Now on to morality. The naturalistic move is similar: we ask how moral knowledge is acquired, and see if we can account for this within the natural world. I think we can. The options I’m partial to incorporate something from error theories, claiming that our normal perception that prescriptive, objective, transcendent moral truths exist and can be intuited is mistaken. They also draw on the cognitive neuroscience of moral perception, social science about negotiating competing interests, evolutionary biology to see what stable interests we have, and so on. Though far from complete, we still can see the outline of a complex, broadly scientific description of our moral ecology. It is superior, I think, to competing metaethics.

All the explanations of our moral lives will not give us any palpable “oughtness.” They will not determine our choices when we face any real moral dilemma. Nonetheless, I don’t know if there is anything more for naturalism to achieve here. Understanding our moral lives in terms of interests and agreements within nature and nothing beyond does not change the fact that we, when personally in a situation where we make choices, have to make the choice. That shift to a personal perspective—you have to be there, in person—is unavoidable, but it is also innocuous.

Indeed, I think that the ability to fruitfully investigate and account for multiple forms of discourse within nature, including natural science itself, is one of the strongest recommendations for an unapologetically scientific naturalism. Naturalistic explanations for our ability to do mathematics, ethics, religion and so on can be contrasted to rehabilitated metaphysical explanations for these abilities, which will usually propose some kind of power of illumination or supernatural intuition. As usual, I think that naturalistic explanations are superior.

Let me put this another way. I envision scientific, nonmetaphysical naturalism as providing us with the best explanation of what we are doing when engaging in various discourses. But this naturalistic understanding does not substitute for these discourses. It does not, in particular, require us to assimilate mathematics, ethics and so forth into a generalized scientific enterprise. It does not, for much the same reason that engineering is not a mere extension of science, while not working with anything supernatural. For one thing, there is no such thing as The Scientific Method. More important, we have multiple aims in life, and we cannot expect all our aims to be served by an enterprise devoted to explaining how the world works.

I really need to figure out how to wrap all this up.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 3)

Originally I had thought I’d break a long post into two parts, but then I got carried away. So this ended up as a kind of online note-taking and thinking out loud prompted by some recent books I’ve read. Oh well, here goes again…

I’ve said I’m partial to the idea of rehabilitating metaphysics, bringing it out of the realm of armchair reflection and Platonic rationalism and seeing how it might play a role in systems that make contact with reality tests. There is, I think, another advantage to doing this. We can thereby assimilate rehabilitated metaphysical claims to the more innocent and unavoidable existence claims we find in science and in everyday life.

One motivation for a return to metaphysics seems to have been a realization that scientific theories include catalogs of objects that are supposed to exist and behave in certain ways. The existence of these objects does genuine explanatory work, even if they are not directly observable. For example, according to quantum chromodynamics, we cannot detect unconfined quarks. This doesn’t greatly bother physicists, and we generally think quarks are quite real. (Though interestingly, physicists will also shy away from claiming things are real in contexts where “real” stands for some metaphysical Realness.)

I can be tempted, in an antimetaphysical mood, to flirt with instrumentalism, saying that such objects are convenient fictions. But that would be overdoing things. It invites questions such as whether ordinary rocks are also convenient fictions. Moreover, in the name of opposing metaphysics, instrumentalists might be introducing a disguised idealist or dualist metaphysics, making everything real happen in the observing mind. We should avoid taking commonsense views of observation and mind as givens.

It is better, I think, to accept that existence claims in everyday and scientific contexts are innocuous. In any case, such claims tread much more lightly than claims about metaphysical insight into Ultimate Reality. In physics, for example, we can take particles or fields to be the more fundamental entities in the context of our present theories. But the difference here is a matter of emphasis and conceptual clarity; particles and fields are inseparable however we choose our emphasis. And if, in the future, we end up adopting a different description of the basic furniture of the universe according to physics, we will do this because of the usual mutual interaction between theory and experiment that fixes belief in physics, not because of some kind of metaphysical reflection.

Now, if we rehabilitate metaphysical naturalism by using this more innocuous kind of existence claims, we can get a fallible, broadly scientific claim about the nature of our world. Instead of being a metaphysical doctrine in the classic sense, naturalism becomes akin to an ambitious scientific theory with very broad scope.

Consider physicalism, perhaps the most uncompromising version of naturalism available. The kind of physicalism I am partial to is, I think, a broadly scientific theory rather than a metaphysical doctrine. Andrew Melnyck’s “realization physicalism” is along these lines, and I largely agree with Melnyk. Moreover, mounting another of my hobbyhorses, I like to argue that physical explanations that combine chance and necessity suffice to describe all we know in the world, including intelligence and so forth. There is no need to make claims about Ultimate Reality in any of this—only ambitious claims analogous to the way physicists expect the known laws of physics to apply everywhere in the universe and make predictions based on this expectation. Saying that we can best understand the world without supernatural or transcendent realities is not radically different from claiming that we can do biology better without postulating the existence of animal spirits or life forces.

Emphasizing on natural science as a model of avoiding metaphysics is bound to raise questions about scientism. Doesn’t this ignore realms of genuine knowledge where Platonic metaphysics is legitimate, such as mathematics? Aren’t I pushed toward assimilating everything into some scientific method, even discourses such as ethics and possibly religion? I’ll try to get to these next, though I really have to figure out how to stop this before I find myself typing part 58.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 2)

Let’s say you are inclined to go along with me so far: you agree that there is something troubling about metaphysical thinking, and you think that naturalism in particular should tread as lightly as possible where metaphysics is concerned.

We need a bit more, though, unless we want to announce that we have a metaphysical intuition that metaphysics is bad. (Actually, I am tempted to stop there.) Then, we get complications. It’s not entirely clear how to separate metaphysical from nonmetaphysical talk, and we can’t refer to any consensus on why exactly metaphysics is problematic.

Take statements like like “God is the creator of all,” or “God is an infinite person.” These might be among our defining examples of metaphysical claims—just the kind of theological monstrosities that the logical positivists wanted to single out as being meaningless. But here’s one immediate complication. Such statements, whatever they mean, do not always work the same way. In a classic metaphysical system such as, say, medieval Christian scholasticism, they function one way, but they don’t do exactly the same job in another, say, something more Neo-Platonic or Muslim. So it looks like we may have to consider metaphysical systems, rather than isolated statements. And then there is the way such statements work in a more ordinary religious context, where it’s hard to talk about church or mosque-goers depending upon any fancy metaphysical system at all.

Let’s say we want to take our suspicions of metaphysics in a neopositivist direction. Old-style logical positivism and naive verificationism is dead, and for good reason. But I think there is still merit in the basic positivist intuition: if something is supposed to be a fact, we should ask what difference that fact makes. There should be something in our encounters with the world that can count for or count against the fact claim in question. Such a view invites us to be sophisticated in our notions of reality-testing. We can, for example, recognize that investigating the world is not a theory-independent activity, and that we do not put isolated statements to the test. We can allow for context and history. And we can guard against introducing a hidden metaphysics in the name of excising metaphysics. Logical positivists, for example, had a simplistic view of observation, which could shade into idealism or dualism when discussing scientific observation. Sophisticated neopositivists can avoid such pitfalls.

This can be a problem, however, if, like the early positivists, we want some kind of philosophical or conceptual analysis to be our main tool for making the world safe from theism and other alleged metaphysical fantasies. Because now, the systems in which “God is the creator of all” and so forth find a role, plus the less systematic talk of ordinary religious people, almost invariably will make contact with reality tests. They won’t be obviously empty pronouncements. Sure, if armchair metaphysical reflection is the driving force behind a claim we encounter, we should expect plenty of outright nonsense as a result. Let conceptual analysis take the field! But this should be rare. More often we will end up in a gray area, where metaphysics takes a role in forming a picture that does, at least at its margins, allow for a degree of reality testing.

For me, this is not a source of worry. It tells me that to criticize theism and present a naturalistic view of the world, we should do something like what I attempted in The Ghost in the Universe. We should draw on philosophy, but also on the natural sciences, critical history, etc. etc.—with none of these disciplines having a privileged, supervisory role. We shouldn’t be doing metaphysics, in the sense that this is not another quest for what is really Real and rationally Necessary. Yet we shouldn’t expect too much from antimetaphysical philosophies in slaying our dragons either. A (broadly speaking) scientific approach will serve us better.

There is another advantage I perceive in such an approach. If we are encouraged to look for ways in which metaphysical systems might make contact with reality tests—rehabilitating what might at first seem to be bewildering claims that make no difference in the world one way or the other—this rehabilitation process should work even more easily with what is put forth as metaphysical naturalism. It might take no more than a minor restraint on our Platonic tendencies to rehabilitate metaphysical naturalism.

Saying this doesn’t end any debate. If, like I do, you want to lean heavily on a scientific approach, there will be an accusation of scientism to face. There are philosophical critiques of metaphysics that do not have a neopositivist flavor, and which might take naturalism in a different direction. And there is the question of whether my way of rehabilitating metaphysics actually transforms it, so that I end up not addressing a real challenge to naturalism.

I’ll leave these to further installments.

bookmark_borderNonmetaphysical Naturalism (part 1)

There’s something about the description of this blog that bothers me, especially since inadvertently I’ve ended up as the most frequent voice here. Apparently this blog is centered on metaphysical naturalism. What if you’re a naturalist who is suspicious of any and all metaphysical enterprises, and who is inclined to think that most of what goes on in the philosophy of religion is so much wheel-spinning? Someone like me, in other words.

Now, I can see why we might want to attach “metaphysical” to naturalism. Naturalists are sympathetic to claims such as that made by David Armstrong, that there is nothing that exists beyond or above the space-time realm. On the face of it, this appears to be a kind of claim about ultimate reality that contrasts with, say, idealism or theism. That is, a naturalistic metaphysics that rivals other metaphysical systems. And if you want to adjudicate between such rivals, it seems you might want to ask a metaphysician. Physicists, for example, may well be reluctant to go there: a physicist can say a lot about what exists within space and time, but may be at a loss about what may or may not go on beyond space and time. Questions about what is really Real at the bottom of it all are classic philosophical questions, not the sort of thing you approach by tinkering with equations and setting up experiments.

There are, however, reasons to distrust armchair reflections about Deep Reality or any claim that philosophers are specially equipped to discover necessary truths of existence as opposed to the mere contingent facts gathered by the sciences. Indeed, these suspicions are especially compelling from a naturalistic point of view. If, for example, you are attracted to naturalism because you find a broadly scientific picture of our world compelling, you might be disinclined to look for further metaphysical endorsement. For that matter, there is a broad current within modern philosophy that dissents from the notion that philosophy is an armchair pursuit of First Principles that stand in judgment upon everything else. And this anti-metaphysical current has typically been associated with naturalism and nontheistic views.

Insisting on metaphysical naturalism would unnecessarily exclude many nontheists and naturalists. Even confining ourselves to philosophy (which we should not), and even just looking at recent times, there are some very significant naturalistic thinkers who have been positivists of one sort or other, who have been influenced by Wittgenstein, or who fall under the broad description of pragmatists or neopragmatists. Distrust of metaphysics, even arguments that metaphysics of all sorts might be sheer nonsense, takes a large part in the naturalism of such thinkers.

Indeed, I would expect many naturalists to be sympathetic to the the claim that there is some intellectual pathology in metaphysics as it has been practiced in the mainstream philosophical tradition. Metaphysicians invariably end up supporting their views by an appeal to some kind of supposed rational necessity or metaphysical intuition. These look uncomfortably similar to claims of revelation; we should be suspicious of this sort of thing even in a secular context, even if these kinds of intuitions are deployed against theism. It would be more in keeping with the temper of naturalism to appeal to support of a more broadly scientific sort, or a kind of critical common sense, or at least something that does not appear to be rationalism gone wild.

It is also worth pointing out how historically metaphysics has been allied with non-naturalistic views. In fact, metaphysics has typically been the intellectual language of Abrahamic religion, and metaphysical thinking has a significant role in the sophisticated versions of many supernatural belief systems. However intuitively appealing, metaphysical thinking is often used to isolate claims from criticism, to avoid reality tests. So perhaps naturalists especially should get out of the metaphysical game. We should not present an alternative set of declarations about what is really Real (whatever that might mean) but stop engaging in that kind of talk altogether. More ordinary and scientific senses of small-r reality are good enough, and it makes perfectly good sense to talk of the supernatural and the transcendent having no part in that small-r reality, as best as we can tell by getting out of our armchairs and investigating things.

So at the least, speaking of metaphysical naturalism is overly restrictive. At worst, it risks portraying naturalism as yet another doctrine metaphysicians pull out of thin air. So we should, perhaps, be some variety of naturalist, but not necessarily metaphysical naturalists.

I will be saying more about this.

bookmark_borderLooking for a Miracle

According to a news report from India, “At least 50 people in Kottayam district have reportedly lost their vision after gazing at the sun looking for an image of Virgin Mary.”

My first reaction to news like this is that it confirms my prejudice that the human race is, generally speaking, insane. Still, I wonder how religious examples of self-harming behavior are different from more secular examples. No small number of people have lost their shirt investing in a stock market bubble, which with hindsight can look pretty stupid. Is it generally the religious examples that look more drastic or weird in some special way? Am I merely showing my secular culture when I think so?

bookmark_borderSUPERLATIVELY SILLY SUPER-SENSITIVE SECULARISTS

One of the oddest things about the “new atheist” phenomenon, typified by the best-selling anti-theistic works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, is that some of the most vituperative criticisms of these works have come, not from fundamentalist Bible-beaters, but from liberal, secular, intellectuals. For instance, last October, the Los Angeles Times published a sublimely silly op-ed by author and critic Lee Siegel, who decried the new atheist authors and accused them of opposing love, beauty, and art. He didn’t mention motherhood, baseball, and apple pie, but I’m sure he thinks that Harris et al. are against those too. Why such animus from those who would no sooner attend a prayer meeting or Bible study than they would be caught knocking back pork rinds and PBR at a NASCAR rally? The reason is that, in the eyes of these liberal critics, the truculent atheists have committed a sin much graver than being wrong. They have committed the sin that for many liberal intellectuals is the secular equivalent of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost: Insensitivity.
This was the charge that Washington Post columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently brought against his fellow liberals. He accuses liberals of deriding the beliefs of evangelicals, an attitude, he says, that is intrinsically repugnant, like making pejorative comments about someone’s race or sex. This, of course, is pluperfect nonsense. Criticizing beliefs is not at all the same as insulting someone’s race or sex. We are not responsible for our gender or ethnicity, but we largely are for our beliefs. As philosophers put it, we have “epistemic duties” to examine our beliefs critically in the light of the best available facts and the most solidly substantiated theories. When, therefore, somebody says something culpably and perversely ignorant (like, e.g., that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that homosexuality can be “cured,” or that the “rapture” is due any day now) then they deserve to be mocked.
A recent contribution to this bizarre literature of internecine condemnation is Damon Linker’s “Atheism’s Wrong Turn: Mindless Argument Found in Godless Books,” published last December 10 in the liberal (or formerly liberal) New Republic. In Linker’s inane article we see, once again, that the primary objections have to do with style not substance. Linker thinks that atheism is fine if it comports itself with fastidious academic detachment and deference. Properly buttoned-down atheism, what Linker calls “liberal atheism,” should proffer its claims tentatively and respectfully, without polemical tone or destructive intent. On the other hand, loud, in-your-face atheism, termed “ideological atheism” by Linker, is bad, springing from the illiberal legacy of Jacobinism and communism. Ivory-tower defenses of atheism in learned journals and academic books are OK, but not on the street corner. For Linker, atheism is like the topic of sex for Victorians; lest it offend, it may be discussed only in hushed tones behind closed doors.
According to Linker, those who seek to defend the secular politics of the Founding Fathers, are pursuing a liberal goal, but the “ideological” atheists pursue the illiberal goal of a secular society, one in which the American people have abandoned religion. According to Linker the essence of political liberalism is liberality, that is, generosity and openness:
To be liberal…is to accept intellectual variety—and the social complexity that goes with it—as the ineradicable condition of a free society. It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way—that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not.
In short, Linker holds that the “ideological” atheists, by vigorously arguing that religious belief is deluded and deleterious are being ungenerous, intolerant of diversity, and, hence, illiberal. Once again, we see that insensitivity is the unpardonable sin.
Well, shouldn’t we tolerate and respect the convictions of others? Tolerate, yes; respect, not necessarily. There is nothing about being liberal that requires that we abstain from hurting people’s feelings. An ideally liberal society recognizes that people have a perfect right to believe and promulgate any doctrine, even if it is silly and dangerous, without fear of persecution or censorship. Yet a liberal society also recognizes the equally perfect right of people to criticize any and all such doctrines in ungentle terms. Indeed, rough-and-tumble polemics, and an absence of sacred cows, are hallmarks of an open society. Hence, however bumptious their rhetoric, angry atheists have a perfect right to express disdain for religion, and their exercise of that right in no way infringes or undermines liberal ideals—so long as they concede that religious people have an equal right to hold and express their views without interference.
But aren’t the angry atheists intolerant in attitude? Shouldn’t they recognize, as Linker eloquently proposes, that we all have to make our way through this vale of tears as best we can, and that, being but human, we will inevitably answer life’s biggest and most difficult questions in different ways? Aren’t they being just ungenerous and mean-spirited in their blanket condemnation of religion? Maybe (In fact, I think so), but to make these charges stick against Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins, Linker is going to have to discredit their claims and not just bemoan them. If religion were always as bad as they say, then it would deserve every bit of censure they dish out, and, without question, the world would be much, much better off if we were rid of it. If it is objectionable to say that all religion is bad, then it is objectionable because it is false, not because it is rude to say so. Hence, it will not do for Linker to perch on his high horse of sensitivity and castigate the “ideological” atheists for their supposedly bad attitude; he is going to actually have to deal with their arguments.
And those arguments deserve attention. Are the “ideological” atheists implacably hostile towards religion? Yes. Is their rhetoric often hyperbolic and offensive? Yes. Do they all too often wield a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed? Yes. Do they often unfairly tar all believers with the same brush, from the mildest moderates to the most rabid fundamentalists? Yes. Does this mean that we can dismiss their arguments? No. For instance, the angry atheists point out that religion, particularly the locally favored flavor, is often the beneficiary of a double standard. Consider that when John McCain accepted the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, a “Christian Zionist” extremist and premillenialist fantasist, liberal journalists, even those who pride themselves on playing “hardball,” tossed marshmallows until someone pointed out the duplicity. By contrast, had Bara
ck Obama accepted the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, the media punditry, liberal and conservative, would have been a festering boil of outrage. In America, the spontaneous reaction to the endorsement of a presidential candidate by a far-out Protestant fundamentalist (but not a Black Muslim) is to give a free pass.
An even more egregious example of how religion gets special kid-glove treatment occurred when the Danish newspaper published those now-infamous cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in a restrained but critical manner to protest Islamist violence. When, of course, the Islamists reacted to this protest against their violence by committing acts of extreme violence, pundits asked us to try to “understand” Islamic outrage and urged us, Linker-like, not to employ our freedom of the press to provoke tender religious sensibilities. Is hatred and violence less odious if it issues from a religious source, so that it is illiberal and intolerant to criticize it when it does?
What about Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion poisons everything? In god is not Great (the small case “g” in “god,” is, of course, an intentional diminishment), Hitchens recalls once hearing Israeli statesman Abba Eban discussing the perennial Israel/Palestine problem. Eban said that the salient fact about this conflict is that it admits of an easy and obvious solution (!). When two peoples of roughly the same size lay claim to the same patch of land, the obvious solution is two states side-by-side. Hitchens continues:
And so it would have been, decades ago, if messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stroked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything (pp. 24-25).
Everything? Well, an awful lot. In innumerable bad situations, if religion doesn’t create the bad situation it exacerbates it. Religion did not create the human impulse towards cruelty, but, as Bertrand Russell observed, it lends divine sanction to that impulse:
The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give the sanction of what professes to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages (from Religion and Science, p. 106).
Don’t like Jews, Arabs, or gay people? Your religion can give you the pleasure of hating them with a clear conscience.
Is there a place for aggressive, in-your-face critique of religion? Yes, there is and always has been. Consider Thomas Paine’s rousing condemnation of Old Testament barbarism from The Age of Reason (1794):
When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
Wow! Nothing in Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, or Dawkins tops that!
David Hume is generally more restrained in tone (but the restraint itself was often ironic), yet in the concluding pages of his Natural History of Religion, he has some quite harsh things to say about the prevailing religious beliefs and practices. He begins with some boilerplate:
What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the Supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator.
Then he drives the dagger home:
But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them as the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.
Again, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins would be proud to have authored these lines.
But, Linker might protest, Paine and Hume were not atheists. Paine was a deist, and whatever Hume was (an attenuated deist, according to some commentators), he denied the charge that he was an atheist. Paine and Hume therefore only held that some religion (nearly all, in Hume’s view) was bad, not all of it. However, by failing to effectively confront the substance of the arguments of Hitchens et al., Linker never makes clear why it is acceptable, even laudable, to condemn some, even most, religion, but grossly illiberal to reject it across the board.
By the way, after many years of watching and participating in debates about religion, I have never noticed that the rhetoric of believers contained much in the way of Christian charity towards atheists and other skeptics. Even in academic circles, scurrility sometimes creeps in. Consider John Beversluis, whose groundbreaking C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985; 2nd edition, 2007) was the first book-length, genuinely critical treatment of Lewis. Though Beversluis’s critique was a model of calm, dispassionate, and evenhanded analysis, some academic Lewis-lovers, apparently outraged at Beversluis’s sacrilege, fired off broadsides, even impugning his intellectual integrity. When you move out of the halls of academe and into the blogospere, things get a lot worse. A quick perusal of some “Christian” web sites and blogs reveals that there is a whole class of semi-educated, self-styled “apologists” whose maunderings are short on logic but long on invective and name-calling. What do Linker and his ilk recommend? That atheists turn the other cheek while Christians are allowed to be as nasty as they want to be?
What about Christian philosopher Vic Reppert’s charge (expressed in his commentary on Linker’s article on his Dangerous Idea blog) that Hitchens, et al. are the atheist equivalent of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell? Like the religious right, he charges, the angry atheists have no respect for separation of church and state, but want to suppress religion with governmental power. Well, Harris really does attack the idea of religious toleran
ce. Would he favor, say, state-run reeducation camps for the religious? Should the public schools inculcate an atheistic and antireligious ideology? I see no evidence anywhere in The End of Faith that Harris would favor such measures. His call is for attitudes to change, especially the attitudes of liberals. Harris decries the sort of milk-and-water, namby-pamby “tolerance” of people like Linker, Kristoff, and Siegel. Harris would agree wholeheartedly with Karl Popper that in the open society we must be actively intolerant of the intolerant; we should oppose them by any means necessary—with words when they use words and with violence when they use violence. A bland, confused ideal of tolerance, that in the name of a fatuous sensitivity would wink at dangerous, intolerant, and irrational dogmas—just because they are “religious”—is in fact a profoundly illiberal ideal that militates against the open society.
What about Linker’s charge that Dawkins is unreasonable when he charges that a Catholic upbringing is a kind of child abuse, but then fails to take this thought to its logical conclusion by calling for the legal proscription of raising children within a religious tradition? Dawkins’ actual objection, as quoted by Linker, is that it is abusive to inculcate children with the dreadful idea that if they die with the guilt of unshriven mortal sins on their souls, they will spend eternity in hell. As usual, Linker responds with high moral dudgeon before asking the simple and obvious question: Does Dawkins speak the truth? Unquestionably he does. Let’s see: Would it be a really bad thing to tell highly impressionable small children that there is an invisible being who is watching their every move and even reading their very thoughts and who will torture them in flames forever and ever if they do not confess every one of their “sins?” Well, unlike Dr. James Dobson, I am not an expert in child psychology, but I’d have to say, just off the top of my head, that, yeah, it would be a pretty rotten thing to terrify a defenseless child with such disgusting superstitious horror stories. Is it illogical, nevertheless, to decline to seek legal sanction against those who do frighten small children with tales of the heavenly bogey-man? No, of course not. I think it is abusive for parents to raise their children to be Florida Gators fans, but I cannot see any way to make that a crime without also interfering with the sacred, inviolable right to raise your child to be a Georgia Bulldog. Seriously, legitimate privacy rights, which liberals like Linker should zealously defend, give parents a very wide latitude to raise their children as they see fit, and any attempt to cherry-pick all instances of psychological abuse, without seriously eroding those important rights, would obviously be a logical and legal impossibility. So we have no choice but to let some genuinely abusive things slide, as Linker surely recognizes.

I can respect those who straightforwardly disagree with the conclusions of the “new atheists,” though I think that many of these critiques, like Alister McGrath’s criticism of Dawkins, are only very partially successful. I cannot respect someone who is just shocked, shocked by what these horrible, horrible men are saying (though they largely agree with them in substance) and who get the vapors because of these atheists’ rude, crude style. One thing I haven’t mentioned is just how patronizing this attitude is. Are religious people hothouse flowers or like the proper young ladies of the 19th Century whose tender ears had to be protected from any suggestion of indelicacy or impropriety? Must liberals be their gallant guardians who rush to their defense when they are insulted by unbelieving boors? If, on the other hand, religious sensibilities really are that delicate, then tough shit. If religious people are going to ladle out the vitriol, as they so often do, then they have no right to complain if atheists spit some of it back into their eyes.