"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Liberal belief is not harmless

In general atheists only actively disbelieve in the existence of deities that are purported to have influence in the material world or that are presumed to have opinions and preferences about the way human beings conduct their affairs. As a result we are often accused of having an overly simplistic concept of God; merely attacking an old bearded strawman in the sky rather than dealing with Anselm’s unmoved mover or the Ground of Being that Thomas Aquinas and later “sophisticated” theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and my latest buddy David Bentley Hart envisage. But there are reasons why most atheists ignore or are agnostic about abstract concepts of God not least because they really are un-falsifiable from a scientific point of view so having a strong opinion one way or the other would be irrational but more importantly the believer in the street is not concerned with abstract gods and neither, I suggest, is organised religion.
The gods that most religions present to their faithful are not abstract but quasi-human. They have opinions on dress, diet, sexuality and morality. They expect to be worshipped in specific ways on specific days with special words and rituals or prayed to while facing a particular direction. Some of them publish verbose and internally contradictory manuals with a limited first run distribution around a small area of the middle-east that make historical and factual claims we now know to be false and moral claims many now find abhorrent.
To me it is self-evident that these gods don’t exist in external reality nevertheless they do exist in the minds of many people and the ontological presumptions of many cultures. That is where my real beef with religion really starts.
American philosopher Peter Boghossian likes to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Religion makes truth claims about God’s desires on the basis of very flimsy evidence yet these claims are frequently put into the service of enforcing cultural norms that have very real detrimental effects on people. They have been used to defend slavery, they are used to perpetuate misogyny and the subjugation of women, and they are used to justify the hanging of homosexuals, the stoning of rape victims and apostates. They are used to restrict access to contraception and abortion and to deny proper medical care to women hospitalised due to miscarriages. “People pretending to know things they don’t know” are preventing the education of women, opposing the teaching of science, trying to deny same sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage and stop them from adopting children. People pretending to know things they don’t know want the rest of us to pretend we know these things too.
Now if you’re a believer you may be saying to yourself  “I don’t recognise the god this atheist is complaining about, my god doesn’t advocate stoning women or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality. My god is a loving inclusive nurturing sort of god”. Well if so congratulations on choosing a better behaved god and pretending to know nicer things about yours than some other people pretend to know about theirs but all believers, wittingly or not, are involved in the same conspiracy to pretend to know something they don’t know.
Liberal belief in a beneficent deity is, I concede, the source of much good in society. Apart from the comfort if gives to individuals, a selective reading of scripture encourages some religious communities to charity and social welfare, education programs and the like. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues offer sanctuary and community and for some that may be a necessary social lifeline. Yes, some religion in some aspects for some people is a good thing for some of the time.
But, one would have to be blind not to notice that much harm is being done in religion’s name and this is not, I believe, just because the extremists are doing it wrong. The bible that inspires the affable Rev Colin Still is the same bible that motivated Fred Phelps and the Southern Baptists. The Qur’an of “the religion of peace” is also the handbook for Boko Haram. The Jihadists and the moderates, the bigots and the liberals are just pretending to know different things about the nature of God and there is no objective way to prove who if anyone is ‘correct’ since God is unavailable for comment.
Liberal belief is not benign: it is the foundation for extremism. It renders truth claims about the nature of God socially and intellectually respectable despite having no objective measure of their worth. Even liberal belief protects itself against criticism by insisting ridicule of religion is at best impolite and at worst blasphemous giving cover to extremists who will kill over religious satire. The very premise that there exists a God that has attitudes, rules, regulations, likes and dislikes is the root of much more suffering and injustice than can be justified by the good it sometimes engenders and besides as humanists have proved again and again God really is unnecessary for human flourishing.
If theists only believed in the apophatic, un-moved mover god of sophisticated theologians I doubt I would even bother to write this blog. I have no problem with that sort of belief since; for one thing, they may be right but more to the point no-one ever got killed by arguing over the foibles of a Ground of Being.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 3 of 3

David Bentley Hart
Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Bliss.

Given his teleological and platonic presumptions the first two sections Being and Consciousness make interesting if unremarkable arguments for the existence of an ultimate causational ground of something or other that Hart likes to call God. However in Bliss he provides little argument (beyond reiteration) and less evidence for a series of assertions concerning our human experiences of desire for love, morality, status and altruism et al which must, he insists, really be nothing but stops on the way to bliss; a union with the divine.
How, he wonders, can we strive to be moral if there is not some extant perfect morality or feel the urge to pursue happiness if that abstract concept is not in some sense all pervasive? He speaks as though he has already established the case but whereas the universe and, arguably, consciousness are things seeking explanation internal emotions really aren’t. They are already contingent upon physical reality, somatic organic states and consciousness (magical or otherwise) and it makes no sense to insist that they must be representative of “pure” emotions.
Hart pre-empts the obvious evolutionary rebuttal in the most bizarre way by embarking on a tirade against Richard Dawkins’ seminal concept of The Selfish Gene which having ridiculed as a terrible metaphor he then goes on to dispute by treating it as though biologists really believe genes are intentional “imps” with Machiavellian designs on our bodies and minds. In fact Hart’s entire world view seems to make him incapable of understanding the fundamental point about evolution which is that it is an entirely contingent process, unintended and undirected. He claims to get that the idea of “genes for” a particular trait is a na├»ve simplification of how things work yet attacks gene centric explanations for the evolutionary utility of emotion entirely on that basis and he certainly does not realise that epigenetic phenomena where the organism apparently effects the genes are themselves evolved mechanisms to cope with short term environmental changes.
Biology is a messy business and natural selection may act reflexively and on different levels from DNA through individuals and maybe even populations although as I have said before my intuition is that at bottom the gene (broadly defined) is the ultimate agent of evolutionary change. But Hart wants to turn the narrative on its head and insist that, for example, a mother’s love preserves the genes through her child, rather than genes survive which promote the emotions conducive to nurturing a child. While the observable effect would be indistinguishable either way Hart’s version is un-falsifiable and has none of the explanatory power of Darwinian selection (Ironically in consciousness Hart scorned the concept of memes as units of ideas that preferentially spread through cultures but in bliss partly exculpates Dawkins for the success of the selfish gene metaphor because it has spread organically through media to become a cultural trope. So how does he think that happened exactly? Well, he doesn’t say but I think he’d be hard pushed to supply a non-Darwinian explanation).
This section of the book contains the most word salad by far, in fact in places it’s so unintelligible the circularity of his thinking is sometimes difficult to pick out. Or perhaps that’s the point. For example he insists in various tortured ways that our quest for beauty, love and conscience is in reality our yearning for God because God is good and the good is God (so even if you’re an atheist desiring to do good you are also tacitly accepting Gods existence; handy that…) and waves away the Euthyphro dilemma as irrelevant because God’s goodness is sufficient unto itself. Hart is defining God in his own self-referential terms just like every other theist who needs their god to conform to their own concept.
It is interesting to note that although Hart constantly reminds us that God is everything, is the cause of everything, sustains everything, contains and is contained by everything as the ground of all being, consciousness and bliss his God is always referred to as “he”. For some reason this all-consuming deity (which should definitely not be anthropomorphised in any way, dearie me no!) is resolutely male even before we ascribe other characteristics such as goodness etcetera. Why, for example, shouldn’t such a deity be perfectly evil, hateful or vain or perfectly any other thing that human beings are capable of pursuing when not seeking love or the good?
All told, it’s not that this book is a poor argument for God, more that it’s an argument for a rather poor God and definitely not for the God of most believers. If Hart really accepted only this amorphous definition of God he would be almost as much an atheist as I am. As it is I started his book agnostic about such a ground of being and finished it with the same attitude. Yes, it is logically possible for Hart’s God to exist, but except from a purely metaphysical point of view it is hard to care one way or the other. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in (amongst others) Hart’s other God; the one he is not attempting to defend but the one of his professed Eastern Orthodox faith that made man “in his own image” ,incarnated in the person of Christ, and was crucified. The Eastern Orthodox God that has attitudes and preferences and speaks ambiguously through the bible of dietary laws and sexual taboos. Hart may want to avoid drawing a face on the apophatic God of Being, Consciousness and Bliss but by doing so he is arguing for no kind of God at all.

Footnote: You may have found these three posts a little tedious to read so by way of an antidote I offer this video via the much wittier and entertaining NonStampCollector.