Monday, July 25, 2011

Whether you believe in God or not is just not that important. (A Draft)

I’m not 100% happy with this piece. I’ve made some sloppy use of the word evidence for example. How I describe religions impact in history also needs a tidy up. In fact I’ll probably make that the topic of a future blog.
I think however I’d rather publish and be damned. The central arguments are solid IMO and perhaps people’s comments can help me tighten it up. Besides keeping to a posting schedule has its own benifits.
Consider it a 1st draft.
Where you stand on whether God exists is not that important.
I just finished Ravi Zachiarias’ The End of Reason. This noxious little book is a response to the larger odious book The End of Faith by Sam Harris. This is about the fifth book I’ve read in this depressingly common series of pro and anti theist writing. That’s on top of journal articles and essays and enough you-tube clips to blind me. Unfortunately these debates are having a similar effect on philosophy as pop-psychology has had on its discipline. We are getting dumber.
I remember reading The End of Faith and feeling like Sam Harris was pissing on my brain. His book contains a few important questions but he makes them into conclusions. For example  it is a worthy question to ask “What of those instructions from the Judeo-Christian God in the Old Testament that don’t measure up to my most basic assumptions of morality?”, “How can religions that supposedly foster a sense of universal siblinghood be the sponsors of the dehumanisation in honour killings or the bombing of schoolbuses?”
But are the only answers to these questions that God doesn’t exist? Hardly. Are these selective examples of the fruits of theism? Absolutely. What Sam Harris manages to provide is a lengthy description of how religion makes him anxious. His reasons show him to potentially be a considerate and thoughtful person. His leap from his own anxiety to a general condemnation shows him to be a twat. You get the impression he never gets past his own “issues” to either listen to religious people or to take a balanced look at history.
For his part Ravi Zachiarias blames atheism for his own suicide attempt and he credits Christian theism for his re-engagement with life. Zachiarias makes no attempt to get past his own issues or it seems take responsibility for his own actions. He begins his book with a fictional piece about a family distressed when the eldest son becomes an atheist after reading Sam Harris. The mother is so heartbroken that she commits suicide. Although the mother is a theist when she kills herself her death is unequivocally Sam Harris’ fault and by extension the fault of atheist advocates. Seriously, this is infantile thinking that Zachiarias never escapes.
In Harris’s opinion the more religious you are the more likely you are to commit terrible acts. Harris predicts that his readers (in their Western societies) will immediately think of their peers who actually do jolly good things from a religious basis. Harris states that these people simply do not take their own faith seriously. For Harris the lukewarm in their faith who balance their religious beliefs with “common sense” are dangerous because they disable criticism of their more fundamentalist peers. For Harris you have to define these faith based philosophies from their most literal and logically extreme positions.
In The End of Reason, the more atheist you are the more likely you are to commit terrible acts. Zachiarias doesn’t waste much time on explaining pleasant luke warm atheists however. His book is shorter. Instead there are examples given of famous atheists which either imply they weren’t so atheist after all or make character assassinations of them. I was physically sickened by the distorted and homophobic description of Foucalt. Zachiarias suggests Foucalt wilfully contracted HIV to fulfil a death wish born of his atheism. Even the most basic scholar of Foucalt would guess that he would have liked to enjoy a long life and that like all gay men of the 70s had no idea AIDs was over the horizon. But Zachiarias has no time for the possibility of a happy gay atheist. For Zachiarias, Harris also is not taking his philosophy seriously because he is not suicidal. For Zachiarias, only something transcendant (or supernatural) can give meaning to life and because atheism supposedly rejects this it produces a meaningless life – the only logical result of which is either despair or the extreme pursuit of power and pleasure.
Both of these books are just filthy propaganda. There is simply no honest way a Christian apologist can maintain that relying on scripture or a direct experience of God doesn’t come with difficulties. In the end the Christian is operating from a theology which disagrees with other theologies often because of clear harms that it thinks those theologies will produce. Rev Phelps and his church of gay haters are theists.
There is equally no honest way that a historian can call religion a negative (or clearly positive) force in the world.  The most religious tend to be the most at odds with the world around them because religion enables this, but when the world around them is suggesting the slaughter of an indigineous people lo it’s the religious madmen in their way. Similarly it’s the most religious who led the campaign against slavery in the Western world. In fact if you believe that our time is any improvement on the past you have to credit religion for this to some extent because for all of history atheism has had a very small cultural influence.
Of course it’s also true that pretty much every war has had strong religious rhetoric supporting it. However, most great literature (Jane Austen for example) also has a religious basis. Hang on, why it’s almost as if religion permeated everything up until relatively recently. So yes, Capitalism, Colonialism, Democracy, Tyranny, Feminism, Patriarchy, Racism, Anti-Racism, that would be religions’ children. Secularism is a baby itself. Perhaps it can lay claim to Psychology?
So both books rely on bad sociology and bad history however the real crime is what Harris and Zachiarias do to philosophy.  I’ll refute Harris first because it’s so bleedingly obvious.
Harris makes the target of his attack “Faith”. Let’s accept its definition as the belief in something without evidence or deductions from evidence. What Harris fails to do is explain how he can have any kind of philosophy without atleast a modicum of this Faith. Even if you are an absolute empiricist who attempts to believe only in sense data you have to have some faith in sense data (the data can’t justify the data as this would be circular).
Now there are different types of “Faith” – there are assumptions, intuitions and convictions (in the Calvinist sense) – but these all share in our definition as beliefs based on something other than evidence or deductions based on evidence. Assumptions are the most mundane being just mental leaps over gaps in the logic. If you believe an assumption then your belief has a tentative and reluctant nature. Its like saying you know you’ve cheated. Assumptions are very open to being wrong.  Intuitions are a type of knowledge that emerges from the knower in a way that can’t be described from the evidence. If you can imagine perceiving with your “heart” or your “gut” or your “third eye” then you have the concept of intuition. Intuitions have some openness to being wrong. They can be overturned by new information leading to a new intuition. “Convictions” are a way of knowing that comes from the object of knowledge. This can be hard for modern people to comprehend because almost the only way we apply this kind of knowledge since the rise of science is in relation to God. The concept is that God, or the Scriptures or if you like a person or even an object communicates its “truth” so forcefully you will know it whereas if you just surveyed the evidence without that communication you could never be sure (even by intuition). Convictions are the least open to being wrong as they come from the source. It’s still possible that the source could be deceptive as in a devil masquerading as God but convictions are by their nature harder to challenge.
Now here’s the rub. You can’t have any system of knowledge without either assumptions, intuitions or convictions. Whatever your epistemology you have to have some kind of Faith. And the type of knowledge Harris and Zachiarias are contesting is in fact moral knowledge – knowing right from wrong. For that kind of knowledge you need a busload of Faith to get by (thankyou Lou Reed).
Why so much Faith (assumptions, intuitions or convictions) you may ask? The reason is a very old philosophical problem known as the is-ought divide. There is simply no way to get from what is (ie. The child is hurt) to what ought to be (ie. I should hug them) by deductive logic. You can only cross the divide with an assumption, intuition or conviction (or something derived from them). After all multiple conflicting oughts can be applied to any specific IS. (ie. The child is hurt so I should tell them to toughen up or avenge them with some dual katana action or ignore them) So Sam Harris is in a quandary because he attacks Faith but then can’t explain how he navigates a moral landscape without it.
Zachiarias’s mistake is to think that somehow he is in a different boat to Harris because he is a theist. Zachiarias states that because he has credible evidence that there IS a moral lawgiver in God, then he knows what he OUGHT to do. Can you spot the problem? Zachiarias omits to mention that he like Harris must have some Faith to cross the gap from Is to ought. What Zachiarias means is that he knows God is the LEGITIMATE moral lawgiver but this legitimacy can’t be derived from the evidence because the evidence will only show what is – not what ought to be. Zachiarias is either making an assumption (ie. A creator has moral rights), relying on intuition (ie. Feels like a loving God) or receiving conviction (ie.Being claimed by the Holy Spirit).
And... this is important... if Zachiarias can allow himself to use Faith to cross the divide from Is to Ought then he can’t fairly deny the same to an atheist. Why can’t an atheist assume, intuit or even be convicted by a moral position. Conviction is a hard one to imagine without a personality to communicate its truth but I wouldn’t deny the language to the atheist entirely. It’s possible to say that the oneness of all beings is a truth that convicts. Or the dignity of another person.
Even more importantly (I repeat) what IS doesn’t lead to what OUGHT to be. There is no way to conclude from the statement that there IS no God that one OUGHT to be suicidal or a Stalinist dictator or anything. Zachiarias joins a chorus of Christian apologists who argue that whimsical cruelty, naked self-interest or paradoxically self-destruction can be logically deduced from atheism. That statement is nonsense. Even if we make the mistaken claim that a theistic IS contains an undeniable OUGHT then all an atheistic ISN’T would contain is the space for other OUGHTs including infact the theistic one. Whatever moral system the atheist ends up with (including an amoral one) can’t be a pure conclusion of their atheism.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said is that theistic beliefs are more conducive to the reception of conviction as the means of bridging the gap between IS and OUGHT. Atheistic beliefs are more conducive to using intuition or assumption with the latter preferred by empiricists or logical positivists (your typical “New Atheist”). Because conviction is the hardest of the three to overturn while assumption is the most tentative theists are more likely to have stronger moral convictions than the New Atheists. Whether greater conviction is a good thing or not depends on the situation and one’s own moral assessment. Harris can present the conviction of a terrorist bomber and be sure that his western readers will recoil in disgust. Zachiarias can present the idea of ambivalence towards the modern sexual slave trade and expect his readership to strongly disapprove. In fact though, there is only a soft distinction behind these exaggerations. There are also hard-line atheistic moralists and morally flexible theists.
Even the above summary of the theist-“new atheist” distinction over morality is dubious. Most of our moral decisions are not about child abuse or mass murder, the examples that tend to dominate these books. How much should I sacrifice for those needier than me is a more relevant moral question for both atheists and theists.  A very small number of people would believe that they can hold a very certain and unchanging answer to this question. And the line between what IS and any such answer is likely to be highly circuitous, involving multiple assumptions, intuitions and convictions.
The genre of pop-philosophy which debates theism wants to make out that whether you believe in God or not is supremely important. The End of Faith and The End of Reason in particular pretend it is supremely important to ones morality. In doing so they have to deliberately overlook the dilemma of the IS-OUGHT divide. It makes for a black and white world for both authors and a dumbing down of their readership.


  1. Hi Tony

    It's my first time to your blog. There is lots here! They all stimulate thoughts for me, but I do not have time to respond to them all.

    One thought struck me as I read this article - both Harris and Zachiarias are both responding personally to their beliefs. That is, what they believe, or don't believe, is personal to them. You state this as a negative, but I suggest this is a positive because everything about God, theism, or non-theism, as you would say, is personal. It is personal to you. It is personal to me. If we rob the personal from arguments, if that were even possible, you would have two people arguing academically about things they don't care about.

    So I see the personal as good. And, in this sense, whether you believe in God, or not, is subjectively important.

    Pastor Nathan

  2. Thanks Nathan. You make a great point. I an actually very interested in the subjective ways (I might say the imaginative ways) our beliefs about reality inform our morality.

    My real rage in this article is against the view that a certain view of reality is, via logical necessity, equal to a morality. That's what Harris and Zaccharias do in my opinion.

    In raging against that I probably do give the impression that drawing morality from our reality is somehow inappropriate. I certainly don't mean to. That creative and subjective leap is more important than all my blather to date.

    It's a lot harder to write about because of the noise of people like Harris and Zaccharias. People may presume when I say how my non-theism builds into my morality that I'm claiming something universal - something that is opposed to theism even. Still I should have a go.

  3. I think you're playing a bit too fast and loose with 'is' and 'ought' (equivocating) instead of understanding them the way they are meant i.e. descriptions and prescriptions. Saying that "from the statement that there IS no God that one OUGHT to be suicidal" is not the kind of 'ought' that the Humean is-ought problem is talking about; more a logical outcome - one I'd not argue btw - as opposed to a moral duty.
    Moreover, to say that the is-ought applies to God is also equivocation as it's not a description in the sense of 'the child is hurt'. Rather, we must consider the idea of *authority*. The argument is not that God "is" therefore we "ought" to obey him, so much as because of *who* God is, and the authority he has, we have an obligation to obey.
    If I'm driving along and see a person try to wave me to stop, it's impossible from that description (that "is") to draw any kind of prescription that I 'ought' to pull over. However, if that person were a police officer, by virtue of their authority, there would be an obligation - I 'ought' to pull over according to the law. It's perhaps a subtle, but very important distinction, and when we talk about authority we're not talking about 'is' in the way Hume was - the point of the is-ought problem is that without authority, you can't get from a description to a prescription.

  4. Authority seems to be just folding an "OUGHT" into an "IS" and I maintain that this can only happen through an act of faith (assumption, intuition or conviction). It is not evident. There are people who believe we have a moral duty to resist authority (say teenagers) and others who beleive we have a moral duty to obey it. You appear to be the latter but how would you argue with someone who agrees with the former.
    Or to put this another way you are attributing to God a legitimate authority. Obviously (legitimite) authority contains an obligation to obey but that is just a tautology. Legitimite means the type of authority we have an obligation to obey. Your attribution of legitimite authority to God is an act of faith or logical leap.
    You show that this is what you are doing when you use the example of the police officer. You can only say that we ought to pull over according to the law (what IS) you can't say that you ought to pull over -full stop. Similarly you could say that we have to obey God according to Gods law but that's all.
    I'm guessing when you are conflating Gods being with our obligation to obey (or worship) Her then you are responding to something profoundly obvious to you. Something about God makes you certain you SHOULD treat them AS YOUR God. It is a creators rights perhaps? Or their omnipotence? Or a conviction that they love you? That obviousness is exactly what we all feel when we intuit something or recieve a conviction or even make an assumption.
    I'm not saying you "shouldn't" do this. Go ahead, live by faith, I do. I'm just saying that you're not occupying a position determined by logical necessity.