Thursday, November 10, 2011


The scientific community is generally quite atheistic, at least that is a common self-appraisal.  Yet scratch the surface and a relatively empty cauldron seems to appear.  Contemporary atheism sometimes takes the form of snarky snipes at organized religion in general, easy targets due to outlandish positions apparently derived from political exigencies, especially in Christianity and Islam in recent years.  Authors who seek to be taken seriously, such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, although raising serious and important issues, in the end look a bit like comedian Bill Maher in his humorous, but in the end cowardly film “Religulous.” As Terry Eagleton has noted, those of us who have been politically engaged with opposition to US military intervention or struggles of the poor world-wide frequently find ourselves marching side by side with nuns and priests, rarely with evangelical atheists.  As an atheist myself , this is troubling.
            If the contemporary scientist is serious about atheism, some reflection and study would seem to be in order.  Newton, for example, was not in any respect an atheist, and probably the vast majority of men and women who lived prior to the writings of T. H. Huxley were similarly non-atheists.  Is it that Newton and his compatriots perhaps did not have at their disposal the deep thinking of atheists like Dawkins, Hitchins and Harris? Certainly not.  What they did seem to have that many contemporary scientists seem to lack, is a commitment to examine the issue seriously. Atheists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were proposing an idea that yet today is challenging and should, in my view, be taken seriously.  If the atheist position (which I embrace) is to be more than throwing darts at human beings thought to be intellectually inferior, it needs to be examined as carefully as scientists examine the results of their scientific experiments.
            It is first necessary to carefully distinguish among Theism, Deism, and Atheism, not as easy as it may seem.  The Theistic/Atheistic dichotomy is a red herring today, even though it may have been extremely important in the seventeenth century.  The debates in those days, incuding among Newton and his contemporaries, was between Theism and Deism, the latter perhaps identified in later writings with what is today called Atheism.  The Theism/Deism dichotomy basically refers to the current activities of God.  True theists have it that the omniscient being that created heaven and earth continues his activities and could, if he wished, at any time simply change the rules.  The reality of miracles made the utility of prayer evident.  If God really could make the wheat grow taller, it made sense to do whatever needed to be done to get him to do so, whether conducting strange rituals or simply requesting he do so (prayer). 
            Theism was in the end not convenient for political power.  If God could be persuaded to simply change the rules, how could the king or queen claim sovereignty?  If that sovereignty was not absolute, which it could not be if a serendipitous God could cancel it at will, could not the rabble all get together and pray very very hard for a change in the rules of sovereignty?  Indeed, in the seventeenth century there were mystical challenges emerging constantly with claims of authority not convenient to power.  An alternative was needed.
            Deism was indeed that alternative.  Yes God created all of the universe, including the rules by which it ran.  However, once his creation was complete, he stepped out of the way.  The “God hypothesis” is still there, but the supernaturalistic ideas of miracles and response to prayer were dramatically diminished, if not eliminated almost entirely.  Newton and contemporaries were Deists.  Indeed, Newton’s continual claim to seek an understanding of the mind of God was not in any sense metaphor, but rather an abiding faith in the Christian God who indeed did create not only the physical world but the laws of physics that governed it.
            It is worth reflecting on how philosophical principles were developing at this time.  Thinking deeply about the difference between Theism and Deism it becomes evident that science is difficult, perhaps pointless, under Theism.  What scientific laws are we trying to discover? The way God has decided to have them work today, but perhaps not tomorrow.  And if we figure out that objects are attracted to one another according to the square of their mass, will they be so attracted  according to the cube tomorrow?  In order for the scientific project to proceed at all, Theism needed to be superseded, which is precisely what Deism did.  But let us not confuse the need to reject Theism with Atheism itself.
            Many self-proclaimed Atheists today are in fact Deists in disguise.  Hitchens cannot really claim without doubt that the attack of the US on Iraq was justifiable, except as a truly religious commitment to some sort of belief that the current (and quite temporary) discourse of the West is clearly superior to that of the Middle East.  And Harris’ condemnation of Chomsky’s careful analytical critique of the Israeli treatment of the occupied territories can come only from a religious commitment to some sort of Zionist dream, even as he rejects Judaism as formal religion.  The list can go on with the most famous contemporary spokespersons for Atheism.  Hoisted on their own petard, they’re analysis is not wrong in its critique of organized religion, but naïve in its suggestion that it is true Atheism.
            More difficult to criticize is the more recently evolved “nature” religion.  E. O. Wilson gives us a naïve deterministic version (Pleistocene people who loved nature were competitively superior to those who didn’t and thus “biophilia” arises as a consequence of natural selection), which in the end excuses him for shallow thought about conservation.  Yet who can deny the feeling some of us get from the natural world, vast expanses of landscapes either directly experienced or filtered through the lenses of romantic painters, the elegance of relativity theory, even, for some, Godel’s theorem (Wiles was brought to tears when he recalled the moment he had the insight that allowed him to prove Fermat’s last theorem).  It is, as Karen Armstrong notes in her “The Case for God,” as imponderable as the almost physiological reaction one feels upon hearing a fine piece of music.  Can my ecstatic feeling upon hearing a Paul Desmond saxophone solo or seeing for the first time a silky anteater, be understood materialistically?  When, as a youth, I “accepted Jesus Christ as my savior” I had similar feelings.
            The sense of wonder and ecstasy that is part of the human experience may in the end be so enigmatic that the Atheists’ dream of making it all make sense without resort to religious-like principles may fail.  Indeed we seem much like naïve Europeans.  In eighteenth century Amsterdam Picart and Bernard produced “The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World,” nothing really more than an anthropologist’s treatment of the world’s religious beliefs.  Yet given the times, it was profoundly seditious. It suggested that religious beliefs were somehow equal to one another and that neither Christianity nor Judaism were anything particularly exceptional. Understandably, those who wielded power were not pleased, yet the faith of Christians and Jews never regained hegemony.
            Are those who today unquestionably elevate science or nature not similar in their arrogance to the Europeans who could not see alternatives to Judeo-Christian traditions?  It is true that ignorant rejection of science by anti-evolutionists or climate science deniers suggests that all we scientists circle the wagons.  It is also true that assuming the natural world needs to be decimated for the needs of capitalism seems to compel us to defend the utility, if not beauty, of the natural world. But philosophically, is our assumption tenable that Science and/or the Natural World should be defended without question? And if it is, how is that different from Yahweh or, for that matter, your favorite poltergeist?


At November 13, 2011 at 11:30 AM , Blogger dave x said...

"Can my ecstatic feeling upon hearing a Paul Desmond saxophone solo or seeing for the first time a silky anteater, be understood materialistically?"

It depends what we mean by 'understood'. I think that neuro-science and cognitive science will eventually be able to give us scientifically adequate explanation of what is involved if they haven't already. But does such an explanation constitute what we colloquially mean by 'understanding'? It may be that certain sorts of valid explanations may not be capable of producing the sensation of 'understanding' something. If we ask 'what does it all mean?' and science says 'nothing' it may be that that is not an answer we can 'understand'. Religion on the other hand gives us nice stories with protagonists and a plot, and we can 'understand' that perfectly well. Of course it is also false. The question in my mind is can we live with the sort of explanations science gives us? I don't know. I think I can, though sometimes I find it disturbing.

So is there any ultimate reason to be scientific rather than embracing the spaghetti monster or Yahweh? No - and science itself suggests to us that there can be no such reason. Rather what we are left with are local reasons and the sort of meanings, values and commitments that we are born with or construct. That doesn't mean we have -no- criteria for decision making but it does mean that that criteria is local to us, is partial, can only be pushed so far before it breaks down. The commitment to science then, or the commitment to a better and more just world, are 'existential' commitments. They can't be justified on some ultimate or absolute level, only locally amid the messiness of human life and civilization.


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