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May 11, 2010

When theology infiltrates philosophy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It is clear that the sustained attacks on religion by the new/unapologetic atheists are having an effect, with apologists scrambling to find ways to respond. One tack they take is to not engage directly with the arguments but simply to disparage them by saying that the arguments of the new/unapologetic atheists are not new, that they were made a long time ago. This is correct. One can find strong criticisms of religious beliefs going back thousands of years and what we atheists say nowadays is not fundamentally different, because there have been no new arguments in favor of god either. What is new about the new atheists is the emphasis.

The earlier atheists tended to focus on combating the philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of god enunciated by people Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, and the like. The modern atheist movement draws upon the success of science and relentlessly stresses the necessity of evidence for any belief. When religious apologists try to drag the discussion back to vague philosophical issues by talking about ontology, prime movers, ground of all being and the like, our response tends to be "Yeah, yeah, that's great, have fun with that. But where's the evidence in support of your position? What evidence do you have that your god exists at all?"

It is this turn of events that has thrown the apologists for a loop and they are trying to shift the focus away from evidence (because they don't have any) and back to the turf of philosophy and theology by suggesting that this relentless focus on evidence is a sign of low intellect and crass materialism, that we are simply not engaging with the case for god at the appropriate level of high philosophy.

Theologian David B. Hart is a member of this tribe. He thinks that the new atheism movement is just a passing fad and in an oh-so-weary tone dripping with disdain, argues that we new atheists are ignorant and shallow and simply not up to snuff when compared to the grand old atheists who were willing to engage with philosophy. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize this argumentation as an example of what I have called the Kierkegaard gambit. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

In a long and dense essay critiquing the works of the current crop of new/unapologetic atheists, Hart lays out his case.

To be fair, the shallowness is not evenly distributed. Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply,

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

He then explains what kinds of things that we new/unapologetic should be talking about. As often happens when we enter the world of deep theology, any idea that might exist is buried it in a thicket of dense obscurantist prose. Here's an example:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

My reaction to this was: Huh? "[A]bstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such"? What does that mean? This kind of language is what results when theology invades philosophy.

I think philosophy is a very valuable discipline, enabling people to develop the tools to think clearly, probe deeply to the core of ideas, and sharpen our use of language. Theology, however, is another story. It is largely the futile attempt to justify belief in the existence of god in the absence of any evidence. Theologians use the language of philosophy, not to sharpen and clarify and enlighten, but to create a fog of words to hide the fact that they have no evidence for god. Theology is, to co-opt George Orwell's phrase, an attempt to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. When you have no evidence, words become your shield.

Next: But what does Hart actually believe?

POST SCRIPT: Science versus religion

When you see the tremendous advances that science has brought us compared to religion, you can understand why theologians keep trying to drag us back to rehash the metaphysical arguments of the past. It is because theology has nothing new to offer.

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Comments

These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself.

Hart of course conveniently omits any mention of the fact that in all such cases we are talking about objects we have made and the people who make them - or in the case of a geological feature, the elements.

Posted by kuraL on May 11, 2010 11:17 AM

I've recently started posing the following questions to theists: If God told you to kill someone (as he often did in the Bible) would you do it? And how would you even know it was God, and not Satan or a mental illness? How did the people of the Old Testament confirm that directives were from God...or did they just do what any old voice in their head told them to do?

Watch them squirm with that one.

Posted by Stan the Composter on May 11, 2010 07:52 PM