Monday, June 21, 2010

Throwing Out The Bible With the Bathwater

On the question of whether there should or shouldn't have been evangelical atheists (those who prefer conversion to conversation) on the recent "science and faith" panel at the World Science Festival, I take the attitude, sure, why not. It may be true that, as Josh Rosenau writes that "someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold." But that's a risk worth taking. It's difficult to remain rhetorically pure when engaged in dialogue with other people. Whether or not it's fair to call the New Atheists "strident" or "uncivil," one sure way to moot the question is to get them--and everybody else in the room--off script, and maybe even listening to each other.

Josh makes a good point, however, in a follow up to that piece that the reason there were no Dawkinses on that panel was not that evangelical atheism was an excluded viewpoint, but that the panel was comprised of academics specializing in the boundary between science and religion. None of those who fly the flag of New Atheism are especially active in this academic field (though Dennett has dabbled in it), and most show outright hostility to its very existence (in the form of "The Courtier's Reply").

This is a point that anthropologist Scott Atran has repeatedly made, most notably in his exchanges with Sam Harris a few years ago: most New Atheists know very little (and care to know very little) about religion apart form a general sense that it is stupid and dangerous. Where it veers away from stereotype, they tune it out in the interest of doctrinal purity. They consistently choose personal anecdote over rigorous argument, but when pressed to take the matter seriously, and check their folk psychology about it at the door, they protest it's a non-subject after all, like "fairyology."

Here, for example is the blogger ArithmoQuine [via John Wilkins], responding to a Guardian article on this subject by Mary Midgley
The larger question is whether a naturalistic, atheistic worldview can provide as hopeful and happy life as a religious one, and whether that hope and happiness are more rational than the hope and happiness one gets from religion. Although we could not hope for a future afterlife in heaven, we could still hope for human progress here on earth. Theism may, and often does, focus people's attention on that false hope and takes the focus away from the value of life on earth. Not all theists have done this, but I don't think it's a strawman to say that atheism and naturalism more properly focus our attempts at happiness for ourselves and others solely on earth. (my emphasis)
This is now a standard move in this debate, and I'm convinced it is an unconscious one, since it lacks the rational stamp one would otherwise expect from professional philosophers. Establish, for fairness' sake, that "not all" religion prioritizes the happiness of the afterlife over earthly life, while at the same time claiming that such a prioritization is the meaningful essence of the thing we call religion. The only way to maintain the legitimacy of the resulting split is to rig the game by defining "the value of life on earth" in a way that only a naturalist metaphysics can satisfy it. (Note especially the attempt to classify one form of happiness as "more rational" than another. Is our happiness now supposed to be instrumental to some other end?) If we're going to assume, for example, that utilitarianism will be our prevailing ethical scheme, then anything but the strictest naturalistic view becomes instantly obviated. But this is hardly the only metaphysical option available to those who would reject the establishment of a world better than the one we now live in--a category that includes most humans, religious or not, who have ever lived.

ArithmoQuine's attitude that religion is reducible to what-bugs-me-about-religion is, let's admit, an understandable one. We humans readily generalize out of our discomfort and disappointment, hoping to find easy patterns that we can evade in the future. While this has obvious survival value, done carelessly it isn't much more than a form of bigotry, which is to say, when our skin is on the line we are not at our most thoughtful. Our politics is currently saturated with this mode of thinking, pointing to a collective sense of insecurity. At such times we count on the contemplative disciplines (like philosophy) to challenge our biases and see the truth of the world in a more complex aspect--which, fortuitously, can often help us out of the binds that seemed to pin down our earlier thinking in such stark and basic terms.

Science, when it is not engaged as merely the technocratic instrument of Capital, has the capacity to be one such contemplative discipline. And indeed, every single one of the New Atheists holds extremely high standards for truth value in the sciences, as they should. We can see this standard being maintained in real time in their present efforts to defend evolutionary theory against proponents of ID and creationism. One reason it is so difficult to wage such a campaign is that evolutionary biology is extremely counterintuitive. Misconceptions abound, are seized upon by ideologues, and become very hard to discredit. Advocacy for the more complex and more nuanced view of life takes a patient and diligent effort.

Physics, too, has for several centuries now been describing a world very different from the one that appears before our untutored eye. Even something so basic as the fact that larger objects do not fall to earth any faster than smaller ones must be taught anew to each generation, since our folk wisdom would apparently have it otherwise.

What happens to this patience and rigor when the subject is changed to religion? Suddenly dilletantism becomes respectable again, and personal anecdote is allowed to pass for substantiation. Sean Carroll writes in his blog Cosmic Variance that "It’s somewhat insulting to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others." I don't think anyone has characterized Sean, whose intellect is prodigious, as being "incapable" of anything, but his unwillingness to be thoughtful on this subject can be seen, for example, in statements like this:
Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.”
This meets the ear of anyone who has studied religion even on an amateur basis with the same clattering sound made by a stereotype like "science typically encourages overdevelopment of the intellect at the price of emotional and spiritual atrophy." Even if such a statement were true, it is "unproductive" in its implication that science is out of balance with human needs, and should be mitigated before it cripples us entirely.

The fallacy, then, is this: religion and superstition frequently coexist, therefore they are inseparable. This is the logic of the sandcastle against the tide.


Here one often encounters the objection that where religion does not invoke superstition--such as with the religion of mystics, of theologians, Jungians, Kabbalists, Sufis, and Zen Buddhists--it is inauthentic, "watered down," in Jerry Coyne's phrase, its truth claims no longer pertaining to the events of the world. A religion that offers only stories, instead of facts, objects the objection, is like the proverbial knife brought to the gun fight.

I've written before that the boundary between facts and stories is not quite as impermeable as we like to think. This blog has always cleaved to the aphorism of Muriel Rukeyser that "the world is made of stories, not atoms," expressed in slightly more unpacked form by philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch:
We are ... moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in life must be discussed in words. This is why it is and always will be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist and if there is a Shakespeare of science, his name is Aristotle.
One must gird one's loins with such quotations when there are blog posts like this one, by Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking, reminding us that rationalism is prone to superstition of its own, namely that Reason (logos) can divine "truths about the world" on its own, without inter-reliance on a poetic, mythic, or metaphysical function. Like Dawkins with theology, Galef doesn't seem to think that literary theory is a subject worth engaging with, and as a result, her post has kind of a marshmallow quality to it. But she nevertheless manages to strenuously challenge the idea that literature provides "a good source of knowledge about the world."

Galef's argumentum against literature is largely based on a failure of realism, answering the assertion by Harold Bloom and James Wood that literature informs us with this line of thought:
But why would we expect literature to be a reliable source of knowledge about "the way things are"? After all, the narratives which are the most gripping and satisfying to read are not the most representative of how the world actually works. They have dramatic resolutions, foreshadowing, conflict, climax, and surprise. People tend to get their comeuppance after they misbehave. People who pursue their dream passionately tend to succeed. Disaster tends to strike when you least expect it. These narratives are over-represented in literature because they're more gratifying to read; why would we expect to learn from them about "the way things are"?
Just as we saw in the reluctance of the New Atheists to actually study the subject of their dismissal, Galef's analysis here suffers from a lack of intimacy with her target, confusing literature, in the sense that Bloom and Wood mean it, and popular fiction. The latter, seen most often in the form of television drama, but also in genre fiction, serves mostly as a kind of wish fulfillment, where, in Galef's phrase "People tend to get their comeuppance after they misbehave. People who pursue their dream passionately tend to succeed." Whether these things happen in real life (they often do) is immaterial. What matters is that we want them to happen, and by experiencing such narratives we gratify our own fantasy-based needs.

Actual literature, by contrast, shuns such simple gratification. What we want (at first) is not by any means what we get* in Lear, Oedipus, End Game, or The Metamorphoses, but through the author's dedication in painting as truthful a picture as humanly possible, we come to align ourselves with that truth despite our initial distaste for it. If we're sensitive enough (a word Galef treats in this post as a slur) we come to see ourselves and the people in our lives better for having known these stories. If there is a higher aspiration for truth I cannot think offhand what it would be.


Which raises the question of whether a religion that is made up "only" of stories is really all that watered down, and whether these stories would be any more full-strength delivered as facts. Stories are (among other things) the vehicles that connect facts to our experience, which is why Plato considered learning as a form of remembering (anamnesis). We know what we have observed and felt and seen, but this knowledge only takes on meaning when it is formalized, ordered, or re-membered. Logic is the rarefied form of this reassembly, abstract and generalized, but without incarnation in story it is sterile and without life, and because the truth is a living thing, a logical fact can never be really true. To become true, a fact needs depiction.

And yet such depictions are not themselves irrational. A story well told has nothing extraneous in it, and neither does a piece of music well played or a dance well choreographed. It takes a bit of training to see why Lear, or Endgame, or the "Moonlight Sonata" are "true" (or, to return to an earlier dispute with John Wilkins, why the Parable of the Talents is true.) Just as it takes training to see why Einstein's field equations or Fermat's last theorum are true (so I hear.) There is no shame in pointing out that to deny the truth value of great art is to deny reason itself, but such is the tenor of the age, that prefers the flat certainties of objectivity, to any real shot at depth.

* Even in the comedies of Shakespeare, where in the end the good prosper and the wicked suffer, it is not cosmic justice that balances the scales, but the relative rectitude of the characters' behavior throughout the play. As in fairy tales, the weddings and riches and  restored social standing found in Act Five symbolize inner states of well-being, not material prosperity, and by these signs is a psychological truth expressed.


Jeff said...

"but such is the tenor of the age, that prefers the flat certainties of objectivity, to any real shot at depth."

Objectivity may be certain within tolerances, but it cannot explain subjectivity. It is therefore not exclusively fundamental (in a reductionist sense), and incomplete with limited depth. Subjectivity is not an objectively observable property of any physical system in the universe, and that is an insurmountable problem for the hardcore materialist who wishes to explain life, the universe, and everything via science, for which objectivity is a prior. Eliminativists would say that it is an objective fact that you are standing on the earth, but if you are aware of it, then that awareness is an illusion (what's wrong with this picture?).

Humans always seem to want to reduce everything to some notion of essense - what are the fundamental forces, reasons, objects, subjects, Gods, etc that make everything tick? Writers and artists are not entirely immune. Muriel Rukeyser said that the world is made of stories, not atoms. Nevertheless, postmodernism aside, that may hold true for science as well as literature. Facts need the glue of a story to make sense. It seems that, in the end, one way or another, it is up to you to discover and decide what stories are important and truthful to you. That process will not be pain-free. But subjective pain and pleasure are another topic...

Kur said...

The real problem [and this infects nearly all the various sides of the debates] with arguments over religion and science is that neither of these terms really refer to anything.  Attempts to distinguish religion from non-religion and science from non-science always fail.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who has understood Wittgenstein's discussions of games and familiy resemblences in the Investigations.

Instead of there being discrete phenomena called 'science' and 'religion', there are myriad various groups of people doing and thinking a great variety of things.  Even terms like Christianity or Physics are too vague and differential to use as points of contention.  To have a meaningful discussion or argument, it is necessary to engage with specific people or specific groups with particular behaviors and ideas.  So, instead of asserting things like 'religion is irrational' or 'science is too reductionist', we should pick out particular people, ideas, and theses and engage with them rather than relying on simulacrum and strawmen.

Michael Fugate said...

One thing that always bothers me about these posts is the one-sided view. Do you believe Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Genie Scott, Josh Rosenau, Chris Mooney, etc. know any more about religion than Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Ophelia Benson, Dan Dennett, and PZ Myers? 

I agree about the stories though. Educators need to be better storytellers. I do think religions failed by trying to go global - they would be much better off with an evolving oral tradition, than with a written text stuck in prehistory/ancient history while human understanding has moved on. Stories need to be updated with each telling. 

Anna said...

@Michael Fugate,

The major religions survive because they combine written and oral tradition.  The written text is constantly being reinterpreted in the light of different cultures, different generations and different readers.  And the point of this post, as I read it, is that 'human understanding' is precisely what those traditions deal with and foster.

underverse said...


I don't see why not defending people I don't bother to mention makes me one-sided. Maybe you intend some kind of enemy of my enemy is my friend kind of logic, but I'm not trying to prop up the big-name 'Accomodationists" in this post.

At any rate, the accomodationist wars are not, to my eye, about whether religion qua religion is good or bad, harmful or benign, but whether it is any one thing, as the New Atheists would have it; whether it must always violate NOMA; whether it is only true and authentic in its more superstitious modalities, all of which I explicitly reject in this post.

underverse said...


Can you point to where I resort to strawmanning here?

underverse said...

The need to generalize is an inescapable function of symbolic thought and communication. To conceptualize is to make the specific general, and poets do this just as much as scientists do.

The difference is, I think, that scientific reductionism is exclusivist in a way that poetic reductionism (at its best) is not. When Sean Carroll writes that "Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles" he means that other descriptions are less real, less true. When Muriel Rukeyser writes "the world is made of stories," it's intended as a way of looking at things, without shutting off other descriptions at the source.

Jeff said...

Then why did she say, "...and not atoms." ;)  But nevertheless, I think you express her intent accurately. It was a figure of speech contrasting her viewpoint with the prevailing scientific one. The materialist viewpoint, on the other hand, is quite seriously exclusivist.

Nick Smyth said...

Excellent stuff.

I confess that I do not know where you get the energy to continue to point things like this out. 

I fully support the idea that intellectual debates ought to be "accessible", to anyone who wants to spend a little time figuring the discussion out.  The growth of popular science/philosophy/religion blogs is a necessary step towards this goal.

However, having personally tangled with both Galef and Carrall, I am left with the impression that one step forward is accompanied by two steps back.  I would prefer a world where haughty, educated elites debate and decide such matters to one in which uninformed yet "accessible" people dominate public discussion.

The energy-sapping part for me is, as you eloquently note, that such people are often quite educated in other areas and apply properly rigorous standards to their own fields.  When religion and/or philosophy are on the table, such standards simply fly out the window.  

Keep up the good fight, ol' chum... I have no energy for it anymore.

Michael Fugate said...

You didn't answer the question, did you? Why not? 

Michael Fugate said...

Really? Human understanding? What does that mean?

underverse said...

Michael, if you want to explain the relevance of your question I will certainly consider it.

Nick Smyth said...


I think Kur's comment is usefully read as supporting you, here... investigating the facts of the matter about "science" and "religion" leads you into the sort of Wittgensteinian problems he mentions, and these are precisely the kinds of complications and nuances that Galef and Carrall will miss by refusing to do these investigations.

underverse said...

Ideally Kur will return and clarify all. But his comment seemed like a "pox on both your houses" without offering alternatives except in the broadest sense. "Religion" and "Science" are terms that need unpacking in a way that, say "oil" and "water" do not, but that's just what I've tried to do here, exploring (not exhaustively) what they obtain. In fact I used "science is too reductionist" as an example of how not to defend humanities, literature, or religion, and I'm curious if Kur agrees with this.

Wittengenstein is an immortal, but his theory of family resemblances doesn't seem to me especially fruitful. Our categories may be hopelessly contingent, but not in such a way to resist heightening their meaning through further examination. The category of "Games" is (perhaps) a miche mache only because we haven't inquired more deeply into it. Which is to say, in a broad sense, that our Metaphysics needs more attention--which we knew already.

Anna said...


As you were the one who used the phrase 'human understanding' in your earlier comment, I'm interested to know what you meant by it. 

As I read your comment below, it seemed to me that you viewed written religious texts as static.  They aren't.  Religions survive because their written texts continually get reinterpreted in the context of new cultures, new knowledge and new ideas about what it means to be human. In effect, religious stories do get updated, because they are understood and explicated within whatever cultural context they are read.

Kur said...

Not strawmanning, but using simulacrum.  If a word, say "science", has no referent then we are going to be better off simply not using it if we are attempting to engage in precise, rational analysis.  Certainly we can do things with word like that, but it invites inevitable and irresolvable disagreement because there will not be actual answers to the questions we pose using such terms.  If someone asks "what color are unicorns?", what can those who attempt to answer it do other than simply come up with an arbitrary answer and then stick to it.  If someone disagrees, there is no way we can resolve this disagreement.  So, the alternative I propose is to simply not use needlessly vague terms.  And it seems 'science' and 'religion' fall under that heading.