Thursday, September 06, 2007

In God We Doubt

Well, after I thank Grandmere Mimi for the link, I'm going to have to look around for a copy of this, John Humphrys new book In God We Doubt. He writes about his own spiritual journey, and along the way takes a swipe or two at Richard Dawkins, which is always a good time:

Militant atheists seem to have enormous difficulty in understanding why so many people – many of them just as clever as they are – manage to live by their beliefs. Here’s what Dawkins told Laurie Taylor in New Humanist magazine: “I don’t know what it would mean to say that we live by faith in our daily life. There is, I suppose, a sense that we are sometimes too busy to reason everything out, but otherwise I don’t know what it means.”
Just on the scale of reason alone, the very idea that Dawkins "reason[s] everything out" is simply laughable. David Hume would have a field day with that remark, not to mention Kant, Kierkegaard, Socrates, Sartre, and Derrida. I can only imagine the comic novel Voltaire could make out of that innocently naive comment. But the real heart of the article is not the swipes at "militant atheism," as Humphry calls it; it is the insight into human experience:

Trite it may be, but most of us can see the beauty as well as the horrors of the world and, sometimes, humanity at its most noble. We sense a spiritual element in that nobility and, in the miracle of unselfish love and sacrifice, something beyond our conscious understanding. You don’t need to be an eastern mystic or a devout religious believer to feel that. We should not – we must not – be browbeaten by arrogant atheists and meekly accept their “deluded” label. They are no more capable of understanding this most profound mystery than a small child making his first awe-inspiring discoveries.
If you get the feeling the wheel is being reinvented, you aren't alone. Humprhys is not really telling us anything William James hasn't already pointed out:

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
But in this new age of reason, reinventing the wheel to prove how wise we are today, is all the rage. And I don't mean to point a finger at Humphrys when I say that, but sadly, the public discussion of these issues is a miserably informed and largely ignorant one, fought out almost entirely on the misbegotten Romanctic landscape of one's own personal experience. Dawkins can't imagine what "faith" is, as he relates it to religion particularly, so he can't imagine it has any reality. Dawkins also shows no knowledge of the famous essays by James, nor any glimmer of the work of Wittgenstein on language games, and yet he is credible because he is a scientist, he is militant, and he is an atheist.

Humphrys is, on this battlefield, little better. He brings only personal anecdotes to the discussion, and while he admits at one point that his sample size is too small to be of statistical significance, he still insists that:

I HAVE talked to many people about God – eminent theologians, historians, scientists, clerics – but let me finish with a woman called Mrs Buchanan.
The anecdote that follows that sentence, though, is quite good, and really quite explanatory. If his argument could be summed up by Shakespeare: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," it's still a good argument nonetheless. The issue remains: are the militant atheists, only a handful of all humanity at any one time, even a minority of a minority in Western countries, really the only sane ones, and the rest of the world insane? Can anyone find that position credible?

Which is not to say numbers are proof, but rather to focus us on the question of proof, the standards of proof allowed. Proof is actually a term we associate with logic, with truth tables and elaborate proofs of the validity of statements. The syllogism is that basic form: Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Socrates is mortal. It is valid not because Socrates is proven to be a man, or that men are proven to be mortal. It is valid because, given the validity of the first two statements, the conclusion about them can be drawn. But is Socrates a man? Are all men mortal? The syllogism cannot tell us. Where is the proof? Chase that down far enough, you end up with the empiricism of David Hume, and you find you can make only two kinds of statements: synthetic, and analytic. And one kind of statement is pointless, verifying information that really advances no valuable knowledge, and the other is unverifiable and therefore must be rejected. What kinds of statements would the latter be? "I love my wife" would be a fine example. Try proving that one empirically; yet try proving to me that it is a pointless statement. So even as I enjoy Humphrys' work, I note that we still haven't advanced the ball very much, at least not in the popular discussion. Why are these blatant mischaracterizations of religion still giving us so much trouble? Maybe it's because neither side brings that much ammunition to the argument; and yet the stores of knowledge sit waiting for someone to examine them....

On the other hand, I appreciate Humphrys if only because he brings us Giles Fraser:
He [Fraser] is embarrassed by “stupid” Christians thinking they know more about the nature of the universe than clever atheists like Dawkins. Ask him to prove that God exists – one of the subjects of his philosophy lectures at Oxford – and he cheerfully admits that he can’t. He goes further: “The so-called proofs of God’s existence are all rubbish.”

Ask him if the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened and he says: “Umm . . . dunno . . . can’t prove it.”

Ask him about evangelical Christians and he snorts: “Evangelicals have misunderstood the Bible. They turn it into some bloody Ikea manual.”

Ask him to sum up the state of battle between militant believers and militant atheists and he says: “Atheists have the best arguments, which makes belief such a precarious thing.”
Proofs of God's existence: well, I'm at risk of running that flat into the ground. Fraser is right: they are all rubbish. The more interesting question to me has become: why do we care about them? I have an answer or two; but I'm still knocking them into presentable form.

The resurrection? I consider that a confessional topic. I can't prove it; but I don't need to. Whether or not you confess it (i.e., believe it) is irrelevant to me, if we're going to argue about it. I'm not an apologist for it. And as for evangelicals turning the Bible into an "IKEA manual," well that's just lovely. I'm keeping that.

Some of the critique of religion I read on the web comes from, I think, a vague memory of Wordsworth, of how we are all "suckled on a creed outworn." The creed outworn, actually, is the doctrines of the European enlightenment, and European Romaniticism. The critique of religion these twin forces are usually focussed on is the question of theodicy, the question of suffering, of which Humphrys has a great deal to say (he and Chris Hedges could certainly swap notes on that issue for quite a long time). America is often held up as a product of the Enlightenment, but the question of suffering for the Founding Fathers was limited, largely, to white land owners. I know, I know, two different meanings of the root "suffer," and "suffrage" just sounds like "suffering." A poor pun, at best. But the suffering of slaves, or of Native Americans, didn't bother much of anybody during the Enlightenment. Indeed, the great theodicial issue of the European Enlightenment, the destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake (the event that really set Voltaire off on religion), mostly raised the question "Why do we suffer?" There's a notable shift in that concern in the experiences of Humphrys or Hedges, it should be noted. The theodicial issue goes on, but it needs addressing on its own terms.

Here's the real issue, and frankly, it brings us back to Harry Potter:

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the little old lady might use a different vocabulary to try to explain why they believe, but it comes to the same thing in the end. They believe because they believe. This is not about intellect or learning: it’s more basic than that. It is both more profound and more simple.
Start here: why isn't Harry just like Voldemort? If B.F. Skinner was right, environment should be a powerful shaping force (of course, Harry isn't a human being, he's a fictional construct, so dragging behaviorism into this is unfair; but bear with me, I'm not lashing out at a new target with this). Both Harry and Tom Riddle are raised in loveless environments, both find Hogwarts to be their first true "home." Maybe it's genetics, given their quite different parents (and so, pace Skinner, it's blood that will out). But isn't it all about "intellect or learning"? Don't we still prefer that answer, or the answer of the power of genetics, which we only know through intellect and learning, over the answer Dumbledore consistently gives, the answer Voldemort consistently sneers at: love?

Is love an emotion, or is love a force? War is a force that gives us meaning, Christopher Hedges says; is there, then, no place also for love? There's an interesting question, eh? Is love just another feeling, akin to anger, remorse, fear, hatred, lust, desire? Or is it something else entirely? Empiricists would not want to push that too far, but still Humphrys is right:

Strip from Christianity the notion of proof, evidence and historical events (or nonevents) and what drives belief has little to do with the head and a great deal to do with the heart.
Fraser makes the point, one I've arrived at independently, and used more than once: Explain to me, in scientific or empirical terms, without resort to reductio arguments, precisely why I love my wife. Perhaps my love for my child is because she carries my genetic code (Dawkin's "selfish gene"), but why do I continue to love my wife? Or, as Fraser puts it:

“The night before I got married my brother sat me down in an Indian restaurant and (too many beers) got me to make a list on a napkin of why this girl was the right person for me to marry. One side of the napkin had all the pros and the other side the cons.

“What was fascinating about the list was that nothing I could write down – kind, pretty, warm, sexy, etc – could ever add up to “I love her”. To marry and make the love commitment is the nearest thing to faith I know because it is something done with the same degree of risk.

“Would a person who needed everything fully evidenced and rationally demonstrated ever be in a position to say, ‘I love you’? Couldn’t a Dawkins-type figure make a case for love being a fiction, a function of human need, a function of biology and selfish genes? He may have many useful and persuasive things to say but there is something deeply mistaken about thinking love is simply reducible to the chemistry of the brain.

“Love, like faith, is to make more of a commitment than one can prove. But there is a truth to it that I won’t – indeed can’t – back away from. Of course, there is much to say about all of this and I can think of a dozen reasons why faith and love might look different. But the truth of both is, for me, found in the poetry, not in the science.”
Or, as Kierkegaard said (sad how seldom he comes up in these discussions, considering how much he contributed to them. We're still catching up with the melancholy Dane): "Truth is subjective." Or, as Wittgenstein put it:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
We don't really advance the conversation until we come to grips with this as a fundamental truth. Dawkins can't imagine a life lived by relying on faith? Fine. But does that mean such a life cannot be? Hardly.

And where I disagree with Humphrys, again, is in any description of religious faith as a security blanket, as "the little scrap of blanket that so many small children rely on." To be fair, Humphrys doesn't really rest his argument there so much as accept the description arguendo. But I don't accept it that way, and there is ample evidence in what Humphrys presents to dismiss it altogther. Take the example of Mrs. Buchanan, the neighbor he knew from childhood who was always a faithful Christian and a good person despite the fact her marriage was a childless one (as Humphrys points out, there was no IVF in 1954). Humphrys, wisely, will go no further than to say of church for the Buchanans: "It provided structure and, I think, some meaning to their lives." That in itself is no small thing. But set that up against, say, this explanation of the view of Kierkegaard:

With regard to everything that counts in human life, including especially matters of ethical and religious concern, Kierkegaard held that the crowd is always wrong. Any appeal to the opinions of others is inherently false, since it involves an effort to avoid responsibility for the content and justification of my own convictions. Genuine action must always arise from the Individual, without any prospect of support or agreement from others.
"Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." But Derrida was wise enough not to de-limit responsibility to social structures or even the duties of citizenship. Perhaps responsibility to one's self and what one holds to be true is responsibility enough. Kierkegaard can be read, in light of that summation, as being very harsh indeed, as insisting everyone practice the Christianity he practiced. But Kierkegaard was not reacting against bourgeois Christians in the Danish pews. He was reacting against their leaders, and against the "severe rationalism" of Hegel. He was not condemning the Buchanans he might meet in the Lutheran church of a Sunday. He was actually speaking for them, for their lives, for their existence. The crowd might well say, as it did to Sarah, that the shame of childlessness was on this couple, certainly on the wife. It's an old story, and yet God did not give Mrs. Buchanan pleasure, even late in life. Yet her convictions remained the same, or apparently so. Even Luther, long before the Dane, would consider how much he could know his own heart, and lead us all to agree with the prophet that: "The heart is devious, beyond all understanding. Who can fathom it?" So was Mrs. Buchanan a good existentialist Christian? She probably wouldn't explain it that way, but she certainly did not derive her faith solely from others. There was something that made that faith a live option for her (James' term) or something actually taking place in her life. In that sense Kierkegaard describes her faith, and the challenge of his writings is to the rest of us: to accept her, even if we do not have her faith, or her understanding of faith.

There is just so much more to this, and so many people have pointed that out. Browsing through my archives for a minor point or two, I came across this, quite by happenstance:

[John] Gray [professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics] argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."
One might also note those "rationalistic theologies" are of a certain time and place, and hardly the sum and substance of all religious practice, or even of all Christian belief. There are more things in heaven and earth indeed, Horatio.

So I've been through all this more than once, and yet I keep returning to it, trying to have the last word on it (well, let's be honest). But ultimately it comes back, not to arguments and reasoning but, as Humphrys points out, to the question of love. So I ask again: is love merely an emotion, or is it akin to a force in the world? In the schema of Harry Potter love is clearly powerful, deep, and mysterious, experienced rather than known, or surely Voldemort would have discovered its powers, Dumbledore would have included it on the Hogwarts' curriculum. It is love that saves Harry in the beginning, and love that sends him into the Forbidden Forest with his words to the Golden Snitch Dumbledore has left him: "I am going to die." It is not faith that sends him there; he is quite sure of his end, not at all anticipating a further future. And there is an even deeper irony here, one that links the militant atheists and the militan fundamentalists the former so fear:

This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. "I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it."
We are, of course, encouraged to fight to assert our existence because Islamic fundamentalism leads to the "existential threat" of terrorism. And yet one response we are urged to make is to deny the validity, any validity, to religion, which provokes the very response we seek to quell. To fight to assert your identity, your existence, is, of course, very human. But it is not, ultimately, what Harry Potter does; it is not, ultimately, what Christianity (at least) teaches. And that is where the question "What is love?", gets very interesting.

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