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Religious Intellectuals

Entry 1321, on 2011-08-14 at 16:30:07 (Rating 4, Religion)

Listening to a deluded nutter like a fundamentalist Christian espouse their philosophy on life is basically a waste of time - unless you are interested in the psychology of delusion of course. But I always take the chance to listen to more intelligent, rational people who are also religious. I have already analysed (and criticised) one person of this type, Francis Collins, in a blog entry titled "Brilliant Stupidity" on 2009-09-22 and today I'm going to do the same here with another religious intellectual.

My victim on this occasion is a Christian theologian at Yale University, John E Hare. I have always been deeply suspicious of theologians because it seems to me that in order to even begin to study their subject matter they must first accept that a god exists and that is their first mistake: it's all down hill from there. Of course, there are theologians who make a genuine attempt at establishing the existence or otherwise of god but Hare isn't one of them.

As you can probably tell from my scathing tone, I wasn't impressed with his arguments. So I'll go through a few of the topics discussed in the interview I heard and say why I disagree or agree with them (because he did make some valid points). I should say here that I presume the level of argument he uses in his academic publications isn't quite as transparently ridiculous as those he used in the interview but I don't have time to read those so I will judge him on what I heard!

Probably Hare's most significant claim was that people need religion to be good. He also said that many atheist are very moral and put believers to shame. He also said that many religious people commit atrocities (although he doesn't see them as religious in the same sense as he is). So he made a claim and then refuted it himself. To be fair he did say later that more empirical research needs to be done to establish the truth of this proposition.

So he makes an outrageous claim, then refutes it himself, then says we need research to find out if it's true, then goes back to the original claim again. In what way exactly is this a rigorous, intellectual argument? It sounds closer to the true meaning of faith: believing in something even when you know it's not true!

And he does use the word faith many times to justify his position. Like most believers he claims faith is a good thing but how can it be? If you have faith you have already made up your mind on a subject without much supporting evidence (otherwise it wouldn't be faith). This is supposed to be good how exactly?

Hare says he is ashamed of some people who claim the same faith as him then go on to commit atrocities. He says that any system of faith can be abused and that is true. But as Voltaire said: "Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities." I think that is true (although not every person who believes in an absurdity will automatically go on to commit an atrocity of course - they are just more likely to do so). But Hare (quite rightly) says you can't reject a faith because some people who follow it act badly.

When asked about why God allows so many bad things to happen he quoted a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who says he questioned God about it but never got an answer on why it had been allowed to happen. But he still felt as if he got closer to God through the struggle with (an incommunicative) God. God was there even though he didn't give an answer.

Really? And what if God had given an answer? Surely that would have made his belief stronger and shown God exists too. But when the opposite happens and God refuses to answer this is also good. God really does get off easily doesn't he? Whatever he does those people who have the faith to believe in him are happy. Again I offer my definition of of faith: believing in something even when you know it's not true.

Hare specifically thinks monotheism is the only true way to experience god. He rejects polytheistic faiths but at least seems to accept all monotheistic faiths have merit although he clearly has the usual Christian blind belief in the power of Jesus.

But when asked about the moral values of classic civilisations who did have multiple gods (such as ancient Greece where many of the morals we still follow today originated) he tries to squirm out of that awkward dilemma and somehow suggest that Greece wasn't actually that moral. Again I would suggest that if the question is looked at in context he is wrong. The admitted moral weaknesses of ancient Greece (slavery, inequality of women, etc) are nothing compared with the gross immorality of various Christian regimes. But again his faith seems to prevent him from seeing this.

A common trick used by believers who want to try to look rational and disguise the essential silliness of their beliefs is to equate god with real physical phenomena. For example some people will say god is the universe, or god is the collective will of all humans, or something similar. It's nonsense of course and I'm glad to say Hare doesn't resort to this tactic.

Instead he says God is a distinct entity separate but sometimes interacting with the universe. He offers no reasons why this should make sense. I guess it all gets back to that faith thing again!

So far everything has been pretty awful, hasn't it? I mean these are arguments that an absolute beginner in philosophy could refute and are clearly lacking when looked at rationally. But his ideas get a bit more interesting after that.

There was a discussion on the increasing stridency of both religious fundamentalists and the "new atheists". He claims the atheists have been forced to come out with a more direct attack against religion because their previous assumption that religion would just die in the light of science and rationality has proved to be untrue.

That's a good point because I think that was the assumption of many. As a sometimes "strident" atheist myself I have to say that I assumed religion would die under the onslaught of the truth being uncovered by science. But I forgot a point made by other commentators on this subject: people don't become religious for intellectual or factual reasons, they follow a faith for emotional reasons and they don't usually respond to facts no matter how convincing.

Hare claims reason doesn't require abandoning faith but I think he's wrong on that. You just can't be reasonable while following a belief system for no valid reason. It just doesn't work that way and the more I hear patently ridiculous arguments about religion from otherwise intelligent people (such as Hare and Collins) the more convinced I am that they have abandoned reason in that area of their lives.

Finally what about the common idea that science and religion are two different things but equally valid in their own way? Science explains facts, religion explains meaning. Well I half agree: science does explain facts, but how can something based on totally arbitrary beliefs and maintained solely through unthinking faith have anything to do with any real objective meaning?

Maybe there's a sort of internal logic to religion (although even that is often lacking) but it really explains nothing. Even Hare admits religion is often something people reach for because it's simple and the reality presented by science is complex. But Einstein said we should make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler. And religion has made it too simple to the point that it has no meaning.

So yes, science and religion do exist in their own worlds. Science exists in the world of reality and religion exists in the land of fantasy. If you want to live in a fantasy world then that's OK, follow your faith, but at least have the courage to admit it and not pretend that it is equal in any way to science.

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