Salon has an interview with theologian John Haught on Darwin, Camus, Dawkins, and the so-called “new atheism”. Haught makes some good arguments – or at least, arguments that would be good if they didn’t ignore several very important key issues. Let’s take a look:
The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.
Haught is at least a little right; in all of my readings of the ‘new atheists’ I don’t recall any of them coming to the conclusion of nihilism. In fact, just the opposite. A life of logic simply does not equate to a life without hope – I know, it may be hard to believe, but life without god can still have meaning.
How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.
Hold on a second. Didn’t you just say that the new atheists differ from the old atheists in that they don’t find a connection between atheism and nihilism? Who are you arguing against here? I’m interested to read Haught’s upcoming book: God and the New Atheism, in which he will hopefully make an argument as to why life without god is hopeless.
But why can’t you have hope if you don’t believe in God?
You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don’t have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.
Oh. There’s the answer. But wait – didn’t he just say that hope isn’t possible without god? Ok, so it is possible, but not justified? How dare people have hope without justifying it! I would refer Haught to Dawkins in particular, who does a nice job of explaining goodness without god. Well, on to evolution, in which even the interviewer demonstrates his ignorance:
I would think the biggest challenge that evolutionary theory poses to most religions is the sense that there’s no inherent meaning in the world. If you look at the process of natural selection — this apparently random series of genetic mutations — it would seem that there’s no place for ultimate purpose. Human beings may just be an evolutionary accident.
For the umpteenth time, there is nothing “random” about natural selection. It is a process which favors the best equipped – and since it favors something, it isn’t fucking random. Sorry, that’s a pet peeve of mine, along with people who say “I could care less”. Anyway, here’s more from Haught:
A good example is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. In his book “Dreams of a Final Theory,” he asks, will we find God once science gets down to what he calls the fundamental levels of reality? It’s almost as if he assumes that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like that. Similarly, Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” has stated that science has the right to deal with the question of God and other religious issues, and everything has to be settled according to the canons of the scientific method.
The idea that god exists outside of the realm of scientific understanding is, to put it mildly, the very definition of a cop-out. Haught is essentially saying, ‘I want god to exist, and since science is potentially a threat to that, I’ll insist that God can’t be touched by it.’ And yet, Haught continues to state (I would say argue, but that would imply that he provides evidence and support for his view) that religion has the capacity to comment on everything. He also claims that some states of reality simply can’t be spoken about in scientific terms: “The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion.” Wow – that’s right. Since religion can only talk about things through symbols and metaphors, it must be the only way we can talk about things. Come on! Last I checked symbolism and metaphor were literary devices, and religion wasn’t the sole user of them.
The theologian continues to say:
We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose.
The idea that the scientific method has nothing to do with purpose is preposterous. Jonas Salk didn’t say, “hey – let’s inject people with the dead polio virus just for the hell of it.” The scientific method is built around the very concept of finding purpose. Without purpose looming over it, science would not exist.
The purpose [of the universe] seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness. If you understand purpose as actualizing something that’s unquestionably good, then consciousness certainly fits.
Why is Haught trying to insert his sense of morality into the purpose of the universe? Because he’s overly subjective in his analysis of everything? You don’t say . . . But if you understand “subjective” as actualizing a completely objective view, than he’s right.
I’m looking for an explanation that’s robust enough to account for the kind of universe that is able, from within itself, to develop and unfold in this ongoing process of complexification. So the idea that some sort of providential presence is accompanying this process seems not at all irrational. And I like to think of God in these terms.
Let’s face it Haught. You’re looking for an explanation that allows for your concept of God. The idea that ‘some sort of providential presence is accompanying the process’ only illustrates that you don’t understand the process. Evolution is remarkable in that it explains itself perfectly – and just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it needs your god’s help.
I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there’s something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what’s going on in the universe as a whole. So I want a worldview that’s wide enough to ask the question, why does the universe not stand still? Once radiation came about early in the universe, why didn’t the universe say, “Well, we’re just fine here. This is a pretty good universe.” Instead, there’s a restlessness, a tendency of the cosmos to go beyond itself.
And why do you believe that consciousness transcends the physical? I don’t know – because you found it convenient not to explain that particular point – probably because the only explanation you have is that you want it to be true. Also, your example of the universe being restless is bogus, if nothing else than the universe doesn’t say anything, what it being inanimate and all. It didn’t occur to stop at radiation because nothing occurs to it – it really didn’t think about it that much.
But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.
So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?
If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels.
Alright. I’m not going to try to count the number of fallacies in that argument. Something isn’t beyond science because you say it is. Purpose, love, compassion, forgiveness, all of these are phenomenon that can be explained, and for the large part have been explained, through science. It’s unclear if Haught is taking the social sciences into consideration, but even if he is not, my previous statement remains accurate.
Throughout the interview he seems unwilling to accept that he won’t be rewarded for his good deeds after he dies – in fact, he seems to advocate doing good deeds in order to be rewarded. Eesh.
Haught’s entire argument (as presented in this interview) comes down to this – Haught just can’t accept the possibility that god is not necessary. If you ask me, that’s a pretty shitty argument.
John Haught, seen here, believing in god.