Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens"

The important questions of whether or not God exists, whether or not morality is connected to the divine, and whether or not God (if he/she/it exists) is a personal being are very old questions. The Platonic Socrates in the dialogue Euthyphro poses the question of morality and the gods to the titular character, Epicurus declared that while gods existed they did not interfere with the affairs of humankind, and Aristotle gave several arguments in Metaphysics for what he called an "unmoved mover" and "first cause", which he identified with the gods.

However, in our modern age the so called "New Atheists" (a misleading appellation, there is nothing new about them) appear to have definitively answered these age old questions and assert that science is the pathway to answering this and all meaningful questions because science is the only thing that counts as evidence. This position, known as scientism, is of course itself not supported by science or experience, but the New Atheists seem to have missed the memo.

In his short book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, theologian John F. Haught takes on the primary New Atheist writers and shows that they are neither new nor atheistic in a philosophical sense. His first critique of them is that they do not take on the arguments for God's existence or the proper definition of faith; rather they attack caricatures and straw-men and never seem to show that they have ever read a book of theology or philosophy of religion. The New Atheists would argue that the average religious person has probably not read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Karl Barth, Blake Ostler, or Paul Tillich, and they likely would be right (which should make the average religious person feel intellectually lazy and have the desire to repent). However, the principle of charity demands that when trying to falsify a claim you attack the argument at its strongest rather than at its weakest point. But then, it is likely the New Atheists have not taken a course in logic either.

Two of the best points that Haught makes in his book are about whether or not belief in God is a scientific hypothesis and also whether we can be good without God. On the first question, he reminds readers that science is useful (but limited) in finding out about the material universe that we reside in, but God is a transcendent being (in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense) so we cannot use the scientific method to verify or falsify the proposition that God exists. Also, Haught talks abut the fact that meaning is not monistic as Richard Dawkins wants to imply, meaning that not all meaning is reducible to scientific inquiry. Rather, meaning can be pluralistic as Haught shows here:
This assumption [scientific naturalism] overlooks the fact that multiple layers of understanding or explanation can exist. Almost everything in our experience, after all, admits of a plurality of levels of explanation in which various accounts do not compete with one another. For example, one explanation of the page you are reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper. Another is that the author intends to put certain idea across. Still another explanation is that a publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism. Notice that these three layers all explain the page you are reading, but they are not competing with or contradicting one another. It makes no sense to argue, for example, that the page you are reading can be explained by the printing press rather than by the author's intention to write something. Nor does it make sense to say that this page exists because of the publishers request rather than because the author wants to record some ideas. The distinct levels are noncompetitive and mutually compatible. (God and the New Atheism, pg. 85)
Close quote. To simplify Haught's eloquence, religion and science are not in competition with each other because they are different ways of looking at things. Take for example the existence of humans. A scientific way of looking at this question is that humans exist because they evolved from simpler forms of life through natural selection and random mutation. A religious way of looking at the same question is that God created humans for the purpose of coming to know him and become like him. Both answers are explaining the same phenomena, and both are compatible.

Also, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens seem to think that people believe in God because he is the ultimate explanation of why anything at all exists. While it is true that this is an argument for God's existence, this is not why people worship God. A God who is merely a mechanic is not worthy of worship; notice Aristotle says nothing about worshiping God in Metaphysics.

The last point I want to make is about God and morality. For some reason, both New Atheists and some theists believe that the scriptures primary purpose is to teach us morality (something neither the Torah, New Testament, Book of Mormon, or Quran say), and since there are instances of murder, adultery, genocide, rape, and other moral atrocities, the scriptures cannot be the foundation of morality. In response to this, Haught makes the following points. First, it is a misuse of the text to try to learn something book that the book is not trying to teach. The scriptures are primarily about God's dealings with ancient people, not teaching ethics. Also, while the scriptures are not the foundation of morality, the New Atheists have not provided an adequate explanation of moral realism, which they all seem to espouse. Dawkins appeals to biology, but that is to rush from facts to values, something David Hume cautioned against. Harris, appeals to moral intuition, but he forgets A.J. Ayer's objection to moral intuitionism by stating that different cultures have different intuitions, so morality cannot be objective. In short, the New Atheist's have torn down the foundations of traditional morality (or so they think), but they have not given an adequate replacement.

Whether one is a theist, atheist, or agnostic, one should read carefully Haught's book.

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