The Problem of Beliefs
The most valuable insight to come from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and his recent interviews and appearances is not a statement but a question. Why shouldn’t beliefs be subject to discussion and inquiry? I find this a very fair demand. Theologists will quite fairly say that they have been doing this for centuries, but what Dawkins is asking for most specifically – and where I agree with him – is that such discourse should be a part of daily religious practice.
One of the largest objections to atheism and Dawkins’s book is the presumed lack of foundation for objective morality. Dawkins and I both assume a relative morality tempered by the evolution of primates and primate society, but rather than describe that position yet again, I want to look at the argument that objective morality indicates the existence of a god.
Here is the modern formation of the argument
1 Objective moral values exist
2 Objective moral values require the existence of a god
3 Therefore, a God exists
(Taken from Luke Pollard’s essay, “Does Morality Point to God?” but also referenced in Peter Williams’s “Calling Dawkins’ Bluff” )
If an atheist assumes the statements are true for the sake of common reference, there are three simple questions one can ask. The first is one of Dawkins’s favorite tactics: can we substitute the name of a specific god for the word “god” in the argument? If not, why not? Does objective morality require a god who matches a specific description?
Second, if objective morality exists, then beings with a moral capacity should all make reference to the same objective morality and understand arguments that an act is more or less moral. If this is so, then it should be born out empirically among all homo sapiens not otherwise impaired by mental illness (though the latter shouldn’t matter with objective morality, in my opinion, but I will allow objectivists that escape).
Third, the assumption of the argument suggests that the necessary god is the most moral. This follows from Aquinas’s fourth “way.”
“Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But 'more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being [i.e. maximally ontologically secure]; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in [Aristotle's] Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.” (quoted in Williams)
There are obvious problems with this argument that Dawkins is quick to point out (the upper limit of heat, for example, is dependent on the amount of matter and energy in a system, not on some universal quantity), but again, I ask that we forget them and accept the statements as valid. If this god is the reference point that no other moral being can surpass, for any being with claims to godhood we should find no human being who finds that being morally objectionable. If a human being can appeal to objective morality to
The religious are often content to demonstrate with words that their subjective experience contains universal implications, but universality suggests empirical evidence can be found to support their claims. That is, the statements being put forward are verifiable, and interlocutors – including potential converts, adherents to other religions, and atheists alike - have every right to expect theists to investigate their claims. We may need to better define the implications of the above arguments to test them, but the principle remains.
I gain confidence in this assertion from the not-entirely independent movements of creation science and Intelligent Design. With varying degrees of success, both have demonstrated that beliefs can be formulated in such a way that the divine’s interaction with the material and the physical consequence of religious claims can be investigated from an objective standpoint.
Other religious beliefs can be investigated from a similar standpoint, and some have been, prayer most famously. If we assume that 1) the Christian god uses prayers to further his agenda, which is the conversion of the maximal number of people to Christianity, 2) a percentage of prayers answered affirmatively greater than chance indicates his response, and 3) he responds to prayers directed to him from believers asking for help, then 4) we should expect that the prayers from ill believers answered affirmatively should predict the number of non-Christians who accept their invitation to attend church when chance is controlled for. This experiment eliminates the “insincere prayer” problem of hospital prayer studies by linking prayers with empirical evidence most Christians would state falls within their god’s plan, however mysterious his full agenda may be.
The underlying thread of this discussion is that religious revelation – however wonderful the subjective experience may be - cannot expect to be on par with scientific knowledge so long as it cannot be verified in any form. Science has already demonstrated that subjective experiences like color-blindness and emotion can be studied with a degree of objectivity, and our means of doing so are ever increasing. I see no reason the same cannot be demanded of religious claims.
It’s often pointed out that scientists hold beliefs as well, and we respond by saying that yes, we do, but our beliefs are generalized from verifiable facts. We may hold some opinions not driven by fact, but those opinions are subject to change and the lack of facts supporting them is exactly our reason for asking further questions. Faith, I will argue, should be expected to operate the same way, and I will say more of this in the concluding section.
A Problem in Evangelical Methods
Despite the great question Dawkins has asked, too often the argument falls to demonstrating religions presumed harmful effect (e.g., in The Root of All Evil?). He is not the only one guilty of this distraction: Sam Harris, most notably, shares the same fault. I hesitate to say “fault”, but I have a feeling that statistics would show that the method fails to change the minds of the religious. These are a people accustomed to thinking that “the lord works in mysterious ways” and that all death – however innocent the dead may be – falls within those mysterious ways. Cases of religious leaders or practices misleading people are common, but also easily explained away by the faithful with an us-them mentality. For example, I doubt Ted Haggard’s fall from grace produced any documented deconverts, even if his congregation may have diminished.
The statement that religion has increased the amount of evil in the world typically meets the objection that secularists have both done the same and present no systematic worldview that aims to prevent the same. Claims that theists are ignorant, unreasoning, etc also invite criticism of atheists with the same qualities (I can personally point toward a number of atheists from the Nietzsche school who don’t even feel rationality is a quality to be admired). There are atheists who are attempting to better the world, and there is great value in pointing them out, but that is entirely different from making wholesale claims about faith that are not backed by history and statistics. Scott Atran is correct in pointing out that some commentators, like Harris and Dawkins, are failing to use scientific reasoning on this point and in their method of presentation.
If atheists wish to make claims about religion, they would do much better to work from the evidence in cognitive science and anthropology and draw their conclusions from empirical evidence, and that evidence is steadily accumulating in favor of religion as a human-creation rather than religion of divine origin. Madeleine Bunting (in her Guardian review) is correct in saying that The Root of All Evil? is not worthy of a great scientist: Dawkins would have better fulfilled his role as a public promoter of science by producing a documentary resembling Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.
Education is the key to my stance. My undergraduate work was in secondary education, and I strongly favored an inquiry method of teaching. The essence of the inquiry method is that because children are naturally little scientists to some degree (see Piaget and Dewey for arguments in favor of this), the best classrooms should make use of their cognitive ability to form hypotheses and test them. Subject matter is presented not as an assembly of facts, but as continuing investigations in which the students may take part. The inquiry method does not work well with all subjects (certain aspects of chemistry, for example, are simply beyond the temporal and material resources of the average class), but as the origin of religion and the existence of god are certainly both in dispute among experts at this time, I see no reason we cannot invite more “students” to participate.
If, as Dawkins and I are both arguing, faith should be questioned, the goal of atheists seeking to deconvert the religious should be to raise questions and challenge answers. We should model our presentations and our arguments on the form “If X is true, then Y should be true. Where is the evidence for Y?” Too many atheists spend their time arguing against X when the data for Y is unavailable. This is not good science. However self-evident the falsehood of X may be to us, if it is not verifiable in itself, we can never hope to dissuade anyone from believing it and should be ashamed when we vilify anyone for maintaining their position.
Rather than only promoting the sources of facts in favor of the atheistic perspective (which will always contains gaps big enough for a god to hide inside), we should be constructing web portals and writing calls for action from theists. In fact, we need more atheist-created web pages that are directed at theists, rather than pages that are collections of disputable assertions about the origin of Christianity and current theories of evolution. These are both valuable resources in their own right, but they are not resources we should be directing theists toward.
A great amount of thought and work has already been undertaken. All that remains is to pull these resources into one place, and yes, by writing this, I am volunteering to take part. I am currently working on models which I will share here and elsewhere as they come together.
In a day or two, I will critique one popular anti-religious organization, The Rational Response Squad, from the viewpoint I’ve sketched above.