Saturday, March 20, 2010

Like It Or Not: Reflections on Skeptical Literature P. 1

As readers of my blog, you already know that I've been digging through a host of atheist literature this past year-and-a-bit. A workplace colleague of mine is convinced my decision to undertake atheist writings is Freudian: I'm reading their writings because I'm subconsciously looking to change my mind, alter my views on religion, or something to that effect. That could be the case, I'll admit, but unless that motivation graduates from the subconscious to the conscious, I will continue on not knowing if it's actually the case.

I will say this, though: I ventured into Atheist-land because I (consciously) wanted to research the reasons people reject supernaturalism and religion. I wanted to harvest from their writings a working knowledge of their philosophical and pragmatic decisions to be disbelievers, doubters, freethinkers, skeptics, even anti-theists.

Here is a small review of the books I read. I will classify each book beginning with Like or Like It Not. I will then sum the book up in italics, and follow-up with a small commentary.

Like It Not: The notion of 'god' and the faith that people claim are bad memes (culturally assumed bits of information and meaning passed down in an imitational evolutionary fashion; much the same as genes, but non-physical). Faith is a virus, and God is the delusional state of mind the faith-virus brings about.

Dawkins, in my opinion, is the least capable of the popular atheists. He is philosophically shallow, intellectually sophmoric, and unnecessarily aggressive. His summations of classical theistic arguments for God are simple-minded and, for the most part, the product of long hours playing in the straw. I agree with David Berlinski, who he called Dawkins out as a "crappy philosopher", and with fellow atheist philosopher Michael Ruse who expressed that Dawkins is "brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology", and "a man truly out of his depth."

Dawkins is a very good writer, to be sure, but style does not win-out over content when dealing with challenging philosophical issues. One simply cannot afford to throw away valuable insight for winning prose unless one intends to write sophistry. Still, I'd like to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt that he wrote The God Delusion with the desire to be more than simply a literary snake-oil salseman.

The one redeeming quality Dawkins' book presents is that it provides a great deal of working material for the closet logician. It would be a great book for a Philosophy 101 class to play "spot the logical flaw".

Like: A sweeping narrative about the dangers of setting aside reason for religious claims. Harris examines the extreme ends of religious fundamentalism (particularly in Islam), and by association the culpability of moderate faith expressions, and builds a case for why religion itself is a vehicle for destruction, and moral regression.

Harris is eloquent, straightforward, and unmistakeably angry in this polemic against fundamentalist religions. His position that religion spits in the face of reason is backed by clear quotes from historical religious leaders, such as Martin Luther who averred that "Reason should be destroyed in all Christians." This is an unacceptable proposition for Harris, who, as I'm sure you've already figured out, argues that reason should take its primacy in people over above religion so that we can get on with practical progress in areas like physical and emotional health, social solidarity, and peace.

As an aside, Ravi Zacharias' paltry return, The End of Reason, is a horrific attempt at countering Harris' anti-religious, anti-faith stance. I don't recommend it at all. Save your money, and your time.

Like: A personal, and upset letter to fundamentalist Christians questioning the reasons, motives, and political interests of belief in America today.

Harris' second anti-religious volume, Letter to a Christian Nation, is a much easier read than his first installment, The End of Faith. It's something more akin to a Socratic interrogation, and hinges on hard-hitting, utilitarian premises expressed in rhetorical questions that reduce religious doctrines to the absurd. Still, it's uncompromising stance, while being admirable in itself, will not serve to edge fundamentalists toward reason, but, because of the book's harsh polemics, will more than likely drive the militant believer further into his/her camp.

Like It Not: Armstrong examines the origins of Judeo-Christian scripture, its use in early Jewish and Christian communities, the varying hermeneutic traditions, and the ways in which people (clergy and laity) applied holy writ to the formation of doctrine, and their personal lives. This highly detailed account forces the conclusion that no single religious group has the ultimately correct interpretation of scripture.

I had a hard time putting this book in the 'like it not' category because there were many highly enjoyable moments throughout its pages. I think it fair to say, however, that the book requires the reader come to it with a wide base of knowledge already in place. In my case, I already have that base in place, but I found myself glazing over when Armstrong meandered into obscure references, and long drawn-out examinations of traditions that may have had an indirect impact on the composition of sacred scripture. While marginally relevant, those meandering and drawn-out sections seemed, for the most part, like non sequiturs. I'm sure if I re-read the book, I could see how those sections fit the overall scope of the Bible's composition, but on first read, the book really ought to be apparent enough that I don't have to go back and map my way through.

Like: As any good theologian should, Bart Ehrman closely examines the issue of suffering, the continuance of suffering, and the supposed 'goodness' of God. In particular, Ehrman walks through scripture showing how the 'good book' does not answer to the reality of suffering and evil in this world.

At times, it seems like Ehrman plays fast and loose with logic on the issue of suffering. Overall, however, I enjoyed Ehrman's blending of personal experience, theological insight, and philosophical acumen. An ex-Christian, now agnostic, Ehrman doesn't take any shortcuts when dealing with the common explanations for why God would allow suffering. He is courteous, but exacting, and he simply doesn't think that Judeo-Christian scripture gives any reasonable justification for why suffering exists alongside a supposedly 'good' God. Ehrman's examination of the issue of suffering and the existence of a personal, good God goes a long way in showing that we either don't really know what we're talking about when we talk about God, or that suffering co-existing with the goodness of God are undeniably problematic, even contradictory.

Like: Religion is a natural phenomenon arising out of pre-scientific needs to explain events and realities we do not understand (e.g., death). Our gradual gains in understanding are met with an ever-developing mythology about divinity, the afterlife, and seeming miracles, until, at some point, our common notions of ancestor-worship blended into tribal gods, and finally the monotheistic religions. Continuing to hold to outdated, pre-scientific notions of divinity should be met with evidence-based dialogue that emphasizes naturalistic explanations for the world we occupy.

Daniel Dennet is given to wandering prose. He is often not very succinct, and seems to want to lull people into agreeance with him by presenting the options available for discussion and then sharply cutting off the options he doesn't wish to discuss. Despite this, however, he is sincere and not as inclined to cudgel the religious as, say, Dawkins.

His tone is grandfatherly and comfortable, and he is a wealth of interesting ideas that synthesize evolutionary notions with religious inclinations. This is not to say that he advocates a blending of naturalism with religion, but that he can envision plausible ways in which the evolution of the human species necessitated the development of religion, and how our continuing evolution as a species might mean that we now need to purge ourselves of religion. Of all the skeptical literature I've read this past while, I will likely re-read Dennet's book, if only for its conversational rather than adversarial tone.

Like It Not: The universe appears just as we should expect it would if there were not God. The physical sciences demonstrate that a deity governing the universe is a failed idea; the supernatural is in absentia. Classic theological argumentation fails the tests of science, and the incredible claims of religion are not supportable by any measure of evidence.

Victor Stenger is a notable physicist, and a half-decent writer. He is succinct, forward, and uncompromising. But as much as these qualities are strengths of his, they are also his weaknesses. As in all scientific dealings with the divine, there is a missing middle ground between examining the physical evidences and then concluding that because of those evidences of the material world, there must therefore be no non-material existence. This is Stenger's tact, and he expresses it well. Unfortunately, the strength of his convictions, measurements, and writings is betrayed by the fact that his scientific positivism cannot account for itself: there is simply no logical reason to agree that only physical data is valid because there is no physical data to support such a proposition (a proposition is inherently non-physical). Thus, from the outset, Stenger's hypothesis (scientific positivism) fails to show that God is a failed hypothesis.

To be continued in P. 2...

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