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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Not So Fuzzy

[Edited version]

FFB's own TMcD and Sam were having an interesting conversation the other day about secularism and intelligent design. I'm afraid that I haven't responded/chimed in in anything resembling a timely matter. But here's a brief set of thoughts on the matter.

Here's Sam: Anyway, TMcD called me out for my casual dismissal of ID. First, let me say that I do not wish to be one of those non-believers who plays the dogmatist when it comes to so-called secularism. Indeed, on this front I follow Connolly's recent work: the line between religious faith and secular belief is thin and fuzzy. We are all animated by some sort of 'existential faith', and the hard line defence of 'secularism' is just a dogmatic form of faith rather than a reasonable one.

I'm not so sure that that line is really that fuzzy, if you apply anything approaching a reasonable definition of "religious faith." (My guess is that TMcD will agree with this point.) Religious faith means something like the acceptance of the truth of statements (beliefs) that cannot be (and could not be) proven/supported through empirical evidence and investigation. Going even a little further, one might add that the "religious" part of the statement means that these beliefs are about a certain subset of subjects: the (supernatural) origins of life, life after death, the "meaning" of the Universe.

A consistent secularism starts from the proposition that one will only accept as "true," and then only provisionally, only those statements about the Universe that are supported by empirical evidence.

That seems like a pretty fim line to me: the consistent secularist rules out supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon, including the Universe as a whole. Those with religious faith accept at least some supernatural explanations; they believe in "miracles," in "divine intervention," "guardian angels," intelligent design. Things that cannot be observed by the senses or measured by even the most sensitive of our intsruments.

I'm not sure that the "existential faith" point works, either. OK, sure there are always human desires, but those are an empirical fact. People, um, have them. Those desires motivate their behavior, etc. Sure, it's true that some people's desires are based in beliefs about the supernatural: they want to obey/please God, or whatever. But it's perfectly reasonable to have desires that have no grounding in the supernatural. Does that mean that, in some cosmic sense, that those desires are "arbitrary"? Again, maybe, but that's really irrelevant, because it's at a cosmic remove from the desires themselves.

Is this dogmatic? Well . . . is it dogmatic to state that one does not believe in MAGIC because the evidence is all against it? If so, then maybe it's dogmatic. But it seems to me that the risk of being "wet" on the kinds of evidence that you will accept leads you to some strange places. I mean, there were eleven witnesses to the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was purportedly written. Is it dogmatic to reject the truth of the Book of Mormon? If not, what's the distinction between the Book of Mormon and the holy Scriptures?

(Btw, I'm reading another book on Joseph Smith, so expect new Mormon thoughts. Oh, boy.)

This is my old gripe with agnosticism. The Agnostic says that "I can't make up my mind whether God exists or not. So I won't decide." But the Agnostic is really saying that s/he can't make up her mind whether s/he believes in the Christian God. But, then, why isn't the Agnostic agnostic toward the existence of the Jewish God, too? The Muslim God (Allah is "God" in Arabic)? The gods of pantheistic religions? The Greek and Roman gods? Hell, the Norse gods (my personal favorites)?

Once you accept non-natural explanations, you are on the slippery slope to all sorts of beliefs. Or, at least, you are on the path to being unable to distinguish your beliefs from the beliefs of others that you reject out-of-hand. Again, that seems like a firm distinction to me.

Btw, this is not to denigrate anyone's beliefs (except, perhaps, agnosticism). My point is simply that, from a secular perspective, there is a pretty firm line between religious faith and a consistent, non-religious worldview.


At 1:08 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Em, we're in partial agreement here about whether atheism counts as a "religious" faith. I can't say that I'm familiar with the argument from Connelly cited by Sam, but I tend to follow Arendt on this matter (specifically, the essay "What is Authority?"). Just because atheism can fulfill the same "function" as religion in a human life--providing a belief structure with a set of values, etc.--doesn't mean it is a "religion" since it lacks any claims about transcendendent or metaphysical realities. To use Arendt's example, just because I use my shoe to pound in a nail doesn't make it a hammer.

That said, I do think that, like religion, atheism posits some claims about the world that are not empirically verifiable: for example that all that there is to be known, or at least that is relevant to human life, can be known by empirical reason or not at all. In other words, reason cannot establish its own grounds--a claim I suspect that Sam would echo. The religious believer simply suggests that life, especially those dimensions you noted (origins of life, afterlife, meaning, ethics) cannot be captured by a strictly empirical exercise. To think that there is nothing beyond science is what philosopher Mary Midgely has called "scientism." It is not an irrational choice, but it is not the only plausible one you might make.


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