Addressing John Haught
I just listened to the podcast of this radio show on ‘Atheism and its Critics’. The first segment includes an interview with John Haught, a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, who made some questionable points. I’d like to address two specifically:
The most glaring offense is that Haught doesn’t seem terribly concerned with truth at all. He says the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, etc.) neglect the “moral core” of various religions and what the fall of religion would mean for society. He lauds the “old atheists” like Nietzsche and Camus for carefully thinking about what would happen if people weren’t religious, and concluding that it would lead to nihilism. That’s the end of his argument – if atheism leads to nihilism, then atheism should be discouraged. It is as if to say that we should only believe those statements which make us happy, regardless of their truth!
Of course, the idea that nihilism flows naturally from unbelief is demonstrably false. The problem with much of pure philosophy is that it often leaves out any sort of research or data, and finds its ultimate grounding in the personal impressions of the philosopher.
A little later there’s a much more subtle point made, which I have heard a lot recently, and which I think is often not properly answered. Here’s the quote:
Interviewer: What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?
Haught: Well, often times the hidden assumption behind such a statement is that faith is belief without evidence and that, therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the devine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself, that evidence is necessary, holds a further hidden premise, and that’s that all evidence that’s worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption there’s the deeper worldview, it’s a kind of a dogma, that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement, so the proposal of the New Atheists, for example, that we should eliminate faith in all its forms, would apply to scientism and scientific naturalism, but at that point, they don’t want to go that far, so I think there’s a self-contradiction there.
This is really sneaky, and easy to stumble on. The conflict, I think, is purely lexicographical.
I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about this a little while ago, and I wish I had his exact quote. Basically, his point was that this idea of the scientific method being enshrined as The Only Way to truth is just wrong, even though that’s often the way we present it to children. Science is fundamentally open and inclusive, and will embrace any evidence or methodology that can be shown to produce reliable results. When we test all the possible “ways of knowing things” and we filter out the unreliable ones, we call what’s left over the Scientific Method. If you have a better way of separating truth from untruth, all you have to do is show it to be more reliable than the current system, and science will revise itself to accomodate.
In essence, Haught’s criticism has it completely backwards – he claims that scientists say “this evidence is not scientific, therefore it is not reliable.” In reality, the argument goes “this evidence is unreliable, therefore it is not scientific.” It’s not dogma at all, it’s merely the way we define the word science. The word is just shorthand, its the value of the evidence we’re really interested in.
The logic goes like this:
1) Science is the only acceptable path to truth
2) Science must follow steps a, b, c, etc.
3) Method ‘X’ does not follow steps a, b, c, etc.
4) Method ‘X’ is not science
5) Method ‘X’ is not an acceptable path to truth
1) Testing shows Method ‘X’ to be less reliable than Method ‘Y’
2) More reliable results are a better path to truth than less reliable results
3) Method ‘Y’ is a better path to truth than Method ‘X’
4) Science is a word that means “the best currently known path to truth”
5) Method ‘X’ is not science
Richard Dawkins is interviewed after Haught. His main point in the interview is that while religions can certainly contain goodness and morality, which is great, it is not neccessary to subscribe to a particular religion or look to one particular text in order to be good. He also brings up one of my favourite points, that in order to derive a moral framework from the Bible, one must already have a wholely independent set of criteria for determining exactly which parts are good and which to ignore; why not just go with those initial criteria as your framework and forget the Bible altogether?
I leave you with this:
Interviewer, quoting Chris Hedges in I Don’t Believe in Atheists: “The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent – that which cannot be measured or modified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. We all encounter this aspect of existence: love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death. These powerful, nonrational, super-real forces in human life are the domain of religion.” What do you make of that assessment of religion?