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:

Haught claims
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?

Dawkins: Bullshit.



~ by jbrydle on June 4, 2009.

7 Responses to “Addressing John Haught”

  1. As a corollary to my second criticism of Haught – it is a testament to the Scientific Method that it remains mostly unchanged over time. That means we found a remarkably reliable methodology for determining the truth value of statements. If a better methodology exists, hopefully we will find it and modify what Science is, but the fact that we haven’t yet is cause for reverence, not aspersion.

  2. Point 1: I disagree that the fall of religion would lead to Nihilism and that society only functions because of moral codes established through religion (you don’t need to believe in God in order to have a moral code that is compatible with living in a society). I also don’t agree that the fall of religion in society would be a good thing. I think it would be really hard for religion to ever fall completely out of society (something new will always spring up) and many of our laws stem from religious backgrounds, ensuring that religion will always have some presence in our society, even if people don’t follow any organized religion.

    Point 2: The problem with trying to prove the existence of God through scientific methods is that no matter what you show, you can always put God a little further back. The fact that it’s unlikely to ever truly explain away God means that God will always have a means of existing in conjunction with Science. I have a problem with any group who says Faith or Science … make a choice! Some of the best scientists have also been Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans (I’m not really sure what to call those that worshiped the Greek or Roman gods), etc. Both can exist and I don’t feel that they necessarily have to conflict. I am a Christian and I am also an Evolutionary biologist. I feel no problem having both in my life. I don’t use the bible as a scientific text book, and I don’t use science texts as books for spiritual enlightenment (I use cross shaped flash lights … zing!). I question biological theories, as I do biblical scripture. I believe that eating shrimp is alright and that stoning homosexuals is wrong (but getting stoned with them is delightful!), just as I believe in evolution but completely reject that the Earth is 6000 years old. Science is wonderful and is rational and is the most important aspect of human history. (And while I recognize that perhaps people don’t agree with my beliefs, I don’t expect people to believe them if they don’t want, and I would never attempt to use them to influence science in any way. I will also admit that I can not defend myself properly and am somewhat of a conflicted Christian, as I am constantly asking questions and disagreeing with various scripture readings and texts. Perhaps that makes me a fool but I am trying my best, just as many other Christian scientists are).

    Point 3: While I agree that with Dawkins that one does not need to follow any specific religion to be good, I disagree that in order to decide a moral framework one must have a wholly independent set of criteria. All one really needs is the belief that whatever God says is good is good. Therefore, whatever is in the bible is good. This belief would not help you to decide your own morals, and is completely dependent on the bible. Some would argue that much of the bible is not moral (I still think selling your daughter into slavery is a bit of a gray area. I mean, common, what if she’s being a little bitch or is ugly?). Then the question is what is morally correct? If you believe that God is the all powerful creator of the world, and that the bible are his words verbatim, then you pretty much have to believe them as moral law or else risk eternal damnation in the fires of hell. If you believe, however, that the bible represents generalized morals tenants but is open to high amounts of interpretation, then Dawkins is kind of right. Although, in the end, the most important tenant of Christianity is the belief in God and that he will forgive your sins if you ask forgiveness … so that represents a weird gray area where you can disagree with parts of the bible but still believe in God. The question at the point is whether you can believe in God and still question the bible (if the bible isn’t correct, then how can one believe in God?). Some would say you can’t. Others would say you can. Others leave the conversation to listen to a little Ronnie James Dio (Cause it’s free and I see that it’s me who’s lost and never found!). So yeah.

    Point 4: The question is whether God does or does not exist? Anyone who says otherwise is a giant douche (or potentially a turd sandwich). That’s really the most important question that could be asked. Dawkins is right (despite the fact that we may conflict on other issues).

    Thanks Jesse for getting all philosophical. I was planning on reading more Atlas Shrugged but no, I have to comment on this instead :).

    • You just quoted Rainbow in the Dark.

      Any and all qualms I may or may not have with any of your arguments or points have been duly dismissed. Tip of that hat to you sir.

  3. Hey killbotrix, thanks for commenting, I was hoping you’d reply to this one. LOL at the cross shaped flashlights, and fuck-yeah on the Dio and Atlas Shrugged. 🙂

    I have some follow-up comments and questions on your points. Meant, as always, as respectful inquiries, not adversarial.

    Point 1: Our most recent CFI lecture was about China and their completely religion-free education system. The speaker supported your point that something always tends to spring up. The Chinese education system is effectively atheist – in that it makes no mention of any religion at all, but it also teaches no critical thinking skills whatsoever, so when children graduate they tend to join the first religion or cult or belief system that they find. Also, do you think the laws come directly from religion, or perhaps the rules common to both law and religion come from a separate, evolved morality shared by mostly everyone? If the laws come directly from religion, why only some and not others?

    Point 2: God can be pushed back, yes, but that changes the possible nature of God. For example, it used to be OK to say God looks and thinks like a person, because whatever made us probably made us to look like them. Now we know we weren’t made, we evolved – the way we look and the way our minds work is largely due to a series of accidents in nature. So any God that’s used as a creator of the early universe or whatever is less personal and more of an esoteric force rather than something with a mind we can relate to. I’m actually kind of OK with saying God just means whatever laws or processes began the universe (a deistic God, rather than a theistic one), although it’s a bit of a cop-out because no specific qualities can be supported by any evidence – it’s just a temporary place holder until we explain it with science. No other kind of theory is allowed to get away with this. Any scientific theory that keeps retreating to the boundaries of the unknown without offering its own solid evidence is regarded as pseudoscience (examples are astrology, homeopathy, feng shui, etc.) Is religion given unfair, special treatment, or is it truly a different ‘kind’ of theory?

    What basis is there for choosing one particular god over any others? Why Christianity over Buddhism? Why merely question the Bible when you outright reject the Quran or Bhagavad Gita or Battlefield Earth?

    Point 3: You’re right that it’s possible to take morals 100% from the Bible, but I think Dawkins assumes that no one really does this. Even the most hardcore evangelicals don’t bother with the “don’t mix clothing fibres” or “shellfish are an abomination” rules. Essentially, no one really lives like the guy from the “Living Biblically” book. There are also plenty of outright contradictions that are impossible to fully satisfy. If you choose some rules that are ‘good’ and some that are ‘bad’ and some that are neutral, you must be using an outside set of criteria to make that distinction. Where do those criteria come from? Why not just use those same criteria to judge real life actions, rather than using a religious text as a middle man?

    Same goes for interpreting religious texts. Which interpretation do you use? The most logical and best supported one, or the one that fits best with what you already believe? It’s easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias or selection bias.

    Point 4: Agreed! 🙂

  4. I can’t help but wonder whether Dawkins should’ve said ‘bullshit’? He could have equally said, ‘it makes no sense to me’. Does that blunt approach really work – does it make people stop and think? Or does it just alienate them?

  5. So Mr Brydle, you have issued your challenge. I accept. LET US BATTLE!

    Seriously though, as always, I expect that all our discussions to be both respectful and non-adversarial. My philosophy is to basically throw ideas out and let people rip em apart. The ones that survive somewhat intact should be stronger and (hopefully) better then those that do not. As always I encourage comments and questions about anything I say, as well as complete disagreement as long as it is somewhat respectful. Furthermore, I am always more than happy to comment and get discussion going.

    When it comes to religious issues, I do find it difficult to discuss them, as I am Christian but, not a very good one (by some standards). I question things a lot and don’t necessarily follow the rules exactly as I should. Also, I find it difficult to defend my faith a lot of the time as there are lots of holes. But I go on trying, because I feel that it is an important issue and one that should not simply be dismissed until one has really looked at the evidence and thought about it deeply.

    Point 1: The idea of evolved morality and basic laws that are somewhat inherent to humanity is an interesting idea and one that would definitely be worth investigation. All I know is that a lot of law and morality in the world has a religious basis to it, whether that religion is still in heavy control of the country or not. I guess you would have to go back far enough and examine groups before the development of religion? Or see if potentially the laws existed and then the religion came? I guess the idea that there are multiple religions with similar laws could be evidence for an evolved morality, although I’m not sure how similar the rules are in a lot of religions. I know Christianity has a million zillion different branches, that each have different specific laws, while still maintaining (usually) a common set of general laws (i.e. Don’t kill, Don’t steal, Rock all night and party everyday, etc.). Could be that if you go back far enough, all religion comes from one beginning religion that had some set rules, or more likely, it could have evolved separately several times, and it happened that these rules made for the best society. I have no idea. I like the idea and it has merit. As for why some laws come from religion and not others, that would ultimately be dependent on the society and changes of the time. Dominant religion of the time or place sets the rules. As the culture changes (for whatever reason) some laws will change, while others will not. As for Chinese education, I disagree with a completely atheist education system, as well as with the Chinese policy on religion, and how religious freedom is not allowed. I don’t think children should be taught or indoctrinated with religion but I think children should be taught about different religions and their history and potential pros and cons. I guess give them knowledge and give them the critical skills to decipher for themselves.

    Point 2: You’re right. By pushing God back it does change his the nature of our relationship with him and his relationship to the earth. Kind of started off as the one running everything all the time, while at this point, he could be seen more as having set up everything to run itself and gone on a skiing holiday. And you’re right, without proper scientific evidence, and a reliance on historical documentation and anecdotal evidence (I saw God in a plate of nachos and he told me to burn things) can only really place God into the realm of psuedoscience. It’s tricky. Ultimately if people want to believe, there is evidence for it, and if people don’t want to believe, there is evidence against it.

    The sole basis for choosing a religion, at least to me, seems to be based on which makes the most sense given what we know. The Greeks believed that the gods pulled the sun and brought rain and did all that. Then science and evidence came along, and they died out or were replaced with different gods. And that seems to be the way religion goes. It takes all new discoveries and either incorporates them or fades out. Now there are other issues to why religions remain popular, and that could be because of the ramifications of not believing. The concept of hell entices a lot of people to believe because of a fear of the unknown and because it raises the potential of suffering if one doesn’t follow. If you follow Pascal’s Wager (although there are flaws to that as well) it makes sense to believe and live your life as if God exists, even if he doesn’t, because the drawbacks of going to hell outweigh the drawbacks of living a life based on religion.

    Also, you might choose some over others because of who they are based on or represented by. For example, Islam has Muhammad as a main prophet, while Judaism has Moses as a main prophet. Christianity has Jesus not only as a prophet but as God incarnated in human flesh. So if you have three religions, and two have prophets of God, and one has God in human form, people might choose God in human form. Now, I think Scientology should be ruled out on the basis that it is clearly a money making scheme. Some could argue that other religions make tons of money (The Vatican is, after all, Oprah rich) but Scientology charges money for their people to learn anything at all. I wouldn’t be as opposed to Scientology if they let people learn for free and didn’t hold them in cells, take their money or issue directives in which they call for the use of a pistol against anyone who goes against the religion ( I’d still think it was absolute bullshit and probably make fun of it … but I think it loses some credibility when you see that it was created by a science fiction writer. I know this point isn’t terribly strong but I feel it needs to be made.

    Point 3: Yeah, I was being picky. Dawkins was right for the most part. No one follows the bible straight to the word, so there’s obviously choices being made. The biggest issue with that is I feel that people still might not have their own inherent since of morality but use what people tell them. So if you have the bible, priests and other church leaders could tell you what to believe and what not to believe. You could get into this church because your parents brought you in, just as their parents brought them in and so on. Once you’re in this mentality it becomes an issue of “While I feel this is wrong, I can’t question it because God will bitch slap me!”. Furthermore, you can’t discount the fact that some religions flourish because people and the culture around them are dicks. Gay marriage should not be an issue, regardless of whether you are Religious or not. Even if you think it’s a sin, you should live your own life and allow others to live theirs. That being said, I think people get scared about an issue or generally hate a group of people and so they use their faith as a weapon. I think its a shameful thing to do and I don’t feel that it should be used that way. If there is a God, and if he gave us free will, then each person should be allowed to live a certain way within a society and, assuming that their actions don’t necessarily influence or effect another person (i.e. Sex, Drugs, Rock n’ Roll).

    I agree about using your criteria and not relying on the bible as a moral code. If people are using it for it’s moral code, then I think they missed the point. You should be a believer because you believe in God and all that goes along with it. I can understand changing some things based on personal feelings (God, even though they may be sinners, I`m not going to throw things at Gay people … I just won`t have sex with men).

    As for which text to choose … I don`t have any idea. If you grow up in one religion, then it doesn`t matter because you`ll most likely stick with that one. But to go into a religion or to change religions strikes me as difficult to do. It depends on the religion in question and what rational they provide for joining. For example, I could see leaving Catholicism because their bible is different from the original Greek texts, as well as they make stuff up about Purgatory and buying people out of hell (and when I say make up, I mean it`s not even in the bible and some pope decided it to get more bling). I could see jumping between different protestant churches because the bible says being gay is a sin and some churches let church leaders be gay, which people feel is wrong (because a church leader should be a good role model such as, Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps, Paul Barnes, Peter Popoff, Jim Jones, etc.). I don`t necessarily agree with it but I can see why people would do it. This is one of those issues that causes me a lot of problems with my own faith and unfortunately I don`t really have a super good answer.

    Point 4: I agree with the above post that bullshit may be a bit blunt and that trying to make people feel stupid or bad for believing in something is not the best way to go about getting people to change. I also know that Dawkins has done a lot of sensible work on the subject that isn`t just blunt but is a thoughtful examination of the subject. So while I disagree with being blunt and potentially offensive, I`ll allow it because he rocks the kasbah.

    And I`m done.

  6. I’ll probably end up discussing some of these concepts in other posts later on, so I’ll try not to wax on and on forever in the comments here. Just a few big points.

    Point 1: The CFI speaker completely agreed with your point that children should be taught about all kinds of religions (but not indoctrinated into any one), then allowed to make up their own minds. I like it!

    I don’t know enough to really go into the idea of evolved morality, but I think there’s something to it. Perhaps religion itself is an evolved trait that may or may not retain its usefulness today.

    Point 2: “Ultimately if people want to believe, there is evidence for it, and if people don’t want to believe, there is evidence against it.” I don’t know if this is the best way to go about choosing beliefs. There’s evidence on both sides of every issue – you can find evidence that 9/11 was an inside job. It’s just that some evidence isn’t very good, or is outweighed by more and better evidence on the other side. I’m not declaring that’s the case here, but to pick and choose the evidence that supports the theory you find most pleasing is not particularly sophisticated.

    The world contains facts and truth that can be discovered, and not all of it is pleasant. In my own views on religion, I like the idea of not being beholden to an ultimate authority, and I really don’t like the idea that death is truly the end of being. But I try very hard to make my likes and dislikes secondary to what I find most likely to be true. I don’t know if it’s possible to be 100% successful in that, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal.

    As for Pascal’s Wager, it only works if you have exactly two possibilities – believe in god and go to heaven or don’t believe and go to hell. In fact, there are plenty of other possibilities to worry about. The Christian bible says you go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus, and the Quran specifically says you go to hell if you DO accept Jesus. Pascal falls apart trying to choose between two options like that. Also, would the Christian god want people going through the motions of belief just to hedge their bets? Wouldn’t he know their motives? Isn’t being sincere in your belief a big part of it?

    Regarding choosing the religion with the most powerful representative, that’s still not really a good way to determine the truth of specific statements. The Greek and Roman religions have a whole pantheon of incarnate and mostly immortal gods, not just one god who became a man for a few decades. The Mormons believe that being human is just the first step for each of us in becoming a god ourselves, each of in control of his or her very own universe! I like the sound of that! So I raise the question again: why christianity specifically? And why Catholicism specifically? If you had been born into a Jewish or Hindu or Baptist family, do you think you would have eventually converted to Catholicism because of theological arguments?

    Point 3: I mostly agree with you here. Just, again, in the picking and choosing, on what basis can you say that the bible is right about not stealing, but wrong about stoning gay people to death? Unless you already have some other source of your morals that you could apply to any set of rules you read in any book.

    Point 4: I should have said that after he said ‘bullshit’ Dawkins went on to make a reasoned critique of the statement. I think it’s ok to literally call bullshit if you see something that strikes you as condescending or disrespectful on a personal level. Otherwise you end up giving undeserved respect to bigotted opinions. I guess it’s a personal matter whether or not you find that particular statement to be bigotted. 🙂

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