John Haught’s Cliche-Ridden Caricature of Atheism
It’s another groaner over at Salon. After their inexplicable dalliance with the confused ramblings of Camille Paglia, it’s hard to pretend anymore that the webzine is relevant, or to justify my subscription fees, which have continued unabated since about 2002. (That may change.) Now, under the jaunty subhead “Atoms & Eden” they just ran an interview with theologian John Haught called The Atheist Delusion, discussing Haught’s forthcoming book, God and the New Atheism. Pandering to the worst cliches and stereotypes, Haught engages in that philosophical high-wire act of trying to keep religion relevant in the face of unrelenting scientific discovery. It’s bad enough to read this stuff in religious publisher press releases. But on a (supposedly) liberal and intellectual site with a following?
To borrow Paglia’s epithet, here’s a sampling of the “rotting corpse” of theology which Haught advocates. In the introduction by Steve Paulson, it only takes until the fourth paragraph for him to regurgitate that mangled hairball of a phrase “faith in science.” (If you don’t like my unpleasant alliterations, I’m just getting started.)
A few of Haught’s falsehoods, distortions and straw men:
- Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens are theologically uneducated and dismiss God as easily as Santa Claus.
- They present a false view of religion that lacks nuance.
- The moral core of society–social justice–is defined by Judeo-Christian values.
- Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, claimed the only implications of the absence of God should be nihilism. And that it was “not a space in which we could live our lives.” [Cherry picking the bible apparently isn't good enough, Haught also has to cherry-pick the writings of great philosophers.]
- An atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying truth, goodness, or beauty.
- The principle of scientific Puritanism [describing NOMA] is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose.
- And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement.
Just as suddenly, Haught begins to adapt the language of science and hijack it for his version of theology:
- [Speaking of teleology] If purpose means realizing a value, consciousness is a value that none of us can deny. Therefore if the universe is evolving some increased levels of conscious self-awareness, [as Kurzweil and others have discussed--consciousness as an emergent property of matter] then it points to evidence of a divine hand.
- Many cognitive scientists and brain scientists are saying the same thing. They’re almost in despair at times about whether we’ll ever be able to jump from the third-person discourse of science to the first-person discourse of subjective consciousness. [in other words, because we don't know now, we'll never find out or--God of the gaps.]
He bogs down in gobbledygook, suggesting that we begin to use interior subjective experiences as a method to map the universe.
- I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there’s something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what’s going on in the universe as a whole.
- we should use what’s going on in our own experience as a key to what’s happening in the cosmos as a whole. I call this a “wider empiricism.” Most modern science has acted as though subjectivity and consciousness are not part of the natural world. [No, science simply draws a firm boundary between what is observable or quantifiable, and what is not.]
Then *gasp* he attacks Intelligent Design by saying it’s essentially not spiritual enough:
What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, [emphasis added] by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.
He equivocates about religion and science once again,
There are thousands of different definitions of religion. But I like to think of three main ways of understanding it. The first way — and I think almost all of us are religious in this sense — is to define religion as concern about something of ultimate importance. This was Tillich’s broad definition: Religion is ultimate concern. Even the atheist who says that science is the only reliable road to truth, and nature is all there is, is setting up something that’s ultimate. It’s like the top stone of a pyramid that conditions everything else in the pyramid. In our own lives, we all have something like a top stone. If it were suddenly removed, it would cause our lives to fall apart.
A psychological projection of Haught’s own fears and inadequacies onto others. Because Haught’s life might fall apart, he assumes everyone else’s would. Whose foundations are really that weak? We can all hope we don’t engage in such folly, for the act of making any point of knowledge into our idol–our god–is the beginning of the end of rationality.
Then Haught misappropriates Einstein’s respect for the mysteries of the eternal unknown.
So we’re all religious in that sense. In a narrower sense, religion is simply a sense of mystery. Einstein, for example, was someone who couldn’t conceive of people — especially scientists — living without a sense of mystery. There are many scientists — sometimes they’re called “religious naturalists” — who are deeply satisfied with the scientific universe that has given us an exhilarating sense of new horizons. That sense can fulfill a person’s life.
Of course Einstein appreciated mysteries–so they could be solved! That’s a scientists’ reason for being. Without mysteries, science has no purpose. Of course mysteries should be approached with humility, but appreciating them for their own sake would be a static, unfulfilling, and ultimately futile pursuit.
In Einstein’s own words:
I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence - as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.
- Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)
Then Haught gets downright mendacious with his dodging and weaving and tap-dancing around age-old theological contradictions. (I’m surprised there was nothing in there about theodicy)
- On a god who answers prayers: “I believe God is answering our prayers but not always in the ways we want. In the final analysis, we hope and trust that God will show or reveal himself as one who has been accompanying our prayers and responding to the world all along, but not necessarily in the narrow way that the human mind is able to conjure up.”
- On the veracity of the Resurrection: “But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.” [What?????]
- On defining science as a form of literalism [whoa!?]: “If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. [No, science doesn't deal in wishes, it deals in facts.] We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Theology cannot survive without attacking science. Theology cannot survive without fabrication, equivocation, and appealing to a fundamentally sentimental anthropomorphization of God and the universe. How it would (the thought is delicious!) terrify Haught if he were to realize that his God exists not only in the form of man, but is also a product of him.
To watch Salon participate in yet another attempt to wheeze life into the expired bones of Haught’s discredited arguments makes me want to gag and hurl great chunks of indignation–the sickening saccharine sweetness and neatness of it all. What, are we two years old??
His book seems nothing if not a desperate lullaby for those too afraid to live with the reality that they are specks in an uncertain and unknowable universe. “Go back to sleep kiddies. You are special and loved. God is in his heaven, and it’s a place of order–a place for everything, and everything in its place.”