The God Confusion

I don’t comment over at Bill Vallicella’s website any more, but I still follow the conversations there, as they are often interesting, and attract a number of intelligent participants.

Bill has put up an odd post today, however, which he calls The Humanity Delusion, in an obvious swipe at Richard Dawkins’s atheist manifesto The God Delusion.

I say this is an “odd” post because Bill is usually so meticulous with language that it is surprising to see him build an entire essay on an equivocation, but that is exactly what he is doing here. The post begins:

You don’t believe in God, but you believe in man? There is even less justification for believing in the latter than for believing in the former.

Admittedly, the fact of natural and moral evil makes belief in a providential power difficult. But it also makes belief in man and human progress difficult. There is the opium of religion, but also that of future-oriented utopian naturalisms such as Marxism. Why is utopian opium less narcotic than the religious variety?

Now I couldn’t agree more that the utopian social-engineering programs of the radical Left — Bolshevism, the Cultural Revolution, the depredations of the Khmer Rouge, and many more — have been unmitigated disasters, and I realize that Bill’s agenda in this post is to point out the universal folly of such misguided schemes, which in their naive dismissal of human nature were doomed to failure all. But Bill makes two errors here. First, he artificially conflates Leftist utopianism with philosophical naturalism — beliefs that, while they may often have gone hand in hand, have no inherent connection or interdependency. Second, he equivocates on the phrase “believe in”. Coming from some, this might be seen as prosaic license, but this is just the sort of thing he routinely calls others on the carpet for, and I am surprised to see him do it here. He is contraposing belief in the very existence of God with belief in the perfectibility of Man; an apples-to-oranges comparison if ever there was one.

Dr. V. continues:

And isn’t it more difficult to believe in Man than in God? We know man and his wretchedness and that nothing much can be expected of him, but we don’t know God. Man appears impotent to ameliorate his condition in any fundamental way. We have had centuries to experience this truth, have we not? Advances in science and technology have brought undeniable benefits but also unprecedented dangers. The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their possession by rogue states and their terrorist surrogates, bodes ill for the future of humanity. We know our ilk and what he is capable of, and the bases of rational optimism seem slim indeed.

There is also the scarcely insignificant point that there is no such thing as Man, there are only men at war with one another and with themselves. But God is one. You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn’t and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively.

Bill argues that we have had centuries to see if Man can improve himself on his own — presumably he is referring to the increasingly secular period stretching from the Enlightenment forward — and concludes that “we need help that we cannot provide for ourselves”. But this overlooks that in the thousands of years prior to the Enlightenment, when presumably we were relying, as he prescribes, upon the guidance of the Almighty, perfect human societies were hardly, to put it mildly, abundant. And it is only in recent years that we have begun to see slavery, suppression and ownership of women, torture, and so forth — practices both endorsed in the Bible and unopposed during the religious hegemony of earlier centuries — as unequivocally unacceptable. As Stephen Pinker argues here, we actually do seem to be making moral progress in these increasingly Godless days.

Bill concludes:

There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left’s utopian Kool-Aid.

This is a startling capitulation. Are we then to believe in God, even if such a belief is indeed the delusion Dawkins claims it to be, simply to ease our journey to the grave? Are we to surrender our quest for Truth in favor of comforting anodynes? Bill, I’m shocked to hear you suggest such a thing. In your loathing of the politics of the far Left (and I admit there is much there to loathe), you seem content to throw out the baby — the secular program of skepticism and rational inquiry that is the fruitful legacy of the Enlightenment — with the bath.

It’s awfully (infernally?) hot in Phoenix right now; perhaps the explanation is that the man has simply been out in the sun too long.

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  1. Andrew says


    This is a very good post and I am glad you wrote it. It is a good critique of the post and the lack of critical comment over there is quite disappointing.

    I’ve pretty much stopped visiting Bill V’s site. Some of the more esoteric philosophical material is not my cup of tea and all of the materialism bashing has gotten old.

    Posted July 11, 2007 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks very much, Andrew.

    I wish BV himself had seen fit to address the criticism, but…

    Posted July 11, 2007 at 3:53 pm | Permalink