The Great Debate

In Peter Berkowitz’s response to Christopher Hitchens’s god Is Not Great, he make some worthwhile points, but also trots out some familiar and flimsy ones as well. Let’s have a go at those first; we’ll take up his better arguments — and he does indeed make some — in a subsequent post.

The defenders of the faith have often made an unwitting ally of the late Stephen Jay Gould (that he is “the late” SJG is convenient for them, as he cannot clarify and correct the sometimes breathtakingly audacious adductions to which his remarks have been put). Dr. Berkowitz cites Gould’s famous declaration that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria” as support for the notion that religion is an equal partner of science in our efforts to know the truth of the world:

Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because “there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.” Such questions–toward which the mind naturally wanders, though it is susceptible to ambush by the crude scientism of which Mr. Hitchens occasionally avails himself–include: Where did the universe come from, and is it governed by purpose?

It may indeed be that there are questions to which science may never provide an answer (although marking off regions of the natural world as forever beyond science’s reach has had a bad track record so far; for example the composition of the distant stars was once thought to be utterly beyond our ken). But, as Richard Dawkins asks, if scientists cannot tell us where the Universe came from, what possible reason would we have for thinking the preisthood can? The mere possibility that there are facts that are inaccessible to scientific inquiry makes no brief for the superior capabilities of religion in these areas. Likewise, imagine that science, baffled by the question of whether the Universe is “governed by purpose”, and at its wit’s end, does decide to turn to religion for the answer. Which religion should it consult? The Druse, perhaps, or should it be the adherents of a Polynesian cargo cult? No, religion has no special expertise in these matters; what it has is clout, and that only because it is so supinely granted it by so many of us.

Dr. Berkowitz continues:

As for his claim that the Bible abounds in falsehood and contradiction, Mr. Hitchens makes great sport with an old straw man. Yes, traditions teach that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, yet the Pentateuch refers to Moses in the third person and tells the story of his death. Yes, Matthew and Luke disagree on the Virgin Birth and the genealogy of Jesus. And so on. The literalness of Mr. Hitchens’s readings would put many a fundamentalist to shame.

However, isolating the supposed religious significance of the Bible from the communities and interpretive traditions that have elaborated its teaching is invalid. It is like deriving the meaning of the Constitution today by reading its provisions without reference to “The Federalist Papers,” which provides authoritative commentary on its principles; without reference to the two centuries of cases and controversies through which the Supreme Court has sought to construe its meaning; and without reference to the two centuries of experience through which the American people have sought to put the institutional framework it outlines into practice.

The important difference here, of course, is that the Constitution is not put forward as the divine and infallible word of the Almighty, but is simply a public document, written in public view by a committee of all-too mortal men. It makes no claims of supernatural agencies, and it even contains instructions for its own revision. It is, in short, a very different sort of thing altogether. And to the extent that the religious traditions that have “elaborated” the Bible’s teaching are religious at all, they cling always to belief in the existence of its central character, namely the overbearing, inescapable figure of God: a being whose behavior in the Bible, as Hitchens and others have rightly pointed out, hardly seems worthy of veneration.

Mr. Hitchens shows no awareness that his atheism, far from resulting from skeptical inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise from which his inquiries proceed, and that it colors all his observations and determines his conclusions.

“Far from resulting from skeptical inquiry”? On what basis is this allegation made? Hitchens was raised in the Anglican Church, and it was exactly the awakening of skepticism in his young and curious mind that roused him from his religious education’s slumbrous spell. Anyway, on the basis of what “skeptical inquiry” are the dogmatic assertions of religion made? Skepticism, perhaps, about theological inconsistencies and minutiae. But about the existence of God Himself? No, to the faithful, that door is, by definition, nailed shut.

Of all the Bible’s sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings–woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes–are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Sublime and sustaining, perhaps, for a mind that needs desperately to cling to all-too-human notions of superiority and privilege. To others of us, the message of science: that we are not “set apart” from the Universe, but are, rather, deeply connected to it in ways that we might never have imagined under the cramped and pinching cosmology of religious dogma — that we are, quite literally, made of the ashes of stars, and are the agents by which the vast and churning Cosmos can awaken and behold itself — is far more uplifting.

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women–a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation–is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

Indeed, that some may be sustained by religious beliefs certainly does not make them true; Dr. Berkowitz is quite right about that. That their absolute truth is noisily and often brutally asserted, however, when they may well be utterly false, has in fact been, to put it mildly, rather a recurring historical nuisance, and I recall a day a few years back when that truth was driven home in a most unpleasant way, right here in my home town. But, after all, perhaps Mohammed Atta and his pious comrades, as believers, were just struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

But enough vitriol. Dr. Berkowitz does indeed make some good points. And to be fair, he does want us to keep in mind the “crucial distinctions” between gentle, wholesome religions, like, of course, the one we Americans have right here at home, and nasty ones, like “militant” Islam (we assume the regular version is considered to be OK too). We’ll be nicer in the next post, and I do apologize, by the way, for harping on this topic so much lately.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    It’s a good topic to harp on, and merits extended discussion.


    Posted July 18, 2007 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Kevin. I feel that I am coming across, lately, with a sharpness of tone that masks my innately sweet and mellow disposition. Also, this not being one of those dedicated-to-one-subject-only kind of weblogs, I can imagine that some readers are getting weary of this furrow I’ve been plowing for the last several posts.

    But as you say, this is a hugely important topic — arguably the most important topic there could possibly be — and I do have more I’d like to say.

    Posted July 18, 2007 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re a slave to your readership, so I wouldn’t worry too much about treading on their claws, tentacles, and pseudopods. If there’s a problem, I’m sure they’ll caw, neigh, roar, bay, hiss, and cluck their opinions here in the comment threads.


    Posted July 18, 2007 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, you’re quite right, Kevin. I suppose it’s also that I get restless myself when I’ve been at the same topic too long; it starts to feel a little monomaniacal.

    Posted July 18, 2007 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Andrew says

    harp away Malcolm. I am sorry I can’t participate more but things are crazy around here.

    I am curious to hear your thoughts on the “crucial distinction” you mention at the end of the post. I think the relationship between morality and religion that Steven Weinberg discusses in the video you recommend in the Ain’t Superstitious post is quite relevant. Rather than try to paraphrase his point I’ll just suggest that any of you readers who have not yet watched the Weinberg interview, do so. The relevant point is made between 3:55 and 4:58 in the third of the three parts on youtube.

    Posted July 18, 2007 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Thanks Andrew,

    Yes, the Weinberg conversation is very interesting; what an intelligent man he is. (I suppose Nobel laureates in fundamental physics often are, but you know what I mean.)

    Pat Churchland also gave an excellent talk on the relation of religion and morality at the Beyond Belief conference I linked to a while back; you can see that one here.

    Posted July 18, 2007 at 11:42 pm | Permalink