Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is Religious Faith Irrational?

The New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris -- seem united in their belief that religious faith is irrational (and therefore dangerous). Reason is equated with science and science requires evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Supernatural agents, by definition, can be neither proved nor disproved. In the absence of evidence of a supernatural God (or gods), faith can only be irrational and therefore must be abandoned.

The black-and-white dichotomy of faith vs. reason makes me uncomfortable. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Shakespeare's Hamlet tells his friend Horatio, who finds it hard to believe in the ghost of Hamlet's father. Faith, according to Hebrews 11, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." But, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Peter 3:15). I reach for scriptural support because the debate over faith vs. reason, one of the oldest in theology, is giving me grief as I pour over the texts of the New Atheists.

For a growing number of people coming out of the closet as atheists or secularists, this is a non-issue. There are no supernatural agents, period. The universe began with a big bang, and the variety and complexity of life on earth can be explained adequately by the process of natural selection discovered by Darwin. Religions were created by human beings to provide explanations for the unknown, encourage solidarity within a community, and dictate a standard of morality to prevent conflict. Calling on the "Divine" is a trick to secure obedience to authority, and often religious and political authority were one and the same.

Where does that leave the spiritual but not religious? I have struggled with traditional definitions of religion throughout my life and in this blog. For the philosopher Daniel Dennett, religions are "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” His definition does not include "cafeteria Catholics" like me who pick and choose among the dogmas offered to come up with our own mix. "If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist in my book.” OK, I'm an atheist.

Richard Dawkins takes a different approach. Rather than begin with religion (which he will try to define as a by-product of other more useful evolutionary traits like respect for authority), he opens his book with the "God Hypothesis" which says: "There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." God in this sense, Dawkins says, is a delusion, "a pernicious delusion." Writing critically of the New Atheists in the London Guardian, Madeleine Bunting acknowledges that "scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix?" OK, I agree. I cannot believe in, nor have faith in, such an outdated supernatural agent. The god with white hair and a long beard who sits in the sky and judges us is dead, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago.

I would rather see faith and reason both as conceptual tools we humans use to explain and understand the data we receive from our senses. As Stanley Fish observed in a discussion of the New Atheists in the New York Times, "the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.” I remember reading philosopher Michael Polanyi who pointed out that the opposite of reason is not the irrational but the non-rational, a belief or perception that is more or less reasonable, based on probability rather than firm evidence. Love and beauty are among the things we know by non-rational "tacit knowing," according to Polanyi.

A surprising opponent of Dawkins was the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton who wrote in the London Review of Books that even the scientist "lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’."
Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
Religion and science, then, are two separate realms of discourse. Scientist Freeman Dyson, in his review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, stakes frankly his own prejudices:
As human beings, we are groping for knowledge and understanding of the strange universe into which we are born. We have many ways of understanding, of which science is only one. Our thought processes are only partially based on logic, and are inextricably mixed with emotions and desires and social interactions. We cannot live as isolated intelligences, but only as members of a working community. Our ways of understanding have been collective, beginning with the stories that we told each other around the fire when we lived in caves. Our ways today are still collective, including literature, history, art, music, religion, and science. Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. To understand religion, it is necessary to explore it from the inside, as William James explored it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The testimony of saints and the raw material out of which a deeper understanding of religion may grow.
Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times called Dennett's book "a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative…what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

And what of mystical knowledge, that chimera on which I've pinned my hopes for many years, seeking to develop a spiritual practice that would allow me to break out of the time-bound self to experience "Truth"? Support for this comes from a strange source, Sam Harris's book The End of Faith, the first of the New Atheist gospels. “Mysticism is a rational enterprise, religion is not,” he writes in the book's final chapter where he discusses his own practice of meditation. But this drew fire from his own tribe. Meera Nanda, writing in The New Humanist, says that the "bilious attack on faith, the aspect of the book which has received all the attention, only sets the stage for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Dzogchen Buddhist and Advaita Vedantic Hindu spirituality." Nanda, who grew up a Hindu and rejected it, writes that
Harris appears oblivious to the authoritarian implications of the one-ness he worships. Shedding one's 'I-ness' is a recipe for group-think and authoritarianism. The individual in her everyday life is treated as an illusion of no consequence when seen from the mystical highground of one-ness. Of course the Gnostic vision of one-ness is not supposed to be available to all. The enlightened have always constituted a spiritual aristocracy in deeply unequal Eastern societies. When one-ness is made into the highest religious ideal you get the 'holism' of caste society.
To defend his advocacy of "rational mysticism" from such criticism, Harris published an explanation in Free Inquiry. Meditation, he writes, "is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this." It is the only basis upon which we can make first-person claims about subjectivity.
Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
Arguing that this is not "New Age mumbo jumbo," Harris says that "any serious practitioner of meditation knows, there is something to the claims that have been made by mystics over the ages…there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion."

This is an astounding statement from one of the quartet of New Atheists, and one I am not sure Dawkins and Dennett, who both praised Harris highly for his book, as well as Hitchens, would agree. Harris ends his book with this gentle dichotomy:
The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece.
"As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God," writes Jim Holt, reviewing Dawkins' book in the New York Times, "a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds." It is poignant to think, Holt continues,
that believers will never discover that they are wrong, whereas Dawkins and fellow atheists will never discover that they are right. As for those in between — ranging from agnostics to “spiritual” types for whom religion is not so much a metaphysical proposition as it is a way of life, illustrated by stories and enhanced by rituals — they might take consolation in the wise words of the Rev. Andrew Mackerel, the hero of Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel The Mackerel Plaza: “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”
In his blog last month, Cyprian Consiglio writes about an anonymous Carthusian monk who thinks "in one sense only the atheist can truly believe in God; meaning, he thought that for all of us God has to die at a certain moment." In "The Wound of Love," the monk goes on to list the God that must die:
the God who stands alongside the cosmos as some ‘thing’ else,
the God who stands alongside my neighbor as someone else;
the God of whom it suffices to know the general moral rules
in order to do his will;
the God infinitely above creatures' pains
in a transcendence beyond reach;
the God-judge, who punishes in accord with
a justice conceived along human lines;
the God who blocks the spontaneity of life and love.
Cyprian comments: "But the one that sticks in my craw is this: he says that the God of our imagination must die too, the God of our projections and desires must die because that God is quite often nothing other than our own ego deified." Perhaps through meditation, what the Christian mystics also call contemplation, it is possible, as Harris argues, to see through the conventional sense of "self," the "self deified," and behold the wisdom of the mystics.

I remain on the fence, poised between the dark chasm of the scientific reductionist's brute materialism, and the blind faith of the true believer who is forever bowing to authority and subject to almost certain manipulation by unscrupulous gurus and priests. How can we distinguish between personal faith (given that "the self" is a tenuous and limited construction) and religion as a social system, created by humans and containing the faults of any institution? A plague on all their houses?

I am not sure, but I think this excursion into atheism, this exercise of stripping away all certainties, all religious and spiritual beliefs, all conventional "God talk," is beneficial and healthy. These gods must die. During my retreat next month at Shantivanam in India I hope to find my own level of reasonable faith from the bedrock up.

This weekend: an idyll on the island of Koh Samet.

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