Saturday, September 22, 2007

By Jove, I Think He Doesn't Get It: A Night with Professor Higgins

Michael Higgins is a Catholic religious scholar, author, and local legend who is currently President of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Last night he delivered the inaugural Michael Higgins Lecture at St. Jerome's University, a church college affiliated with my own university, the University of Waterloo. The title was, "It's Tough Being God These Days", and the main theme was the new atheism.

A night with Prof. Higgins is always entertaining, as he is a witty and erudite speaker. At one point, speaking of atheists, he said, "We used to burn them", which got a good laugh. Despite his wit and erudition, I have always found Higgins' talks unsatisfying. To me, a Higgins talk is best likened to eating at an overrated Parisian restaurant. You are taken with the setting and the opulence and the view of Notre Dame. But then the food comes, and you are disappointed to discover that most of the effort has been expended on the surroundings, and little on the meal itself.

Last night was no exception. There was a bit of chest-pounding against atheism and the usual suspects of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, a rather dispirited defense of religion and an acknowledgment of some religious sins, a brief theological analysis concluding that "God is big", and a limp finish that consisted of quoting some of his favorite religious writers. I left hoping for more.

Unlike some Catholic commentators, Higgins takes the current wave of atheism seriously. He views it as a significant trend, labeling it a "virulent and subcompetent atheism" that is "seismic in its implications". However, he thinks the arguments are nothing new: "everything originated in the 18th and 19th centuries". He denigrates the "industry" of atheist writers such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, arguing that their books are "aggressive and vituperative". Their hubris is "stunning". They ridicule "without fear that it is indecorous or unjust".

Higgins is very impressed by John Cornwell, who wrote a reply to Dawkins. He quoted Cornwell as saying that in the past, atheists were content to dispute the arguments of believers, but the current wave of atheists likes to ridicule the believers themselves. (But listen to this interview with Cornwell and Dawkins, where Cornwell is caught blatantly misrepresenting what Dawkins had to say.)

To his credit, Higgins says that religion is partly to blame. The new wave of antipathy is, he admits, "religion's own fault". He cites religion's "capacity for terror" and cites as an example "honor killings". "Religion's capacity to divide is considerable," Higgins concedes.

But it's too easy, Higgins says, to blame the excesses of religion on religion. Honor killlings do not represent religion, but terror. "No holy man" could ever claim terrorist acts as "a life-giving force". The issue, Higgins argued, is not to eliminate religion, but to eliminate the caricature of religion, to delegitimize those who speak on behalf of religion but do so inauthentically.

Atheists have the spotlight now, Higgins says, and so the media interprets religious stories in that light. The recent revelations about Mother Teresa were not interpreted according to the "theology of God's absence", but rather that she was a hypocrite or worse.

Luckily, he observed, theists outreproduce atheists, so there is little danger. The answer to the new atheism is not in "noble silence". "God is bigger than our systems" and "Once we recognize God's bigness we recognize our own fanaticism". There must be "respect between people of faith" and "Catholicism can lead".

Now, my analysis. Higgins claimed that those who attack religion are ignorant of it. He even went so far as to suggest, in answer to a question, that Hitchens was mentally unbalanced. I have a two-word answer: courtier's reply.

Higgins says that the new atheism engages in a "caricature" of genuine religion. My reply: look around you. We have a local Catholic school board actually debating whether to give the HPV vaccine to girls, not because of the cost or the unproven nature of the vaccine, but because it might encourage them to engage in sexual activity. We have Muslims rioting and killing in Pakistan because of a rumor that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, all the while insisting that Islam is a peaceful religion. We have Mother Teresa working with poor and sick people, while refusing to endorse the birth control that might genuinely help them. We have Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on "pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians". It's not possible to caricature religion because, these days, religion caricatures itself.

I'm sure that Higgins would reply with a version of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, because that's what he did in his talk. These kinds of actions, Higgins would say, are not genuine religion. I say, they represent genuine religion for millions of believers, and they find their justification in the holy texts themselves. Look at Kirk Durston, a local religious leader who excuses genocide in the Bible when God does it. Look at Muslims who draw their inspiration for violence from passages in the Koran such as “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal harshly with them.”

I'm not saying all religious believers are of this stripe; far from it. But religion has been treated with kid gloves far too long. Higgins decried the treatment of religion in the media, calling it shallow. But when did you ever see a believer quizzed in the pages of your local newspaper about whether their beliefs are supported by evidence? Or if their beliefs are genuinely beneficial to society? In my local newspaper, faith is always treated as a positive aspect to one's personality. I see skepticism, not faith, as more worthy of respect. "There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds."

There was time for a few questions, and here's the one I asked. I asked why is it, when theists want to attack atheism or science, they often use religious language to do so? As examples I cited this article by a theist who suggested that evolutionary biologists answer criticism of evolution with "Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it," which is evidently a reference to the famous bumper sticker with "Jesus" replacing "Darwin". I pointed out that Prof. Higgins himself used this language, when he favorably cited another writer as referring to "evangelical atheists". In reply, Higgins first took exception to my use of the word "theist". (Hey, I was just trying to be inclusive; what word woud he have me use?) Then he denied that this tactic was frequently used. I find it hard to take his answer seriously, as there are many more examples. To cite just one, fellow Catholic writer Denyse O'Leary refers to the new atheism as an "anti-God crusade". Not only do theists use this religious language in attacking atheists, they use religious language that recalls the worst aspects of religion.

In the end, I don't think that Professor Higgins gets it. The new atheists have been emboldened by religion's excesses, but they don't base their arguments on that alone. Fundamentally, the new atheists are simply not convinced by religion's claims. When we hear Higgins assert that "God is bigger than our systems", we want to know, where's the evidence that what you are talking about even exists? We don't see God-talk as helpful in resolving issues; when God-talk is introduced, it moves us away, rather than towards, a solution based on rational consideration of the issues. Higgins wants to appropriate human values, such as compassion and tolerance, to religion's domain, but these values are subscribed to by theist and non-theist alike. In the end, religion doesn't have as many virtues as Higgins claims, nor does the new atheism have as many faults as he would have us believe.

13 comments:

Ian said...

The problem for me is how do you separate the effects of religion from those of tribalism? And tribalism, IMO, is something for which we are hardwired. In other words, would dismantling religion (if it is at all possible) serve any real benefit, and would that benefit outweigh the good currently served by religious organisations (through charities, education, as a force for social justice, etc.)?

It seems silly (and hypocritical) to attack "new atheism" - if the anti-new-atheists are to be believed, it's an attack on a "New Religious Movement" (which is unacceptable bigotry; could you imagine religious thinkers having public lectures in which they attack Mormonism?) You really can't have it both ways - you can't call "new atheism" a religious movement and fail to treat it with the same kid gloves that you want your own religious movement treated.

ollie said...

quoting you:
In the end, I don't think that Professor Higgins gets it. The new atheists have been emboldened by religion's excesses, but they don't base their arguments on that alone. Fundamentally, the new atheists are simply not convinced by religion's claims. When we hear Higgins assert that "God is bigger than our systems", we want to know, where's the evidence that what you are talking about even exists?
-------------
It comes down to axioms. The theists don't seem to understand is that just accepting the existence of some deity is NOT a valid axiom for many of us; "postulate it if you'd like but we see no reason to do so."

Also, they don't seem to understand that belief in a deity is NOT a symmetrical position with a "not seeing evidence to believe" position; the latter is NOT a religious belief.

Reginal Selkirk said...

However, he thinks the arguments are nothing new: "everything originated in the 18th and 19th centuries".

As opposed to all those brand-spanking-new arguments for theism.

We have Mother Teresa...We have Jerry Falwell

Not anymore, we don't.

Higgins decried the treatment of religion in the media, calling it shallow.

What does "the media" treat in depth? The media is filled with immense shallowtude.

Zeno said...

How dumb a creationist do you have to be in order to offer "Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it" as if any evolutionary biologist accepts that as an argument? I saw that article, too, which was written by a medical doctor (oh, woe!) who tries to explain that good mutations are rare and bad mutations cause death, so evolution is impossible. Funny, that sounds a little like natural selection, doesn't it? [Link]

Tyler DiPietro said...

It comes down to axioms. The theists don't seem to understand is that just accepting the existence of some deity is NOT a valid axiom for many of us; "postulate it if you'd like but we see no reason to do so."

I think a simpler and more plausible explanation is that theists simply have an inexorable emotional attachment to their belief. Attempts to actually justify belief, through either empirical observation or analytical deduction, aren't in short supply by any means. Someone with a large of emotional investment in a belief will find solace in even the most flawed attempt to shore up said belief.

There are some ivory tower theologians like Plantinga, who attempt to argue nonsense such as "god is properly basic". And there are genuine fideists who hold their faith on thin-air, such as Martin Gardner. But these things seem to be in the minority, as demonstrated by the huge popularity, and extraordinary credulity, most people have to anything that claims to be "evidence" for god(s).

Anonymous said...

Ian: Disbelief does not equal religion. I don't believe in leprechauns. That's not a statement of faith. I have simply not seen any evidence for a leprechaun/unicorn/god.

If you make a claim, you'd better be prepared to bring the evidence as well.

Ian said...

Anonymous said:
Ian: Disbelief does not equal religion...If you make a claim, you'd better be prepared to bring the evidence as well.

I wasn't making that claim, merely commenting on it. (It's one of the standard attacks on "new atheism").

Vodyanoj said...

"God is bigger than our systems" and "Once we recognize God's bigness we recognize our own fanaticism"

Wasn't that a Monty Python skit?

hooligan said...

"Someone with a large of emotional investment in a belief will find solace in even the most flawed attempt to shore up said belief."

This is human nature, my friend, as exhibited by theists and atheists alike.

Michael said...

I didn't make it to the lecture...

morality, compassion, tolerance as religious domain... no you're right. they are not exclusively part of religion's domain. But they do fall squarely in the domain of philosophy: Whether a person or group values or rejects a virtue, Whether they take it or leave it, that choice becomes part of a person or groups philosophy. Without any God talk.

So is religion nothing more than a brand of philosophy with extra harmless God-talk? I say yes. (or at least almost. The "faith" can be a reason to not look critically at that very philosophy).

So what if anything is religion good for? I already know what you would answer: nothing. I would say that religion gives a sense of community and tradition that based in a culture that is hard to find elsewhere. Like a social club where you can show up and meet people and know that on some level, your philosophies are the same. And like many social clubs a problem with many religions is that they are more about excluding people than including people.

So anywhere you can find a club based on a shared philosophy is a good thing I think. It's probably the reason why the math comfy lounge is popular or the CSC. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see religions as philosophy clubs. They're not perfect, they do have their flaws. But they serve a purpose.

You would say that the flaws of religion outweigh the benefits (and might even argue the benefits). I wouldn't.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

So what if anything is religion good for? I already know what you would answer: nothing.

Michael: I don't think you do know what I would answer. Religion clearly offers its adherents some benefits, as you say: a sense of community, a shared identity, an explanation for life's troubling questions, a means of enforcing social conventions, etc.

The difference between a religion and a philosophy club is that philosphy clubs don't generally go out and murder people because their copy of Hume got desecrated.

If you look at the very last line of my blog posting, you'll see the conclusion was fairly moderate.

Tyler DiPietro said...

"This is human nature, my friend, as exhibited by theists and atheists alike."

Did I ever say anything different?

hooligan said...

I believe you did when you said "I think a simpler and more plausible explanation is that theists simply have an inexorable emotional attachment to their belief", singling out theists.

Since this is a math site as well, let me put it this way: how does a theist's "emotional attachment to their belief" differ in any way from Kronecker's defense of finitism.