Tuesday, December 18, 2007

John Haught straw-mans atheism in the name of progressive theology

I appreciate that Haught, the only theologian to testify at the Dover Intelligent Design school education trial, believes Darwin is good for theology to counter a literalist understanding of God, scriptures, etc.

I can halfway accept that Christopher Hitchens, et al, “cheat” in their “New Atheism” books by just talking about the worst of major religions.

But, Haught sets up a straw man by claiming, in essence that atheism is psychologically impossible or nearly so, per “old atheist” literati like Sartre and Camus.

First, he is right that the “old atheists,” Camus above all, did give a hat tip to the social justice of traditional religion. Nonetheless, in the same speech where Camus most directly did that, he told his Catholic religious audience that he wouldn’t be critiquing them on social justice issues if more people actually followed Christian social justice teachings.

On the social justice angle of Christianity, if literalist metaphysical verities are thrown out, that's all that's left. And Christian social justice improved in the modern world, post-Renaissance, precisely as the metaphysical verities faded away.

Second, in claiming atheism can’t justify any hope it does have in this world, he argues from an a priori, a logical equivalent of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. That is, after saying too many fundamentalists and new atheists alike have too much faith in science as being able to provide ultimate answers, he insists the world does have ultimate answers. That is the backdrop for his unspoken assumption that most, if not all psychological stances in this world, can be justified.

Third, Haught basically ignores evolutionary psychology, and the degree to which things like altruism are in our genetic make-up, by indicating one must be religious to hve a sense of social justice.

Fourth, after rejecting Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are “separate magisterial,” he criticizes scientists for ever making comments about “purpose” in life, trying to reserve that for a religion-philosophy magisterial.

Here’s an example:
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, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But, per Christian theology, historical errors of the Bible aside, the Christian God is one who intervenes in history, who makes plans for history, and who ultimately becomes immanent in Jesus.

Ttherefore, claims about God’s actions in this world have to be considered empirically reviewable, unless …

Fifth, and most importantly, after his high-faluting language, he pulls out one of the theologian’s oldest dodges in the book: Finitum non capax est infinitum, or, “The finite cannot comprehend the infinite”:
We have to refer to (transcendent reality) in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor.

That didn’t fly when the author of Job put that on the lip of Yahweh, nor when Paul quoted that. And it doesn’t fly today. And, in fact, he gets called on it a bit later in the interview.

Haught does that again with resurrection stories:
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.

I guess he is OK with ignoring what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about bodily resurrections, even if Paul hedges his bet by talking about “spiritual bodies.”

Sixth, Haught simply covers his eyes when scientific explanations run over his stances like a Mack truck. Haught can’t accept that modern neuroscience and related disciplines show “the mind is the brain,” no matter how that’s understood in terms of mind being an emergent property?

Dismiss it away. Say that cognitive science and neuroscience not only haven’t explained consciousness, but can’t.
Don't get me wrong. I want to push physical explanations as far as possible. I'm a man who loves science. I'm in awe of science. I don't ever want theology to put restraints upon science. 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.

In other words, practice intellectual dishonesty.

Beyond that that, his claims to embrace science aside, he’s actually being antiscientific, not just nonscientific, with his a priori rejection of what cognitive science and neuroscience may well continue to discover about the nature of consciousness.

Finally, we have this howler:
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.

Science admits its knowledge is provisional, but non-literal? This sounds like the intellectual relativists found in places like Stanley Fish lectures and the pages of New Social Review.

In other words beyond that, justify the Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world for pointing out that people like you don’t necessarily have much more clothes than ayatollahs or hellfire preachers, or even than popes and dalai lamas.

That said, Haught’s theological mentor is the late Belgian Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin’s “Omega Point” is certainly out of the scientific realm of empirical study, and, in terms of religion, it’s essentially a Catholicized version of Whitehead’s process theology.

But, all of this skirts an even deeper point.

Haught refuses to look squarely at the fact that Darwinian evolution guts Christian ideas of divine perfection. In other words while Haught has read plenty of Camus, Sartre, Paul Tillich and de Chardin, he hasn’t read enough David Hume. In other words, Haught doesn't consider this world might be the product, even as a process, not literal creation, of a divinity immature, incompetant, immoral or all of the above.

The only way Darwinianism can be squared with theology is if one accepts a God who is “less than all,” unless Haught trots out the “incomprehensible” chestnut again. That’s true in spades of quantum theory.

But, Haught sure doesn’t seem willing to do that.

That said, I find it interesting that many theologians will talk readily about “dialoging” with Darwin or Einstein, with evolution and relativity, and their effects on religion, but you’ll never hear one talking about dialoging with Heisenberg and quantum indeterminancy.


BlackSun said...

Very nice deconstruction. Kudos.

Gadfly said...

Ahh, thank you kindly.