Friday, January 06, 2012

R. Joseph Hoffmann: frenemy of modern secular humanism

R. Joseph Hoffmann, religious scholar, former chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, and former associate editor of the journal Free Inquiry is a good secular humanist in many ways.

He’s insightful enough about the realities of religion, and knowledgeable enough about the history of secular humanism, that Gnu Atheists can’t refute most of his claims against their atheist evangelism and the concepts on which it is built.

But, in a blog post like this, “Complacency and Excess,” he earns the title above: “frenemy of modern secular humanism.” I’m not a fan of neologisims that are Internet or entertainment derived, but I make an exception in this case.

I’ve said before that Hoffmann’s brand of humanism is an Enlightenment-era humanism, one from the era when scientists were still “natural philosophers.” I don’t know if Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz was quite as much that way as Hoffmann is, but Hoffmann is definitely that way.

For example, in a blog post of about a month or two ago, he went beyond criticizing overblown claims some neuroscientists make for what tools like fMRIs of today show about brain functioning to, at least as I saw it, criticizing the entire idea of daring to make too much scientific investigation of what the mind is.

The “frenemy” part, and related concerns, starts here:
Let me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.
While it’s true that many Gnus believe that, not all do. More to the point of my previous critique, successors to fMRIs, CT scans, single-emission positron scans, etc., may just reveal much more of the brain’s working, on a smaller scale, and in something nearer to “real time.”

Next comes a “huh” comment like this:
Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist?
I agree with the idea behind the first half of the quote. Liberal Episcopaleanism is nothing like the Church of Christ, for example. But, the part in parenthesis is a head-scratcher, at the least.
First of all, when did “collapsing” become “mystical” in this instance? Second, is Hoffmann confounding “science” with “scientism”? Take away “mystical” and I’d agree with his parenthetical observation IF that is the case. But, IF that is the case, then Hoffmann’s engaging in either sloppy verbiage or goalpost shifting.

And there's more that to come, if you'll look below the fold.

Next, there’s this:
(D)oes “subject matter” mean a certain kind of theology? Or does it mean (I think is often does in new atheist harangues) apologetics–which is unknown in many religious traditions?
Well, it IS known outside of Christianity. Islam certainly has an apologetic tradition, albeit less than Christianity. Judaism does to a degree, also. Polytheistic traditions are less likely to do so, perhaps. But, even they do to a degree. And, as their face-to-face contact with Western empiricism grows, their apologetics will, too.

Hoffmann knows his Greek, and knows that an “apologia” is simply a “defense.” Whether it’s a more “active” defense, as shown above all in American Christianity, and somewhat in the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, or a more passive defense like Buddhism’s moving target about what constitutes the “life force” that is reincarnated, well, that’s still apologetics.

But, let’s get to the next wrong quote:
Predictably, I am going to say that the best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”–are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time.

I think everybody would call the Dalai Lama a theologian in a metaphorical sense, while allowing for him not believing in a personal divinity, a personal theos (unless he believes in the old, old Tibetan pantheon of gods and demons).

Anyway, the Dalai Lama, allegedly a great ground-mover in reconciling science and religion, is on record as saying more than once if science presents evidence it strongly claims clearly shows the nonexistence of either karma or reincarnation, science goes out the door.

In the Christian world, I’ve no doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, still believes in some sort of immaterial, metaphysical “soul” and, in the case of things like teratomas, brain-conjoined Siamese twins, etc., rejects inferences from science about the nonexistence of souls, i.e., does the “bit of human” teratoma have a “bit of soul” inside the full human “host”?

Next comes this fun one, where Hoffmann shows not much more political insight than P.Z. Myers:
Atheists, as usual, weren’t quite sure what to do (about the Iraq War) because while many hated George W. Bush they hated Islam more and so–like Christopher Hitchens–they backed the wars. They were, in a phrase, paralyzed and morally invisible.
Tosh, or bull, or, per an above comment of mine, sloppy.

Is he saying all atheists weren’t sure what to do, not just Gnus? He’s very wrong there, as I can personally attest. And, speaking of P.Z., I don’t think he ever supported the war. I don’t know about a Dan Dennett, a Vic Stenger or other leading Gnus, other than to say most of them weren’t focused on this, perhaps.

Finally, Hoffmann makes a simply unsubstantiated claim that a scholar of religion, or at least of the sociology of religion, shouldn’t have:
Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.
Nonsense. Western Europe had pretty high church attendance rates, fairly high “religiosity,” etc., until World War II. Nazism, the Holocaust, and the realization that in many countries, especially Catholic ones, religious leaders were at least partially acquiescent in Nazism’s rise, is what killed Christianity in Europe as much as anything.

As for his paean to Stephen Jay Gould and his “nonoverlapping magisterial,” plenty of non-Gnu Atheists find it wanting. It’s really just a science-based riff on the old “god of the gaps,” retitled as “religion of the gaps.” Again, for Hoffmann to not see that as being what it is leads me to raise an eyebrow.

And why, between this and his seeming Enlightenment-era gravitas, he is indeed a frenemy of modern secular humanism. And, why I hope that some of my online friends see that while he can be a useful A-list ally, he's not close to a fantastic one.

No comments: