Benefit of the doubt


About Julian’s latest Comment is Free post.

For aspiring-to-be-rational heathens like myself, texts such as Pope Benedict’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia are often used as target practice for sharpening our critical thinking skills and BS radars. How easy it is to take a sentence like, “Only faith gives me the conviction: it is good that I exist,” and reply, “Speak for yourself, mate.”

That’s not a good start. It’s one of those “statements we doubt were ever stated” items. I don’t think it’s true that for people like Julian, texts like the pope’s Xmas chat are often used as target practice for sharpening our critical thinking skills. I think that’s a covert dig at Those Other Atheists disguised as a dig at people like himself. I think few aspirers-to-be-rational really think that papal chats are useful for sharpening critical thinking skills, because (as Julian promptly says) it’s too easy. I think atheists and other critics take the time to contradict the pope for other reasons, the chief of which is that he’s hardly an obscure figure that no one pays any attention to.

But if we look more charitably, the pope’s speech provides an important insight into the limits of rationality.

But why should we look “more charitably” at the pope’s speech? The pope is not giving a paper in a seminar, the pope is The Pope. He’s talking the usual churchy bullshit, for churchy reasons, and I don’t see why his talks should be read “more charitably” when there are already millions of people who read them obediently, unquestioningly, slavishly. They’re not philosophical argumentation, they’re doctrinal recitation. Why should they be read extra charitably? Fairly, accurately, honestly, yes, but why more charitably? Would it make sense to read the speeches of, say, Robert Mugabe more charitably? Charitably rather than fairly and honestly? Is it ever a good idea to read the discourse of powerful men who have an agenda more charitably? I don’t think it is.

The first key sentence is, “Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist.” On this, I think he is pretty much right. Of course secular humanists believe that it is good that human beings exist. But catch one on a bad day and she’ll probably admit the world is a pretty screwed up place and it isn’t obvious that it would have been better if our particular cosmic accident hadn’t happened. Believe a good God created us, however, then although it’s pushing things to say you “know definitively” (not much humility about human limitations in that assertion), your belief that it is good we are here is nearly as strong as your belief in the creator.

Why? I don’t see it. I don’t see why “God” isn’t vulnerable to the same thoughts as those the secular humanist had. The world is still screwed up; if a god created it that way that’s more scary than one that turned out that way, not less.

I can see it as a protective or comforting illusion that works provided you don’t think about it…But the issue is already thinking about it: the issue is what the secular humanist will admit on a bad day, which implies “after thinking about it in that light.” So I think the claim is at least overstated. (And I’m not being finicky. It’s hardly a secret that the idea of a good god is always vulnerable to how we think on bad days.)

This leads to the second key sentence: “Where doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably.” Again, I think he is right. Humanism is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are. No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.

But as before, the same thing applies to god, only more so, because god is supposed to be better. God is always vulnerable to the thought “humans can be absolutely horrible – but god made us that way – what a horrible thing to do.” As Hitchens liked to say, god made us sick and commanded us to be well. There’s a dark cloud to live under, if you like.

Comments

  1. Dave says

    I skimmed, was there actually anything more there than ‘comforting delusions are comforting to the deluded’?

  2. says

    Sounds like he’s talking about humanism-as-quasi-religion, which is taken as having some obligatory “view” of human moral nature, and which is automatically in conflict with other systems’ (eg. Catholic) different views.

  3. julian says

    No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.

    I’m sorry but is he saying a pleasant daydream is more important than recognizing the work ahead of us and the issues we’ll inevitably have to contend with? Because that’s what I’m reading.

    Anyway, it’s stupid. All humans, as is pointed out in the OP, experience that kind of despondence. It is not unique or (to my knowledge) salient to humanist in ways it wouldn’t be for any other population that chooses to contend with backwards ideas or finds themselves excluded from the rest of society.

  4. Jeffrey G Johnson says

    Every day we don’t kill ourselves we affirm that it is good that we exist. Even Jesus on the cross was said to doubt, and supposedly asked God why he had forsaken his son. So to catch an atheist on a bad day and hear some bit of despair does not mean they lack conviction in the goodness of life and existence; it simply means that they are human. And we very often notice that believers are equally human.

  5. a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    Humanism is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are.

    Or, to put it shorter:
    “Humanism is faced with dealing with reality.”

    Understanding our species’ progression thru evolution to our present state and the identification of evolutionary (and newly-acquired psychological) baggage (the “warts”) and taking these into account to help make humanity better for all of… um… humanity, is simply based on reality. Sorry that there are dark clouds in reality. But the fact that someone helpful might say to you “bring an umbrella, there’s some dark clouds out there” is helping to deal with reality. But, you know, there are also light clouds too. That same helpful person can point you to the local doggie park that will be awesome once the rain clears.

    See?! I can use useless analogies too!! :)

  6. says

    Gosh, that’s just sad dumb. Just… crap, it is uncharitable to kick this sort of crippled lack of thinking. I’m an uncharitable asshole in the grip of a deep depression, so I’m going to lace up the steel toes.

    We can start with that first “key” sentence: “Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist.” So many problems. Does “God” exist? How can I become convinced of this in the face of a complete lack of compelling evidence? Which “God” since there’s no evidence for any of them? Why should it matter what it thinks of me? How would I know something definitively about me, based on someone else? Why would I base my opinion of the good of my life on someone else’s opinion of me, especially based on the earlier mentioned issues?

    And that’s just the first “key” sentence! I feel like I’m being Gish-galloped by a guy in a gold dress preaching against materialism and non-traditional gender roles! The HORROR!

    Second “key” sentence: “Where doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably.” Really? I know other people exist, but your Sky Daddy is woefully absent from view on a pretty much perpetual basis. I know we humans aren’t perfect, but at least we’re real. And the fact that we’re not perfect pretty much shoots that idiotic idea of a “perfect creator” right out of the water, since I can imagine a slightly better world that we don’t live in, and that “perfect creator” didn’t manage to create.

    Oh, and the limits of reason? The only way to find them is… through reason! You’ve got to check your work before you turn in your paper, and emotions don’t count as a test of whether or not you’ve found a place where reason doesn’t work. Fuck a duck for luck, this Baggini is dense.

  7. Tony says

    -Perhaps someone should open the bible up for this guy and show him all the wonderful things god has done for and to humanity. Y’know, the genocide during the flood, the endorsement of slavery, the degradation of women, the nonsensical rules, the stoning of unruly children. Perhaps he should have said “…it is awful that I exist. God is a prick.” Even Zeus was nicer than Yahweh.

  8. sailor1031 says

    By accepting that doG accepts me I am accepting that I don’t need to do anything to make myself better or to make the world better. All I need do is ask for forgiveness (whether I actually believe I’ve done anything wrong or not-and most xtians of my acquaintance doen’t seem to spend time reflecting on their ‘sins’), get it (in my mind, anyway) and go on as before. Most secularists I know feel some responsibility to improve things.

  9. Jurjen S. says

    And once again, Baggini talks a lot, but says very little. But that’s deadlines for you, I suppose.

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