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Feb 12 2010

The religious atheists get even more atheistic

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have been writing about the fact that as scientific knowledge advances, ultra-sophisticated Christian apologists, desperately seeking to find a way to reconcile their need to believe in a god while not contradicting science, have had to redefine god in such a vague and non-interventionist way that I felt justified in giving them the label of ‘religious atheists’.

Georgetown University theologian (and accommodationist) John Haught provides the latest example of this kind of religious backtracking by recently writing that the hitherto bedrock religious idea that there is design in life is no longer necessary for religious belief. He says:

The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.

Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over. (My italics)

That is interesting. So now even the lack of design is evidence for god! There goes Thomas Aquinas. There goes Paley’s watch. There goes intelligent design. The foundational argument of all religions that the cosmos exhibits features of design that are inexplicable without assuming the existence of god is thrown out the window. Instead what he talks about is the ‘story and drama of life being much more interesting’ than design could ever be. What he seems to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides good drama. Can he be serious?

The arguments of religious atheists like Haught can be summed up simply as: Whatever science discovers, it points to god.

Some years ago, I debated intelligent design proponents in Kansas at their annual soiree. There was a large audience present consisting almost entirely of religious believers, mostly biblical literalists. During the debate, I kept hammering away at the indisputable fact that intelligent design had failed miserably to suggest a mechanism for how it operates or to generate even one prediction that scientists could look for and that therefore it could not be considered a scientific theory.

This message that there was no evidence for god must have disturbed one woman because she came up to me afterwards to give me a definition of god that she felt met all my objections. She had written it on a small scrap of paper during the session. I have kept it all these years, because I was impressed by her sincerity. Her note said:

Consider: Rendered “general” (I.E. The Law of Complex Systems) by the millions of created objects known about, (observed) daily, that: all complex systems (that we know about) owe their existence to acts of creation using planning and work by one or more intelligent living beings (not one exception). (All emphases in the original.)

We should ignore the lack of precision and coherence because it was clearly written in a hurry and spontaneously during the session itself. She was also trying to write it in what she thought was scientific language, adding to its obscurity. But what she is essentially saying is that every single thing in the world is designed, so that they all constitute evidence for the existence of god. She thought that this was a watertight definition of god that could not be refuted.

This is naïve and circular reasoning but excusable in someone who is not a professional theologian but is instead a devout believer who was thinking on the fly. But it actually makes more sense than the convoluted reasoning of Haught and other religious atheists who claim that no evidence is even necessary for god, that the question of his objective existence is also irrelevant, and that all that matters is whether god serves as a good metaphor and provides a dramatic story.

Haught’s essay presents an incredibly pathetic argument for god that basically denies god. Jerry Coyne takes it apart, point by point.

If there was ever a time to accuse someone with the cliché of making a virtue out of necessity, Haught’s piece provides it.

POST SCRIPT: That Mitchell and Webb Look on Abraham and Isaac

Truly one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Why would anyone even want to worship a god who is such a cruel jerk?

7 comments

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  1. 1
    M S

    While it is fair to disagree with Haught if you don’t accept his arguments for the existence of God, your characterization of Haught as a “religious atheist” or as one who “denies god” (sic) is misinformed. I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject. It seems clear that you have a very narrow concept of what the word “God” means, when in fact the term embodies a great diversity of concepts (as something as simple as a visit to the Wikipedia page on the word “God” would tell you). In fact, Haught’s views are not too far from that of process theology (although I don’t believe that he considers himself a process theologian), which is one of MANY ways of viewing the concept of God. You can disagree with Haught all you want, but your claim that because he doesn’t toe one specific theological line (one that you, as an atheist, deem to be the only correct set of beliefs about God that one can have), that this somehow means that he is “denying God”, is ludicrous. Sorry, but you as an atheist don’t get to be the arbiter on what counts as theology and what doesn’t. Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it.

  2. 2
    Mano

    M S,

    I said that Haught “basically” denies god and explained what I meant by that qualification in the post by saying that he makes god irrelevant. But he still wants to believe, which is why I called him a religious atheist. If he simply denied god altogether, then that would make him a flat out atheist.

    I (like other atheists) also hear all the time that we simply are ignorant of sophisticated theology and if we would only spend time studying Bultmann, Tillich, Aquinas, process theology, liberation theology, apophatic theology, etc., then we would understand all.

    I, like most atheists, know that there are many different theologies and concepts of god. (I actually did study theology for some years though I am by no means a scholar.) I am not claiming that I determine what is theology and what is not. My point is that despite all their supposed sophisticated differences, all theologies share the same basic flaw: They all have zero empirical content, by which I mean any evidence for their claims about god. As that eminent theologian Bart Simpson once said, “The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”

    When non-scientists demand to see evidence for the claims of science, we do not fob them off by saying that they first need to read (say) Einstein’s papers before making the request. We try to explain what Einstein’s theories assert and, most importantly, what evidence we have that makes us take those claims seriously. They may not be in a position to evaluate the evidence but we have an obligation to provide it nonetheless. Theologians either do not do so, or try to say that evidence is unnecessary.

    This is why theology is so flexible, able to accommodate anything. If you are not constrained by evidence, then anything goes.

  3. 3
    ideapals

    I think that creationists and evolutionists are both wrong. Here’s why: Evolutionists assume that there is nothing that needs to be taken on faith and Creationists dismiss all scientific evidence of evolution. Both of these approaches are wrong. I have more info on ideapals in the intelligent design of evolution group….

    I disagree with the combative nature of the discussion of Creationism and Evolution. That is why I created my meme, the Intelligent Design of Evolution. I’d love to hear Dan Dennett’s response to this idea http://ideapals.org/basic/intelligent-design-of-evolution.

  4. 4
    M S

    The problem with the assertion that Haught makes God “irrelevant” is that it assumes that the concept of God is only relevant (whatever you think that means) if God is defined to have a certain defined set of attributes, such as that of a omnipotent interventionist. So even if you say you are aware of the variety of theologies that exist, you dismiss those theologies that don’t conform to your stereotypes about theology as somehow not counting. This criterion of “relevance” makes you an arbiter of what theology you consider legitimate and what you consider illegitimate–a strange role for an atheist to take. This is convenient, and it makes it easier to make sweeping generalizations about religion, since theologians who don’t conform to your generalizations you can simply dismiss as not being legitimate theology anyway.

    I understand that you dismiss all religions because you think that religion fails an empiricism test. That is your right, and you are entitled to that opinion. My point is simply that even if you criticize Haught on that basis, the additional assertion that he is somehow a half-assed theologian or that his theology “basically” denies God is way off base. I can understand why so many militant atheists feel a need to attack people like Haught in this way–he doesn’t conform to their stereotype about what theology supposedly is, and in essence Haught as well as process theologians undermine a lot of the sweeping generalizations against theologians that many atheists use. By claiming that he isn’t somehow a “real” theologian because he is supposedly a semi-atheist in some way, it makes it easier to continue to make sweeping generalizations about religion in general that are clearly not true if you were to take theologians like Haught into account.

    Attack Haught on the basis of the empiricism test all you want, but to claim that he “basically” denies God shows a simplistic understanding of theology, regardless of how much theology you say you have studied.

  5. 5
    CT

    I’m not a theologian by any means but my limited knowledge of our Universe tells me that we are but a speck. We probably know 0.0001% of what there is to know about our Universe.

    Thats why I think its ridiculous to then state categorically that there is no ultimate creator or external force or unifying force or whatever you want to call God. We (including you) know so little , but the implication is that you know everything that could be known about life and our existence.

    I may not believe in a creator but I respect people that do as long as they dont push it onto me.

    Life has also taught me to be suspicious of people who’s goal is to win an argument based on their own ideology or viewpoint. Such people arent looking for truth – they are out to prove a point. (And likely to miss the truth if it passes them by).

    I’d also tend to think that the meaning of life is not something you can put in a test tube. Maybe Science only tells us about material matters – no wonder it cant point to the existence of anything beyond the material.

    I also think its a little childish and disrespectful to write ‘god’ without capitals just to prove you dont believe.

  6. 6
    Mano

    CT,

    I (like many atheists) do NOT “state categorically that there is no ultimate creator or external force or unifying force or whatever you want to call God.” We know that you cannot prove such a negative. I have explained the position of atheists before here.

    As to why I do not capitalize god, I have addressed that question here.

    As for questions about “the meaning of life”, what is the basis for thinking that the holy books of the various religions are any more informative on this than other books? What evidence do you have that there is “anything beyond the material”?

  7. 7
    billwalker

    As an activist Atheist, I find YOUR arguments highly commendable.You have presented our position to ardent Xians coherently, but coherence doesn’t count with them. Each of us must travel the road to disbelief alone. And it is a stony road indeed. I was a ‘cradle Catholic’ until 65 years ago, when for lack of more interesting reading material, I read the entire dreadful bible.When a person does this, he becomes a dis-believer or a religious nutcase.

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