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Mar 04 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-2: More sophisticated excuses for the lack of evidence

(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.)

Yesterday’s post discussed some of the simpler excuses offered by religious believers for the lack of evidence for god and why more sophisticated believers find them unsatisfactory. One alternative line of defense adopted by the later group is to argue that questions of existence are of no importance, that questions about god’s existence transcend such mundane concerns. For such people, their concept of god is such that evidence is irrelevant.

People like John Haught, H. E. Baber, and Karen Armstrong have pursued this line of argument to such an extent that it seemed to me that they have defined god right out of existence and are thus operationally indistinguishable from atheists. I have called such people ‘religious atheists’ because they clearly want to be considered believers. Thus they continue to claim that god does exist but in some vague way that is exempt from the normal expectation that existence claims require at least some evidence to be credible.

At the same time, these people are often formal members of actual religious sects that demand belief in the miraculous. John Haught, for example, is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University. The Roman Catholic church in particular requires belief in a pretty spectacular set of absurdities: the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the perpetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life, etc. Does he believe that all those things are historically factual? Does he believe in transubstantiation? How can he not believe in any of them and still call himself a Roman Catholic, since those are fundamental dogmas that all Catholics are required to subscribe to?

Albert Mohler. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observing an online debate between Richard Dawkins and Armstrong, realizes that these ultra-sophisticated theologians have pretty much lost the game and conceded the argument to atheists. He says that the arguments of people like Armstrong are ‘superficial’, ‘theologically reckless’, and ‘elegant nonsense.’ He says that, “Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong… We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects. Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief.”

Recently I have noticed an interesting wrinkle in the response of some apologists to the atheist’s challenge to produce evidence. Instead of providing evidence, our competence to speak on this topic at all is challenged. The form of this argument is to say something along the lines of “You really don’t know what you are talking about. Kierkegaard (or Kant or Aquinas or Wittgenstein or any other eminent philosopher or theologian) dealt with this issue with great depth and subtlety and until you have studied those works, you should not speak on this issue.” I call this debating ploy the ‘Kierkegaard Gambit’, although any other impressive name in theology or philosophy will do.

As an example, here is one such comment in response to one of my posts: “I wonder why so many physicists and evolutionary biologists and software engineers think that the exploration of meaning and religion must be so fundamentally simple that they can engage in sweeping statements without actually reading anything of the thousands of years of thought on the topic.”

As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, “I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… 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.”

Or again, “[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I’ll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who’s making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three.”

That’s putting me in my place, isn’t it?

What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god’s existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.

This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.

But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.

What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

Next: The Nineteenth Century variation on the Kierkergaard Gambit

POST SCRIPT: Philosophers playing soccer

As only Monty Python can imagine. As a background note, the ‘Beckenbauer’ referred to is a genuine legendary German soccer star who captained their victorious World Cup team in 1974.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Frank williams

    Mr. Singham, after reading your March 04,2010 posting, no wonder I worry about the current state of our kids Catholic religion. The current issue of The Atlantic magazine presents 14 of “the most powerful ideas of the year”, and one of them is…Is the Catholic Church Finished? The story is reviewed in the Joyful Catholic Blog – http://thejoyfulcatholic.wordpress.com

    It gives the reader a very clear picture why it’s OK to be mad but why you do not walk away from the Church the kids need to fix it!

  2. 2
    Eric

    Mano –

    Heinlein had some choice words in To Sail Beyond the Sunset about the oxymoronity (?) of the word “theology.” I’m paraphrasing, but:

    “It’s a nonsense word. Compare to ‘biology’ – everybody knows what life is; you can study it, perform experiments on it. Or ‘proctology’ – everybody knows what an asshole is, and if you’re one of the lucky few who don’t, go visit City Hall. But ‘theology’ is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Have you met God? What color is she? What kind of accent does she have?”

    Of course, Dawkins said it even more succintly: “Do I need a degree in leprechology to not believe in leprechauns?”

  3. 3
    Sundresses

    The pythons were the one thing that was purely fun about the ’70s. Thank you for the clip!

    Can’t forget John Cleese in a sundress, not even bothering to go falsetto.

  4. 4
    ollie

    Your closing paragraph was excellent; I’ve quoted it (with attribution) in my blog and on facebook.

  5. 5
    Jdm Led

    this s such a funny video, but kind of making fun of chinese.

  6. 6
    crossbow jay

    Funny video. I love the Chinese Soccer referee

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