Someday, I’m going to have to get John Wilkins to explain to me why we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance. It’s terribly uncharitable of me, but after reading this interview with John Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, I’m convinced that the discipline is the domain of vapid hacks stuffed full of antiquated delusions. I also feel bad for the guy since he did testify on the side of reason in the Dover trial. On the other hand, he is one of Richard Dawkins’ fleas, and has a new book on the way complaining about those annoying New Atheists — which is another serious strike against theology. How is it that a book all the inmates in that moribund playroom full of pious god-wallopers despise has become the central focus of their academic careers? I could see it if they were actually addressing the arguments in The God Delusion, but they never seem to do more than squeal the same old arguments in favor of their tired dogmas.
This is an interview, so it jumps around awkwardly, which is too bad — the interviewer keeps interrupting with a change of subject as the absurdity builds. Here are a few of the rich and flaky highlights, though.
My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.
Speaking for myself as one of those New Atheists (you do know there are more than four, right?), I have to admit he’s right. I don’t know what’s going on in the world of theology. And I don’t give a damn. Every time I read something by one of these credulous apologists for religion, I am further convinced that they are just making stuff up.
But also, they don’t seem to have much at all to do with modern religion. Huckabee is more of a representative of religious thought than Haught, yet somehow these theologians are so full of themselves that they think we have to pay attention to their enervated and irrelevant excuse-making.
Also speaking for myself, I certainly don’t regard the extremism as normative. I consider the feeble gullibility of, for instance, the average Lutheran church member to be the real problem — that our country and our culture as a whole endorses institutions that encourage credulity in the face of religious baloney. Even if the radical fringe weren’t throwing bombs, I’d still be asking people why the heck they believe in such patent nonsense.
The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.
Here we have yet another believer trying to tell us what the logical conclusion of atheism should be: in this case, nihilism. Doesn’t the fact that none of the New Atheists that I know of are nihilists matter? I guess if you’re willing to abandon any requirement for evidence, you can also ignore any evidence that counters your opinion.
How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.
NOT nihilists, ‘k? Complaining that the New Atheists is about hopelessness completely misses the point.
But in the new cosmography, it seems that mindless matter dominates the whole picture. And many scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, have said evolution has destroyed the notion of purpose. So one thing I do in my theology is to say that’s not necessarily true.
There is an apparent lack of cosmic intent in the universe; that’s simply the way it is. If anyone wants to claim that there is, then it’s up to them to provide the evidence for it. This, of course, is not the same as saying that humans lack any kind of purpose — as conscious, intelligent agents, we can certainly come up with purposes for our lives.
What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?
The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.
I’m used to hearing people complain that atheism is a religion (at least Haught specifically denies that in the Dover transcript), but now science is a religion? Piffle. Science is pragmatic and operational. We don’t demand or expect proof of anything, but we do demand at least a little bit of evidence for any claim. Not as an article of faith, mind you, but simply because it has worked well before, and we’ve had a lot of mileage out of that expectation.
Is science the only way of knowing? It is a way, and it’s effective. I’ve noticed that those who complain about scientists always demanding evidence and material causes and testable hypotheses and such nuisances never seem to get around to telling us what their alternative method might be. Haught is no exception. Here he is, complaining about our elitist exclusivity and our “faith” in the scientific method, and he can’t be bother tell us how else he proposes we figure things out. Shall we pray for answers? Will divine revelation help us understand how, say, nerves conduct action potentials, or how genes specify body plans, or whether that girl likes us enough to say “yes” when we ask her to dance?
So tell us, John Haught, what is another reliable way to truth?
The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.
Huh. I thought that mathematics was the way we talked about reality. It sure beats the useless language of religion.
And I think religion has been utterly useless in telling us anything about the nature of the world. If it were up to religion, we’d still be slaughtering goats to try and make it rain.
Let’s skip a lot of nonsense about neuroscience and evolution from this guy, and jump ahead to how he defines reality.
But let me get to my third understanding of religion. That’s a belief that this ultimate reality is at heart personal, by which we mean it is intelligent and is capable of love and making promises. This is the fundamental thinking about God in the Quran and the Bible — God is personal. Theologically speaking, personality is a symbol, like everything else in religion. Like all symbols, “personality” doesn’t adequately capture the full depth of ultimate reality. But the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal — at least capable of everything that humans are capable of — then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an “it” rather than a “thou” and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being.
I’m sorry, but that is an awful lot of bullshit. He demands a personal god because personal authority is all he understands…but that, of course, is no evidence for this god’s existence. It’s only evidence for why he has gone through all these silly rationalizations to convince himself that this being is real. It’s how he justifies nonsense like this:
Let’s take the example of prayer. You are a Christian. Do you believe God answers your prayers?
Yes, but I have to go along with Martin Gardner here and ask, what if God answered everybody’s prayers? What kind of world would we have? I also have to think of what Jesus said when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. What he told them, in effect, was to pray for something really big. He called it “the kingdom of God.” What that means is praying for the ultimate fulfillment of all being, of all the universe. So when we pray, we’re asking that the world might have a future. I believe God is answering our prayers but not always in the ways we want. In the final analysis, we hope and trust that God will show or reveal himself as one who has been accompanying our prayers and responding to the world all along, but not necessarily in the narrow way that the human mind is able to conjure up.
Sometimes god answers your prayers, sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes he does something completely unexpected. There’s no pattern, no predictability, no rules — god is a cosmic slot machine. This is sophisticated theological thought?
And it just gets worse.
What do you make of the miracles in the Bible — most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?
I don’t think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that’s trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.
Apparently, the resurrection happened, but it was just too darn important to be supported by that ghastly non-religious “evidence” stuff. Nice dodge. You’d have to be an idiot to fall for it, though.
Now are you ready for some real hilarity?
So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?
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. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. 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. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.
Wow. The amazing disappearing camera. If something theologically significant were ever to occur, god would conveniently make all the evidence disappear.
This guy is completely batty. If this is an example of theological thinking, I’m entirely justified in dismissing this entire academic discipline — these guys are the equivalent of astrologers, still lurking in the spider-webbed corners of our universities.