CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The webmaster over at Daylight Atheism (henceforth DA for short) has written a 'response' to John Haught's article in the Christian Century about the 'soft-core' atheism of the likes of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. I put the word 'response' in brackets because as is so often the case with atheist polemic he(?) manages to misconstrue just about everything Haught says and hasn't taken the trouble to put the article in context or even read it carefully.

His first accusation is that whereas Haught says he is committed to exposing his students to the best arguments for nonbelief, "when it comes time for practical application of that policy, he swiftly pivots and says, in effect: 'I'm going to decide which arguments for atheism are most convincing, and take it from me, these guys aren't saying anything worthwhile! It's not necessary for you to read what they're writing. Trust me.'" Then he goes on to assert that "Despite his pretense of allegiance to open inquiry, it seems clear that his wish is to act as a censor, deciding which are the best (i.e., the safest) arguments for nonbelief, and sheltering his students from all the rest."

What's funny about this is that Haught's article is excerpted from a book that he recently published which consists of a lengthy critical response to the actual arguments which Dawkins, Harris, et al. put forward. If all he's interested in is persuading students to ignore these writers, he sure has a funny way of showing it, i.e. taking them seriously enough to publish a book in response to their claims. If DA had gone to the trouble of reading the article carefully, he would have seen that this is the case. (This also gives the lie to DA's whine that "one thing Haught has notably failed to do is show any instance where these atheists are wrong. He doesn't even attempt it." He has in fact attempted it. To judge whether or not he succeeds, one would have to read his book. But DA has notably failed to read the book, and has not even attempted it)

The next point that DA takes Haught to task for is the latter's preference for "those few atheists who proposed a sweeping, dramatic reinvention of humanity from the ground up. This is no surprise. Clearly, his aim is to make atheism seem as radical and disturbing a proposition as possible, the better to frighten his students away from embracing it." His aim is 'clearly' no such thing. Haught is making an argument-an argument which can be disputed, but an argument nonetheless-about which atheist thinkers he believes were the most consistent in thinking through the logical consequences of basic atheist presuppositions. It might seem 'convenient' that these turn out to be the most nihilistic of the great atheist philosophers, but only in the sense that it is convenient for anybody defending a particular position to show that its detractors embrace undesirable views which would result from rejecting that position. DA is reading Haught most uncharitably and inaccurately. His aim is to expose students to what he feels are the most profound atheist thinkers, period. If DA disagrees with the choice of Nietzche, Camus or Sartre over Dawkins, Dennett and Harris as members of that class, he should produce a good argument to that effect; one that would pass muster with people who have studied these thinkers in depth.

The only substantial argument which DA directly engages with is Haught's claim that atheists cannot provide a rational foundation for morality. But to illustrate this claim he chooses an unusual excerpt, out of context, from Haught's article:

"Has Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist's belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments?"

These are questions which Haught poses to those who wish to replace a theistic foundation for ethics with a non-transcendent one. But DA goes on to complain that "Haught should be well aware that no prominent atheist claims either of those things" Where exactly the claims are in the above questions I cannot quite see. But from his counter-assertion that "Sam Harris (whom he derides) states in his books that he believes morality is objective, while Richard Dawkins (whom he derides) has argued that 'we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.'", it seems that DA makes the mistake of equating 'non-transcendent' with 'non-objective' or 'non-rational'. Haught is well aware that there are atheist attempts to produce an objective morality based on "reason fused with compassion and conscience", as DA puts it. The question is whether any such attempt would actually succeed. At this point I would take DA to task for failing to do this, despite the links he points to in which he thinks he has 'argued' the case for an objective, non-transcendent morality. His observation that "I've said it many times before, but it can never be said often enough" is telling: atheists basically keep telling themselves over and over again that a non-transcendent morality is intellectually rigorous and practically efficacious. Of course they'd like to believe that that's possible; otherwise they'd have to admit that their life is really without meaning or fulfillment. The question is whether there are good arguments for the kind of ethical conservatism that Haught points to in the thought of the New Athesits, in the absence of a theistic meatphysic.

My verdict so far: Camus and Sartre are the original, daring, honest thinkers, and Dawkins, Harris and DA live in a land of wishful thinking. I'm not going to argue that point here, but neither does DA, as evidenced in his vague appeal to using our "rational natures to determine what would be best for us, independent of what does or does not happen in the natural world." Um, sorry, but in a naturalistic view of the world our 'rational natures' are just as much a part of what 'happens in the natural world' as anything else, that, well, happens in the natural world. Dawkins poetic assertion that we can 'triumph over the tyranny of our selfish replicators' is inconsistent with the rest of his argument, which is that the selfish replicators are eerily efficient at doing their job. What if this idea of rebelling against our selfish genes is just a good trick that those same selfish genes use to keep us propagating themselves? This is the version of the Euphythro dilemma that naturalists face, and DA does not seem to be aware of it.

One final comment on DA's assertion that "a Catholic believer has no authority to decide what atheism 'really' implies". This echoes the arguments of many believers that you have to be a believer in order to properly understand the implications of theism. In other words, on this view, criticism is only possible from the inside. But if that's the case, then a rational conversation between believers of any stripe and atheists is doomed to failure. I and I'm sure DA as well would find this conclusion extremely undesirable. Once a tradition opens itself to criticism by those outside it, a claim like DA's about Haught cannot be maintained. Catholic believers have just as much right to pronounce on the implications and failings of atheism as atheists have to pronounce on the implications and failings of theism (as DA so obligingly does on his blog on a regular basis).

6 comments:

'What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments?'

I prefer to base my truth claims and value judgements on Newtonian mechanics rather than Darwinian naturalism.

Haught asks people to stop basing their value judgements on scientific descriptions of the natural world.

Of course people should stop doing so.

Nobody studies Maxwell's laws hoping to find out whether or not the electric chair counts as cruel and unusual punishment.

Nobody approaches the question of whether waterboarding is torture by looking at the fluid mechanics of the situation.

And nobody in their right minds thinks that Darwinian evolution provides a basis for morality.

Dawkins certainly doesn't.

'The answer is, of course, that the game of telephone does not present a good analogy for the creation of the Gospel accounts.'


The best analogy is the analogy to the Koran or the Book of Mormon.

Just as Muhammad and Joseph Smith took old stories about other people, and then rewrote them for material for their books, so the gospellers searched the scriptures and then took suitable stories and rewrote them to become stories about Jesus.

This is all documented at Miracles and the Book of Mormon

"His aim is 'clearly' no such thing. Haught is making an argument-an argument which can be disputed, but an argument nonetheless-about which atheist thinkers he believes were the most consistent in thinking through the logical consequences of basic atheist presuppositions."

And his argument is not only completely wrong, but intentionally so in order to inflame people against atheism. If you had read the comments at DA, then you would already know the objections that I and numerous others have already raised.

"It might seem 'convenient' that these turn out to be the most nihilistic of the great atheist philosophers, but only in the sense that it is convenient for anybody defending a particular position to show that its detractors embrace undesirable views which would result from rejecting that position."

You mean only that it's convenient to argue against straw men so that you don't have to face the best arguments of the other side? I agree, that's what he's doing.

"These are questions which Haught poses to those who wish to replace a theistic foundation for ethics with a non-transcendent one."

There are no transcendent foundations for ethics, only man-made ones. Sorry, but your assumption that your ethics come from god is wholly assumed and has no evidence. Further, you wholly assume that an ethic that comes from god is better, which ignores Euthyphro's dilemma.

"...it seems that DA makes the mistake of equating 'non-transcendent' with 'non-objective' or 'non-rational'."

He does no such thing. In fact, he's arguing the opposite. The alternative to non-transcendent is to use reason and objectivity.

Are these atheists serious enough for you?

For those reading along at home, JD answered on Matthew's webpage (linked to by Matthew above.)


Steven: {{And nobody in their right minds thinks that Darwinian evolution provides a basis for morality.

Dawkins certainly doesn't.}}

Actually, Dawkins himself was once a strong proponent of ethics being an evolutionary product via genetic effects. And of ethics therefore not really being ethical. And of ethics nevertheless being ethical anyway... {wry g}

But maybe you were being satirical, ala your first remark in that comment.


If readers are wondering what the heck Steven's telephone comment is about (or non-telephone comment rather), he was aiming at Bill's entry, slightly previous the same day, and missed. Scroll down a bit on the main screen to Bill's "A Game of Telephone" entry.


OMGF: {{There are no transcendent foundations for ethics, only man-made ones.}}

By corollary, then, man-made foundations are not transcendent either. What are they not transcendent of? Biology, among other more fundamental but (per atheism) all equally amoral factors.

The only way to avoid Steven's "nobody in their right minds" quip, would be to affirm that man-made foundations are transcendent after all. Which, as it happens...

{{The alternative to non-transcendent is to use reason and objectivity.}}

...you proceed to do shortly afterward. The alternative to non-transcendent is transcendent. {g}

So reason and objectivity are transcendent--because no one in their right minds would base ethics on Darwinian evolution.

But reason and objectivity are not transcendent--because that would clearly imply both supernaturalism and theism (in comparison with our own clearly derivative characteristics.)

{{Sorry, but your assumption that your ethics come from god is wholly assumed and has no evidence.}}

On the contrary, you yourself just provided some pretty good evidence! {lol!}

(And, incidentally, I don't call Steven steven, do I? I wouldn't do that even if I thought he was a fictional character--unless I simply didn't want to be taken seriously as an objective thinker but only as a rhetorician showing off how disrespectful I am of the topic, when discussing Steven.)

In any case, you're speaking way outside your knowledge base here; you are in no position to definitively say, yet, whether JD is operating in a purely assumptive manner or not. I can assure you that I don't, when thinking and writing about ethics per se. That includes when writing out an appreciation of the secular critique via Euthyphro. Closely followed by an entry positively appreciating one particular kind of 'man-made ethics' theory.

(Note: I would have made this comments earlier, but I was waiting to see what JD would do. He's busy elsewhere, though.)

JRP

Only too true, Jason. I apparently stirred up a hornet's nest at "Daylight Atheism" and tried to answer a few of the more serious posts but in the end gave up. There were just too many, and I don't have the time to answer all the inane charges that came up.

Use of Content

The contents of this blog may be reproduced or forwarded via e-mail without change and in its entirety for non-commercial purposes without prior permission from the Christian CADRE provided that the copyright information is included. We would appreciate notification of the use of our content. Please e-mail us at christiancadre@yahoo.com.