Friday, July 6, 2007

The reading is great

If the writings of the atheists are so much more in vogue today than anything by the "believers" (and they are more in vogue, aren't they?), I'm wondering whether it isn't because what the atheists are saying seems more to the point and sometimes even more inspirational?

At any rate, I'm relishing the latest "atheist book," God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And I don't even grant that "religion poisons everything," which is an obviously overgrasping, sell-some-more-books sort of thing to say. Plus, if God actually exists, then I'm certain that He (or She or It) is very great indeed, thank you very much, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (the author of the latest). Hitchens's book crackles with erudition. And, because I've become surer of my own tolerant position in the middle—where I "believe all things"—I'm finding it very entertaining.

For you to enjoy with me if you can, here are some excerpts from Chapter Five, "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion." I may have enjoyed this chapter particularly, because it sort of surveys the territory I trod as an undergraduate forty-five years ago:
...Aquinas half believed in astrology, and was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was contained inside each individual sperm. One can only mourn over the dismal and stupid lectures on sexual continence that we might have been spared if this nonsense had been exposed earlier than it was...He also fabricated the mad and cruel idea that the souls of unbaptized children were sent to "Limbo." Who can guess the load of misery that this diseased "theory" has placed on millions of Catholic parents down the years, until its shamefaced and only partial revision by the church in our own time? Luther was terrified of demons and believed that the mentally afflicted were the devil's work. Muhammad is claimed by his own followers to have thought, as did Jesus, that the desert was pullulating with djinns, or evil spirits. [p.64]
      ...Laplace (1749-1827) was the brilliant French scientist who took the work of Newton a stage further and showed by means of mathematical calculus how the operations of the solar system were those of bodies revolving systematically in a vacuum. When he later turned his attention to the stars and nebulae, he postulated the idea of gravitational collapse and implosion, or what we now breezily term the "black hole." In a five-volume book entitled Celestial Mechanics he laid all this out, and like many men of his time was also intrigued by the orrery, a working model of the solar system as seen, for the first time, from the outside. These are now commonplace but were then revolutionary, and the emperor asked to meet Laplace in order to be given either a set of the books or (accounts differ) a version of the orrery. I personally suspect that the gravedigger of the French Revolution wanted the toy rather than the volumes: he was a man in a hurry and had managed to get the church to baptize his dictatorship with a crown. At any event, and in his childish and demanding and imperious fashion, he wanted to know why the figure of god [Hitchens doesn't capitalize the word] did not appear in Laplace's mind-expanding calculations. And there came the cool, lofty, and considered response. "Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.".... [pp.66-67]
      One medieval philosopher and theologian who continues to speak eloquently across the ages is William Ockham....
      He was interested, for example, in the stars. He knew far less about the nebulae than we do, or than Laplace did. In fact, he knew nothing about them at all. But he employed them for an interesting speculation. Assuming that god can make us feel the presence of a nonexistent entity, and further assuming that he need not go to this trouble if the same effect can be produced in us by the actual presence of that entity, god could still if he wished cause us to believe in the existence of stars without their being actually present. "Every effect which God causes through the mediation of a secondary cause he can produce immediately by himself." However, this does not mean that we must believe in anything absurd, since "God cannot cause in us knowledge such that by it a thing is seen evidently to be present though it is absent, for that involves a contradiction."...
      ...It has taken us several hundred years since Ockham to come to the realization that when we gaze up at the stars, we very often are seeing light from distant bodies that have long since ceased to exist. It doesn't particularly matter that the right to look through telescopes and speculate about the result was obstructed by the church; this is not Ockham's fault and there is no general law that obliges the church to be that stupid...[W]e can now do this [knowing] while dropping (or even, if you insist, retaining) the idea of a god. But in either case, the theory works without that assumption. You can believe in a divine mover if you choose, but it makes no difference at all, and belief among astronomers and physicists has become private and fairly rare. [pp. 69-70]
      Credo quia absurdum, as the "church father" Tertullian put it, either disarmingly or annoyingly according to your taste. "I believe it because it is absurd." It is impossible to quarrel seriously with such a view. If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished. The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more "miraculous" and "transcendent" than any theology.
      Actually, the "leap of faith"—to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it—is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a "leap" that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the "leap" is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn't in fact rely on "faith" at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected "proofs." This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion's monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are. [p. 71]
Ah, my potato-sack miracle! my two angelic interventions! Reading Hitchens leaves me with the contented feeling of a reader enjoying himself and not feeling dismayed by the multifarious contradictions of a world that seems more and more to be mad enough to have been made by the Being its beings into Being prayed.

People can (and will!) continue to believe what they want to believe, and I will not condemn them, so long as they do so benignly, not proselytizing me or others or trying to tyrannize us in any way.

Only thing is, of course, what are the chances of that?


  1. When Kepler figured out his laws of planetary motion, he penned a praise to God, which he inserted right there in his scientific treatise. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a Bible psalm:

    "The wisdom of the Lord is infinite; so also are His glory and His power. Ye heavens, sing His praises! Sun, moon, and planets glorify Him in your ineffable language! Celestial harmonies, all ye who comprehend His marvelous works, praise Him. And thou, my soul, praise thy Creator! It is by Him and in Him that all exists. That which we know best is comprised in Him, as well as in our vain science. To Him be praise, honor, and glory throughout eternity." [The Harmony of the World, 1619, re his 3rd Law of Planetary Motion]

    Most scientists back then shared similar sentiments. When they discovered new aspects of science, they viewed it as uncovering evidence of God's design, and they praised him accordingly.

    How is it that modern people have come to be so unappreciative?

  2. Do you really think that modern people aren't appreciative? I doubt it's true, since there's so much more now to appreciate (for one thing). There may even be more people (in sheer numbers) who feel appreciative toward God (that is, thank God for things they appreciate). Whether there's a greater proportion of such people, possibly, probably not, in my opinion, because people know more now and are aware, for example, of the learning and efforts of men (and women) in designing and producing things that they appreciate.

    Anyway, yes, I agree: Kepler's pæne to God is much like a psalm! Nice.