Saturday, February 20, 2010

Delusions - Atheist and Otherwise...

I am a doubter - a skeptic - by nature. I have and continue to undergo constant rethinking, reevaluation and reconsideration of practically every belief, epistemology and phenomenology I am aware that I consciously hold. I envy the plainspoken, unwavering intellectual and volitional faith of many of my friends - both theistic and atheistic. I often wish I held their certainty. But, alas, I do not.

Given that (unfortunate if not uncomfortable) predisposition to ambiguity, nuance, introspection and unsettled uncertainty, I read widely across the spectrum of ideas philosophic, scientific, politic, economic and psychologic. I've read a fair selection of the ancients, the medievals, the enlightened, the modern and the post-modern. I have read Aquinas, Abelard, Aristotle, Origen and Augustine; but also Voltaire, Hume, Nietschze, Kant, Camus and Sartre. I've read Dennett, Russell, Crick, Watson, Penrose, Harris, Dawkins, Wittgenstein, Popper, Hawkins and Einstein as well as Lewis, Chesterton, Teillard de Chardin, Polkinghorne, Eccles, James, Willard, Plantinga (Cornelius and Alvin), McCord-Adams, Wright and Collins.

The result of this reading, no doubt due to deficiency of the reader rather than the authors, is a continuing and deepening epistemic humility and a correspondingly deepening and broadening peace and surety. One might think that such reading would create increasing tension and doubt. But the opposite seems to be the case in my experience. The more I read of the faithful - believing and unbelieving - the more comforted I am in my own state of humble belief. Not that my questions are answered, but that there remains no certainty to unseat my own surety. While my doubts continue - my reevaluations neverending, it seems - they dance not along the precipice of an Sartrean abyss, but upon an airy foundation of theistic (Lewisean?) belief.

After reading the most recent round of trenchant, malevolent atheism from Dennett and Harris, I was disheartened - not because of any argument (for surely they did nothing innovative or new here), but for the loss of real engagement and discussion. The newest round of fundamentalism along both sides of the divide is saddening though not surprising. Not because it is novel - it has all been said before. But because it widens the gap to real understanding or earnest seeking. It only encourages people to think as they already believe rather than to question and discuss and explore. I lament that even the atheist authors themselves acknowledge that their works will convince no one - they are preaching to their own ahymnodic choirs. A furthering entrenchment of stale and unoriginal battle lines.

Into this mix, though I have been reading David Bentley Hart. Three of his works to be specific. But of note is his latest, Atheist Delusions. An extended, quote from the introduction:

Such sentiments have become so much a part of the conventional grammar of "enlightened" skepticism that they are scarcely ever subjected to serious scrutiny. My own impatience with such remarks, I should confess, would probably be far smaller if I did not suffer from a melancholy sense that, among Christianity's most fervent detractors, there has been a considerable decline in standards in recent years. In its early centuries, the church earned the enmity of genuinely imaginative and civilized critics, such as Celsus and Porphyry, who held the amiable belief that they should make some effort to acquaint themselves with the object of their critique. And, at the end of Europe's Christian centuries, the church could still boast antagonists of real stature. In the eighteenth century, David Hume was unrivaled in his power to sow doubt where certainty once had flourished. And while the diatribes of Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and the other Enlightenment philosophes were, on the whole, insubstantial, they were at least marked by a certain fierce elegance and occasional moral acuity. Edward Gibbon, for all the temporal parochialism and frequent inaccuracy of his account of Christianity's rise, was nevertheless a scholar and writer of positively titanic gifts, whose sonorously enunciated opinions were the fruit of immense labors of study and reflection. And the extraordinary scientific, philosophical, and political ferment of the nineteenth century provided Christianity with enemies of unparalleled passion and visionary intensity. The greatest of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, may have had a somewhat limited understanding of the history of Christian thought, but he was nevertheless a man of immense culture who could appreciate the magnitude of the thing against which he had turned his spirit, and who had enough of a sense of the past to understand the cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring about. Moreover, he had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was-above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion-rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity's history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis. He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy. He knew that the disappearance of the cultural values of Christianity would gradually but inevitably lead to a new set of values, the nature of which was yet to be decided. By comparison to these men, today's gadflies seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity has been or is.
I couldn't agree more. And the more lamentable upshot is the number of ill-read, misinformed, historically sophomoric and easily swayed (small) masses of modern readers (especially and perhaps more regrettably being on the youngish side) who imbibe the misconceived and factually specious statements (I hesitate to call them arguments given their pitiful formulation) uncritically.

To be clear, I have no enmity to any honestly sought and won belief - no ultimate certainty that all other philosophies are wrong (indeed, no certainty that what I believe today will be the same as what I might believe next year or even tomorrow). But I think it unfortunate that so many are, to paraphrase William James, merely rearranging prejudices and mistaking this for thinking.

To this end, Hart's work is refreshingly Chestertonian. Two other works are on my Kindle - The Doors of the Sea - on suffering and natural evil, and The Beauty of the Infinite - on the idea of the beautiful as inseparable from the metaphysical - but I am only just wading in - and the latter looks to be a lengthy swim.

I have no pretense to convince others of an particular end-game. The god I believe in has room to deal with all of us in light of our genetic, geographic, ethnic, cultural, volitional, moral and philosphic predispositions. I do hope for a fairer and more honest inquiry for the world my children will inherit. An advance to and, perhaps in some limited and specific ways, a return to elements of civility, honesty and humility among people of all beliefs.


Steve said...

Marvelous post. I'm impressed with your long reading list and by how clearly you express yourself which shows you understand and engage what you've read.

mlt said...

Wow! Is this the result of too much snow?

I would like to echo your sentiments, but I neither could, nor would. Not because I disagree (matter of fact I often have similar, though not as fluent thoughts), but because I'm simply not capable.

The journey continues...