Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why I Am (Almost) a "Militant Atheist"

There's been quite a buzz and stir in both mainstream media and the blogosphere over "the New Atheism", as ushered in by a troika of advocates for a militant, take-no-prisoners-rhetoric: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins. Of these, I shall restrict my attention to Harris, because I've read The End of Faith recently. Despite the adage that "a philosopher is someone who knows what is in books he has not read," I shall err on the side of caution.

Harris' basic claim is, I think, exactly right: we give religious claims a "free pass," and exempt them from the critical scrutiny we routinely give to claims offered in politics, science, economics, history, and so forth. If someone says, "I oppose single-payer health care!" it is expected that others will say, "on what grounds?" But if someone says, "I believe in a God who has revealed Himself in history!" the usual response is not "on what grounds?" but rather "golly, I'm very impressed by the sincerity of your conviction." Harris, much like Slavoj Zizek, shows that this is, at best, mere condescension. Critically examining the beliefs of others, and offering up one's own beliefs for critical examination by others, is precisely how one demonstrates respect for the other as a mature and rational person -- and that one deserves to be so recognized in turn.

Harris defines "faith" as acceptance of unjustified assertions about history and metaphysics. Thus, claims about the revelation at Sinai, or the Crucifixion, are taken to be assertions about matters of fact, both historical and metaphysical. But they fail to pass the test of warrant, or of justification, by the best standards currently accepted. This is the core of the argument. He also makes some slightly hysterical assertions of his own about how religion is the cause of much of the world's suffering and violence, and he ends up taking a position very close to that of Christopher Hitchens: the secular and enlightened West is engaged in a struggle to the death with fundamentalist Islam, and since "they" cannot be permitted to prevail, any action undertaken against "them" is justified, including pre-emptive war, torture of "enemy combatants," etc. I shall not engage with that part of the argument, except to note in passing that it's not an obviously stupid thing to say, and that it deserves a more thorough fisking than it has thus far, to my knowledge, received.

Instead, I want to return to the heart of the argument: that religious claims are unjustifed (and, though Harris dodges this point, he clearly insinuates that such claims are also unjustifiable) assertions about matters of fact. In response, I would offer up several related considerations:

1) that the vast majority of religious practictioners do, in fact, regard their beliefs as assertions, and that religious narratives are taken as on an epistemic par with scientific theories, that is, as actually explaining something;

2) that all assertions and explanations are subject to what the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars calls "the space of reasons," a notion much expanded upon by Richard Rorty, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom -- that is, no assertion is exempt from the question, "why do you believe that?"

And (1) and (2), taken together, would seem to put me squarely in Harris' camp as a "militant atheist." Nevertheless, I must demur, because

3) I deny that interpreting religious vocabulary as consisting of assertions is the best way of making sense of religious language.

This might seem to commit me to a sort of "emotivism" or "subjectivism" about religion. I don't think so, but maybe. Certainly there are many proponents of religious claims who are deathly allergic to any attempt to interpret religious language in "symbolic" term (Tillich is anathema to many of the soi-dissant "Christians" I've met). To do so, in their view, is to trivialize religion -- to give it a marginal, rather than central, cultural role.

If one accepts the priority of science, in either a metaphysical or methodological version, then it would seem that the only place for art or literature is as an emotional outpouring -- without any truth-value (i.e. neither true or false). (Harris' commitment to both metaphysical and methodological scientism comes to the fore when he considers Buddhism. Buddhism is exempted from the general critique of all other religions because, he claims, Buddhism consists of assertions that can be empirically confirmed.)

As a pragmatist, my fundamental epistemological commitments are different from Harris' version of scientific-metaphysical realism. I take it that there are many different vocabularies at our disposal -- the language of physics, the language of neuroscience, the language of literature. It is therefore no marginalization of religion to say that religious language is more like literature than it is like physics.

And that is why I am almost, but not quite, a militant atheist.

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