Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Gang up on the green!

Temple gardens

The last week has seen a discouraging pair of shots being fired between the religious and atheists camps in the form of an article in the Catholic Herald by Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith and a response to it by the biologist Prof. Jerry A. Coyne.1

I will leave it to you to read the two articles for yourself and won’t attempt to challenge the many individual shots fired by the two sides, as tempting as that is. The problem of evil, Nietzsche’s philosophy, nihilism, alternative theories of meaning, the nature of empirical observation, inference, theoretical parsimony and (lack of) evidence for God are all used as bullets, but without any attention paid to attempting a meeting of minds and certainly without any effort made to apply the principle of charity by either side.

Instead of going into the pair of arguments point–by–point, I would just like to throw the following into the mix (one each as criticisms of the two protagonists):
  1. Prof. Coyne, isn’t it the case that a given set of empirical data can be the basis of multiple, alternative inferences? Stating that the character of our universe being the opposite of what would be expected given a loving and powerful god is an “inference from evidence” is all well and good, but I’d argue that so would be the inference that our universe is exactly what would be expected given a loving and powerful god. What is inferred from evidence does not derive from it in a causal way (seeing a dropping apple does not cause a specific theory of gravity to be posited by an observer) and neither does a given (set of) evidence only lend itself to the definition of a single, specific theory to be inferred from it. Just looking at the playing filed of contemporary physics (or probably any other field of rational enquiry) ought to be enough to settle this point. Please, don’t take this as me saying that scientific theories are feelings or that they are arbitrary. That is not what I believe at all. I have a deep admiration for science, derive great satisfaction from participating in its advancement (admittedly in a minuscule way as far as my contribution goes) and fully subscribe to its enormous value. While I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Dawkins and you that we can all be moral without a belief in god, I would also like to suggest that the religious views you attack are caricatures, assuming no intelligence on the part of those who hold them – not a great basis for dialogue.

  2. Fr. Lucie–Smith, isn’t it the case that the feeling of indifference, the unanswered call for justice and the lack of clarity of purpose that you attribute to atheists is precisely what Jesus felt in his abandonment on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mathew 27:45)? And isn’t it then more fitting to engage in a dialogue with atheists that seeks to tease out the common ground between what is accessible to us without the benefit of a faith, which we, Catholics, believe to be a gift (“Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, §162)? Please, don’t take this the wrong way, but what did you seek to achieve with your article, beyond ridiculing a ridiculous interpretation of another’s words?
So, potentially having made two fresh enemies, let me suggest that we are looking at the wrong battle lines altogether! The fight ought not to be between atheists and religious but between the rational atheists and religious on the one hand and those who act without employing reason or who abuse reason for selfish and immoral ends on the other – and those come in both flavors. Let me just give two examples that shocked and saddened me recently: first the ‘Christian’ idiot who killed seven at a Sikh gurdwara in Milwaukee and second the ‘atheist’ Chinese state whose officials have performed a forced abortion on a 7–month–old foetus. And these are just two outrageous and reprehensible events picked almost at random from the last two weeks.

For us, who do clearly have differences that I don’t mean to belittle, but who subscribe to both rationality and morality, to squabble with each other is both an offense to reason and to God and I wish that we would learn from the inhabitants of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where “[b]lack and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.”

1 Thanks to Luke Coppen for his excellent daily ‘Catholic must-reads’ and Twitter feed, where I first read about these articles.