Wednesday, November 10, 2010

another stirpot letter

This letter writing malarky is beginning to appeal to me, after posting my first. But I'm thinking that the Pope isn't necessarily the best recipient - there are so many others, Christians and non-Christians, that I should write to, using snail mail, which can't be so easily ignored, I'm hoping, as email. I have nothing to lose, if nobody responds or even reads these letters, since nobody reads the blog anyway. So I could turn the criticisms I've made in the past [of Paul Collins, John Dickson, William Lane Craig, Charles Taylor and others] into letters actually sent to them. Pourquoi pas?

So let me begin with Paul Collins - who has apparently come out with a new book, Judgement Day, treating of environmental theology, may the gods help us. Of course it was a previous book of his, Believers, that I dealt with here. So, based on my critique, here's my next letter.

Dear Paul Collins

I hope this letter is able to find you, as obviously I have no proper address for you. I wanted to address to you some queries regarding a book you wrote a few years ago, Believers. I bought the book in order to get a sense of what is happening with Catholics and Christian believers in Australia, and as such it was quite informative. I imagine that some Catholics reading the book would find it quite grim and depressing reading. However, I'm neither a Catholic nor a Christian so I have a different perspective.
Of course, your book doesn't deal with theological issues or questions of beliefs and their justification, but you do make one reference in the text to non-belief or lack of belief, which, not surprisingly, alludes to the so-called 'new atheism'. Here is the passage: of the focal sources of modern angst is the attempt to live without any sense of God or the transcendent, without faith in anything. This has become particularly virulent with the recent publication of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens' tomes attacking all forms of religious belief and equating mainstream faith with fundamentalism. These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world. Modern anxiety constitutes one of the basic ministerial challenges for Catholicism: to offer a sense of trust in God to the wider world.  

I find this a very strange passage, and I would like to examine it in more detail, to see if I can make sense of it.
To take the first sentence first, I myself, along with many others I know, have lived without any sense of 'God', by whom you presumably mean that male god called 'God', first described by Semitic writers a few millenia ago. This god is, of course, one of thousands of gods, some living, some dead, worshipped, loved, feared and so forth by different cultures and civilizations over the space and time of our planet. I wouldn't say that I've 'attempted' to live without this god, for I've not had to put much effort into it, and I've certainly not suffered angst over a life without him. However, in more recent times I've developed an interest in your god and in Christianity generally, out of historical curiosity. In reading the Bible, as well as some analyses of the text, I must say that I'm very happy that this 'God' fellow hasn't deeply affected my life, for it would be difficult to find a more unpleasant character in the world of fiction. I should also add, as a lifelong reader of fine literature, that I find the character quite implausible.
To return to your first sentence, in it you have linked three things, 'God', 'transcendence' and 'anything' [or everything]. You have linked the three items with the term 'faith'. There are, it seems, a couple of implications here. It seems that 'God' implies 'transcendence' [and/or vice versa], and that a lack of belief [or faith] in either [or both] implies a lack of faith in anything. I have to ask you - do you really seriously mean this? Are you not playing fast and loose with the term 'faith' here? I have faith in my nearest and dearest, I have faith in the postal service, and I have [a somewhat wavering] faith in my local football team, and that is just the tip of the iceberg, and all without any considerations about supernatural entities or transcendent beings. 'Faith' in terms of these transcendental [but yet strangely personal] beings seems to mean something entirely different - something like a belief in the real, objective existence of something non-material [a very specific something!] for which there is no evidence. Only in this highly circumscribed sense do I lack 'faith'.
So your first sentence presents a puzzlement. But I haven't finished with it yet! You claim that the attempt to live without 'faith' is a major source of angst. I wonder how you can know this? I myself have felt angst - and moral angst too - about many many things in my life, but certainly not about the lack of supernatural beings! I'm sure you're aware that, amongst the scientific community, the level of religious unbelief is far higher than it is amongst the general public. Now, scientists are generally high-achieving, intelligent, confident types, not overly given to angst. Nor are they particularly given to moral irresponsibility. To take the most famous example, Albert Einstein, who considered the belief in a personal god to be a form of childishness, you could hardly find a man more concerned about moral responsibility. So I can only assume that your statement about moral angst is a form of projection. You would feel a great deal of moral angst if someone tried to force you to live without your favourite supernatural being [what some nasty unbelievers unkindly describe as 'your imaginary friend'], so you project that angst onto others. I can assure you, we have no interest in sharing your angst, and we have no interest, either, in taking your god away from you. You can keep him.
Looking now at your second sentence, where you claim that the books of Dawkins and Hitchens, which I've read, 'equate mainstream religious faith with fundamentalism'. I think this is something of an over-simplification, and the issue is too philosophically complex to cover in a hopefully short letter. The central point is that all belief systems which cannot point to a mechanism [how the material world can be influenced by, let alone created by, a non-material force], whether god-beliefs, astrology or faith healing, are regarded as equally suspect by people like myself. Some religious believers are liberal and progressive, some are conservative, some are fundamentalist, and so forth, but to the non-believer or sceptic these are relatively unimportant distinctions. The problem is the lack of evidence, and indeed, the lack of plausibility. The implausibility of religious beliefs is underlined, in my view, by their self-serving nature, with humans being made in the image of the creator god, who is so concerned with his pet creatures that he knows every hair on each and every one of their heads. These are comforting childish fantasies, rendered 'plausible' by centuries of obsessive theological rationalisation.
But I digress. Let me finish by looking at the next two sentences, which presumably summarize your attitude to those who don't believe in supernatural beings:
These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.
These extraordinary lines are well worth commenting on, though it's hard to know where to begin! Firstly I should point out Hitchens, Dawkins and others don't actively oppose the god called God any more than they actively oppose Ahura Mazda, Baal, Ganesh, the Rainbow Serpent or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They don't believe that any of these entities have any real existence, so opposing them would make no sense. What they oppose is belief in these entities. That is a major, major distinction.
Second, nobody sets out to explain 'reality' as the product of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a [phenomenally successful] theory that explains the proliferation of life on this tiny, insignificant speck of a planet. That's a very far cry from explaining 'reality'. It is science in general, not just the individual authors mentioned, that sets out to explain reality without resort to transcendence or spirituality, high-falutin terms always given a positive spin by believers, but less than useless as mechanisms for explaining anything. It should be further pointed out that Catholic 'spirituality' essentially means a belief, without any evidence whatever to support it, that humans, unlike any other mammal or primate, have an 'eternal soul', a preposterous notion that is an insult to the intelligence of any educated person.
But it is the following sentence that's the real doozy. 'In the process they [i.e. Dawkins and Hitchens, or do you mean all scientists, or all 'this-worlders'?] cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.'
Now, I'm hoping that even you will recognize that this sentence doesn't constitute one of your greatest literary efforts. Perhaps, though, you're thinking of the better world which awaits us when we pass over, where the lion lies down with the lamb, and nothing ever happens? Something to hope for, maybe, but nothing whatever to do with creativity. Otherwise, this sentence is just meaningless gibberish.
I myself live for the creative energy, the enthusiasm and the optimism around me. I'm a lifelong lover of the arts, especially literature and music, but in recent years I've been particularly enthused by the creative exploration of our world that goes under the general banner of science. I've just read an article on recent exciting initiatives to finally cure AIDS. Yesterday I read another exciting article about the possibility of life existing under the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. And today I've just received the extraordinary news that the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has succeeded in creating a miniature 'big bang', at a temperature of around ten trillion degrees. The future looks pretty exciting to me!
I don't know what it is you believers are hoping for, and I don't think your hopes are particularly coherent. In any case, we won't build a better world by worshipping and endlessly praising dodgy superhuman father figures. That seems to me an insult to our creativity and our energy. We're not the puppets [or the free-willed creations] of a god, we're a bunch of apes - and we have mountains of evidence to prove it. But, as such, we've done pretty well for ourselves, especially when we've tried looking at our world as it really is. I respectfully suggest you try doing the same.
Good luck with your future literary endeavours.

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