Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Atheists Don't Get God" Claims Arrogant Thomist

This is a response to the article "Atheists Don't Get God", a review of David Bentley Hart's book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.


To me, what commends the thinking and reasoning and explanations of scientists is not that they are very certain of the claims they make; it's that they most often are the exact opposite of certain. Scientists are notoriously averse to drawing conclusions with any air of certainty, instead usually bathing each statement in a thick coating of qualification, moderation, and pensive hesitation. It's as if the most dangerous way to behave within scientific circles is to behave as if you just figured something out to a mathematical certainty, even if you have done so. 'Embrace doubt and skepticism' seems like the unwritten code of science. The first impulse of the researcher upon making a possible discovery or breakthrough seems to be to turn to colleagues and say, "please prove me wrong." 

Which, of course, is true, because of the importance of falsifiability and criticism to the scientific method. All findings of scientists will be scrutinized by other scientists, whose chief aim is to cast doubt-- if possible-- on said findings. And the genius of the method is that scientists are trained that this peer review is a non-negotiable part of the research process, and that this harsh scrutiny is to be welcomed, because if any findings survive review, they reliably increase our knowledge of the world and our ability to improve life in it. I can imagine that knowing your work will be ruthlessly poked and prodded, every potential weakness worked over and tested, is likely the reason why scientists tend to equivocate and hesitate when they communicate their findings to each other, and to those of us who try to understand what they are doing. Doubt and skepticism aren't just healthy; they are essential to every attempt to expand the boundaries of what can know and do in this world.

Arrogance and certitude do not flourish within the scientific community for the reasons discussed above, and yet that doesn't prevent religious apologists and theologians from falsely accusing scientists of arrogance. These same believers then hypocritically rely upon certitude and confidence in their authorities for the answers to their supposedly eternal questions. There is no place for doubt in Christian dogma, except as it is described as a stumbling block and a weapon of Satan. Imagine a preacher ending his sermon with a confession of doubt and a plea for his congregation to skeptically prove him wrong in what he taught them about God. Absurd! And yet whenever atheists and scientists share their doubts about God, theists line up to accuse the doubters of being mistaken, foolish, and --of all things-- arrogant. The article linked above is a good example of this.

In "Atheists Don't Get God," a Father Robert Barron ("...the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary") reviews a book by a David Bentley Hart (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss). The main point of Barron's review is to assert that atheists who try to say things about God as if He is a being who exists in the material universe are making a category error. The reality of God should not even be debated between theists and atheists, Barron says, because not using the word "God" in the same way. And with characteristic theist arrogance, Barron confidently asserts that "It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God."

This last quote is the entirety of this review's second paragraph. This is the first time Barron has mentioned any authority, much less one as specific as Thomas Aquinas. And everything that follows in the review continues under the massively unexplained but utterly trusted confidence Barron has in the conclusions of Thomas Aquinas. He could have just stopped writing the review with that second paragraph, ending it with a sentence like, "And we all know that Thomas Aquinas is right, and that means atheists are wrong." Nothing that follows in Barron's review offers any more substantive information that this opinion of his about Aquinas. But he doesn't stop writing, he continues, and the arrogant, unfalsifiable assertions do, too:

  • "God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself."
  • "God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists."
  • "[T]he physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature -- at all."
  • "No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God."
  • "[R]eal religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all."
  • "This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word 'God.'"
  • "[T]he most interesting question of all is ...: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?"
  • "[T]he question of God -- the true God -- remains the most beguiling of all."

Toward the end of the review, Barron admits to teasing critics of religion for being proud of their rational thinking, and yet somehow shy about those last two questions quoted above. And as I said in my introductory paragraphs, theists like Barron are simply certain that their favorite Big Questions are just somehow the most meaningful and important. And they say these things without providing any loftier reason than, "St. Thomas Aquinas said so!" 

Well, theists like Barron can go ahead and tease, and assure themselves in reviews like these (and in books like the one reviewed) that they somehow have a monopoly on important questions. It's plain to me that the arrogance of theists cannot in any important way satisfy the demands of the pressing questions of the day-- the ones which extend knowledge about the real world, and help solve the problems real human beings currently face on our troubled little planet. Theists, please forgive atheists for preferring the truly humble presentations of scientists like Dawkins to your wildly overconfident and arrogant claims.

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