Monday, June 18, 2007

Faith, Reason, and Atheism

Writing in the New York Times, Stanley Fish -- NYT, please make him a regular columnist! -- has done what I've lazily promised but failed to deliver: devestate the weak arguments that too many atheists rely on in their critique of religion.

What weak argument is that, you ask? Namely, that atheism is founded on "reason" whereas religion is founded on "faith." The argument, as delivered by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, goes something like this: religious belief is grounded in faith that a supreme being exists who possesses certain worship-worthy attributes. Atheism, so say these proponents, is in contrast founded on "reasons" and "evidence" that no such supreme being exists, such as the evidence that Darwinian natural selection occurs and accounts for the complexity of human life. "We have scientific reasons," so say these atheists, "and you just have faith. Nyah nyah nyah na nyah."

It sounds persuasive until you really think about it. Let me quote liberally from Professor Fish:

But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.

It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.

Fish is borrowing liberally here from Michael Polyani, author of the excellent little philosophical tract titled "Science, Faith and Society." Polyani's thesis is that the scientific progress results from scientific conviction; a scientist perceives the world, develops a view as to why it operates a certain way, and then devises a system to prove that the scientists' view is correct. This is not so very different from someone who believes the world is the product of divine inspiration; develops a set of tenets that explain that divinity; and then seek to persuade others that this divinity is deserving of respect or even worship. Science and religion is part of the same project.

This is why people like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are talking past religious folks. But this now raises an interesting question: is it possible to develop a shared vocabulary between believers and atheists, and then convince the believers to unbelieve? Historically, the answer thus far is no. But stay tuned as I try to tackle the problem.


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