Deny God, Then What?

At the end of 2006, things are positively hopping on the science-religion front. The New Atheism, as it’s been called, is getting big press, with many mentions and reviews of recent books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, who counsel us to question god, faith, and the Abrahamic religions. Harris’s op-eds warning us against the absurdities and destructive dogmas of religion have appeared in the Boston Globe, Newsweek and other mainstream news outlets. Moreover, cover stories about science and the soul have appeared in Wired, US World and News Report, and Time. It seems that the big worldview debate between naturalism and supernaturalism is gaining visibility, in all but name. To call it the science-religion debate is a bit of a misnomer because scientific naturalists can be religious in a perfectly meaningful sense, subscribing to what Dawkins calls, in the first chapter of The God Delusion, "Einsteinian religion." Indeed, some self-identify as religious naturalists. The root conflict is rather between science and faith, two different ways of justifying beliefs about the world which lead to naturalism and supernaturalism, respectively.

Below are comments on three recent articles, comments which highlight considerations others might have overlooked, since they’re not on a mission to meme naturalism. Although none of the articles state it, nor do the books that have sparked the debate, the New Atheism is just one facet of naturalism: a comprehensive worldview that offers a viable alternative to faith by integrating tough-minded science with compassionate ethics, progressive social policies, and our quest for meaning.

Comments on Time Article

Time’s cover story features a vigorous debate between atheist evolutionist Richard Dawkins and theist geneticist Francis Collins. At one point Collins suggests that Dawkins' open contempt for fundamentalists (“these clowns”) isn’t helping the cause of science - good advice from the opposition. Two further comments:

Supernaturalism: "evasion of the responsibility to explain."

Collins says religion answers the why questions, not the how, that is, questions of purpose and meaning, not explanatory questions of how things work and come to be. But in this debate Collins very much does appeal to god in explaining how the universe originated, its basic parameters, and the source of ethics (see below, “No higher calling” re ethics): God got the ball rolling, made sure the physical constants permitted the evolution of life, and laid down moral absolutes of good and evil. The difficulty, however, is that there’s no independent evidence for the existence of god apart from his presumed role as creator and law-giver. So clearly god is an unexplained explainer, something that naturalists find profoundly unsatisfying and ad hoc in making sense of things. That Collins finds the god explanatory hypothesis at all reasonable, and sees no need to explain god (“he has no need of a creation story for himself”) seems a betrayal of the basic canons of explanatory adequacy that he himself upholds in doing science. About this Dawkins rightly says: “Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain.” For more on explanation and supernaturalism, see my review of John Haught’s Is Nature Enough?

No higher calling

Collins worries that an evolutionary account of our moral sense undercuts ethics: “For you [Dawkins] to argue that our noblest acts are misfirings of Darwinian behavior does not do justice to the sense we all have about the absolutes that are involved here of good and evil. Evolution may explain some features of the moral law, but it can’t explain why it should have any real significance.” But of course evolution can explain why we find morality so compelling: we’re hard-wired to! We’re strongly predisposed to interpret our convictions about good and evil as absolutes, since, speculatively:

  1. the strength of our conviction of being in the right played a big role in winning battles against competitors
  2. the urge to punish cheaters and be an honest cooperator was essential to tribal success

That’s why we’re willing to kill and die for those beliefs we share with our tribe, and to make altruistic sacrifices on behalf of others. Do we need something more to make morality really significant to us? No. Just as we find pain and pleasure compelling without supposing they refer to anything supernatural or absolute, so too our sense of right and wrong, fairness and unfairness, survives the subtraction of supernatural foundations. We don’t, for instance, stop being champions of equal human rights once we discover our convictions are strictly a matter of evolution and culture. Since there’s no higher calling, we’ve discovered that our highest moral commitments lie within our natural nature. Thus is ethical commitment naturalized.

Comments on US News and World Report Article

Although it’s a tad confused about physics and the mind, US News and World Report’s cover story “Is There Room for the Soul?” deals thoughtfully and at some length with the scientific challenge to traditional notions of self and soul. The basic question, raised by research on consciousness, is that of physicalism: does the brain somehow constitute the self, or is there something more involved? And what are the religious and spiritual implications if there isn’t? In a good overview of consciousness studies, physicalists (more or less) such as Gerald Edelman, Daniel Dennett, Terry Sejnowski, and Christof Koch do battle with dualists (more or less) such as David Chalmers, Stuart Hameroff, Henry Stapp and Roger Penrose. Although he gives the physicalists equal time, it’s clear that author Jay Tolson is intent on avoiding the “dispiriting conclusion” that we are nothing more than merely evolved creatures, "lumbering robots" for selfish genes, as Dawkins once put it. The way out of the materialistic trap is, Tolson thinks, the frontier science of microphysics, which reveals that “reality seems to consist of non-material information.” Somehow our minds partake of the non-deterministic quantum realm, so that “consciousness is far more than a sophisticated survival machine or even a highly agile embodied computer. Instead, the mind’s resistance to simple reductive explanation lends support to the notion that it is a profoundly complex emergent system whose capacity for intentional acts and creative discoveries connects it with the underlying order of reality…”

We’re certainly connected to reality, but whether consciousness participates in an underlying order in a way that escapes macro determinism, as Tolson suggests (following Stapp, Hameroff and philosopher Philip Clayton) is an open question. But despite his dalliance with some questionable science, he rightly recognizes we’re now in a "post-dualist age," in which it’s difficult to sustain the Cartesian split between mind and body. Instead, we can empirically avail ourselves of “the wisdom of Buddhism, in which the self is correctly understood not as an entity or substance, but as a dynamic process.”

The big question, though, is what sort of process?  It's clear that Tolson thinks science has the authoritative word on this, in which case we’re headed toward an understanding of the self as a physically instantiated pattern fully embedded in nature, not a disembodied soul. It’s science, more than traditional religion, that shows our actual oneness with the world, in which case naturalism can ground an authentic, if atheistic, spirituality.   

Comments on Wired Article

In his well-written and insightful cover story at Wired, self-described agnostic Gary Wolf encounters the Big 3 of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, and finds what seems to him an overweening and unattractive certitude. Their self-declared objective is to destroy, or at least cast corrosive doubt on, faith-based religion, but this negative agenda isn’t exactly the way to build a movement. Wolf admits the New Atheists have a point: reason and evidence is a far better bet, overall, than superstition and illusion. But beyond rational empiricism, what do non-believers have to offer? As counterpoint, Wolf visits a modern megachurch to show what atheism is up against: the purveying of ultimate meaning in the context of a close-knit community, with ritual, covenant groups, and the direct experience of god. Unadorned reason can’t compete, it seems, with the surrender to faith.

Having concluded that the new atheism has little chance of catching on, Wolf leaves his last interview (with Dennett) still an agnostic, but now about non-belief. What he most objects to is the apparently smug certainty of rational skepticism, what he sees as the anti-democratic arrogance of definitively ruling out faith. But of course atheists would reply that it’s faith-based certitude that really takes the cake. They merely ask for evidence, while theists and supernaturalists stake their absolute claims to knowledge on notoriously unreliable tradition, revelation and hearsay, as reported for instance in the bible.

Whether or not Wolf is right to equate the arrogance of reason with the arrogance of faith, his doubts about the prospects for the New Atheism seem well-taken. Unless the “ism” of atheism expands to include a positive approach to life in all the domains that faith-based worldviews address, its appeal will remain limited. We can pretty much rule out god, but what do we rule in? Sam Harris suggests a “religion of reason,” but however cognitively virtuous rational empiricism might be, it isn’t a worldview, it’s simply the best way of deciding what’s true. We deny god, then what?

To compete with traditional religion in the marketplace of belief, atheists must articulate their own positive, comprehensive worldview, and that, of course, is naturalism. Grounded in a rationally defensible commitment to reason and evidence (not faith!), naturalism situates the human person in the grandest, most inspiring context – the untamed cosmos; by understanding the causal origins of ourselves and our behavior it gives us the practical basis for humane and effective policies; by acknowledging that we aren’t self-chosen, ultimately autonomous agents, it supports a compassionate ethics of interpersonal regard and self-acceptance; and it protects us from absolutism by tying belief to the requirement of evidence, which helps to keep us democratic.

Naturalism already has a toehold in the culture since it’s the philosophical core of secular humanism, although not often articulated as such even within the humanist community. If atheists were to see that denying the supernatural is just one rather negative facet of a much broader, positive naturalism, the chances for their cultural acceptance would increase. Indeed, as naturalists, they’d be champions of a worldview with considerable appeal, even if it requires giving up some comforting myths.

TWC, November 2006