Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mon dieu!

Last night I went to hear Christopher Hitchens debate cringe-inducing televangelist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in order to decide once and for all if God exists. Since Hitchens is more cleverer, it appears that God and gods alike are figments of our monkey-brain imaginations. Which is correct, but I found myself wishing the rabbi could make one coherent point, not just evoke the Holocaust every two seconds, only to call Hitchens 'not a Nazi, but.' (The obvious third panelist should have been Jonah Goldberg, since fascism was at least as much up for grabs as religion.) There was also far too much talk of circumcision, which was obviously intended to get a rise out of a very circumcised 92nd Street Y audience, but is a topic that simply cannot be discussed in a meaningful or interesting way, and loses its South Park-type fun quite early in the going.

But there are decent points to be made in favor of religion (says this atheist) that Boteach was too busy embarrassing himself to make. The anti-Hitchens argument would have to go, fine, your way hits at the truth, but it doesn't cover the entire human experience. Science does not tell us how to approach our own mortality, just what happens to our cells as we age, and so on. So that would be point one.

Point two would be the relative recency of dividing in separate categories what we now call 'religion,' 'nation,' 'ethnicity,' and so on. A call for atheism and rationalism all around would not destroy the categories of Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic all in one go. Each religion (well, each variant of each religion) remains tied up with the culture and traditions of the so-called religious groups. Would all of this survive if the religious basis were tossed, as Hitchens suggests? Or would we be left with a world in which the only thing determining what we eat is science?

Which brings up point three--where there's now such irrationality as fish on Fridays and entire peoples not eating pork, there would instead be allowing Jane Brody to scold us whenever we eat anything fried. And this is where what Boteach said about Hitchens' approach not being fun can be manipulated to actually make sense. If Hitchens is right, and we do live a limited number of years with no afterlife, do we really want science telling us what to put in our bodies? One could argue, it's good to at least know what makes us live to 100, then decide if it's worth the sacrifice, but the human impulse to moralize is strong, and can be applied more strongly the more rational basis there is for any given restriction.


Andrew Stevens said...

I saw a debate between Dinesh D'Souza and Hitchens the other day. It's the first time of the many Hitchens debates I've seen where I thought Hitchens lost. As an atheist myself, I obviously believe that a sensible and rational defense can be made for atheism, but Hitchens's meta-ethics isn't up to the task and his name-calling about the evils of religion is fairly poorly thought-out. (The debate then bogs down in determining who has caused the most harm. Prior to this century, that was clearly religion, but Stalin and Mao and the rest showed that a non-religious ideology can kill millions of people in a few decades while the Inquisition took 300 years to kill 2000 people.)

D'Souza also argued persuasively that modern atheit polemicists aren't engaged in an intellectual revolt, but a moral revolt. Since I am a moral realist and a moral objectivist, D'Souza's argument doesn't touch me. But it obviously does apply to Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, which is why they make such poor spokesmen for atheism.

Not one of these people has yet used the Euthyphro dilemma to demonstrate that God does not, and cannot, solve the problem of why morality exists and so, far from being necessary to objective morality, the existence of God is an unnecessary and meaningless additional hypothesis. I am in despair that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are writing these popular polemics without even consulting any atheist moral philosophers first. Is there no respect for expertise anymore? (I am not, by the by, a moral philosopher myself.)

Anonymous said...

I agree it is a moral revolt, against religious immorality... The intellectual one happened during the enlightenment. So yeah I rather let science and reason tell me what to eat rather than some freak wit a funny hat with a roving eye over the altar boys.

Andrew Stevens said...

To the best of my knowledge, there are no dietary restrictions remaining in Catholicism, so I don't quite know what to make of the "telling me what to eat" bit.

The moral revolt that is being engaged in is an attempt to rationalize bad behavior. Dawkins wants to believe that it's perfectly all right to be an unmannered boor. When Chris Tarrant's wife hired a private detective to follow Tarrant and divorced him after the detective reported evidence of adultery, Dawkins wrote an article arguing how "disgusting," "vicious," "vindictive," and "horrible" Mrs. Tarrant was. It is, after all, entirely unreasonable that Mr. Tarrant should be held to his solemn promise to be faithful to his wife and only a horrible woman, infected by the evils of religion, could possibly take offense at being so betrayed. I will not here speculate on why it was that Dawkins's first two marriages ended. As for Mr. Hitchens, let me say that I admire the man's intellect, but I'm much less sure of his character.

The priests at least do not offer intellectual rationalizations for how their pedophilia is so moral after all. They just do their very best not to get caught at it. Personally, I am happier with hypocrisy than I am with the kind of intellectual dishonesty one finds in Dawkins.

Gert said...

Well, it's true that the existence of God cannot be proven materially...but neither can it be proven that He doesn't exist.

It's not a secret that religious folks operate on faith in addition to reason.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all just get along?