John Haught is a Georgetown University theology professor who testified against Intelligent Design at the 2005 Dover trial (so he's a fairly scientific, liberal believer), but who has written a new book, God and the New Atheism
, criticizing Dawkins and the gang.
Here is a Salon interview with Haught
, in which he says some reasonable things, and some downright silly ones.
Q: You're saying older atheists like Nietzsche and Camus had a more sophisticated critique of religion?
A: Yes. They wanted us to think out completely and thoroughly, and with unrelenting logic, what the world would look like if the transcendent is wiped away from the horizon. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus would have cringed at "the new atheism" because they would see it as dropping God like Santa Claus, and going on with the same old values. The new atheists don't want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.
Hmm...well, I don't feel
like I should wallow in ultimate despair. Either Haught is wrong, or I'm not quite understanding my own beliefs.
Q: But why can't you have hope if you don't believe in God?
A: You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don't have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.
Hope is a positive expectation. That can't be justified without mystical beliefs? Both personally and globally, I neither consider myself a wild optimist or pessimist. As for humanity, I'm hopeful in the sense that we have managed to evolve culturally to the point where many people live under democratic, rather than despotic, rule, where we've seen a global reduction in institutions like slavery, while we've seen an increase in things like women's rights, minority rights, and freedoms in general. There still remain pockets (sometimes very large) of despotism, but I think the general trend is toward an increase in human rights. This view is rationally grounded, not spoken to me from on high by a supernatural being, so it seems more justified than some sort of nebulous religious wishful thinking, no?
It takes some hutzpah to assert that morality, meaning, and hope are all better justified by supernatural traditions with no rational underpinning than by our the faculties of reason.
Haught does acknowledge that evolution is the best explanation for human origins, but then he goes off the rails again when describing science as being based on faith:
Q: What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?
A: The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It's a deep faith commitment because there's no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It's a creed.
Sigh. I've written quite a lot on this recently, so I won't rehash...only to reiterate that if you've found a particular method effective in verifying correlation with actual events over and over and over again, it's not faith to hold that the method will be effective in the future. That's the opposite of faith.
And here's how he defines religion:
Q: It seems to me that we need to be clear about what we mean by "religion." You have used that word in various ways. You've suggested that some scientists are inherently religious because of their quest to understand ultimate causes, even though they may not believe in God. What is your definition of religion?
A: There are thousands of different definitions of religion. But I like to think of three main ways of understanding it. The first way -- and I think almost all of us are religious in this sense -- is to define religion as concern about something of ultimate importance. This was Tillich's broad definition: Religion is ultimate concern. Even the atheist who says that science is the only reliable road to truth, and nature is all there is, is setting up something that's ultimate. It's like the top stone of a pyramid that conditions everything else in the pyramid. In our own lives, we all have something like a top stone. If it were suddenly removed, it would cause our lives to fall apart. So we're all religious in that sense. In a narrower sense, religion is simply a sense of mystery.
He's got two definitions, a "broad" one (concern about things of ultimate importance) and a "narrow" one (a sense of mystery). Theists often try to employ this kind of verbal jujitsu in order to lump science in with religion and draw attention away from the supernatural elements of religion. A definition of religion that leaves out supernaturalism is like defining a hamburger without mentioning beef. If anything, his second definition is broader than the first. Basically, anyone who cares about anything important is religious. Um, no...I'm not buying what you're selling, buddy.
But it's really hard to take the guy seriously at all when he answers question like this last one, this way:
Q: So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?
A: If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness -- all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community's belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.
That's a lot of fuzzy woo-woo. I really want a follow-up to this question. If he thinks a camera wouldn't record a resurrected Jesus, why is that? Does he think it didn't happen, in a literal sense? Or does he think resurrected Jesus shows up on film (like some sort of vampire)?
Haught is a guy straddling both sides of a fence, and trying to justify...poorly. I don't think I'll be reading his new book. I could barely stand this much of what he has to say.