Mar 8, 2014
Troy Jollimore on the God Debate
Posted on Apr 2, 2009
On the other hand, at various points in the book the authors do seem to suggest that religious claims about God’s existence and nature are true, and that religion’s ability to provide such truths gives it an edge over science. “Faith,” they write, “provides certainty in a world where secular certainties are constantly being undermined.” Elsewhere they summarize, with apparent approval, William F. Buckley’s view of higher education in “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley, they write, “rejected the idea that the university was a mere education marketplace (especially a bazaar where all the stalls were run by socialists, atheists, and other bearded misfits). He believed that the purpose of education was not to keep students up to date, but to introduce them to eternal truths and provide them with the means for defending them.”
To defend religion on account of its ability to provide eternal truths (or, for that matter, truths of any sort) is a far cry indeed from defending the “reality” of religious experiences by pointing out that they are “real” to the people who experience them. Yet there are multiple passages in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge are most naturally read as asserting that religious beliefs are not just useful, but true—indeed more certainly true than scientific or other secular claims—and that faith is a valid path to religious knowledge. In discussing contemporary American Christianity, they write: “What matters in religion is after all the Truth, not attendance figures. […] The simplest defense of [megachurches] is indeed growth: modern management is bringing more people to God and providing more cash for the churches to spread his word.”
In these passages and others, “God Is Back” does seem to presuppose, or at least to want to presuppose, the existence of God and the validity of faith as a path to knowledge of ultimate reality. But why, then, include the “brain patterns” argument, and other attempts to legitimize religious beliefs in ways irrelevant to their truth or justification? If faith itself justifies religious belief, why bother with other types of argument, particularly when those supplemental arguments are so obviously lame? (There is, if not an answer, an explanation: As the authors say upfront, the book “is written by a Roman Catholic and an atheist.” Apparently, the two didn’t manage to get their stories entirely straight.)
For someone who wants to defend religion’s continued validity in the modern world, the appeal to faith can certainly seem attractive. After all, if faith is a legitimate path to knowledge, and indeed to certainty, then religion need fear nothing from modernity; no finding of modern empirical science can hope to shake from its foundations a belief that in fact has no foundations, but is simply held as a result of an unshakeable conviction on the part of a believer who has no interest in what she might actually have reason to believe.
The deep problem with this position, though, is that it undermines the authors’ compatibility claim. Faith, if accepted as legitimate, may shield religious beliefs from science, but how then to defend science against religion? If the two sorts of beliefs are established in entirely different ways then there can be no neutral way of reconciling them when they conflict, and so it is hard to see how they could be considered genuinely compatible. Of course, if science and religion never made conflicting claims, this might not trouble us. But that religion and science do make conflicting claims is a wearisomely familiar fact in light of, to take what is only the most obvious example, recent and ongoing debates about teaching evolution, creationism, “intelligent design” and so forth in American public schools.
At any rate, the appeal to faith is intellectually untenable, and the authors’ insistence that religion has an edge over science in the areas of truth and certainty is deeply wrongheaded and indeed ironic. The passage on Buckley cited above suggests that those who value eternal truths side with religion, while those who care only about being “up to date” will side with science. But no scientist would accept this characterization, because no scientist will cede to religion the advantage in the pursuit of truth (whether “eternal” or otherwise). The idea that it is a disadvantage for secular approaches that “secular certainties are constantly being undermined” is exactly the opposite of the truth: It is in fact because scientists are constantly trying to falsify their own claims that we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in the ones that we have not yet managed to falsify. (Ask any responsible scientist what it would take to make her give up her beliefs about any part of the world, and she will be able to tell you. Ask a typical religious believer what it would take to convince him that, say, Jesus was not the son of God, and you will succeed at most in irritating him—you will almost certainly get no answer at all.)
Faith, then, has a highly unfortunate double consequence: It increases one’s confidence in one’s beliefs, while simultaneously decreasing one’s grounds for confidence. Pace Micklethwait and Wooldridge, what faith provides is not in fact certainty, but rather the feeling of certainty.
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