May 25, 2013
Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’
Posted on Dec 4, 2009
Apparently it is to be privilege for some, religion for the rest, and nihilism for those unfortunates who have neither. Is there really no other alternative? Richard Dawkins, for one, has written quite movingly, in “Unweaving the Rainbow” and elsewhere, on the way an appreciation of the nature of the universe, as revealed by science, can inspire and inform a sense of wonder and meaning. There is no apparent reason to assume that skepticism must inevitably lead to nihilism. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that a religion based on an ineffable, unreachable mystery of which we know nothing, and which does not even exist in any sense of “exist” that makes sense to us, will be an effective stay against nihilism. Armstrong takes the link between religion and meaningfulness to be too obvious to be worth spelling out. In fact the link is not obvious at all; it is merely conventional—a matter of so-called common sense.
Her uncritical acceptance of the “non-overlapping magisteria” view is only one of the mistakes she makes about science. According to her, Einstein’s theories of relativity implied that science was “unable to provide us with definitive proof [and that] its findings are inherently limited and provisional”; Karl Popper argued that all scientific hypotheses “could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other ‘belief,’ because testing could only show that a hypothesis was not false”; and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle showed “that it was impossible for scientists to achieve an objective result because the act of observation itself affected their understanding of the object of their investigation” and somehow implied “the deep interconnectedness of all reality.” All quite wrong, of course. What may be the most serious misunderstanding leads her to utter the tiresome canard that “there will always be an element of what religious people call ‘faith’ in science.” Of course “acting on faith” here simply means “acting in the absence of absolute certainty,” so that a scientist’s willingness to proceed on the assumption that a certain hypothesis is correct is, to Armstrong’s mind, essentially the same phenomenon as religious faith. (As is drinking a glass of milk or turning a key to start one’s car, for that matter.) But there is all the difference in the world, precisely because the scientist, if reasonable, will so proceed only if there is good practical reason to do so, and only unless and until the evidence proves the hypothesis false. The responsible scientist, that is, respects the fact that she is not absolutely certain, and is thus ready to be proved wrong. Indeed, any responsible scientist can tell you what evidence would cause her to abandon her hypothesis; whereas it is the rare religious believer indeed who is able to do this.
But there I go, talking about religious believers again, when Armstrong has shown that religion is not a matter of belief—right? Well, as I said above, she has tried to show that, but not convincingly; and even if she could show it, it is not clear that that could somehow defend religion as actually practiced in our world. (In light of polls indicating that a large majority of Americans believe in a personal God, and that less than 40 percent of them believe in evolution, Armstrong’s claim that apophaticism represents the religious mainstream—at least in this country—is pretty hard to swallow.) Indeed there are many moments in “The Case for God” when Armstrong seems to drift away from apophaticism and into a deeply subjectivist view of religious truth, which holds that true religious beliefs are essentially private and can be obtained only through committed individual practice. Surprisingly, Armstrong does not seem to notice that this view is not only distinct from apophaticism, it is deeply opposed in spirit. It is not only that subjectivism, unlike apophaticism, attributes truth values to God-talk, but that apophaticism, for all its conceptual difficulties, at least tries to engender skepticism, doubt and intellectual humility by reminding us that we have no knowledge of God. Subjectivism, by contrast, tells its adherents that there are things they can know about God, and that these beliefs are inner matters, known through private experience, that do not need to be justified to their fellows, or to be entered into the tribunal of public reason in any manner whatsoever.
How would a subjectivist know that she was making a mistake of some sort if she were not required, nor even able, to check her understanding against that of her fellow human beings? Presumably she would not; rather, she would write off the concerns of potential critics and correctors who are, after all, outsiders to the tradition or, at any rate, to her subjective experience. (As Armstrong writes, religion’s critics are generally people “who find the ‘beliefs’ of religion arbitrary and incredible because they have not fully participated in its transformative rites.”) It is not obvious why Armstrong thinks such a view can be reconciled with the apophatic denial of certainty about and knowledge of the divine. Nor can I tell which one she would prefer, were their incompatibility to be made clear to her. All I can say about such subjectivism is that it seems a recipe for supreme confidence in one’s convictions, if not for fanaticism; and it is odd to find Armstrong, who praises apophaticism for its opposition to certainty and who complains that scientists and atheists tend to be too confident in their convictions, praising such a view. None of us, obviously, can prove with absolute certainty that committed subjectivists do not know the things they claim to know about God. But what really worries me about such believers is that they would not care if we could.
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