Christmas: My Wish Is For 'Less' Instead of 'More'

Posted by Charles Reece, December 25, 2007 06:31pm | Post a Comment
When he wasn’t drinking in pubs and shooting billiards, the greatest Scotsman who ever lived, David Hume, took apart human reasoning, piece by piece.  Of particular relevance to the holiday season, in his essay, "Of Miracles," he critiqued one the foundational chestnuts of the Christian tradition.  In order for something to be a miracle, it must be supernatural.  If it's truly supernatural, then it's beyond natural laws.  If it's beyond natural laws, then it's a violation of anything we humans have the capability of understanding or reasoning about -- is, in other words, beyond rationality.  A Christianity without miracles isn't much of a religion, since all of it's basic beliefs become, at best, metaphors for natural phenomena (virgin birth, resurrection, et al. would be just strange ways of talking about more pedestrian subjects that we all know occur under natural laws).  Thus, Christianity isn't rational. At best, it's nonrational (as opposed to merely irrational), the belief being what's called fideistic, which is the act of accepting a proposition (like 'there is a god') without sufficient evidence, or, really, any evidence at all, because of the supposed value in faith itself.  Many Christians don't like this approach, but it's hard to see any other viable alternative.  Of those who bite the bullet and continue to believe, the most famous are:

Blaise Pascal, who argued that one should believe in a god because if there is a god, the possible reward for being right outweighs the possible punishment for being wrong and you don't get jackshit if you're right about there not being one.

William James, who argued in absence of definitive evidence one way or the other, one shouldn't just be skeptical of both propositions (there is or isn't a god) for doing so misses out on any good that might obtain from either being true (although he seems to focus more on the good of the affirmative).  One can't wait until definitive proof to trust every person one meets without having an incredibly impoverished existence, and the question of a god places a similar demand on an individual.   The noncommittal agnostic will burn in hell just like the determined atheist after all, so suck it up and be a man.

Søren Kierkegaard, who argued, as best I can tell, that the qualitative difference in the act of becoming a Christian was for him, at least, enough of a reason to have faith in a god.  Justification comes from the Christian acting good because of his faith, rather than any foundational assumption about the necessity of Christianity.  (Ludwig Wittgenstein had a similar approach to the majority of human activities, so there is a group of fideistic Christians out there calling themselves Wittgensteinian, even though it's doubtful Wittgenstein was one himself.)

I don't much find this approach very convincing as it's more an argument that some practical advantage might come your way if you do believe than any sort of reason for believing.  You're better off in a theocracy pretending to believe in the mandated god, but pretense isn't the same as actual belief (minus CLOCKWORK ORANGE-styled brainwashing).  Who gives a shit if religious belief leads to a longer life, as has been reported in some scientific research?  You can’t just turn on belief for a life extension.  Hell,  it might be the religious context in which the nonreligious have to live which contributes to their early grave (cf., the Inquisition).  Honesty isn't very pragmatic for achieving power.  Morality isn't likely to get you rich.  Perspicacity rarely leads to bliss.  So in the spirit of giving, here are some intellectuals who have taken a stand:

Bertrand Russell, who doesn't sound like he was the nicest of fellows, but he gave good argument, nonetheless.  His classic anti-Christian tract is Why I Am Not a Christian, wherein he takes to task all of the famous theological arguments for God (as in the one who used to not have any true vowels to his name, not some aberration with multiple arms or a big dumb guy with a hammer).

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in an interview about his atheism and his general scientistic belief that not much else other than science gives us a truth worth considering.

Another scientistic thinker, bearing a striking resemblance to Saint Nick, is Daniel C. Dennett, who uses philosophy as the little yapping dog to Dawkin's big dog of science, Spike.  In the link he talks about faith and its role in a democracy.

The late, great paleontologist Stephen J. Gould referred to the former two's camp as pan-adaptationist, because they (along with other popular scientists like Steven Pinker) attempt to explain all human behavior as a function of natural selection.  That's neither here nor there for this blog entry (except to explain why I keep using 'scientistic' in the place of 'scientific'), but a particularly eloquent opponent to their camp who's no more Christian than they, but far less scientistic is H. Allen Orr, so here are some of his takes on science, religion, Dennett and Dawkins, plus an exhange with Dennett.

And, finally, all-around curmudgeon, Christopher Hitchens gives us some yule-tide warmth and season's greetings.

Also, coming out on Jan. 7th, a conversation between Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris:

Merry Tuesday.

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Betrand Russell (1), H. Allen Orr (1), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1), Soren Kierkegaard (1), Fideism (1), Rationality (1), Skepticism (2), David Hume (1), William James (1), Blaise Pascal (1), Christianity (9), Atheism (3), Christmas (68), Miracles (1), Richard Dawkins (1), Christopher Hitchens (4), God (8), Daniel Dennett (1)