Saturday, January 16, 2010

In defense of Pat Robertson

Poor Pat Robertson. Yeah, you read that right: Poor Pat Robertson. He’s being criticized once again for his claim that the devastation of the Haiti earthquake was brought on by a “pact with the Devil” that Haitian slaves entered into in 1794 in order to win their independence from France. Monstrous? Sure. Delusional. Of course. But perfectly consistent with his worldview, and, more importantly, not to be dismissed by anyone of any political persuasion who professes to believe in the God of theism.

The logic of Robertson’s view is pretty simple. His most fundamental intellectual commitment is to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. A good God cannot want people to suffer undeservedly, and an all-powerful God would not allow people to suffer undeservedly. Therefore any undeserved suffering is evidence that there is no such God. But since (he presumes) there is such a God, all human suffering must be deserved. The same logic famously led Jerry Falwell to say that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were deserved— though he did not follow this through consistently enough to say that the actual victims deserved what they got, only that America had earned this collectively by “throwing God out of the public square.” Similarly, Robertson didn’t claim that the Haitians suffering from this earthquake had bargained with Satan, only that their forebears in the 18th century had. Both he and Falwell thus clearly presuppose some form of collective responsibility. After all, among the victims of 9/11 there must have been at least one dues-paying member of the Moral Majority, who could presumably not be held individually responsible for America’s moral corruption.

The move both Falwell and Robertson make is not hard to understand. So-called ‘natural evil,’ such as an earthquake, has always seemed harder than human evil to reconcile with God’s goodness. Human evil, after all, presupposes our free will, which is understood as a little bit of God’s creative power that He has bequeathed unto us. But even if we suppose (quite dubiously) that we have free will, and that it is better that we have free will than that we don’t, this really does nothing to ease the problem of evil. If God created us with our power of undetermined choice, then He is responsible for the consequences of that gift. An infinitely powerful God could have created us so that we always use our free will for the good, and a perfectly good God would have wanted to do this.

A complete discussion of the problem of evil lies far beyond the scope of this little post. And plenty of well-meaning people (i.e. not people like Robertson) believe in God as a healer rather than a cause of the world’s pain. But I’ll briefly consider one possible response to the problem, equally as unsatisfactory as any other, namely the idea that suffering can be justified as a way of helping us reach God. Perhaps, as a psychological matter, this helps people to cope with what might otherwise seem overwhelming. But it does not stand up to any intellectual scrutiny, for once again this way of thinking is incompatible with God’s (alleged) infinite goodness. If reaching God is a matter of choice, how can someone reach God whose life is snuffed out in an instant? If one person’s suffering is taken to help someone else to their redemption, doesn’t this make the sufferer a means to an end in which they cannot share? And why should so much suffering be necessary, and distributed so unequally? Even if a perfectly good and powerful God cannot find a way for me to reach Him except through, say, my child’s illness, why does that require that my child slowly waste away and die in intense pain? Wouldn't a severe but curable stomach bug do the trick?

A believer will say, This shows that God’s ways are mysterious, beyond what mere mortals can comprehend. Someone like me, on the other hand, will say, This shows that the idea of God makes no sense.

[By the way, this is not an atheism blog, although you might get that impression from the first two posts. Among future topics expect to see one on “CNN in our Moral Life” and “Kant on the Ignorance of the American Voter.” Let me know if you have a preference about which should come first.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What should an atheist think about religion?

One of the more prominent debates in what passes for American public intellectual life is the emergence of a “New Atheism,” which is new, apparently, for its derision of religious belief and its unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of reasonable theism. As a lifelong atheist myself, I suppose I ought to welcome this development. Since I was quite young I have been aware of both my utter lack of religious belief and the distance this created between me and most of the rest of America. When I was about 13, my parents urged me to enroll in a confirmation course at the Congregational Church our family attended. The plan was that at the end of the process I would be confirmed and baptized (I had been spared this rite as a baby) in one fell swoop. First, though, I had to meet with the youth minister. I admitted to him that I had misgivings about the process because, as I put it then, I was an agnostic. He smiled, nodded, and said with true liberal Protestant equanimity, “That’s great. We’ll rap about that.” Ah, the 70’s.
And yet my soul is troubled by all this—or rather, it would be if I had a soul, or if there were such a thing as ‘souls.’ The case for atheism is best made if it is not confused with the entirely separate issue of what to make of religion. Take away the latter question, and the strongest case for nonbelief in God is simply to refuse to accept the burden of proof. The theist, after all, professes not only to believe in a being that is utterly insensible and insusceptible to proof, but also maintains that this belief is the most important one could ever have. Let them prove it to me, I say—and no one has ever come close.
So, what ought an atheist to believe about religion? Strictly speaking, denying the existence of God entails nothing at all about religion, except for the obvious consequence that it can have nothing to do with God. Religion is a human institution, and as such is neither better nor worse than the human beings who practice it. Seen from this perspective, the hostility toward religion shown by the New Atheists is really misanthropy: hostility toward human beings themselves. Hardly a good thing for an erstwhile secular humanist.
Broadly speaking, religion has served to offer human beings certainty where they have none. Long ago, this certainty included certainty about matters of fact, for example the change of seasons, earthquakes, comets, and the like. The rise of science has largely destroyed this basis for religious belief, though the debate in American society about evolution shows that this motivation is not entirely dead. This is why Michael Shermer is entirely wrong to insist that evolution does not threaten religion. It does, because it removes one of the last little shreds of physical reality that religion could claim to make sense of: the unique place of human beings in the physical world. The Theory of Evolution entails that we have no such unique place, and fundamentalists are therefore right to see this as a threat.
What has survived is the religious offering of moral certainty—that kings rule with divine right; that the lives of nonbelievers count for less than believers; that the poor are blessed and shall inherit the earth. Religion in this capacity helped French peasants to build great cathedrals, for American blacks to challenge segregation, and for Crusaders to slaughter Arab civilians. We must ask whether, without the illusion of God’s moral commands, human beings would act in better or worse fashion. Perhaps, if they were less sure that God was on their side, civil rights activists would have found it harder to face the violence of white resistance. Similarly, if the soldiers of the Crusades had been prepared to ask critical questions about their mission, they would have been more likely to recognize the humanity in their victims. It is difficult to know where the balance lies, though in the end it may make no difference at all: There is no conclusive evidence that religious people act more ethically than the nonreligious. I’m inclined to think that, on balance, we’d all be better off nurturing our rational than our religious souls. But really, that’s far from obvious.

Monday, January 4, 2010


I teach philosophy at George Mason University. A recurring feature of my job is being asked by students, colleagues, and administrators what philosophy has to do with “the real world.” This is endlessly frustrating for me, because I know that my own experience of the world is constantly informed and enriched by my philosophical training. This blog will be an occasional demonstration of that: Neither a philosophy blog, of which there are plenty already, nor a policy blog, “The Attached Observer” will offer a philosopher’s perspective on current events in politics and culture. And, occasionally, on football.