Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Darwin and God

“[F]aced with the facts at his disposal, Darwin reached the same conclusion as the Swedish Humanist Association: There’s probably no God.” [1]

He reached no such conclusion. He tended to waver between deism and agnosticism:
“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
...“Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.” [2]
.....
“I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.” [3]
.....
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where one would most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.” [4]
.....
“There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.” [5]
.....
“My views are far from clear . . . I can never make up my mind how far an inward conviction that there must be some Creator or First Cause is really trustworthy evidence.” [6]
.....
“I feel in some degree unwilling to express myself publicly on religious subjects, as I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough to justify any publicity.” [7]
.....
“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. . . . What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. . . . In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” [8]
I should add that Darwin was hardly a knowledgeable authority on the theological arguments, nor understood their subtlety or philosophical grounding, as he himself acknowledged. Still, the belief is in no way true that in the mid-nineteenth century Darwin became a Dawkinsian. I do not fear that I present a greatly controversial theory when I say that it is a belief which has evolved in no small part at the creative hand of a vociferous epigone and philosophical buffoon, though one yet falling short of omnipresence. Nonetheless, the former Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has amply fulfilled the duty for which that chair might have been instituted. If any members of the public have not by now understood that science as a human industry is one in which misinformation, polemics, ignorance, bullying, psychological appeals, inherited prejudices, woeful arguments, philosophical ineptitude, and base motives also play a part, then the blame lies more with them than with the professor; for he has demonstrated almost everything that was humanly possible in that regard.

[1] Björn Ulvaeus, “Religion and schools don’t mix”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 30th June 2009. (I am aware that the quotation comes from some pop-entertainer, but I feel it is worth adding my tuppence-worth to the rebuttal, since the view seems to be quite widely assumed.)
[2] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Asa Gray, 22nd May 1860, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[3] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Charles Lyell, 17th June 1860, ibid.
[4] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.J. Wedgwood, 11th July 1861, ibid.
[5] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex,
Vol. I. (London: John Murray, 1871), p.65.
[6] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.E. Abbot, 6th September 1871, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[7] Ibid.
[8] C.R, Darwin,
Letter to John Fordyce, 7th May 1879, ibid.

26 comments:

dearieme said...

"Is there a God?" is an ill-posed question. I find it clearer to ask "Is there any God I've ever heard of whom I believe to exist?" Easy - no! Note that to within a trivial error, all religious people seem to agree with me, since they reject all Gods that they've ever heard of bar the one (or few) that they exempt from their scepticism. So there you are; even the Pope and I agree to within 0.001%.

Castalian said...

"On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force." How beautiful and, in retrospect, how deeply sad.

xlbrl said...

Darwin seems to say the great intellects were believers. I would like to see his opinion of the atheist intellectuals that, both concurrently and later on, followed and abused his ideas. Darwin's writing appears to show much humility, the virtue most lacking in great intellects--but especially in atheists. Dearieme excepted.

I read that Einstein had a problem with philosophers and politicians letting themselves run wild in very different spheres through his theory of relativity.

Tocqueville writes that even Enlightenment philosophers who had lost their faith worried that this was exactly the source of future decay, as perhaps the French Revolution previewed.

Malcolm Pollack said...

The point, really, is simply that Darwin gave us, for the first time, a persuasive account of life's diversity and design that had no need of any gods.

The rest is up to the individual, and it would be a blessed, if unlikely, relief if all parties in this infinitely wearying debate could keep in mind that Darwin's personal belief or disbelief in a supernatural deity is of no importance whatsoever. He was, after all, likely the first person in history to be faced with the full and awesome implications of his revolutionary insight; I think we can forgive his being a little gobsmacked by it all.

James Higham said...

If any members of the public have not by now understood that science as a human industry is one in which misinformation, polemics, ignorance, bullying, psychological appeals, inherited prejudices, woeful arguments, philosophical ineptitude, and base motives also play a part, then the blame lies more with them than with the professor; for he has demonstrated almost everything that was humanly possible in that regard.

No one and I mean no one, puts it as you do.

Deogolwulf said...

Gentlemen, thanks for your comments. If I get the time and energy, I might be inspired to write a longer response in consideration of them. In the meantime:

Dearieme,

On the non-trivial matter of whether or not there is an unmoved mover, a first (non-temporal) cause, a necessary, infinite, and timeless ground of all being, etc, you and the pope do not agree, and, in that regard, your agreement with him in the rejection of Woden, Ra, Venus, etc, is of no relevance, just as it would be of no relevance to the correctness of the modern evolutionary synthesis if one of you were to reject all theories of evolution, whilst the other accepted only that one.

Castalian,

It is a view difficult to maintain, not just psychologically — though to some people it can in fact come as a relief — but also intellectually: the conjunction of “brute force” and intelligible order needs some explaining.

Xlbrl,

“Tocqueville writes that even Enlightenment philosophers who had lost their faith worried that this was exactly the source of future decay.”

I should say they were right to worry. Nihilism and irrationalism didn’t just spring out of the ground.

Malcolm,

“Darwin’s personal belief or disbelief in a supernatural deity is of no importance whatsoever.”

Ad rem: Darwin’s belief or no as to the existence of God is of little or no importance, but then this post was not addressed to that matter. It was addressed to correcting the matter of the falsehood, frequently assumed and asserted, as to Darwin’s belief in that regard. Ad auditores: Darwin’s belief is important, since the non-trivial beliefs of perhaps all people, some to a greater extent and others to a lesser extent, are apt to be influenced by their association with good authorities as well as by facts and rational deliberation. Truth and truthfulness are important in this respect too.

James,

You are too kind. The joy of curmudgeonry does naturally partake of polemics.

dearieme said...

That's all very well, old boy, but what's "an unmoved mover, a first (non-temporal) cause, a necessary, infinite, and timeless ground of all being, etc" got to do with God? Where's the beard? Where's the smiting of enemies, the miracles, the blood sacrifice and so on? Where's the benificent, omnipotent etc etc? Who says that your unmoved mover has anything to do with God as the word is mostly used; it sounds like a rhetorical ploy to me, to cover up the baldness of the answer to deep, or apparently deep, questions, to wit "How on earth would I know?"

Deogolwulf said...

“[W]hat’s ‘an unmoved mover, a first (non-temporal) cause, a necessary, infinite, and timeless ground of all being, etc’ got to do with God?”

You seem to have it the wrong way round. Such are the fundamental attributes of the classical-theistic God. You should be asking what beards or any human attributes have got to do with God. Irrespective of whether one believes in such a being, one is not rightly able to imagine the nature of it, and one will tend to impute and speak of anthropomorphic qualities: that God “thinks”, “feels”, “wishes”, “loves”, “condones”, etc. But, in the classical-theistic tradition, which includes Plato and Aristotle as well as Augustine and Aquinas, etc, God is not conceived as having these qualities. God thereby is conceived as an infinite being analogous to mind, and not some particular thing in some particular place in some particular time. (Curiously, both atheists and protestant bible-literalists seem to insist on a grossly anthropomorphic God.) That even those who conceive of God in a non-anthropomorphic way will still tend to anthropomorphise by analogy to human conscious experience is no more surprising than that an atheistic physicalist, conceiving of the world to be solely as physical-mechanical science describes it, will nevertheless impute his subjective qualities to that world. (On this view, there is naturally a great problem in accounting for the existence of these qualities as facts of conscious experience.) Thus, looking upon a meadow, he will sense how green and beautiful it is, and yet, according to his conception, there are no such qualities in the meadow, or anywhere else in the world outside the mind: no qualities of colour, sound, smell, touch, taste, nor meaning, beauty, reason, and so on. Though he can conceive of a colourless, soundless, meaningless world, his mind is informed and infused by a world of sensational quality and meaning, and so he cannot really imagine one. It is a world that lies entirely beyond anything he has ever experienced and is utterly alien to the meaningful world he does inhabit. His inability to imagine such a world does not by itself say anything as to whether or not his concept thereof is correct. Nor is a physicist’s depiction of that world for the layman — showing protons as red balls and neutrons as blue balls, for instance — meant to tell us that such things are actually as depicted. Michelangelo depicted God as a stern-looking chap with a beard. It wasn’t an heretical act against Roman Catholic theology; it was just that an infinite immaterial being is a little trickier to depict, even for a man of Michelangelo’s genius. There is a good reason why Muslims prohibit depictions of Allah.

dearieme said...

It won't wash. It seems to me that there is an unbridgeable gulf between your abstract "classical-theistic God" and the chap worshipped by old women who wish to be reunited with a lost child, old men who fear death, deluded priests who consider themselves infallible, and so on. To use one word, "God", for these two very different things is unpersuasive.

xlbrl said...

It is a different thing to be unbridgeable, or unknowable.
I have a picture of Dearieme in my minds eye. It is a wrong one, but it is an illusion that does little harm and affords some understanding. We understand more than we know.

Deogolwulf said...

The monotheistic religions are informed by, and have developed, the classical-theistic conception of God. From it, other attributes are deduced. To these are added revealed theology. None claims God to be perfectly conceivable to a finite mind, or to be imaginable at all, strictly speaking. (One can no more imagine God than one can imagine the number three; for it is impossible to imagine immaterial entities, since there is nothing in virtue of which an image or a sensational impression can be formed.) It is quite irrelevant, however, to the basic conception of God as a necessary, infinite, and eternal being that some people rather than others imagine or conceive other qualities and attributes thereof, or that all people will anthropomorphise to varying degrees. Anyway, for the finer details of such things, I am far from being an authority, and so I’d better shut up. Instead, here is a little play:

Sistine Chapel, AD 1512. Michaelangelo shows Pope Julius II the fruit of his labours.

Pope. So, now. Ah, yes, good.
Michaelangelo. Thank you, your Holiness.
Pope. It is quite . . . what’s that?
Michaelangelo. What?
Pope. That . . . that blob.
Michaelangelo. God, your Holiness.
Pope. God?
Michaelangelo. Yes, you know, infinite being, pure act, ground of all . . .
Pope. Yes, yes, but, I mean . . . it’s a blob.
Michaelangelo. Well, there are certain difficulties with . . .
Pope. No, no, it’ll never do. You’ll just have to do it again.
Michaelangelo. Yes, your Holiness.

The following Tuesday.

Pope. Right, so, what have . . . aha! — a stern-looking chap with a beard. Yes, yes, that is much more like it.
Michaelangelo. Thank you, your Holiness.
Pope. Just the ticket. Overall, quite an achievement.
Michaelangelo. Thank you, your Holiness. It is but a humble effort.
Pope. Not at all, not at all. Now, about my bathroom . . .

David Duff said...

As so often in this distinguished company I can offer little that is new or even interesting but I would, once again, like to express my great admiration for Darwin, that rarest of rare breeds, a scientist prepared to admit his doubts. (I write that even if, or perhaps despite the fact that, I remain unconvinced by much of his theory.)

Also, I would add my voice to those who wish for a suitably non-anthropomorphic word to be conjured up to replace 'God', particularly 'God' with a capital 'G'. Actually, and in praise of our host's play-writing abilities, I rather like 'blob'!

Malcolm Pollack said...

"Darwin’s belief is important, since the non-trivial beliefs of perhaps all people, some to a greater extent and others to a lesser extent, are apt to be influenced by their association with good authorities as well as by facts and rational deliberation."

Fair enough, D, but then we cannot so lightly dismiss the almost-universal anthropomorphizing that dearieme so rightly calls to our attention: it is, like it or no, what "God" means to most people -- and, if we are to take their public utterances seriously, it is what God means to most "good authorities" as well.

Nobody ever whipped up a crowd by telling them that a timeless ground of all being, analogous to mind, was on their side. The God the atheists are up against every day is that other, far more popular one: you know, the one who notes the fall of every sparrow; who smites the wicked and prepares a fragrant bower for the virtuous (and who also, by the way, gets to decide which is which). I refer, in other words, to the one that the people, in their billions, actually believe in.

To be sure, a God made sufficiently vague is a God you can't lay a glove on. But that simply isn't the God that has carved the channels of history, and made them run red.

It is, perhaps, to the credit of the average exoteric believer that at least he gives you something you can get hold of.

Chris said...

We loved the popish dialogue! Thank you.

And when speaking of pop: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus' companion in ABBA, has written the music to at least one Swedish church hymn. One cannot even trust the pure atheism of pop musicians nowadays!

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Duff,

“I would add my voice to those who wish for a suitably non-anthropomorphic word to be conjured up to replace 'God', particularly 'God' with a capital 'G'."

Well, capital-“G” God already is that word. Such was never meant to denote a material or anthropomorphic entity. “God” --- transcendent infinite being --- is not to be confused with “god” --- wholly imminent anthropomorphic being --- any more than that “Car Dyke” --- a Roman earthwork on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens --- is to be confused with “car dyke”, a butch lesbian with her own means of transport. The words are the same, but they denote entirely different things. The Dawkinsian spiel about going one god further than monotheists, spiel which Dawkins seems to believe is an argument, would have little effect if it were understood that the last “god” is not even in the same sequence as the other ones, and does not denote the same kind of thing at all.

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Pollack,

“[W]e cannot so lightly dismiss the almost-universal anthropomorphizing that dearieme so rightly calls to our attention: it is, like it or no, what ‘God’ means to most people”.

Who has dismissed it, let alone lightly? Not I, and certainly not the medieval schoolmen, who spent years of their lives on the very problem of how to interpret the meanings of terms predicated of a perfect infinite immaterial being. Perhaps you should bother to find out what they were doing all those years. Anthropomorphizing to varying degrees is universal, not merely almost universal; “God” does not mean something anthropomorphic to most people, but rather to all people; for the terms predicated of such a being --- “intelligent”, “knowing”, etc --- can have no meaning to us except by analogy to what we know by human conscious experience. As a philosopher and Jesuit priest once put it:

“In our language about God we always move within the sphere of analogy. We have no direct natural apprehension of God, and we can have no natural knowledge of Him save by way of reflection on the things which do fall within our experience.” [1]

“Now, to say that a term like ‘personal’ or ‘intelligent’ must be used analogically when it is predicated of God is to lay down the condition under which the term can be significant while at the same time gross anthropomorphism is avoided. (By ‘gross anthropomorphism’ I mean the assertion that God is simply a glorified human being. We cannot help thinking of God ‘in human terms’; but it is one thing to think of God in an inadequate way and at the same time to recognize its inadequacy, and it is another thing to maintain that God is a superhuman.)” [2]

But, as I say, it seems that only atheists, bible-literalists, and village-idiots insist on a grossly material-anthropomorphic concept.

[1] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol.11: Logical Positivism and Existentialism (London: Continuum Books, 2003), p.97.
[2] Frederick Copleston, ibid., p.94.


[Cont . . .]

Deogolwulf said...

“Nobody ever whipped up a crowd by telling them that a timeless ground of all being, analogous to mind, was on their side.”

Could you explain the relevance of that to the question at hand, namely, the concept of God as it has developed over two and a half thousand years? Or are you just bringing me the startling news that crowds are best whipped up by emotive appeals to ignorance and prejudice or just to loyalty to whatever adherence they have made, whether religious, irreligious, political, ethnic, racial, and so on? Doubtless it is true. People make many such appeals, using crude and vivid images to simplify and falsify, saying things like “God . . . has carved the channels of history, and made them run red.” But that was you, of course, seemingly promoting the special-cause thesis, whereby man overall is said to be made extra-specially evil and blood-thirsty by a belief in God and by adherence to a religion, and that if only everyone became “enlightened”, the world would be so much more pleasant. Would you care to defend it, or is it just crowd-pleasing bluster? (That said, I do not deny that a utopia of eternal peace is achievable even tomorrow. We could remove all differences from people today.) I remember once when some chump commented on your blog, saying something to the effect that the Roman Catholic Church had brought about a dark age in which reason and science were thwarted, and you agreed to this fantasy version of history, this founding myth for a secular age, conjured up in no small part by that coterie of mediocrities otherwise known as the philosophes, not one of whom, by the way, was the intellectual equal of those medieval men, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Nicole Oresme, and so on, whom they saw fit to impugn --- I did wonder then whether your anti-religionism had spilled over into fanaticism, that is, whether you had become “religious” in the very pejorative sense of the word which you level at the religious, who, it seems to you, must ever be hacking, burning, warring, as well as thwarting science and reason. How on earth did you come to this view?

[Cont . . .]

Deogolwulf said...

“The God the atheists are up against every day is that other, far more popular one”

You can spare me the noble-war-against-the-dreadful-god-bothering-oppressors rubbish. (You’ll be whipping up a crowd next with talk of the channels of history running red with blood. “Nicht-Gott Mit Uns” would make a nice slogan.) Besides, the meaning of “atheism” seems to have changed --- again! I had thought it was the rejection of any conception of God, or is it just the plebeian ones you go after these days.

Is this the latest twist on atheism: the demand that God be conceived as a material sky-being, preferably one with testicles, otherwise it is not really a belief in God at all? How easy! What a perfect atheism for a busy and thoughtless world! Why, anyone could become an atheist! Hereafter, even the dumbest of the dumb will be able to impress one another with their rejection of a sky-fairy, and get to feel very rational about it. And happily, by this new criterion, they will find that the list of their fellow atheists --- other people who didn’t really believe in God because they believed in something that wasn’t conceived as a material entity --- is long and venerable: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Boscovich, Babbage, Maxwell, Einstein, Lemaitre, Copleston, etc. Furthermore, it gets to fit their fantasy view of history, wherein the development of rationality and scientific endeavour had nothing whatsoever to do with those silly theists who believed in a material sky-fairy with testicles. Just think also that dear old Schopenhauer and dear old Aquinas get to share a label on the ultimate question! Perfect.

I myself have long been an agnostic, undecided, just like Darwin, who of course agonized about whether there was a big and clever man-shaped material entity in the sky; but it is such a wishy-washy word --- is it not? --- leaving one vulnerable to organised incomprehension: “You mean you think it eminently to be considered that there is a big man in the sky?” Today I am inclined to theism, which, of course, as everyone knows, is the belief that there is a big and clever man-shaped material entity in the sky. Billions of us believe it, apparently. But when truth is less important than social reputation, when appearing on the right side against the theistic plebs is of great importance, the word “atheist” has so much more of an effect, almost like a charm to ward off suspicions that one might believe in silly things. “Me? No, I don’t believe in a big man in the sky. Preposterous! No, no, I distance myself from all that nonsense --- I, sir, am an atheist, just like all the cleverest philosophers, scientists, and thinkers before me”, wherewith, of course, it helps if one’s audience is as fantastically ignorant as oneself.

[Cont . . . yes, I realise posting a sequence of comments on a blog, even my own, makes me look unhinged.]

Deogolwulf said...

“To be sure, a God made sufficiently vague is a God you can’t lay a glove on.”

I am sorry if it spoils your fun. It seems the medieval theologians, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, in working out the concept of God, did not spare a thought to make it an absurd and material target easy enough even for the dumbest of future atheists to hit. It was an egregious oversight, I am sure you’ll agree. I bet they weren’t even aware that the ultimate question upon which they spent so much rational speculation was actually to be reduced to a simple matter of whether or not it would make them sound “scientific” at dinner-parties. Fancy that: all that time developing the techniques of rational disquisition, which they have bequeathed to ungrateful modern epigones --- who indeed prefer to believe that medieval schoolmen liked to do nothing better than to spend the day thwarting rather than developing reason and science ---, when instead of this dry academic study, they could have been down the local hostelry, intellectually armed with the killer-blow to the question of the existence of God: “It’s obvious, innit, mate: there’s no such thing.” Fools! There they were trying to work out how a term such as “intelligent” could be predicated of a perfect infinite immaterial being, with the conclusion that it had to be understood analogously, when all it would have taken was one of them to say: “Hold on, chaps; the whole problem can be solved with much less vagueness if we regress to a primitive concept, whereby ‘God’ really just denotes another one of those superhuman pagan dieties with material, sensible, and anthropomorphic qualities, wherewith ‘intelligent’ just means ‘super-intelligent’.” “Brilliant!”, the others cry, and off they all go to the pub. But that didn’t happen, or perhaps down at the pub, one of them said: “But hold on, I don’t believe in a pagan-style god; you know, some big chap sitting in the sky.” Whereupon they all went back to their cold cells.

As to vagueness, it was the task of these men to make the concept as clear as possible to their finite minds. But, as for you, by vagueness, do you mean that God --- as he has been conceived in the classical-theistic tradition for two and half thousand years --- is unimaginable? Well, that is merely a logical consequence of God being conceived as immaterial. Is “immaterial” a vague conceptual term? Its meaning strikes me as absolutely clear: “not material”. Is “material” a vague conceptual term? It certainly can be, as you yourself are aware. Does it matter to the concept of God as a perfect infinite immaterial being that everyone will colour it by analogies to the only thing he knows directly: his own experience of the world? I’ll leave it to you to answer that question whichever way you see fit.

“It is, perhaps, to the credit of the average exoteric believer that at least he gives you something you can get hold of.”

I am left to wonder whether pop-atheism has addled your brain.

Deogolwulf said...

Chris,

We shall soon drop all this god-talk and return to the usual business of oppressing eighteen years olds by our "negative opinions" of them.

Anonymous said...

I believe the antagonisms between these two luminaries can be reversed into sunny friendship by the causal perusal of Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot by Philip Gosse, published not two years before Darwin's Species.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Dear D,

I do apologize for having given you so much writing to do.

What is missed here is, nevertheless, the point, though it was hinted at in amongst all that somewhere:

"But, as I say, it seems that only atheists, bible-literalists, and village-idiots insist on a grossly material-anthropomorphic concept."

I think it is safe to say that if the village did not consist almost entirely of the idiots you describe - and if they were able to stop braying and squabbling, at every opportunity, about their "grossly material-anthropomorphic concept" - most atheists would be perfectly happy to get on with other things. They do not "insist" on this crude concept, but are simply fed up with having their faces rubbed in it.

Likewise, I have never suggested, as you seem to think I have, that "man overall is said to be made extra-specially evil and blood-thirsty by a belief in God." Man has all that sanguinary equipment ready to hand straight from the factory; belief in God, or Party, simply helps keep it all running smoothly, and improves the mileage. It is Man, of course, who made the channels of history run red, not God.

That there are limits to our understanding is evident enough; I make no quarrel with you there. And all are welcome to imagine whatever they like that lies beyond those limits, however unpersuasive such imaginings may be to others. It certainly helps, I suppose, that whenever the skeptical interlocutor attempts to get a purchase on just what, exactly, is being described, the handle by which he might have hoped to take a grip is removed, and the surface polished smooth.

How can one reject such a view? Why even bother to try? There is nothing there that is definite enough even to be wrong, and certainly not demonstrably so. When an assertion is fine-tuned so as to be compatible with any conceivable facts or observations whatsoever, and refutable by none, it becomes both quite invulnerable and largely uninteresting, save as a psychological curiosity. (To spare you the trouble of pointing out that science is also not immune to this afflicition, this is, of course, the same criticism that has been leveled lately against string theory.)

The fact is, however, that religion as it actually prevails in the world - whether in Waziristan or Wasilla - is not so self-effacing. Perhaps things are different in England (I do believe they are), but the old-time stuff - in which God still takes a partisan interest in the old mano a mano, and the fire and the brimstone are every bit as real as the gaping congregation - is still the most popular flavor in these parts. It is not at all encouraging, to put it mildly, and one occasionally feels the need to say so. Indeed, I think that if you were to go live in the American South for a while (perhaps you might stop by the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky, while you're down there), we wouldn't even be having this conversation at all.

xlbrl said...

So much interest in God, or in the absence.

An Atheist named Frazer saw that even 'superstition rendered a great service to humaninty, supplying multitudes with a motive, if a wrong motive, for right action; and it is better for the world that men should be right from wrong motives than that they should do wrong with the best intentions. What concerns society is conduct, not opinion; if only our actions are just and good, it matters not a straw to others whether our opinions are mistaken.'

While atheist are detailing the many sins of religion, they afford themselves great blindness toward their own record; and although it is a relatively short one, it's a doozey.

dearieme said...

Holding all "atheists" responsible for, say, Communist savagery is rather like holding Quakers responsible for the Catholics burning heretics.

Gibbon perhaps put Frazer's point better:-
The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Just for clarity's sake, I regard it an unanswered empirical question whether the great mass of Man would be "better off" without religion: the sorry fact may be that the current state of affairs is the best we can do, and that a unifying fiction from which those of us suitably constituted may draw some comfort and courage might well have significant adaptive value. In other words, I am not at all convinced that secular societies are, in the Darwinian sense, "fitter" than religious ones. Given the fact that the educated, secular classes of Europe, for example, are breeding themselves out of existence, while their fundamentalist imports seem as fecund as the shad, the intial returns are far from promising.

xlbrl said...

That is more than a clarification, Mr. Pollack, that is an understanding of its own, and as I see it, a crucial one.

Dearieme's Gibbon is also a wonderful understanding, but perhaps it is not as superior to Frazer as it is only different from it. If the Roman magistrate saw religion as a useful tool for his control, Tocqueville saw--in America at least--religion as useful not in politicians controlling men, but rather in controlling themselves. That is certainly what we see missing.

I do not and will not ever find it necessary to stipulate that although all socialist killers are atheist, not all atheist are socialist killers. It then becomes necessary to stipulate to hundreds of points in everything of contention, and displays an over-sensitivity and accomodation to our weaknesses.