Sunday, February 19, 2012

Theism is an existence claim

By Mathew Goldstein

Janet Daley, writing for the British newspaper Telegraph, cites the "clash between President Obama and the Roman Catholic Church over the matter of whether Church institutions should be obliged by federal statute to provide free contraception. There can be no question of where the Constitution stands on this issue: if a case should ever come to the Supreme Court, it is the Church that will win." in her article "A good week for the smiting of the ungodly". Did Janet Daley miss the news that the Obama administration granted religiously affiliated Institutions an exemption that allows their employees to acquire the contraception coverage from the insurance companies without employer subsidies? Any lawsuits would now be against the contraception coverage subsidy required for institutions not affiliated with a religious institution. Legal precedent says that government can enforce a "neutral law of general applicability" that conflicts with some citizen's religious beliefs provided that the law can be shown to benefit the general welfare of citizens.

She then points out that there are questions whose answer is not based on evidence such as: Is it wrong to hurt people unnecessarily? She correctly points out that it is a mistake to require evidence for "those kinds of belief that do not rest on empirical evidence but which are still central to human experience." She then incorrectly concludes that theists are therefore correct to believe without evidence. That final therefore is incorrect because theism is not one of "those kinds of belief" that is exempted from the need for empirical evidence. Claims that theism has moral benefits are derivative, they come after acceptance of the existence claim. Therefore theism is not a moral axiom like the axiom that it is wrong to hurt people. Theism is an existence assertion like the claim that God the Holy Ghost exists as part of a Holy Trinity. So atheists are correct to look to evidence for evaluating the merit of theism.

She then calls it "a very odd kind of obtuseness in people who clearly see themselves as possessing superior intelligence. Do they really not understand what it is that it is so unsatisfactory about “scientific” accounts which reduce life to the ticking over of sensory apparatus?". This is also mistaken. First of all, atheists really do understand that both theists and atheists posses a full range of intelligence. The difference here is that atheists are applying their intelligence better on this question. Secondly, accurate explanations do not "reduce" that which is being explained. Life continues to be exactly the same phenomena, neither enhanced nor reduced, by the availability of previously unavailable explanations for how it originated and evolved. The obtuseness here is on the side of people like Janet Daley who have this very odd notion that an explanation should be rejected if it is subjectively deemed to change the value of that which is explained in a direction that some people decide is undesirable. We are obliged to follow the evidence wherever it takes us. Since we are not the creators of the universe we don't have carte blanche to redefine the explanations to match our preferences. When a preference conflicts with the evidence the proper way to resolve the conflict is to abandon the preference.

Janet Daley then asserts about Dawkins "Most to the point was the comment that he had failed to “understand the nature of faith”. It is that incomprehension which is perhaps the weakest element in the scientific rationalist atheist case." On the contrary, the irony is that it is the atheists who understand faith better than those who live by it. If the people of faith acknowledged how vacuous this reliance on faith is as a source of knowledge about what exists then they wouldn't be so proud to publicly assert their beliefs are faith-based as if that was a positive attribute or sufficient justification.
In defense of faith, Janet Daley returns again to questions of morality, asking: "Why do they, and we, feel such unbearable compassion even for those unknown to us – even, indeed, for hypothetical tortured children who have been invented for the purpose of argument? Why is sympathy, and revulsion at the pain of others, such a characteristic feature of our condition that it is actually called “humanity” and its lapses regarded as “inhuman”? Presumably, the Dawkins lobby would say it arose from the need to preserve our collective genes. What an impoverished view of life and its moral complexity, that is.". Having previously mischaracterized the correct insistence that evidence be provided to support the existence claims intrinsic to theism as " facile atheism", it is actually Janet Daley who is the one being facile here. The explanations for moral sensibility, and life, provided by biology are rich. They combine a deep simplicity with incredible complexity, have broad implications, and are anything but "impoverished". Most to the point, we are justified in believing that this "view of life", unlike theism, is true because the evidence tells us it is true. And that is what counts here, everything else is hot air.

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