John Haught: “The Atheist Delusion”

In a 2007 interview with Steve Paulson for Salon titled “The Atheist Delusion,” the Georgetown theologian John Haught made a number of problematic or obviously false claims. For example he says: “The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity … The implications should be nihilism.”

This is more than problematic, it is manifestly false. Nihilism no more follows automatically from atheism than does meaningfulness from theism. As I argue in my recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives, both nihilistic and non-nihilistic views can follow from either atheism or theism. Most importantly, the view that theism does not guarantee meaningfulness is the generally accepted view among contemporary philosophers, of whom only about 15% are theists. The majority of the remaining 85% of philosophers are not nihilists, as Haught’s argument implies they would be.

Next Haught suggests that theism justifies hope, whereas atheism cannot:

What I want to show in my own work—as an alternative to the new atheists—is a universe in which hope is possible … You (atheists) can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? …  But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.

Again it is simply false to say that atheism implies hopelessness, as it is false to say that theism implies hopefulness. (What of the hell fires awaiting the dammed?) It is also patently false to say that theism (necessarily) justifies confidence in truth, goodness, beauty, meaning, and reason. (Is there anything else Haught wants to add? How about confidence that I will shoot 65 the next time I play 18 holes of golf? Does theistic belief justify that?) It is true that it gives some people such confidence, but it is not apparent to others that all this follows from theism. Why else do nearly the entire populations of Scandinavia and Western Europe, as well as nearly all contemporary philosophers and members of the National Academy of Sciences reject theism? Do they all reject hope, meaning, reason, beauty, and goodness? No they do not.

In response to the interviewer’s query that many claims about the gods—that they interact with nature, create the world, or respond to intercessory prayer—are questions about nature and thus scientific questions, Haught responds:

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call “layered explanation.” For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it’s boiling, one answer is to say it’s boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that’s a very good answer. But you could also say it’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it’s boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn’t contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They’re just different levels of understanding.

This argument is so weak that even a good undergraduate philosophy major would destroy it. (I’m assuming that most Georgetown undergrads are either sympathetic to it or afraid to challenge it.) First note that all three of Haught’s levels of explanations are open to scientific explanation. So Haught’s levels do not imply there is some supernatural level of explanation. His argument thus reduces to: I think there are deeper levels of explanation than scientific ones. He can believe this if he wants, but there is no evidence to support this. In fact, every shred of evidence suggests the opposite: supernatural beliefs are not predictive or explanatory as are scientific ones. Moreover he doesn’t want science encroaching on this territory. (If it did, we could dispense with theologians!) He is correct that his obscurantism doesn’t conflict with science though. And that’s because his claims are empty; they don’t say much other than “I think things are mysterious.” If so, let’s shed the light of reason on them, removing them from the realms of ignorance and superstition.

In response to a query about demanding evidence for a god’s existence, Haught provides more fodder for undergrad philosophy majors to practice their critical thinking skills:

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself—that evidence is necessary—holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview—it’s a kind of dogma—that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

I assume that the non-scientific kind of evidence Haught refers to are subjective religious experiences. But surely he knows that those experiences only provide weak subjective justification—justified to those who have the experience—not strong objective justification—justified for everyone, including those who don’t have the experience. Does this imply that science accepts the dogma: “that science is the only reliable way to truth?” No. It implies rather that science is the only reliable way to objective, verifiable truth because it is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science certainly recognizes that people believe all sorts of things—some of which may turn out to be true.

Now if it becomes possible for introspection to uncover truths available to all, then great. But for now there is disagreement about what subjective, intuitive, introspection reveals. (It reveals for example that the earth is flat and does not move.) This suggests that subjective experience is not a reliable method for finding truth. And believing this does not depend on faith or dogma; it depends on the evidence that science works, that it is the only method for uncovering truth that humans have ever found, whereas people’s guesses about the existence and nature of the supernatural realm vary widely.

Finally, that science doesn’t find what Haught wants it to find (reason to believe in layered explanation that includes the supernatural) does not support his contention that science is dogmatic; rather it suggests that his beliefs unlikely to be true.

Haught continues his attack:

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.

Haught is correct that one cannot necessarily rule out the existence of gods, anymore than it can rule out the existence of gremlins, witches or the flying spaghetti monster. But science doesn’t work like this. It doesn’t invoke gods because supernatural explanations have not been fruitful in advancing human understanding. (In fact they have stood in the way of that understanding.) Still science is provisional, and if evidence appears for the reality of gods or the efficacy of prayer, then science will change its mind. The lack of belief in unseen forces that do not predict or explain is not a faith; it is just not believing in things for which there is no evidence. It is believing in the invisible that takes faith.

Haught continues to advance mysticism:

… The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

This is Haught at his strongest, and its not that strong. Life is mysterious and language and equations cannot completely describe it (yet).  But this doesn’t imply that god and jesus are behind everything; it implies that theologians don’t really understand what they claim. Perhaps nothing is “behind” everything. And the solution to the problem of not understanding is not to make things up or advance wild conjecture, but to continue to try to understand them or use technology to increase our intelligence (intelligence augmentation) or build machines that help us to understand (computers and artificial intelligences.)

Finally Haught cannot help but invoke subjective mental experiences to make his case:

I think science, especially neuroscience, does a very good job of saying what has to be working cerebrally and in our nervous systems in order for consciousness to be present. And it can also do a very good job of pointing out what has broken down physically and chemically if my brain is failing to function — for example, in Alzheimer’s. But it doesn’t have the complete explanation. Many cognitive scientists and brain scientists are saying the same thing. They’re almost in despair at times about whether we’ll ever be able to jump from the third-person discourse of science to the first-person discourse of subjective consciousness.

I don’t pretend to know how to solve the mind-body problem. But invoking mystery doesn’t help much. Needless to say almost all philosophers and neuroscientists accept either a reductive or non-reductive physicalism regarding these questions. But all this nicely summarizes the essence of Haught’s thinking: There are things that science can’t yet explain or doesn’t yet understand completely … thus (my) god is real. That’s like saying that since I don’t understand how the magician sawed that woman in half, the explanation must be supernatural. It’s really all so pathetic.

Why can’t humans grow up, work to make a good world and dispense with the gods? Gods who are either non-existent, indifferent, or malevolent. And if by chance they’re real and good, we still can’t count on them to help much. Let us face the world as adults, reject friendly sky parents, and transform reality for the better.

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