Extremes meet – or not

As Jean Kazez mentioned in comments, Mark Vernon has an article in TPM about doubt and agnosticism. He does indeed, and I disagree with much of it, in some places quite strongly. I always did, but I kept it to myself.

First he was a priest, then he became an atheist. And then –

I found I was actually becoming an agnostic. Over time, I came to feel that the triumphalism that too often seems to be part and parcel of atheism entails a poverty of spirit that is detrimental to our humanity. It tends to ignore or ridicule the “big” questions of life – those questions of existence that are natural to ask, if never finding conclusive answers – for fear of letting theology in through the back door.

I don’t think that’s true. (Of course, Vernon’s experience of atheists is probably different from mine, and maybe he does know lots of atheists like that – but in terms of public atheists, atheists who write about atheism in books and magazines, I don’t recognize his description.) I think he phrases it (as so often) too sweepingly. What I see atheists ridicule is not the questions themselves but the assumption that the questions have external answers, and that the answers are of a goddy or ‘spiritual’ kind.

I came to think that whether or not God exists is an open question, having pondered the arguments for and against several times over. And that keeping it open, rather than trying to find a knockout blow one way or another, is key.

Too sweeping, again. (Also awkward. I should have rearranged that first sentence, so that the ‘having pondered’ came first. My bad.) In a sense the existence of God is always an open question, because (as theists are always so brightly saying) it can’t be proven one way or the other. But this notion of keeping it open rather than trying to find a ‘knockout blow’ is just a dressed up way of saying the whole subject should be left alone, should be abandoned, should be a matter of ‘faith’ or its absence – should, in short, be immune from rational inquiry. But it shouldn’t. That’s because what we’re trying to find (‘we’ being atheists) is not really a knockout blow and not just whether or not god exists, but whether or not there are any good reasons to think god exists. We’re working on an epistemological issue as well as an ontological one, and I don’t think Mark Vernon has much business telling us we should stop doing that. We live in a world full of people more or less commanding us to believe that god does exist – a world in which Osama bin Laden has just very definitely commanded us to believe that Allah exists and to convert to his religion – and we want to go on asking why we should believe it.

My agnosticism gradually became more committed and passionate. It seemed to me to embody an attitude to life that is severely, even dangerously, lacking in public life. Think of the endless skirmishes between science and religion. They are at best a cul-de-sac, and at worse a risky self-indulgence…They are dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they are pushed to fundamentalist extremes – whether based on religious or scientific dogma.

This is where Vernon’s way of proceeding becomes markedly strange. He presents himself as a passionate agnostic, yet in service of that he misrepresents both atheism and science, thus making an honest discussion impossible as long as we take his terms at face value. How can we have honest doubt if we’re talking about things that we misunderstand because they’ve been misdescribed? Talking about science in terms of dogma and fundamentalism, and making it an equivalent of religion, is a profound misrepresentation, and it renders everything he says suspect. I’m sorry to say this (especially since he might read it!) but rhetoric of that kind makes it hard for me to believe that he’s arguing in good faith.

This rides roughshod over the intellectual ground that is genuinely fascinating, humanly enriching, and socially essential: the places where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet. The militant atheist, like the fundamentalist believer, tries to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science, or religion, can and should say it all.

More of the same – ‘faith’ that ‘science’ – ‘science, or religion’ as if they were equivalents – and the nonsense about the two reaching the respective limits of their understanding and then meeting. They don’t meet! Religion qua religion has no particular understanding – it incorporates various kinds of human understanding, often even including rational understanding, but not in any distinctively religious way, and to the extent that the ‘understanding’ is distinctively religious, it’s not understanding, it’s error. And the limits of scientific understanding don’t come anywhere near the limits of religious understanding, so ‘meeting’ is out of the question. It sounds cozy and friendly, but it’s bullshit.

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