Taking Eaglestrong seriously

Richard Norman offers to take seriously the claims of Eagleton and Armstrong and other critics of The God Delusion in order to ‘try to do justice to the nuanced diversity of the views of the religious,’ agreeing at the outset that

Dawkins does over-simplify. Although he knows perfectly well that most Christians are not creationists, he sometimes writes as though they were, and implies that all religious belief is just obviously refuted by science and Darwin. He is inclined to treat all versions of religion as equally irrational.

He considers the relationship between religion and science first, pointing out that Dawkins is right that the claim that ‘God’ is a simpler answer to questions about why the universe exists and why it is ‘fine-tuned’ in such a way that etc etc is ‘to misunderstand the requirement of simplicity.’ It’s very simple to say ‘God’ of course, but a mind that could fine-tune a universe is actually…not simple; ‘it stands much more in need of explanation than what it is supposed to explain.

We cannot just assume that the only good explanations are scientific explanations. We need to take seriously the claim that scientific explanations are incomplete, and need to be supplemented by a different kind of explanation. But what we can properly insist is that any proposed alternative kind of explanation must still meet the same standards for what counts as a good explanation. In particular, a good explanation can’t be one which makes things even more inexplicable.

Right, but this is where I get confused. Surely ‘the same standards for what counts as a good explanation’ are at least continuous with science – not some radically different kind of thing. In a sense, standards for what counts as a good explanation are what science is all about. So if the standards are the same – then what does it mean to say that scientific explanations are incomplete, and need to be supplemented by a different kind of explanation? How can they be supplemented by a different kind of explanation when the standards for what counts as a good explanation are not different? I’m not sure that’s not a concession without any real content – yes by all means supplement science with a different kind of explanation; the only stipulation is that the explanation can’t be just pulled out of your ass.

Then there’s the ‘faith’ question.

Dawkins says at one point: “Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe.” That’s much too sweeping. By the very act of producing counter-arguments, Dawkins has to acknowledge that some Christians, at any rate, do make a case for what they believe. It’s just that their case isn’t good enough.

Yes but the fact that some Christians do make a case for what they believe doesn’t mean that, according to Christianity, they have to. I don’t think it is all that much too sweeping. It doesn’t rule out the claim that some Christians try to make a case for what they believe, because that fact is perfectly consistent with the additional fact that faith is considered a virtue – and faith is considered a virtue; it’s no good pretending it isn’t. Doubts are considered tragic, or guilty, or both. Some, and maybe many, Christians also consider doubts quite reasonable and understandable, but that’s because ‘Christians’ includes a lot of people. Christianity as such, however, places faith front and center, not doubts. Faith is the goal, faith is the value, faith is the hooray word. Making or trying to make a case comes way far back in the field.

Norman considers the ‘sideways move’ that people like Armstrong and Eagleton make and finds it risky.

A religion built around metaphors and stories, rather than doctrines, seems to me to be inherently unstable. If talk of divine creation is just a metaphor for the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity of the natural world, it can hold that meaning for anyone…Isn’t an identity based on metaphors and stories always going to be fragile and porous? I cannot see how, in the end, a distinctive religious identity can be possible unless it is based on the acceptance of at least some non-metaphorical factual beliefs – beliefs about the existence of a personal deity and about how his intentions and purposes explain our world. Those beliefs do, inescapably, need to be rationally defended. And they can’t be. On that point, certainly, Dawkins is right.

That’s how it always looks to me. I can see at least some of what believers get out of religion – but I also see that as depending on those beliefs, and the beliefs as not rationally defensible.

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