Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A scab worth picking

I promise I'll move on from Francis Spufford's challenge to the New Atheists, (at least until his book, Unapologetic, comes out in paperback), but there's still a bit of arguable stuff left that I can't let alone (okay, it's a scab I can't help picking). Take it away, Francis:
I don't know if there's a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.) 
Agreed -  if by not 'knowable' you mean 'not disprovable.' Presumably if God unambiguously revealed His existence tomorrow, His existence would become a knowable item. Failing such a revelation, the list of people who don’t know for sure whether or not there’s a God would include you, me and Richard Dawkins. Not to mention the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Patriarch of Moscow, the Grand Mufti of Pakistan and the world’s most learned theologians. And, for the sake of completeness, we mustn't forget the ignorance on this point of non-theistic spiritual experts like the Dalai Lama.

Because neither set of people can resolve this problem this makes experts in spirituality just as authoritative or otherwise as experts in the natural sciences, right?

In a sense, it does, but that’s not very impressive if you’re coming to the question without a prior belief in God (or some spiritual reality). Even a non-expert can see trees of green, red roses too, and will be happy that the stuff being studied by a botanist or biologist actually exists. Your non-expert can also see clouds and stars, touch rocks, smell summer rain, or feel the force of wind or water. So, natural scientists study things that practically everybody agrees actually exist. They have a body of knowledge, however imperfect, about something real.

The natural world isn’t in question. If God or some spiritual realm exists, unbelievers wouldn’t have to junk their everyday perceptions about the world around them, or reject the expertise and authority of people who study various aspects of empirical reality, although the infidels would have to expand their minds to accommodate additional, hidden realms of reality.

If there’s no God or supernatural realm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Patriarch of Moscow, the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, the Dalai Lama and the world’s most learned theologians are just world authorities on something that doesn’t exist.

This asymmetry highlights the relevance of one central question: is it reasonable to assume that the specific beliefs of Christians  (or Moslems, or Buddhists, or whoever) are literally true? And don’t go telling me that my crude insistence in knowing whether something’s likely to be literally true or not is beside the point:
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue.
No, just don’t. Yes, it really is maddening. I’m neither completely stupid, nor somewhere on the extreme end of the autistic spectrum. I already know that there are things in this world which don’t correspond to literal truth, but which make emotional sense; metaphor, fiction, drama, art. And I know that elements of religion can move believers and non-believers for the same reasons that the arts can. In fact a lot of religion is art. Think of the poetry of some holy texts, gospel music, the Saint Matthew Passion, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the breathtaking beauty of some ecclesiastical architecture (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice).

If the claim being made for religion was that it was a form of art or metaphor that speaks to us without having to correspond to reality, then I'd be happy to listen to the explanation that religion makes deep emotional sense. But it's the truth-claim that makes religion more than just another branch of the arts. I know it's deeply moving. But a well-crafted fiction about imaginary characters can be deeply moving, too. I'm interested in what, if anything, makes the gospels, or any other religious text different from, say, this:
 She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The end of Joyce's The Dead. This passage touches profound, difficult emotions like sorrow, loss, shame and reconciliation, looks at the hard fact of our mortality and ponders the mystery and meaning of life, but it doesn't claim to be anything but a beautifully-crafted story about invented characters. Something may make emotional sense, yet still be fiction in the readily-understood sense of the word. Where's a convincing argument that faith is more than a beautiful fiction?

Which brings us back to what is a knowable. Yes, we can't be sure whether God exists or not. You might conclude that believing on God or not believing in God is like flipping a coin – a fifty-fifty bet on something unknowable, with belief and non-belief being equally weighted, equally likely to yield the predicted (or randomly guessed-at) result. You might decide to take Pascal’s Wager, or you might take The Atheist’s Wager, because there’s nothing in it one way or another.

I don't think the arguments are so evenly balanced. Bertrand Russell's metaphor of the celestial teapot is more than a ridiculous example dreamt up by horrid atheists for the purpose of holding religion up to mockery and derision. It makes a relevant point - all unknowable possibilities aren’t equally plausible. If so, belief and unbelief don’t look so equally weighted.

Unbelievers aren’t making detailed, specific claims about something that's complex enough to require a special explanation, yet unmeasurable and beyond disproof. Believers are. Christianity, for example, claims to be more than some vague, deist feeling that there must be some deeper meaning to the universe, something that might reflect underlying laws of nature that we're too ignorant to fully grasp, a bit like Stephen Hawking's conception of a Theory of Everything:
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.
No, Christianity claims far more specific knowledge about God (AKA the entity whose existence or otherwise 'isn't the kind of thing you can know'). For example Christians assert, in a way that makes me assume that they believe it, that there is a God, who created everything (not just us, or the earth, or part of the universe). He is, apparently, eternal and uncreated, so didn't come from anything else. He is also sentient - in fact He's way more than just sentient, He knows everything. He is good, as opposed to being, bad, indifferent, or capricious. He loves humanity (although some of His followers think that He also tortures sinful humans for all eternity). He is omnipotent, as opposed to being limited in any way. He had a son who came down to earth to redeem us all, was seemingly killed, but is, in fact immortal and who, by his apparent death has taken away our sins, (even the ones we couldn't help committing). He's male. He doesn't want us to worship idols, or alleged deities who don't share his characteristics, or to refrain from worshipping Him. And so on.

I don't need convincing that Christianity, or any other currently existing religion 'makes emotional sense.' The ancient Egyptians' complex pantheon, including a sun god, a jackal-headed god of the underworld and a bipedal hippo-crocodile hybrid goddesses of fertility and childbirth presumably made emotional sense to countless generations of Egyptians over thousands of years. I'm sure they found deep solace in the tale of Isis, faithfully gathering together the scattered remains of her murdered husband, Osiris, and lovingly bringing him back from the dead. I'm sure that their religious rituals felt profound and moving and provided comfort in times of trouble, and that that the sense of community felt real and powerful. But who's praying to Isis and Osiris now? Nobody (OK, there might be the odd New Age pantheist with a little shrine to Isis in the bedroom, but to a reasonable order of approximation, nobody).

I do need convincing that the supernatural beliefs of Christians are based on something that might be factual, rather than myth. I want to know why Christians are able to confidently dismiss the superseded beliefs of the ancient Egyptians as myths and confidently proclaim their their own beliefs to be more than poetic myths. If Unapologetic can shed some light on that, I'll be wiser for having read it.