Sunday, August 26, 2007


Of Clangor and Legumes


Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

..... ..... - 1 Corinthians 13:1

As I discussed before, Philip Kitcher's book, Living with Darwin not only demonstrates that, philosophically, Intelligent Design is not science, but goes on to explore what religion is or can be, post-Enlightenment. Referring to Esau's bargain with Jacob to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, Kitcher says of today's purveyors of reason:

The conclusion they draw deprives religious people of what they have taken to be their birthright. In its place, they offer a vision of a world without providence or purpose, and, however much they may celebrate the grand human adventure of understanding nature, that can only appear, by comparison, to be a mess of pottage. Often, the voices of reason I hear in contemporary discussions of religion are hectoring, almost exultant that comfort is being stripped away and faith undermined; frequently they are without charity. And they are always without hope. (p. 154-55)
Kitcher lays out the common case for the utility of religion -- the comfort it brings in bereavement ("Darwin doesn't provide much consolation at a funeral") -- as well as the standard response of rationalists that it is both false comfort and unnecessary:

Hume faced his painful death stoically persisting in his skepticism to the end. T. H. Huxley Darwin's tireless champion, wracked with grief at the death of his four-year-old son refused Charles Kingsley's proffered hope of a reunion in the hereafter. (p. 155)
Here is where Kitcher's case begins to get interesting ... and dangerous:

It is crushingly obvious, however, that those most excited by the secular vision -- those who celebrate the honesty of spurning false comfort -- are people who can feel themselves part of the process of discovery and disclosure that has shown the reality behind old illusions. Celebrations of the human accomplishment in fathoming nature's secrets are less likely to thrill those who have only a partial understanding of what has been accomplished, and who recognize that they will not contribute, even in the humblest way, to the continued progress of knowledge. Hume's and Huxley's heirs, like Richard Dawkins for example, preach eloquently to the choir, but thoughtful religious people will find their bracing message harsh and insensitive. How can these celebrants of secularism understand what many other people stand to lose if their arguments are correct? How can they expect those people to be grateful for the mess of pottage they offer? (p. 155-56)
This explains the popularity of ID even among those, such as Biblical literalists, who are not satisfied with its stealthy tinkerer "Designer."

They know that the case launched against their cherished beliefs is clever, but they are also tempted by the thought that the cleverness is flawed. If others, recognizably more sympathetic to their faith, can point however vaguely to potential faults, they will be grateful -- and they will be disinclined to inspect too closely the gifts they are offered. (p. 156)
Kitcher is teetering perilously on the edge of the sort of elitist, antidemocratic condescension of the likes of Irving Kristol, who has said:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.
Kitcher pulls back by arguing that the angst at the heart of the reluctance of the religious to surrender to the rigors of rationalism is no respecter of intellectuals; it is just that they have different coping mechanisms:

Christian resistance to Darwin rests on the genuine insight that life without God, in the sense of a Darwinian account of the natural world, really does mean life without God in a far more literal and unnerving sense. Even those who understand, and contribute to, the enlightenment case can find the resultant picture of the world, and our place in it, unbearable. William James' arresting image of the high cliffs that surround a frozen lake, on which the ice is slowly melting, testifies to his own yearnings for some way of enlarging, or enriching, the scientific worldview he felt compelled to accept. (p. 156-57)
Kitcher also tells the story of Elaine Pagels, a practitioner of academic "higher criticism" of the Bible, who did not attend church regularly and was taken by the Gospel of Thomas and its more spiritual approach of seeking and individual discovery. Then, on a morning run the day following being told that her infant son had a disease that would lead to a very early death, she stopped in the vestibule of a New York church.

Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before. (p. 157-58)
Life is not always in extremis, however:

There is a tendency for those who can accept life without God to pride themselves on their intellectual integrity. They, unlike the ostriches of the "booboisie," can face the facts with out flinching. It is easy to think that the dominance of secular perspectives within universities, and in other places where highly educated people are found, is readily explained in terms of clear-headedness and tough-mindedness. These are people who can appreciate the force of the arguments, and who will not allow reason to be clouded by weak emotions. I doubt however, that that is a complete account. Academics and scientists, as well as other professionals, can more easily sustain a sense of their lives as amounting to something, even in the absence of faithful service to God. Their lives are centered on work that is frequently significant and challenging, exciting and rewarding. Typically they belong to communities in which serious issues can be openly discussed, in which there are readily available opportunities for the sharing of troubles and concerns. Even so, when unanticipated personal trouble strikes, the mechanisms for providing comfort may be quite inadequate.

Pagels' moving testimony ... opens a window into the lives of the people who most vehemently resist Darwin. They are typically not as lucky as the fortunate secularists who can affirm the enlightenment case, embrace life without God, and get on with their interesting work, their comfortable leisure pursuits, and their rewarding discussions with friends and colleagues. For many Americans, their churches, overwhelmingly supernaturalist, providentialist churches, not only provide a sense of hope, illusory to be sure, but also offer other mechanisms of comfort. They are places in which hearts can be opened, serious issues can be discussed, common ground with others can be explored, places in which there is real community, places in which people come to matter to one another -- and thus come to matter to themselves. Without such places, what is left? (p. 158-60)
That is the question that any antireligion advocate will have to answer. I, for one, am convinced that stern lectures by famous atheists doing their best to look and sound like Miss Gulch stuffing Toto in a basket won't turn the trick.

To resist Darwin, or the enlightenment case that looms behind him, is hardly unreasonable if what you would be left with is a drab, painful, and impoverished life. For people who are buffeted by the vicissitudes of the economy, ... victimized by injustice, ... scorned and vilified by the successful members of their societies, ... whose work is tedious and unrewarding, ... for whom material rewards are scanty ... who can unburden themselves most readily in religious settings and who find in their church a supportive community, above all for people who hope that their lives mean something, that their lives matter, the secular onslaught threatens to demolish almost everything. That is why the voices of reason are as sounding brass or as tinkling cymbals. (p. 160)
What Kitcher thinks may serve to mute the brass will follow in the next post.


Thanks for sharing this! I'll definitely have to pick this one up (it seems infinitely better, or at least more thought-provoking, than "Where Darwin Meets the Bible"). Like I mentioned in the post you commented on, I think there is much value to religion and belief as far as a coping mechanism goes. I, for one, absolutely hate flying, and I would love nothing better than to just sleep through the whole thing. It would be nice to believe in a sustaining, protecting God who would not let anything go wrong with my flight (and in past times when I believed I fervently prayed for my own protection), but now I just have to sit and deal with the discomfort and anxiety. Even so, my faith in the past helped to calm me, and even though I think I was now incorrect it did give me a benefit, and I think such "personal experiences" of comfort and emotional/mental refuge are what make religion so persisting across time and cultural barriers. Lots of horrific things have been carried out due to religion, and when taken to extremes it can shut down minds, but I would be ignorant if I did not recognize that it does have some personal mental benefits (at least in stressful situations) to believe that you are being protected and provided for.
Yes, I also agree with Kitcher on this part, including the substituted coping mechanisms of many, if not most, atheists. I'm (to put it mildly) less sure of his proposal for the future of religion, which I hope to post on later tonight.
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