Between strident atheism and vanilla ecumenicism

1I am a skeptic and an atheist. And now I have to immediately qualify those words. I am a skeptic in the sense that I strive, as David Hume aptly put it, to proportion my beliefs to the available evidence. A concept that Carl Sagan famously turned into “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in the specific case of pseudoscience.

I am an atheist in the etymologically literal sense of the word: a-theist, without a positive belief in gods. I don’t profess to know that there are no gods, but simply that I don’t see sufficient evidence or reasons in favor of the notion. Likewise, I am an a-unicornist, I don’t believe in unicorns, since they don’t appear anywhere in the fossil record or among contemporary zoological catalogues (yes, yes, I know about narwhals, as well as unicorned rhinos).

These qualifications explain why I am often critical of certain segments of the skeptic and atheist communities. I don’t think “skeptics” do anyone a favor when they engage in silly hoaxes, and that they (we, really) could benefit from a bit less arrogance and a bit more virtue epistemology. Likewise, I have never been a fan of the so-called New Atheists, whom I find strident in behavior and philosophically ill-informed.

That said, I’m also not on board with what I’ve come to regard as vanilla ecumenicism, an increasingly popular stance that argues that there is, and there has never been, a conflict between science and religion, or philosophy and religion, pace Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and a number of others. A recent example (but only one among many) of such an attitude is an article by Peter Adamson in the LA Review of Books. Adamson is a professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy, and one whose “history of philosophy without any gaps” books I actually use in my introductory courses. In that particular article, he was favorably reviewing Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with the Western Tradition, by Souleymane Bachir Diagne.

The gist of the book, and the review, is that – contra popular opinion even among philosophers – the Islamic tradition has always been open to reason and science. I honestly think that’s a welcome corrective, and yet at the same time more than a bit of an overstatement. But my beef here is neither with Diagne’s book nor with Adamson’s review of it. Rather, I take issue with the following statement, which appears right at the beginning of the LARB article:

“One of the most common prejudices we historians of philosophy encounter is the notion that philosophy is somehow incompatible with religious belief. Religion is based on faith, philosophy on reason; religion is rigorously imposed doctrine, philosophy is open-ended inquiry; religion is about believing what you’re told, philosophy about figuring things out for yourself. A moment’s reflection will show you that it must be a little more complicated than that. After all, nearly all philosophers in history – famous and obscure, ancient and modern, Western and non-Western, male and female – have been religious believers.”

Let’s start with the last bit: nearly all philosophers in history have been religious believers. Well yes, and so have been nearly all scientists. But the question is whether they were believers in spite of being philosophers or scientists, or whether the two really did go hand in hand. Yes, Galileo was a Catholic, and yet anyone thinking that he experienced no conflicts between his science and his religion as interpreted by Catholic theologians is either not paying attention or is engaging in some seriously misguided historical revisionism (which some people are, yes, I’m aware).

True, Newton spent more time doing biblical criticism than studying physics. But he also spent more time doing alchemy than physics, which is no good reflection on alchemy. And of course, he is celebrated for his physics, not for his biblical criticism or alchemic studies.

Indeed, insofar as science goes, the best way to summarize the conflict with religion was articulated by physicist Richard Feynman, in his The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. There he writes that we can discuss general principles and cherry pick historical examples and counterexamples all we want, but when push comes to shove, the ideal scientist is always open to change her mind when new evidence comes in. The religious believer, by contrast, puts faith ahead of reason. Even the many centuries of Christian apologetics are one gigantic attempt to reconcile the “book of nature” with the “book of God.” Church fathers like Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, John Cassian, John Chrysostom, Ephrem the Syrian, and Maximus the Confessor believed that the two books tell the same story, and yet whenever religious authors have perceived a conflict between the two, there was no hesitation about which got precedence. Yes, Galileo did write – quoting Tertullian – “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.” But we know how he ended his days…

[Side note: it is more than a bit ironic that Feynman, who was famously contemptuous of philosophy, quipping that it is as useful to science as ornithology is to birds, wrote a number of books that are exquisitely philosophical in outlook.]

What goes for science, mutatis mutandis goes for philosophy, though things there are a bit more murky. Yes, some of the greatest philosophers of history were also theologians, like Augustine of Hippo, or Thomas Aquinas. But most, and certainly, in my mind, the best, philosophy has nothing to do with gods and the like. Huge swaths of metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics, as well as pretty much all of epistemology, logic, and the many “philosophies of” (science, language, mind, and so forth) have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. Indeed, to bring gods into such discussions would be very rightly frowned upon, as if one where to mention the possibility of supernatural explanations in the discussion section of a scientific paper.

Where religion plays a major role in philosophical discussions, such as the problem of free will, it doesn’t come out very well. The whole notion of “free” (meaning, contra-causal) will is incoherent, and has historically been defended by Christian theologians embarrassed by the problem of evil. Even there, it’s not a good response, since at most it takes care of the problem of human evil (you know, we’ve got free will, so the resulting shit in the world is on us), but not of the twin issue of natural evil (i.e., it doesn’t even begin to explain earthquakes, cancer, and so on. Here is a funny rendition of the problem.)

Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments (and counter-arguments) for all this. But they are hardly convincing, always feeling like rationalizations in defense of the indefensible. Do I know that there is no God, for a fact? Of course not, see above about unicorns. But as Pierre-Simon Laplace may or may not have told Napoleon when the latter was inquiring about the role of God in the former’s theory of the origin of the solar system: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (I had no need of that hypothesis). In a similar fashion, we don’t need God in philosophy in order to talk about right and wrong (since Plato’s Euthyphro), or whether the human mind is a computer, or the nature of science, or the structure of language, or the validity of modus ponens, or… you get the point.

And, I would argue, the most fundamental locus of friction between philosophy and religion is precisely the one singled out by Feynman in the case of science: attitude. An ideal philosopher will follow an argument wherever it leads, while a theologian will impose restrictions to guard his faith, and eventually will in fact use faith as a trump card (or respond to a penetrating objection with some entirely uninformative phrase along the lines of “the will of God is inscrutable,” often accompanied by literal hand waving).

So I find myself navigating the treacherous waters between the Scylla of scientistic atheism and the Charybdis of vanilla ecumenicism. No, religion is not “the root of all evil,” and yes, it is historically true that religious institutions have done a lot of good for humanity, alongside the notorious bad. But equally, let us not lull our critical sense and think that there isn’t something radically at odds between an approach that situates faith as fundamental and another one (be it science or philosophy) that values evidence and logic above all.