Jerry Coyne has posted a response to an article appearing at the Best Schools website, http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/the-50-smartest-people-of-faith/. In it he questions the choice of these supposedly ‘smart’ religionists, while pointing out that the article is an open attack against atheism, and not just a seemingly neutral, ‘say, here are some academics who happen to believe,’ kind of overview. Many of the chosen are not only theologians, but remarkable for their debates with atheists, and their defense of conservative religious ideas – especially creationism. And this last noted engendered a comment from me, which I include here, slightly edited and augmented:
Obviously the [Best Schools] article is slanted; it is attempting to insinuate that those defending anti-evolutionist/creationist/Intelligent Design claims have an equal right to our attention and argument as do evolutionary biologists and others who have accepted Darwin or materialistic cosmology. Because? Well, they’re smart, right? But an article titled “50 Smartest Creationists” would not have flown, probably not even among the website editors, so the author(s) needed to pad their list with anyone they could think of that has received public attention simply as a religionist. It should be noted, that there might indeed be intelligent people who believe that the universe is only 6000 years old, created by some superhero living outside of it, is not an argument that this belief needs to be addressed in public, especially in debates concerning education, as the article seems to imply. A lot of smart people believe in a lot of silly things; should we address all their beliefs with equal consideration? It’s probably entirely possible to compile a list of “50 Smartest Holocaust Deniers,” but there is surely ample reason we don’t give them a say in determining our schools’ history curriculum.
But the article has other problems as well.
The article is further slanted by insisting that the public debate about teaching religion concerns a conflict between religion and reason. It doesn’t. No one denies that if you assert a first premise of any kind, you can construct reasonable arguments of all kinds deriving deductive conclusions from the premise. That is certainly a use of reasoning.
“The Unicorn is the most perfect being in the universe; the Unicorn is equine; zebras are equine; humans are not equine; therefore zebras are closer to perfection than are humans.”
The conflict is not between religion and reason, it is between theistic faith and science. Believe in a god-like Unicorn all one wants, there is no evidence it exists.
The debate really then unravels as a matter of probability and consequences. (E.g., “Given the science, how probable is it that a Unicorn exists?” – and – “Does believing in the Unicorn gives us a standard for moral judgment?” – etc.)
(It should be noted that all arguments for the existence of god are apriori deductive argument: ‘given, apriori – on faith – that god exists, what arguments can be made that this is true?’ All such arguments are circular in nature, but the more complex they are, the less this is obvious.)
Finally: The Best Schools article sets aside non-western cultures by a pretended gesture of multiculturalism:
“By “religious faith,” we mean religion in the monotheistic, or Abrahamic, tradition—which we happen to know best. We do not doubt that a similar list of brilliant and devout Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, Confucianists, Shintoists, and others could easily be drawn up, and we hope it will be, by those qualified to do so.”
This is a wholly unjustifiable criterion; if the author(s) intended a claim concerning “50 Smartest Devout Christians (and a Couple of Jews and Muslims),” that should have been the title of the article. Also in compiling their list of the excluded they elide their responsibility to elucidate the problem of the nature of faith in the non-theistic religions of Buddhism and Daoism.
But Their biggest blunder is inclusion of Confucianism in this list, indicating the rank ignorance on the part of the author(s). While it is true that in pre-Modern China many Confucians practiced a kind of ancestor worship, this had to do with the fact that such a practice was generic to many Chinese of many philosophies. Confucianism itself was always a social philosophy, and had no theistic or supernatural elements to be found in it whatsoever.
Confucianism was labelled a religion in the 18th/19th centuries by Western scholars who couldn’t believe that millions of people – especially in a culture they presumed to be ‘primitive’ – could possibly not believe in god. But in fact that is the case. Confucianism, and its dominance of Chinese intellectual discussion over long periods of Chinese history, are prima facie evidence that people just don’t need a god in order to confront the world in which they live or to construct a workable ethic for a relatively harmonious life in a complex society.
That’s why those faithful willing to publically debate unbelievers almost always either evade or obscure the issue of the ‘necessities’ of their faith; or disguise these with language that essentially begs the question, e.g., the infamous insistence that “without religion we would have no morality,” a claim any Confucian can easily refute. Again, the only reason we in the West long considered ‘Confucianism’ a religion is because, on first encounter with the Analects, Western readers couldn’t imagine a non-religious ethical system, deciding that Kung Fu tze’s occasional reference to “heaven” must be a claim on some divinity. Close reading indicates that he is using the term as a colloquialism – e.g., ‘by heaven!’ (like: ‘by george!’) – I’m afraid there is no god-like creature to be found in the Analects, once one sets aside the Western wish for such. Again. this in itself demonstrates – beyond question – that one can have a morality without a god or religion – the Chinese long have had such – in fact, they have several. So much for the ‘necessity’ of religious morality. Of course, some Western religion moralizer can claim that the Chinese are simply unimportant – and many have written to imply as much. Or, more simply, as though they simply don’t exist – and many have written that way as well. (Really, non-Western cultures are remarkably unaddressed in a great many supposedly scholarly texts in the West.) One doesn’t need science or philosophy to note the appallingly unacceptable bigotry and small-mindedness in such attitudes. Indeed, the rich history of Chinese philosophy is an entire disproof of any claim of necessity by Western religions.
One of the difficulties communicating with True Believers in the Western religions is that they not only have a very difficult time conceiving of a universe in which there is no god, they find it equally difficult to conceive of human thought without admittance of the existence of god. That is, on a deep level, they honestly do not believe there are any non-believers. According to them, Non-theists, atheists, and ‘anti-theists’ really do believe in some kind of god, and are simply dishonest with themselves (and the Chinese are misinterpreting their own philosophies and need Westerners to explain these to them, I guess). Or atheistic thought can be interpreted as functioning as a religion, with a kind of monotheistic void, a ‘No-god,’ as its object of worship. Again, since for them the existence of god is necessary for the human experience, it must follow that those denying this must either be really denying their urge to believe, or they must construct a scarecrow ‘No-god’ as Supreme (non-)Being. (Or, as a Catholic professional psychologist once told me, they are simply psychotic. Talk about patient abuse!) But all of this is understandable – the necessity of god’s existence allows for no alternatives.
But if alternatives show that god is unnecessary, then god is irrelevant. And if god is shown to be irrelevant, then it doesn’t matter whether god exists or not – god is simply not worth bothering about.
True Believers may believe in any god they choose (or fairies or unicorns or a moon made of green cheese), but that has no application in any realm of shared human interest or activity. The True Believers need not only provide evidence that god exists, they need to demonstrate that god is necessary. And god is not. So why waste time over the question?