Thursday, December 14, 2006

James Wood Reviews Sam Harris

I don't think you need a subscription to read the whole thing (so do), because James Wood's review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is terrific. Wood is a non-believer, but in his usual smart way, he manages to be kind and respectful to any potential reader, something that polemicists like Harris aren't interested in. With half-hearted apologies for the length, here are three excerpts I found particularly thought-provoking, moving, in order, from critiquing religion to tackling some philosophy to critiquing the adamant atheists:

After years of hearing thousands of petitions offered to the Lord, I cannot recall a single answered prayer.

How would you know, asks the believer, since God's ways are inscrutable to us? But prayer is one of those cases where an inscrutability argument will not work, because one knows what one has oneself requested, and therefore what has been denied. If you pray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies, your prayer was not answered. To retort that God's mysterious way of answering your prayer--"but God needed her by his side in heaven, that's why he let her die"--might involve not really answering your prayer at all is essentially to nullify prayer, to kill it. I knew that at fifteen. Years later I read Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, with its extraordinary image of the futility of prayer: a bee, inside a room, mistaking the floral wallpaper for the real thing and briefly attempting to extract its illusory pollen.


The model is Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot," gleefully quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. If, says Russell, I told you that a celestial teapot was orbiting the sun but that you could not see it, nobody would be able to disprove me; "but if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense." God is like the teapot, we are supposed to infer. Dawkins uses Russell to argue that we cannot prove God's non-existence, but then we cannot prove anything's non-existence. "What matters," writes Dawkins, "is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't), but whether his existence is probable.... Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things."

I agree with (Richard) Dawkins's conclusion, and consider God highly improbable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occur neither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent--the content of the belief--matters here. God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in God is a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, precisely because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing, and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all, that no one has ever worshiped a teapot: it does not allow enough room to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into it.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself seems to agree with this complaint. In a recent conversation in Time with the geneticist Francis Collins (who is a believing Christian), a conversation in which both men spoke eloquently, Dawkins was pushed by Collins to admit that, in Dawkins's words, "there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible beyond our understanding." That's God, said Collins. Yes, but it could be any of billions of Gods, replied Dawkins: "the chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small." In other words, the God of a particular scripture and tradition is a parochial and inherently improbable notion. But the idea of some kind of creator, said Dawkins, "does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect." To which one should add: by definition, then, this "grand and big" idea is not analogically disproved by referring to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur.


(Harris') brand of public atheism is very good at the necessary disrespecting of religion, and it has a properly hygienic function. But how worthy of respect is it itself? The problem is that its bright certainty about the utter silliness of religion leads very quickly away from philosophy and argument. There is a dismaying gap, in these books, between the righteous anger of the critique of the many absurdities of religious belief and the attempts to account for why people have believed this apparent nonsense for so many centuries. I would rather that these writers refrained from speculation altogether than plunge into their flimsy anthropological kit bag. It is peculiar indeed to read (Richard) Dawkins's eloquent pages on evolution, and on how evolution may in the end solve the question of who created us, and then to find that very evolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical, rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believed in God for so long.

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Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE: Sam Harris

When Faith Is Dogma

7:24 AM  

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