Along the same line, here we have Georgetown theologian John Haught discoursing on matters theological. I see that P. Z. Myers has already given Haught a proper reaming, but perhaps there is a bit more to say.
Haught is a pro-evolution theologian. He did a very good deed in testifying on behalf of evolution at the big Dover trial. He’s written a number of books about science and religion, two of which, God After Darwin and Is Nature Enough?, I have read. I can say with perfect sincerity, though it gives me no joy to do so, that it is people like Haught far more than the fundamentalists who have convinced me that evolution and Christianity are utterly irreconcilable.
The whole interview is rather long, so I will focus on just a few choice exchanges.
Isn’t there a simple response to the materialist argument? You can say “purpose” is simply not a scientific idea. Instead, it’s an idea for theologians and philosophers to debate. Do you accept that distinction?
I sure do. But that distinction is usually violated in scientific literature and in much discussion of evolution. From the beginning of the modern world, science decided quite rightly that it wasn’t going to tackle such questions as purpose, value, meaning, importance, God, or even talk about intelligence or subjectivity. It was going to look for purely natural, causal, mechanical explanations of things. And science has every right to be that way. But that principle of scientific Puritanism is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose. I consider that to be a great violation.
The implication here is that while scientists have no particular expertise to discuss questions of purpose, philosophers and theologians do. The fact is that meaning and purpose are not the sorts of things you become expert on by studying some academic discipline. I’ll agree that scientists should not be deferred to as authorities on the subject of purpose; their arguments need to be assessed on a case by case basis. But neither should philosophers or theologians be deferred to.
Curiously, Haught sends a different message later on:
Earlier, you said cosmic purpose is a question that lies outside of science. But it sounds like you’re bringing it into science. If you want to look for purpose — whether it’s in evolution or the larger universe — you’ll find it in this inexorable drive toward greater complexity.
We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it’s something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that’s a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite. And what is the purpose? The purpose seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness. If you understand purpose as actualizing something that’s unquestionably good, then consciousness certainly fits. It’s cynical of scientists to say, off-handedly, there’s obviously no purpose in the universe. If purpose means realizing a value, consciousness is a value that none of us can deny.
That first part is all scientists like Dawkins are doing. They are taking the facts of nature as revealed by science and asking themselves what sort of world they suggest. Their conclusion, and mine, is different from that of Haught. I see only evidence of purposelessness and divine absence. Be that as it may, I fail to see why theologians are entitled to talk this way while it is a great violation when scientists do so.
Are you’re saying scientists are themselves practicing a kind of religion?
The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.
Pure nonsense. First, no one is arguing for “eliminating” faith in all its forms. The objection is to the specific sorts of faith promoted by the world’s major religions, especially its monotheistic versions. And I would like some specifics about what alternative form of truth seeking Haught has in mind.
This claim, that there are roads to truth other than science, is one that’s casually tossed about in virtually every discussion of this topic. But you never get any specifics about what those alternative routes are. What I believe about science is that it has proven itself over and over again as a reliable route to knowledge. No theologian can offer anything close.
But why can’t you have hope if you don’t believe in God?
You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don’t have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.
Once again, I don’t know what it means to have confidence in goodness or beauty. I’m not sure what it is I am supposed to be hoping for. But if the issue is why I have confidence in the dictates of my mind and my senses, it is because my daily experience tells me that it is safe to have that confidence. I wouldn’t know how to behave otherwise.
If that is not adequate, if something more is needed to justify this vague hope, then I fail to see how belief in God improves matters. If you are wallowing in existential distress, I fail to see how hypothesizing God into existence wll extricate you. If you have no confidence in your mind, why would you have conifdence in your belief in God?
So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?
If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.
But this is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that three days after his death Jesus was bodily resurrected, that he was seen by hundreds of people, and that his tomb was empty. Those are simple assertions of historical fact, and they are either true or they are not. Haught is simply ducking the central question in talking about levels of understanding and all the rest of it.
And this is why I say that it is people like he, and not Richard Dawkins, who is promoting a caricature of religious faith. The average Christian, I suspect, has little patience for Haught’s high-minded evasions. In my experience they say that the Resurrection was a historical event just like any other and should be understood in those terms. Haught can talk all he wants about the subtlety and mystery of it all, but that is not the sort of faith in which most people place their hopes.
Okay, enough. Virtually everything Haught says deserves a response, but I will refer you to P.Z.’s entry for more of the greusome details. I will simply close with the observation that far from assuring me there is a sensible and rational side to religion, people like Haught only leave me more bewildered than ever.