I count PZ Myers as a friend. After all, he drove 1000 miles to come visit me when I was in Toronto two years ago (breaking his car in the process and having to spend time in some isolated Canadian wasteland). But friends can disagree about basic issues, and this time I do.
Elaine Pagels is the leading scholar on the Gnostic Christians. These guys were effectively Buddhists in Christian garb – the real world is not real, Jesus did not die, the point is to look within for salvation, etc. All in all, a very Platonic, dare one say, philosophical – god and theology.
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?
Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.
Paul’s response is to pull up someone who thinks precisely that. My response to Paul is to say, so?
Of course there are people who have a simplistic and literal view of God and religion. That is not at issue and never has been. But what Pagels is saying is something that the uppity atheists always seem to slide over – that there is a more sophisticated view of God that is not so easily knocked down as the idea that God has a backside. And what is more, there always has been (which is the point of studying the Gnostics).
Pagels doesn’t find it unlikely that there are such religious believers, she finds the very same concept PZ finds unlikely, unlikely. And Paul must know this. His response is evasive and I think ultimately a rhetorical trick.
Let’s look at a parallel case. There are people who think that evolution happened. The experts think it happened in one of a number of ways that are disputed or accepted consensually in the discipline of biology; the laity have a range of views that are more or less acceptable. Some even think it happened in such a way that not only humans, but Europeans, were an inevitable outcome.
So, if I say that evolution happened, and give a report of the sophisticated ideas of population genetics, macroevolutionary studies, ecology, and so on, and a creationist responds, as they do, that no, evolutionists believe that Europeans were inevitable, therefore evolutionary theory is simple minded and false, should we accept that argument? Of course we shouldn’t. It’s a fallacious argument.
This is what I reject about the Dawkins/Moran/PZ aggressive atheism – it takes the most stupid version of religion, argues against it, and then claims to have given reasons for not being religious. At best (and here I concur) they have given reasons not to be stupid theists. But a good argument takes on the best of the opposing view, not the worst.
Take, for example, “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist” (Victor J Stenger). Stenger is pretty careful to say that he is attacking the popular view of religion with science, and he does so successfully. All the things that the populist god is called into explain are better explained by science, and therefore one can conclude that the populist god does not exist. He has a handwave in the first chapter to philosophical arguments against the philosophical god, which may or may not work (I think the problem of Evil is a knockdown against the tri-omni deity, but if you relax that constraint, there are no knockdown arguments against gods as such), but he does not try to claim that his arguments from science even affect the philosophical god.
So Pagels has a better view of God than the usual run of theists – is this problematic? All cultural traditions have those who understand them better than the majority. Few know how to play Jazz trumpet right. Few know how to paint portraits. Few can program word processors correctly (and they do not work at Microsoft, I’m here to tell you). The existence of the stupid or incompetent is not an argument against the best in those traditions (or else I singlehandedly disprove guitar playing).
So Paul (and Larry) engage with Pagel’s views, and take them seriously. We know that popular religion is pretty ignorant. So, as has been noted lately, is popular science. But if you take on the best that your opposition has to offer (and it isn’t Francis Collins), we might all learn something from the attempt.