Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | Michael Novak

Michelle Bachman recently suggested that the summer’s catastrophic weather reflects God’s displeasure with the course of American politics:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians . . . We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said: ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”

Predictably, she has now retracted her theological claims and says she was just joking. 

If the earthquake and hurricane did not represent God’s will, what did they represent in a world governed by an omnipotent, omniscient God?  Screw-ups?  Things that just slipped by his attention?  Any believer who dares articulate the unavoidable implications of religious practice these days, however,  will be forced into just such a recantation as Bachmann’s, for religious faith conflicts with what, for contemporary society, is the far more important secular ethic of tolerance and inclusion. 

This spring, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation declaring April 22 to April 24 as “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”   Now what is logically entailed by such a proclamation?  The same implications regarding divine will as were behind Bachmann’s unacceptable gloss:

1.  That God has omnipotent power over earthly events.
2.  That such power exists whether the power-holder decides to change or to maintain a status quo: both action and inaction represent deliberate Godly intentions towards reality. 
3.  That if God wants to end the Texan drought, he can.
4.  That God is aware of our prayers. 
5.  That God has the capacity to act upon our prayers.
Specifically to Perry’s proclamation (and to every other such “group day of prayer”):
6.  That God employs democratic pollsters who tabulate public opinion: the more people praying to him to take a particular course of action, the more likely it is he will rouse himself to that action (this corollary of all such calls to collective prayer conflicts of course with the equally prevalent meme that all it takes is one voice crying out for help to move God to action). (more…)

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I had never heard of the “Third Man” phenomenon until reading this fascinating Wall Street Journal book review.  People in extreme situations, such as explorers stranded on a mountain peak or shipwreck survivors, have reported the sensation of being accompanied out of danger by an invisible companion who offers them encouragement and guidance.  

Believers might say: But of course!  We are accompanied through life by an invisible friend.  According to Michael Novak, for example, “God made humans to offer them his friendship and companionship.” 

Scientists, however,  can “evoke the sensation of a shared presence by stimulating the brain with electricity,” according to Wall Street Journal reviewer Michael Ybarra.  The author of The Third Man Factor posits a possible evolutionary value to such a neurological sensation.   The fact that we can electrically induce a hidden companion doesn’t mean that we are not walking with Jesus, but it does point at the very least to the unfathomably complex relationship between our consciousness, the sub-conscious workings of our brain, and the external world.

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My post on Mary’s visit to New York has drawn rebuke (here and here), and for good reason: its tone was clearly self-indulgent and insensitive.  I apologize and thank Joe Carter and Tom Piatak for their civility  in responding. 

But however poorly phrased, the post was an honest cri du coeur.  (Not that I’m claiming that honesty justifies every callous indiscretion.)  I don’t think that I’m the only person to have ever been mystified or at least unpersuaded by the use of idols.  Mr. Piatak and Mr. Carter may have so absorbed secular tolerance that they would see in a Yoruba tribesman’s devotion to his wooden Juju simply a wonderfully diverse manifestation of human spirituality.   But many missionaries have demurred from a tribesman’s claims about the role of his ancestor’s effigy in maintaining civil order and protecting the tribe. 

Mr. Piatak points out the magnificent artistic legacy of Catholic practice.   No argument there; I am hopelessly indebted to the great Masses, as well as to Bach’s Lutheran works.  Shallow baby-boomer snake-oil offers no competition to these inestimable treasures or to the ethical and intellectual tradition of Christianity. 

Mr. Piatak also observes that people have committed great acts of heroism and compassion inspired by Mary worship.   People have also wreaked cruelty and destruction motivated by Catholicism and almost every other flavor of faith and non-faith.  None of this tells me whether the supernatural tenets of any given faith have sufficient empirical support to justify rational adherence to them.
Mr.  Carter writes: (more…)

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Beer Summit Theology

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. concluded the Beer Summit on a far more gracious, even presidential, note than President Obama.  Gates had the courtesy to acknowledge, however belatedly, that “police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day.”  Obama said nothing about the police, even though he had previously fit the Gates incident into the ACLU’s master narrative about a national epidemic of biased policing.  In his post-summit official statement, however, he pretended that the controversy could be deflated back to a matter between two individuals and disposed of with nearly meaningless platitudes.   His silence about anything policing-related carefully let stand his previous allegation that “blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause.”    Obama’s embrace of activist-generated misinformation about the police, which I contest here, here, and here, will be the most damaging consequence of Gates-gate, one with the potential to erode the public safety gains in minority neighborhoods achieved over the last fifteen years. 

I was struck nevertheless by the sudden infusion of God talk in Gates’ post-beer statement: 

Let me say that I thank God that I live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day . . . .

Thank God we live in a country where speech is protected, a country which guarantees and defends my right to speak out when I believe my rights have been violated . . . .

And thank God that we have a President who can rise above the fray, bridge age-old differences and transform events such as this into a moment in the evolution of our society’s attitudes about race and difference. President Obama is a man who understands tolerance and forgiveness, and our country is blessed to have such a leader. (more…)

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Non-believers we can do without.

Andrew writes:

The idea of an atheist ‘movement’ “on the march” is not, I confess, something that fills me with great joy.

Especially when its leaders march under such idiotic banners as the British bus ads:  “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
What genius came up with this copy?  It is stupid on several fronts. 

First, it associates non-belief with hedonism, a misperception spread by believers such as Michael Novak: 

Think of the burdens that slide off one’s shoulders just by becoming an atheist.  It’s a helluva temptation. 

None of the moral challenges that confront us—how to be tolerant and generous; how to fulfill our duties towards our parents; how to balance the responsibilities of work with those owed to our families or community—lessen with the disappearance of God.  These are human dilemmas, answered always by human judgment, even when we ventriloquize our answers into a supervening God. 

The bus ads suggest a utilitarian reason for skepticism: you’ll enjoy life more.  The only touchstone that I can possibly imagine for deciding whether or not to adopt any particular belief is its truth, in this case:  Does the evidence of human experience support the claim that we are attended to by a loving, personal God?  Even if the conclusion that we have no “Friend” in the sky leads inevitably to melancholy or dissatisfaction, it is better to live unhappily in truth than happily in delusion, in my view.  (As I have written before, however, I am puzzled by the claim that life would be meaningless without God.  Schubert wrote some 600 songs, nearly every one of them a gem of lethal beauty and exquisiteness.  You want something more?)

(The societal question is perhaps more complicated: if religious belief has irreplaceable utility on a societal level, but is nevertheless false, are we then to recommend it to others even though we as individuals cannot subscribe to it?)

If today’s believers are going around wracked with Calvinist worry over the ultimate fate of their souls, they are sure hiding it well.  If anything, God today seems to provide a refuge from worry.  Maybe there’s still a lot of terrifying fire and brimstone in America’s churches, but it is at least no longer eliciting the tortured illogic of predestination doctrine to reconcile believers to their own responsibility for a fate wholly outside their control.

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How Much Religious Falsehood Is Acceptable?

 I am returning to the Ed Feser exchange because it relates to a question I have been pondering about sophisticated Catholics and other Christians.  

 I had asked Mr. Feser if he could suggest an experimental design to test the efficacy of petitionary prayer, in light of his claim that religion is “scientific.”  He pointed me to his book, where I will find sophisticated arguments for the existence of God as the “uncaused first cause,” he says.  

The answer was nonresponsive, and not only for the “courtier’s reply” problems so ably set out by Bradlaugh and several readers.  I’m not asking for a logical proof of God, but simply for a way to verify an oft-praised sign of his love for mankind: his response to believers’ prayers.   “Rational arguments” for God’s existence answer the question of how to test the efficacy of prayer only if answering prayers is a necessary attribute of God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.”  That assertion strikes me as an even more imaginative leap of theology than usual. 

Mr. Feser displays an impatience with the practice of religion, so I will remind him of one of the most frequent topoi of Christians: If someone recovers from a devastating heart attack, say, it’s because God answered the prayers of friends and family (we won’t ask why the cardiac patient in the next hospital bed, equally prayed-over and–we should surely assume–equally worthy, died).  After nine miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania in 2002, believers posted a sign:  “Thank you God, 9 for 9. (Either God was busy or the prayers were defective in 2006 when twelve miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion). 
 I was not asking for an empirical test of God’s existence, but just of his effects in the world, which are claimed to be real.  The Templeton experiment, while crude in its details, was at least a start.


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Religion and Morality: The Home Front

I’m curious: how often do parents in religious households back up the command: “Stop hitting your brother!” with the addendum, “which a close reading of the interaction of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Commandments would suggest is prohibited”? Or even with the more straightforward: “because God said not to!” Relatively rarely, my guess is, because parental authority contains its own compulsion—and, hence, irresistible logic. I may be wrong, however, and will humbly look forward to being corrected accordingly.





A secularist’s thoughts on Thanksgiving

Michael Novak recently asked me: “Am I right in saying that atheists have no one to thank, [unlike] Jews and Christians [who] do thank and praise God for so many good things?” In light of our national holiday tomorrow, I thought I would take up his question here.

The problem for the nonbeliever is not that there is no one to thank for our good fortune but that there are more targets of gratitude than we can possibly acknowledge.

God does have the advantage of being a centralized receptacle for thanks, but is otherwise quite flawed as an object of gratitude, in my view.

I am indebted every day to human ingenuity that I could not possibly replicate on my own. I live on the 15th floor of an apartment building—a remarkable situation! Within this marvel of engineering, I have electricity, clean water, protection from the elements, and now, the internet, that miracle of knowledge aggregation that gives individuals more power than anyone has ever before possessed. Humans created all these wonders through tireless, loving, and patient empirical observation and experimentation.

I give thanks for the centuries-long development of limited government and to our Founding Fathers who created the most flexible and stable written constitution yet devised. As a secular conservative, I am particularly grateful for the free market system that supplies America’s cornucopia of goodies, an accomplishment that the current financial crisis in no way discredits.

But there are elements of my good fortune that are not the product of human effort—such as the facts that I a citizen of the United States and not, say, the Congo; that I was born with a sound body; and that the laws of nature work as they do. Do I need a God to account for those windfalls? In the first two cases, definitely not. I accept without discomfort the massive role of randomness in the distribution of benefits and handicaps; the alternative—that they represent deliberate judgment–is too horrible to contemplate. Were I to thank God for my extreme luck in being born into a society where people do not routinely massacre each other, I would have to explain why I deserve this happy outcome, whereas those millions of individuals who are not so fortunate in their birthplace do not. Likewise, if God is responsible for my healthy physical constitution, I would have to explain why he allows thousands of innocent children to be born with painful and sometimes fatal birth defects while sparing me.

Coming up with such explanations, in my view, requires either narcissism or the torture of reason. Most believers seem oblivious to the solipsism entailed by their thanking God when their cancer goes into remission, say. But the problem remains: Why did God save you and let the patient in the bed next to you die? The results are no more satisfactory when a conscious effort is made to supply rationales for such disparate outcomes. Typical candidates include: It is actually a gift from God to be born with half a brain, you just lack the capacity to understand his mysterious ways; or, how dare you presume to judge him, you cringing worm?

As for the fact that we live in a universe of extraordinary precision and regularity, I cannot begin to explain how that came to pass. And neither can the religious, other than by a fiat without any empirical backing. I trust that science will gradually push back the limits of our ignorance, but it may be that such matters are beyond human understanding.

Tomorrow, however, we can all be grateful for the wondrous stability and prosperity of America, and for the fact that we live in a society where people no longer kill each other for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. 




Secular Right vs. not-so-Secular Right

To Believe in God or Not? Volume n in the Mac Donald vs. Novak debates.

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