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One debate, many responses: Response #1 (Auke Slotegraaf)  @psychohistorian.org

One debate, many responses: Response #1 (Auke Slotegraaf)

posted: 3161 days ago, on Tuesday, 2009 Jun 30 at 10:23
tags: atheism, atheism media.

In "By" (Die Burger, Saturday June 27) prof Amie van Wyk, a theologian, published an article titled "Three debates, many questions".

Response by Auke Slotegraaf.

When thinking about what intelligent religious people have to say, I'm always somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, these are clearly very bright and educated souls. And on the other, they are profoundly mistaken.

My experience would not be unlike reading a piece of Shakespeare and half way down the page come across a passage consisting entirely of calculus. WTF?

The reason for this is the profound disjunction of our points of departure: the religious person assumes the natural as well as the supernatural. I don't need the latter.

To turn to van Wyk's article, a number of points bear comment.

Van Wyk starts off (par 3) asking about the relationship between science and religion, and the kinds of knowledge that each reveals.

To put it bluntly, since religion assumes the existence of the supernatural, and such existence has not been demonstrated (even if you bend over backwards to give it the benefit of the doubt) religious knowledge is an empty set. It is a kind of knowledge about an entirely fictitious scenario. It's like knowing the distance from the Shire to Sauron's stronghold, the gestation period of hobbits, or the outcome of the conflict at Helm's Deep. Such knowledge may be interesting, may be difficult to acquire, may reveal facets of human psychology, and may explore scenarios that are parables for /parallels of human culture – but it is still knowledge of a fiction.

Religion and science (#4) are thus indeed fundamentally different; they are alien and are no more complementary (#5) than "Lord of the Rings" complements "On the Origin of Species." (Students of religion make use of scientific ways of investigation, applying for example insights from the social sciences to their field. In this way, incidental insights might accrue, in the same way that exploring the influence of the One Ring on Frodo may give me insight into my own megalomania. As a fictitious example, of course.)

The last line of paragraph 4 is a bit troublesome. While it is almost certainly true, it is not flattering, and some readers may be offended: score one point for the anti-atheist. A great many things people do are not scientific, and are sourced in superstitions. Even pigeons have superstitious behaviour, as Skinner showed decades ago.

Believing in gods is a natural human phenomena, a consequence of having a sophisticated brain, an emergent property of the mass of neurons inside our skulls. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. You just need to get over it.

In paragraph 6, van Wyk mentions the problem of evil: why does a good God allow pain and suffering. His reply is unconvincing – but given that he only has a few precious centimetres of newsprint, I have sympathy. However, latching on "and man's personal responsibility" is irksome. I don't know if he is saying, "Look, it is God's fault, but it's also yours, so shut up", or if he is saying, "Look, you have free will, so stop bitching and get on with the suffering."

Free will, of course, is a very necessary fiction that (Christian) theologians have to promote – without it, their world view is untenable. I don't see a way out for them, at least not without a fundamental re-write of their basic tenets. And thus theology remains a safeguard against scientific explanation.

Paragraphs 8 to 12 are fascinating. Van Wyk levels two questions at atheism, presumably from a religious stand-point. Yet, both questions are astronomical! Not astronomical in the sense of "Wow, that's big!", but the kind of astronomy that deals with stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies and such. May I humbly submit that questions such as these be left to astronomers?

Why on Earth (the third planet from our G2 V star) does Van Wyk think theologians (or atheists, for that matter) are qualified to answer questions about the Big Bang? If he feels a sudden stinging pain in his right side below his rib cage, does he turn to the Bible for insight? If his computer crashes, does he thumb through Leviticus to help him decide what to do next? And if his car splutters to a halt on the N1, does he pop open the glove compartment and reach for the Gideon's Travelling Bible?

Well, these are not unreasonable reactions. When faced with an unpleasant experience, a holy book can be comforting. But it's only good for resolving certain kinds of issues. We don't only have hammers in our tool kit.

(Incidentally, the issues that our holy books can fruitfully address are all psychological. Again, such matters are best left to the qualified domain experts: the psychologist. If you prefer one that speaks in the metaphors that you are most comfortable with, then by all means consult a pastoral psychologist. But just remember its your brain at stake, not your non-existent soul.)

I may be reading in too much from his cosmological ponderings, but it seems as if Van Wyk is dangerously courting a "God of the gaps" here. Such a theology is dangerous because what is now a boundary of science can soon become a well-explored territory.

Van Wyk seems to have a dislike for things coming into existence by chance (par 8, 10). Perhaps he should read "A Brief History of Time". Our everyday notion of cause and effect, and perception of the "flow of time", is revealed to be incomplete.

"The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind," writes E O Wilson, "… our species and its way of thinking are a product of evolution, not the purpose of evolution." (Consilience, 32-33)

At the subatomic level, God plays dice, and at the super-dense conditions of the early Universe, the dice are thrown where we can't see them (thank you Messrs. A. Einstein and S. Hawking for those lekker phrases).

Our everyday "this caused that" experience is shown to be inadequate when considering complex systems beyond the work-a-day linear ones we prefer to deal with, those that our ancestors (with their limited knowledge) found necessary to address using the basic cognitive tools at their disposal. E. O. Wilson again:

"…natural selection built the brain to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it as a depth greater than is needed to survive." (:65)

(I'm not even going to comment on paragraph 8's "who existed before the big bang." Good grief.)

Van Wyk gets is totally correct in paragraph 11: life on Earth is, indeed, a freak. A freak of nature, a rare combination of conditions within our solar system and on our planet. Rare, but entirely natural. With each new extra-solar planet discovered, that gap is steadily shrinking, and is already uncomfortably tight for some.

The reasons for Van Wyk's dislike of "chance" are further revealed in paragraph 13: without God, what is the meaning of life? Here we come to his first question that may be properly put to the atheist.

My puzzled response would be to ask, why do you think the gods have anything at all to do with meaning in life? There are many many things that give life meaning – why is a supernatural being necessarily one of them (or the only one)? I don't see how the gods are relevant here – you may as well ask me how, without Bilbo Baggins, can there be meaning to life? Bilbo may indeed represent certain ideals that I find appealing. He could represent certain extreme combinations of human nature that I find challengingly worthy of emulating. But to reify Bilbo just because I can conceive of such a configuration of characteristics is, well, silly.

This line of thought leads to his fourth question, what is the source of atheism's ethical values? Here, on a point of order, I should note that this line of questioning has gone a bit far. Atheism – at least as I understand and apply it – is not a fully fledged philosophy. It is merely an axiom, or a cognitive position: that of being without belief in gods.

Properly answered, questions about meaning, values and morals should be addressed to properly developed world views predicated on (amongst others) the atheist axiom. Or more accurately, without the additional theistic axiom. So, Van Wyk should ask of secular humanism, whence your values and ethics? I can do no better than to refer him to Paul Kurtz's "Embracing the Power of Humanism".

It is revealing, however, that he asks after the wellsprings of will-power and motivation. Is he suggesting that God magically tops us up with a few gallons of motivation when we pray, or that through meditation a mega-thaum of will-power is uploaded? (A 'thaum' is the basic unit of magic, according to Terry Pratchett). It seems to me that Van Wyk thinks the theologian is the domain expert to answer these questions. Yet, he is asking a psychological question and should be seeking psychological answers. If he is interested in the facets of motivation, and how these interact to influence behaviour, Stephen Reiss' "" would be a good read; there are many others.

Van Wyk's last question, in paragraph 15, is deeper than I can comprehend. I think he is asking, why is reason the ultimate standard, but I'm not sure. If not reason, then what else? Guessing? Revelation? Wishful thinking? I'm not nearly enough of a philosopher to answer him, but I suspect that these other ways of knowing have been tried, and have been found barren avenues to discovering how the world works. Science uses reason, and it simply works.

You can be as post-modernistically relativist as you like, but when you're lying on that operation table because of a ruptured appendix, you're probably hoping your surgeon isn't intending to treat your knee-cap, because "anything goes, and that's how I want to construct reality this morning".

Van Wyk asks rhetorically in par 16 if rationalism and positivism have answered life's deepest questions. I hope not, because then, as a scientist, there's nothing left for me to do. And I certainly hope that he doesn't think that religion – the study of fantasy – has answered, or is even capable of answering, these deep questions. As Mr Dodds, my old computer science lecturer, used to say, 'garbage in, garbage out'.

Van Wyk also asks if rationalism and positivism have solved humankind's problems. Clearly I have to ask if Christianity has solved humankind's problems. Or Judaism. Or Islam. Or any of the other "one true faiths". I'm not aware that any of the multitude of (mutually exclusive) religions that have ever existed, have solved more problems than they created. By their very nature, religions are divisive and intolerant of the other – that's how they evolved, out-competed and survived, after all. So if solving humankind's problems is the acid-test for truth, all religions fail with flying colours and blood-stained banners.

But beyond that, religion is personally damaging. It squanders each believer's precious life. As Paul Kurtz says, "The cemeteries are filled with corpses who bartered their souls in anticipation of promises that were never fulfilled."

Reading paragraph 17, I almost choked. The search for spirituality is © post-modernity, and as such rationalism and atheism denies the reality of spirituality?

I happen to think of myself as being quite spiritual, and I know a good many other atheists who also affirm their own spirituality. Are we deluded?

Rather, I think the notion that spirituality requires one to have a soul (a spirit-dimension of some kind or other) is short-sighted. I'm afraid that I don't rally to the dualist banner – the concept is superfluous and has no unique explanatory power. All the human experiences I have heard described as being spiritual are entirely attainable without needing to reach for a supernatural-soul explanation.

Finally, van Wyk points out that post-modernism presents a "constant reminder of the provisional nature of human knowledge". Good God – perhaps I am a post-modernist after all! I have always understood scientific knowledge to be non-dogmatic and provisional – I even speak with error bars and footnotes.

Having reached the end of van Wyk's article, I find it well-stocked with false dichotomies (great for rhetorical purposes, though!) and misunderstandings of current scientific thinking, and hopelessly over-extending the theological magisteria (a la Gould) by trespassing onto the terrain of psychology.

Reference: Die Burger, Bylae, 2009 June 27, p9.

Related links

  1. Original article: Three debates, many questions
  2. Response by Bruce Dickson
  3. Response by Paul
  4. Response by Clinton Armitage
  5. Some questions about Amie van Wyk

nothing more to see. please move along.

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