Friday, September 26, 2008

Tu quoque, Mr. Hitchens

Atheists like to talk of the hypocrisy of believers as it were practically impossible to find someone who lived their faith to the fullest. Moreover, they proclaim it as if they were under no demand of intellectual honesty or scientific rigor to prove the near-universality of the flaw. And in one sense, they don’t; when there are no well-policed borders between the merely inconsistent and the duplicitous, even the best-intentioned efforts to deal with an often messy reality can be portrayed as two-faced.

(Case in point: Gov. Sarah Palin’s support for her pregnant teenaged daughter. If she had thrown the young baggage out on the curb for her bad judgment, the governor would have been cited for her un-Christian self-righteousness and lack of mercy. Not having done so, she’s taken to task for supposedly giving an implicit OK to teen pregnancy at odds with the rest of her political message. Having hummed a few bars, I’m sure you can fake the rest of the song.)


To be sure, Christians (along with observant Jews and Moslems) are open to the charge because our particular brands of monotheism come packaged with demanding moral codes. With the other religious brands, morality is a separate issue from the propitiation of gods, and is on the whole less demanding. Indeed, Buddhism and Confucianism are almost moral codes without identifiable gods. If Yahweh/Allah didn’t expect so much from us, we wouldn’t fall short so often. (That is merely an observation, not a complaint.) And since membership in a church has long been an approved sign of respectability, it’s not surprising that the occasional person should take on the public trappings of ancient Christianity even while indulging in the private revelries of modern hedonism.

In a previous blog (from a previous life), I argued the eminently logical position that the statement “God exists” is either true or false regardless of what I actually do with its truth or falsehood. If Jesus was both man and God, then he was that God-man whether that fact prompts me to kiss you or kill you. My point was that Christianity’s arguments must be analyzed according to their logical and evidential merits and not according to the fidelity or hypocrisy of individual Christians.

Nevertheless, people aren’t relentlessly logical. In fact, Gene Roddenberry may have done us a massive disservice by giving us, in Mister Spock and his fellow Vulcans, the unwarranted association of logic with lack of emotions. Certainly educators show very little concern over inoculating our children against even the most common fallacies of informal reasoning. And it’s precisely against this background of cultural vulnerability to faulty thinking that scandal—defined as gross sin which publicly undermines the credibility of the faith—works its destructive magic. For credibility has about the same relation to truth that the market value of a stock has to its value as a fixed percentage of the corporation’s equity … very little, and fluctuating according to somewhat irrational and unpredictable stimuli.

The secular soul ought to feel invulnerable in hoisting Christians on their own petard, for secularism comes with no implicit moral code … not even abject obedience to the survival imperative. However, if we were to accept the atheist’s proposition—failure to behave as one believes negates the belief—then a critical study of secularist behavior would quickly reveal that nobody really believes any of the philosophical positions which undergird secularism except the absence of God … and I have doubts about that.

For instance, let’s take Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionists. As far as I’m able to understand it, deconstructionism began as a protest against the accepted great works of Western literature, under the presumption that the authors had been co-opted by “the system” into supporting it with their books and poems. From there it has since degraded (further) into a tortuous assertion of meaninglessness in all literature save a few sacrosanct—albeit not religious—books.

Even if I were tempted to believe that true communication between author and reader were impossible, I should hardly think that someone who took such a position seriously could write so much as a haiku in support of it. There’s simply no point in writing if you believe that no one will understand what you’re saying. Au contraire, the deconstructionist writes in support of her position fully expecting that the reader will not only get her meaning but furthermore yell, “By jingo! You’ve made an irrefutable case!”

So if the deconstructionist truly believes that writing communicates nothing, why does she persist in writing her views and submitting them to scholarly publications when she ought to take a vow of silence in despair of ever making herself clear to anyone? The answer is truly obvious: It’s not that literature communicates nothing but that the literature she despises—for mostly fallacious political reasons—communicates all too effectively. If you can’t beat ‘em, subvert ‘em.

Of course, the problem of meaning goes beyond deconstructionism to reductionism. The theme of reductionism is the Kansas song “Dust In the Wind”: We are little more than random agglomerations of molecules; our insistence that we have corporate identities and categories are matters of convenience with little intrinsic meaning in themselves. It’s not simply that I don’t buy such a philosophy. Rather, if it’s true, then there’s no “I” to buy it, nothing to be convenienced by reference to “I”. And if there’s no “I” to buy it, then there’s no “I” to retail it, no person to hold it as a personal philosophy or advocate it as a general truth. As I’ve said before, in another life: I must exist in order to labor under the delusion that I do exist.

Speaking of irrational positions, I don’t know how anyone can call themselves a freethinker and in the next breath deny free will. A rigid determinism that doesn’t provide for some independence of thought from material cause undermines not only theology but philosophy and science, since all presume that our ability to reason is not simply a product of physical causes and social influences. The very concept implies that we are in some measure of control over the process, that we can choose our grounds and conclusions, that there is some extent to which our beliefs and values aren’t forced on us by the obscure interactions of our synapses or the concatenation of social forces in our childhoods. By contrast, an illusion of reasoning produced by material and/or social causes doesn’t even rise to the dignity of error: it’s an event, like a rockslide or a tidal wave, to which the categories true/false and valid/invalid have no meaningful application.

It’s not that a person devoid of free will can’t reason correctly but that he can’t reason at all. He doesn’t think; some parts of his brain churn out thought-facsimiles in what other parts of his brain associate with a logical sequence while the seat of his identity is carried along for the ride. Perhaps they conform in some degree to the reality outside himself; perhaps the connection is as illusory as his belief that he is directing the operation. Nevertheless, his attempt to present the results to us as a reasoned theory must be a barefaced piece of effrontery unless he has some control over the process.

The problem is that the admission of one human operation not completely subject to material cause (reasoning) means the admission of an immaterial part to material man: the soul. We have always known there was more to the universe than met the senses because we’ve always been directly connected to that other half, where science can’t yet peer and which it hasn’t yet acknowledged. But knowing one creature at least partially immaterial (the human) means that other immaterial creatures (demons and angels) become possible, which leaves room for the biggest immaterial Being of all. Therefore, better to abandon free will at the doorstep of blind material forces than to allow God any place to live or operate … even if it means the eventual sacrifice of Science, the would-be savior of secular man.

This is hardly a thoroughgoing refutation of any of these beliefs commonly associated with secularism. Nor did I intend it as more than a simple, lighthearted skip through the more obvious absurdities: the deconstructionist who can’t deconstruct her own writing; the physicist who can’t find meaning in the universe but sees it all too clearly in his quantum equations; the biologist who can’t find identity in the creature but still puts his name on his books; the freethinker who attempts to persuade us that free will is an illusion; the materialist who appeals to the one human function that can’t be completely subject to material causes.

Are they hypocrites? I hesitate to clepe them so. But you can’t help thinking that, somewhere in the deepest recesses of their minds, in places not touched by their need to be secularists, they know their stated beliefs are just-so stories they tell to back their unbelief.

At least, that’s how they act.