Friday, May 20, 2011

Some dim errors of Brights


Very strange ... I made a couple of minor corrections, and it re-published. This is probably due to the issues Blogger was having last weekend (5/13/11). Ah, well, here it is again:

Do enough reading around the Catholic blogosphere, and you’ll see some anonymous “Bright” who’s left a sneering comparison between belief in God and belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, flying spaghetti monsters, what have you in the combox. Such a person may be very intelligent indeed, although he’s left us no way to be certain of that; all he’s left us with are signs of immaturity and depressing rudeness.

Back in February, I wrote of flying spaghetti monsters and invisible pink unicorns as weak analogies whose true purpose is to appeal to the auditor’s pride (argumentum ad superbiam) by making belief in God look ridiculous. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, however, don’t even rise to the level of “boggart-Gods”, because they were never meant to be taken as gods in the first place.

In fact, if our sophomoric Bright were to actually use his superior intelligence, he might start by asking himself why people believe in God when they don’t believe in “equally obvious” imaginary beings such as jolly old Saint Nick[1] and Peter Cottontail. It might even be profitable to explore the reason behind perpetuating a fictional character like the tooth fairy to act as a mask for parental gifts when eventually the child must be disabused.


But Santa, the tooth fairy and such childhood figures are only “obvious” figments of the imagination precisely because we adults participate knowingly in this oddball ritual. Indeed, many people have a reluctant wish that Santa were real, because of the manner in which materialism starves the spirit. A universe in which a magical creature shows up to shower kindness on children once a year is more appealing than the cold, impersonal (even hostile) universe of materialism in which children are no more meaningful or worthy of kindness than black holes or black widow spiders.

The “god of the gaps” argument sounds reasonable when we consider such beasties as nosferatu, bean , golems and such. But then, it’s debatable how much the earlier cultures actually believed in such creatures, how much they really depended on them to explain oddities of their lives. In many cases, such creatures may simply have acted as fictional story elements in the same manner as we use them today; in some, they may simply have given some shape to the same kind of observations we now enshrine in innumerable Murphy’s Laws. In any event, the “god of the gaps” explanation isn’t self-evidently true — I’d call it pseudo-anthropology — and smacks of chronological snobbery as well in its assumption that people forty centuries and more ago were more credulous and less critical than we are today.

What is the “god of the gaps” theory? Simply put, it postulates that gods were invented to cover gaps in our knowledge; as Science progresses, it pushes back these “gods” by uncovering the natural events and chains of causality. Although religious anthropology has made this theory dubious at best, it still retains some attraction with non-anthropologists … especially those who consider religious people benighted and simple.

The “god of the gaps” suffers from a variety of genetic fallacy I call the “origin story”. Basically, the “origin story” can be reduced to this series of statements: 1) A believes p. 2) The belief in p arose from faulty circumstance q. 3) Therefore, p is false. The argument assumes without proof that the belief in p would not have arisen had faulty circumstance q not obtained, and that faulty circumstance q is p’s only basis. It’s a material fallacy of relevance because the truth of p must be determined independent of its presumed history.

The “god of the gaps” isn’t the only example of the “origin story” fallacy. Sigmund Freud attempted to attribute belief in God to a search for a positive father-figure as a substitute for a failing relationship with one’s earthly father. Not only does this explanation not prove God’s non-existence, recent studies have shown that positive images of God directly with mental and physical health, which argues a further correlation with good father-child relationships.

What I’ve called “chronological snobbery” is itself an “origin story” fallacy. It assumes that prior to the Renaissance, people were not only ignorant but incapable of drawing inferences and making correct deductions from observation. Hence, we get the idiotic meme, “People believed in the Virgin Birth because they didn’t know how babies were made,” when Scripture itself tells us the Blessed Mother asked, “How can this be, since I do not know [i.e. have no relations with] a man?” (Lk 1:34) and that St. Joseph was going to divorce her quietly to prevent her from being put to shame as an adulteress (Mt 1:19).

Of course, pointing out the fallaciousness of the “god of the gaps” argument doesn’t by itself prove that God does exist. Such a task would take far more than a thousand words, my usual limit.

Nor am I attempting to indict all atheists for the fallacious and uncharitable assumptions I’ve illustrated. There are, in fact, many atheists who are knowledgeable, respectful and charitable towards believers, who don’t bring their emotional and psychological baggage into their arguments, who even stand up for religious people, including — gasp! — Catholics.

But I have noticed that the more patronizing, snide and hostile the atheist is, the more egregious his logical and factual errors. This is a failing from which Christians aren’t free; for some reason, logic and evidence go by the wayside at the exact time someone tries to prove his intellectual superiority.

But if it seems more obvious with New Atheists, perhaps it’s because they’ve made such a fetish of being “bright”. So pardon me if I suggest they concentrate less on being bright and a lot more on being right. For being bright people, they make some pretty dim errors.


[1] The real Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343) is still on the books as a Catholic and Orthodox saint, and is honored by many Anglican and Lutheran communions as well.