Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Socrates warned against the likes of John Messerly.

"The force is with you, John!"
John Messerly, a philosophy professor at Seattle University (a Jesuit institution), recently posted an article entitled "Religion's Smart-People Problem: the Shaky Intellectual Foundations of Absolute Faith" on   Messerly's argument kicked up quite a storm.  (More than 2,000 comments were posted at the bottom of the article, for instance.)

Let us analyze his arguments against "religion":

"Should you believe in a God?  Not according to most academic philosophers.  A comprehensive survey revealed that only about 14 percent of English speaking professional philosophers are theists."

Let's take that figure as accurate, for the sake of the argument.  One assumes, from the title of his article, that Messerly intends to offer an argument from it to the claim that "absolute faith" (whatever that might be) is poorly supported, intellectually.  

Let us also note that Messerly is himself a professional philosopher who does not believe, and also that the job of a professional philosopher is to think carefully.  So let us attend especially closely to the use of evidence and logic in Messerly's article.  If his own argument is a model of lucid argumentation and judicial use of evidence, then we might suppose that in his case, at any rate, the weight of philosophical expertise he invokes means something.  If, on the other hand, Messerly makes use of convoluted argumentation, logical shortcuts, and crabbed or insufficient evidence, then perhaps his article will illustrate, instead, one or more defects in the thinking even of some well-educated men and women, that might explain their failure to believe in God.  

So we follow and observe: 

"As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people.  Among scientists the situation is much the same.  Surveys of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, composed of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent."

Here a couple oddities catch my attention, which I have underlined.  First, how does Messerly know that "most" professional philosophers see belief as a "strange aberration?"  Can he cite a survey in which they say that?  Or is he going on gut impressions?  A really good argument would tie up such loose ends.

The second problem is more serious.  Messerly appears to be claiming that "the most prestigious scientists in the world" belong to the "National Academy of Science."  I might be able to believe that, if the organization was called the "Planetary Academy of Science."  But surely casually equating the best American scientists (or scientists who practice in America) with the best in the world, exhibits a sloppiness of thought, that is a little ominous.  (Though not yet relevant to Messerly's argument, which has not yet appeared.)

"Now nothing definitely follows about the truth of a belief from what the majority of philosophers or scientists think.  But such facts might cause believers discomfort.  There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world.  In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia."

I am wondering, again, about the source of Messerly's information.  In "Secularization, RIP," sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argues that in fact, very few people in the Middle Ages even went to church.

In addition, "the intelligensia" does not equate to "members of the National Academy of Science."  
Funk and Wagnalls defines "intelligentsia" as "Intellectual or educated people collectively, especially those with a broad or informed point of view."  

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I cited a biologist who told me that if as a scientist, you "let other things in your life" besides work, you are "handicapped" and unlikely to win tenure.  Does a constricted focus  on the specific research question which wins a young scientist fame, maybe after many 80 hour weeks (as an Oxford physicist told me), even allow him to develop a "broad or informed point of view" in subjects outside his own narrow field?  Or is scientific genius such that it can discern Truth without bothering to gain expertise in fields relevant to the matters on which one pontificates, or checking petty little facts?

As Socrates warned (Richard Dawkins?) in his Apology:

"The good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other more important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had . . . "

And is belief in God really "rare" among the intelligentsia?

"Research by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons done on more than 1,400 professors from 20 disciplinary fields and religiosity found that the majority of professors, even at "elite" universities were religious believers. As a whole, university professors were less religious than the general US population, but it is hardly the case that the professorial landscape is characterized by an absence of religion. In the study, 9.8% were atheists, 13.1% were agnostic, 19.2% believe in a higher power, 4.3% believe in God some of the time, 16.6% had doubts but believed in God, 34.9% believed in God and had no doubts." 

So while education does correlate to somewhat lower levels of belief in God in the United States at present, Messerly was flatly wrong in claiming such belief to be "rare" among the "intelligensia," unless university professors are more religious than the rest of us!  (Not likely.)

"This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing."

Again, no evidence is given, even that "philosophers" (whoever they might be) know what the best arguments for God, or for Christianity, are, let alone that their superior wisdom has allowed them to see through those arguments.  Messerly is asking his readers to take his knowledge of these facts on faith, and for me, at least, that faith is already beginning to wear thin.  And we haven't even gotten to any serious facts, yet.

"Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?"

Messerly uses the term "religious beliefs" here as a synonym for belief in "gods, souls, afterlife and the like."  He apparently is unaware that "religion" can also be defined more broadly, in what sociologist Peter Berger described as "functional" senses, such as Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern."  By those definitions, everyone has a "religion" of some sort, and the word religion cannot be used to illegitimately give secularism an a priori advantage.

And isn't it a little premature to ask this question?  Messerly has not offered any evidence against God.  He has merely asserted that some unspecified group of "philosophers and scientists," who may or may not know anything about the subject (maybe, like Richard Dawkins, and many others we have reviewed here, and here, and here, just to give a few examples, they would embarrass themselves if they tried to write a book on the subject), disbelieve.  So what accounts for the strange fact that lots of other people do?  Where is the logic supposed to be, here?  If most scientists don't like baseball, should I cover my face in my leather glove (that has now seen 44 summers) in shame?  And if scientists have no more time to spend on researching evidence for (say) the Resurrection of Jesus, or for miracles, than they do for baseball, why should we care what they think about the matter?  Why should thinking people join in the blind idolatry of craftsmen, that Socrates eschewed?  I sometimes wonder if anyone who knows any scientists can possibly think that way, and am always shocked when I learn that a given idolater actually knows some flesh-and-blood, oh so mortal, biochemists or physics profs.

"Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments."

Is this an excuse?  Since writing tom-fool articles on Salon is a behavior, one sometimes exhibiting beliefs, does Messerly wants us to think that the article we are presently reading is "explained" by "genes and environment?"   I suppose it is, in a sense.  For one thing, if he were from northern Sri Lanka, he might be writing in Tamil. And maybe he would be defending Buddhism, instead of attacking it.

But Messerly appears to think his own views are immune to the process by which he wants to explain away opposing views.  (That's why it helps to describe those views as "religious," so the reader will be tricked into taking his critical eye off of the equally mortal Messerly's own theories.  Or is he going to claim that he's a robot, and isn't affected by genetics or culture?)

"The near universal appeal of religious belief suggests a biological component to religious beliefs and practices, and science increasingly confirms this view.  There is a scientific consensus that our brains have been subject to natural selection.  So what survival and reproductive roles might religious beliefs and practices have played in our evolutionary history?  What mechanisms caused the mind to evolve toward religious beliefs and practices?"

Messerly just wastes our time in this paragraph.  Do we really need to prove that there is a "biological component to beliefs and practices?"  Does anyone deny that Christians eat bread and drink wine in the Eucharist, and that those religious practices are partly biological?  Oh, for the return of Samuel Johnson, to wage eternal war against cant.

What Messerly seems to mean is, "Our propensity to believe in God and spirits must have been formed in us by evolution, since it is universal."

Which does not follow in the slightest.  One could explain the universality of religion by supposing the supernatural realm to exist.  If God is real, it would not be surprising that people in many cultures seem to have heard from Him.  Messerly does not seem to have taken the first step to ruling this alternative out -- that first step being, it having even OCCURRED to this ambassador from the Land of the Brights.  (The second step would be to phrase his argument coherently.)

"Today there are two basic explanations offered.  One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage.  For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive.  The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits.  For example, intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival.  Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds.  Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born."

So Messerly does not so much rule out a third possibility -- that God exists and reveals Himself -- as he fails to recognize it even in thought.  Or perhaps this is an example of the subtle social pressure I wrote about in The Truth Behind the New Atheism: "the two correspondents (Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) appeal to the atavistic fear of being picked by the wrong team." (63)  If theistic explanations are ruled out a priori, then those who hold to them are not doing real scholarship.  Darwinian mechanisms may even click in, making the skepticism of elite scientists a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you engage in philosophy that appeals to, or credits in any way, ideas out of fashion among academic materialists, you are a gadfly, and must be voted out of Athens.  (Many professors admit they would be willing to engage in job discrimination for ideological reasons.)  

But are there other possible causes of religious belief that lie outside our evolved psyche?  Of course there are.  There are, for instance, Near Death Experiences.   Whatever you think of them, they seem pretty universal.  And they provide rational reasons for belief in human survival.  Yet they are usually simply ignored in books explaining the origins of religion, such as those by Pascal Boyer.

And how about miracles?  One common "rebuttal" to such work as Craig Keener's long catalogue of miracles around the world, seems to be, "Yeah, but don't 'miracles' happen in other religions, too?'"

Well if they do, wouldn't that also explain why humanity believes in God and spirits?  So why don't scholars like Messerly mention those facts?  Perhaps they have never heard of them.

If the "experts" have never heard of facts that have touched hundreds of millions of lives directly (Keener, again), what is their expertise worth, exactly?

"In addition to the biological basis for religious belief, there are environmental explanations. It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief.   This suggests that people’s religious beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth."

I just wrote a book showing why the so-called Outsider Test for Faith is an argument FOR Christianity, or rather four such arguments, not against it.  Again, I suspect even though he teaches at a Jesuit college, Messerly doesn't have a clue about the facts I lay out in that book.

"Besides cultural influences there is the family; the best predictor of people’s religious beliefs in individuals is the religiosity of their parents.  There are also social factors effecting religious belief. For example, a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction.  Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States."

Which the Bible itself predicts.  When times are tough, people come back to God.  When times are easy, they forget Him.  Messerly neglects to credit Jesus (Parable of the Seed) for this insight, however, as good scholars should do. 
"There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more."

No, there isn't.  This is crack-pot social science.

While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top. Only in the United States, which was ranked as the 13th best country to live in, is religious belief strong relative to other countries. Moreover, virtually all the countries with comparatively little religious belief ranked high on the list of best countries, while the majority of countries with strong religious belief ranked low. While correlation does not equal causation, the evidence should give pause to religion’s defenders. There are good reasons to doubt that religious belief makes people’s lives go better, and good reasons to believe that they make their lives go worse.
"Religion" does not have many defenders.  Indeed, I think Messerly is as religious as anyone, in his own way, but I am not in the mood today to defend his religion.

However, when I debated Phil Zuckerman, the source of many of these ideas, I pointed out that even his own secularist respondents in Scandinavia admitted that Christianity was the source of those countries' best moral qualities.  Zuckerman seemed to concede this point.  I show in my new book that historians agree.

So yes, as Jesus predicted, given comfort and prosperity, the "thorns" grow up and choke out a lot of the seed.  But it was the Farmer who brought about that comfort and prosperity in the first place.

"Despite all this most people still accept some religious claims. But this fact doesn’t give us much reason to accept religious claims. People believe many weird things that are completely irrational—astrology, fortunetelling, alien abductions, telekinesis and mind reading—and reject claims supported by an overwhelming body of evidence—biological evolution for example.  More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!"

I wonder if this "few" will turn out to be as far off as Messerly's "few among the intelligentsia."

But no one is arguing that "Most people accept some religious claims, therefore there is great reason to believe them."  So this is just another wasted paragraph, fencing with a straw man.
"Consider too that scientists don’t take surveys of the public to determine whether relativity or evolutionary theory are true; their truth is assured by the evidence as well as by resulting technologies—global positioning and flu vaccines work.  With the wonders of science every day attesting to its truth, why do many prefer superstition and pseudo science?  The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe.  This best summarizes why people tend to believe."

Fortunately, Messerly and his "Bright" friends are not human beings, therefore not subject to delusions and confirmation bias.  Although reading such material, I often get the feeling they invented those phenomena.  
"Why, then, do some highly educated people believe religious claims?  First, smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons.  They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become adept at defending those beliefs.  No rational person would say there is more evidence for creation science than biological evolution, but the former satisfies some psychological need for many that the latter does not.  How else to explain the hubris of the philosopher or theologian who knows little of biology or physics yet denies the findings of those sciences?" 

Probably in the same way that I would explain the hubris of a philosophy proposing to explain to us why all the smart people he disagrees with believe what they believe -- without offering a dallop of evidence for any of his verbal perambulations.

"It is arrogant of those with no scientific credentials and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard-earned knowledge of the science.  Still they do it.  (I knew a professional philosopher who doubted both evolution and climate science but believed he could prove that the Christian God must take a Trinitarian form!  Surely something emotional had short-circuited his rational faculties.)"

A careful philosopher would make distinctions here.  What does it mean to say this (unnamed) philosopher "doubted evolution and climate science?"

Literally, these words seem to mean "He was unsure if animals ever change at all, or if it were possible to study the climate."  But I doubt that is what Messlerly's acquaintance believed.  I think this is like the subtitle of his article, "extreme belief," which corresponds to nothing in the article itself, and is used just to prejudice readers against the rather ordinary people Messlerly is critiquing here.

But since we are all amateur psychologists today, and since you have to be a mind-reader to figure out what Messerly means, suppose what he really means is, "I knew a philosopher once who thought that while species change over time, maybe even arose from common ancestry, the vast panoply of life, of complex cells and organs and intelligence, seemed to require divine agency to reach its present forms.  He also thought that while the Earth has warmed a little, and the burning of fossil fuels have contributed some to that, this was nothing to panic over, or throw vast sums of money at."

I have been "tempted" with such thoughts myself, as a non-scientist.   But I have also read, and met, enough scientists who encouraged those doubts, or heresies if you will, that I do not think it requires particular "arrogance" to host them.  (Especially since I do not worship scientists, having found those I have met to be mortal, and most cheerfully recognizing that fact.)  I think I understand the central issues in these debates, and it is possible that Messerly's target, here, does as well, if he is a genuine intellectual.

But is it not ironic, that the main force of Messerly's argument is, "The best scientists and philosophers doubt God, so you should, too?"  And then he derides a particular philosopher for daring to deny the consensus outside of his own field?  So scientists know about religion collectively, somehow, even if it is not their field.  But any particular philosopher who claims to know something about two particular scientific questions (whether or not he does -- as may happen, from time to time), must be psycho-babbled into an early grave?  
Second, the proclamations of educated believers are not always to be taken at face value. Many don’t believe religious claims but think them useful. They fear that in their absence others will lose a basis for hope, morality or meaning.  These educated believers may believe that ordinary folks can’t handle the truth.  They may feel it heartless to tell parents of a dying child that their little one doesn’t go to a better place.  They may want to give bread to the masses, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.     
More unlicensed, and unsupported, mass psychology.

"Our sophisticated believers may be manipulating, using religion as a mechanism of social control, as Gibbon noted long ago: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”  Consider the so-called religiosity of many contemporary politicians, whose actions belie the claim that they really believe the precepts of the religions to which they supposedly ascribe.  Individuals may also profess belief because it is socially unacceptable not to; they don’t want to be out of the mainstream or fear they will not be reelected or loved if they profess otherwise.  So-called believers may not believe the truth of their claims; instead they may think that others are better off or more easily controlled if those others believe. Or perhaps they may just want to be socially accepted . . . "

All of which occurs, sure, but to unbelievers as well as believers.  I won't give supporting quotes at the moment, because this is getting long.  
Or consider this anecdotal evidence. Among the intelligentsia it is common and widespread to find individuals who lost childhood religious beliefs as their education in philosophy and the sciences advanced.  By contrast, it is almost unheard of to find disbelievers in youth who came to belief as their education progressed.  This asymmetry is significant; advancing education is detrimental to religious belief.  This suggest another part of the explanation for religious belief—scientific illiteracy.

"Almost unheard of?"  Here are a few famous names, that I gave in The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Rene Girard, C. S. Lewis, M. Scott Peck, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Robert Coles, Rodney Stark.  I have run across many others.  Perhaps the reason Messerly has not heard of them, is because he is not listening?
"If we combine reasonable explanations of the origin of religious beliefs and the small amount of belief among the intelligentsia with the problematic nature of beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives or supernatural phenomena generally, we can conclude that (supernatural) religious beliefs are probably false.  And we should remember that the burden of proof is not on the disbeliever to demonstrate there are no gods, but on believers to demonstrate that there are.  Believers are not justified in affirming their belief on the basis of another’s inability to conclusively refute them, any more than a believer in invisible elephants can command my assent on the basis of my not being able to “disprove” the existence of the aforementioned elephants.  If the believer can’t provide evidence for a god’s existence, then I have no reason to believe in gods."
But Messerly has already shown that he is not listening in a meaningful way, anyway.

"In response to the difficulties with providing reasons to believe in things unseen, combined with the various explanations of belief, you might turn to faith.  It is easy to believe something without good reasons if you are determined to do so—like the queen in “Alice and Wonderland” who “sometimes … believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast . . . ” 

This is an old tactic.  Take pot-shots at a few straw men.  Ignore the vast amount of evidence for the Christian faith.  (Easy to ignore, if you have never heard of it.)  Then after shooting down a few standard straw men, attack "faith," without bothering to inform yourself (or your readers) what Christians really mean by that word.

Messerly meanders down this path for several tedious paragraphs towards the end of his piece.  Let us skip most of those, then pick him up again here:

"The counter to Clifford’s evidentialism has been captured by thinkers like Blaise Pascal, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno.  Pascal’s famous dictum expresses: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”  William James claimed that reason can’t resolve all issues and so we are sometimes justified believing ideas that work for us. Unamuno searched for answers to existential questions, counseling us to abandon rationalism and embrace faith.  Such proposals are probably the best the religious can muster, but if reason can’t resolve our questions then agnosticism, not faith, is required."

Which shows, again, what an evidence-challenged pseudo-intellectual Messerly seems to be.  Messerly is a professor of philosophy at a Catholic University.  Yet Pascal, one of the great philosophers and scientists, the brighest of the bright, a Catholic thinker who spent chapters cataloguing evidences for Christianity, is reduced to fideism, because Messerly can't be bothered to read his book.  (Or, of course, Alister McGrath or myself, who refuted this tendentious nonsense in among the very first rebuttals of the New Atheism.  More ignorance, more bliss.)  
"Besides, faith without reason doesn’t satisfy most of us, hence our willingness to seek reasons to believe.  If those reasons are not convincing, if you conclude that religious beliefs are untrue, then religious answers to life’s questions are worthless.  You might comfort yourself by believing that little green dogs in the sky care for you but this is just nonsense, as are any answers attached to such nonsense.  Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk.  If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions.  And who would want to do that?"

Messerly writes as a professional philosopher.  Reasoning is what he is supposed to do best, gathering facts and putting them together to find larger patterns of truth.  This article does not, however, at all reassure me about the superiority of his reasoning.  

What is vulgar is this slip-shod, ignorance, and extremely lazy excuse for philosophy.

And this fellow teaches at a Jesuit university in my town.  I don't suppose he's read that greatest of Jesuits, Matteo Ricci, either.  
"Why is all this important?  Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and  its love, its war and its peace.  They need to make the world better.  No one else will."

Even teaching at a Jesuit institution, Messerly apparently doesn't know, either, how much believers in God have done already to make the world a better place.

So throw off the shackles of your delusions!  We Brights haven't bothered to learn any of the facts that you base them upon, but we do have this Mutual-Admiration-Society that excludes your kind, so you'd better get right with the Spaghetti Monster!  Santa Claus is not coming to town, but none of the other reindeer are going to let you play in any reindeer games, so long as you have that light on your nose.  How do you do that, anyway?  Never mind, I can close my eyes and go to sleep with the light on, I spend half my life with my eyes shut.  I spend the other half sleeping.  


Crude said...

The whole article from Salon was obnoxious to me. Not just because of what it argued, not just because of the sloppy reasoning and vulgar caricatures, but because it immediately sailed right into "alright, let's write off everyone who disagrees as stupid - and put all their arguments aside, so we can just psychoanalyze them."

Once that card is played, it's right into the land of rhetoric. Reasoning has been left behind.

David B Marshall said...


I hope you enjoyed your Christmas too (referring to comments on other site). I had a good time home for Christmas. One odd little outlier was a bizarre conversation with Randal Rauser. I think you know us both, so I'm wondering (if you feel like reading it) what you might make of this?

JAS said...

This is JAS from the Newsweek blog we were on. Michael won't post my comments anymore probably because I was challenging him too much.

I did write back to your post that I appreciated your comments to me and that I was honored to get an apologist of your stature to write me. I also added that I would like to have a debate/discussion if you were willing to.

Let me know if we can pick up from the Newsweek blog and see where our discussion goes.

Thank you,

David B Marshall said...

Can you link the conversation? I remember your tag, but not where the conversation was at. Christmas Crunch, and all.

agnostica said...

Gods and religions are products of language and cannot exist without the use of language. Languages are inventions and, therefore, artificial, unnatural and unreal. Everything created by or through the use of language must likewise be artificial, unnatural and unreal. Gods and religions are artificial, unnatural and unreal.

David B Marshall said...

Agnostica: How do you know these things?

Ian Wardell said...

I wrote an essay in response to the linked article which might be of interest, although about the afterlife rather than "God" (I'm working on the latter):