We are pleased to have Russell Blackford, eminent Australian philosopher and critic here on Rational Hub. Russell is the author of several books on fiction and non-fiction including the fine book – ‘Freedom of Religion and the Secular State‘ – which we would recommend to all our readers.
Russell, do you think ‘gnu atheists’, in general, have been too harsh in criticizing religious dogma?
I think that what became known as the New Atheism was and is valuable, though I also think there was a sense in which it was business as usual. That is, there was always a body of work appearing that criticized religion. We shouldn’t sell short organizations such as the CFI and Prometheus Books, or their equivalents in other countries.
What changed, I think, was that it became apparent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 that there was a potentially large market for criticism of religion. Thus, we saw a stream of books from large trade publishers, as opposed to relatively small, specialized presses like Prometheus or the various academic publishers. And of course, some very popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, took up the challenge.
The New (or jokingly, “Gnu”) Atheist writers don’t form a monolith – they have varied ideas and viewpoints. Overall, I doubt that they’re especially more critical of religion than writers from an earlier time, such as Bertrand Russell, or back to the likes of Diderot and Voltaire. However, there’s now a sense of urgency about criticizing religion, and especially its political influence. That was less the case in the 1980s and 1990s, when many academics and public intellectuals probably considered religion a spent force, at least in the West.
Have the “New Atheists” been too harsh? Well, one of the leading participants has been Daniel Dennett, but no one could fairly accuse him of being especially harsh. Even Richard Dawkins, who is often painted as strident and angry, actually expresses himself in a mild and nuanced way on most occasions.
There are doubtless some comments about religion by some of the New Atheists, some of the time, that I’d disagree with. Some points may overreach, as is inevitable in any discussion. I’d probably be softer than, say, Sam Harris on the more moderate or liberal kinds of religion, although I should add that I am always a bit skeptical about this idea of “moderate religion” – some of the so-called “moderate” religious groups don’t strike me as moderate at all, among them the Catholic Church.
All in all, my view of the New Atheism, to the extent that it can be seen as a movement or an alliance, is that it was, and is, totally needed and justified. The need and justification remain. That doesn’t mean I am committed to agreeing with, say, Dawkins or Harris or Dennett or Hitchens on every point. But then again, nor should I be. Their works should be taken as encouragements to discussion and reflection, not as a new body of dogma.
Does the Kalam Cosmological Argument hold any merit? Would any such ‘arguments’ suffice, in your view, to establish the existence of a deity?
I don’t think this particular argument has any merit. Its premises are very much open to challenge. Even if they were accepted as true, all the argument would demonstrate is that what we call the universe is not the totality of what exists and is part of some larger causal order.
If we treat the argument as a thought experiment with that outcome, we’ll still be no closer to saying that there is a deity – some kind of powerful, supernatural intelligence. Why not just say, if you do accept the argument’s premises, that the finite age of the universe is evidence that, despite its incomprehensible immensity, it is still only part of the totality of what exists? If you want to say that, fine. Plenty of physicists might even agree. You might then note the difficulties that face us in trying to understand that larger order, but even if all that is correct it is not an argument for the existence of a deity.
But could there have been a convincing argument for the existence of God? Well, possibly. If what we observed around us were very different, then we might think that the presence and activity of some kind of powerful disembodied intelligence made best sense of our experience.
What if we lived in a world in which we routinely encountered phenomena that were best understood as the actions of disembodied intelligences? What if the holy books agreed with each other and with scientific findings about factual matters such as the age of the earth? I can easily imagine living in a world in which the arguments to believe in a powerful disembodied intelligence that created nature as a whole were quite convincing. But we don’t live in that world.
Is there an inherent incompatibility between religion and science?
Not an inherent one, no. Back in, say, 1500 CE it might even have turned out, for all anyone knew, that science would confirm what is in some of the holy books.
For example, science might have discovered that our planet is 6,000 years old, that the rock strata and fossil order are consistent with a worldwide flood some thousands of years ago, that reproductive processes in animals are best explained on a basis that involves the activities of disembodied intelligences, that evil spirits provide the best explanation of disease, and so on.
Science and religion have very different methods for finding out the truth, but there seems to be no inherent reason why there could not be a world in which they converge on the same conclusions. Obviously, as it’s turned out, we don’t live in such a world.
What I think is best said here, at least in a reasonably concise answer, is that it’s a massive oversimplification, in fact gravely misleading, to describe religion and science as compatible.
It doesn’t follow that they are incompatible in a simple way. The sorts of incompatibility that exist require some teasing out. Udo Schuklenk and I have been doing that in some detail in the book we’ve been writing together, 50 Great Myths About Atheism – we’ll have quite a lot to say in favour of what sometimes gets called anti-accommodationism. Given the nature of the world we find ourselves in, it turns out that science has progressed in a way that really has undermined the intellectual authority of religion. And given everything we know about this process so far, I expect that it will continue.
The word ‘scientism‘ is thrown around quite a bit these days. What do you make of it?
Again, there’s a lot to say, and much of the disagreement relates to what is meant by science as well as by “scientism.” I’ve already said that I don’t see a clear dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. All the methods available to one are available to the other. Nonetheless, different questions tend to require different approaches and emphases, and this will necessitate different training.
For example, if I am doing a lot of historical research that involves translating ancient inscriptions there is really no substitute for training in the relevant ancient language or languages. At least the way the sciences and humanities are usually understood in English-speaking countries, learning and using languages is more a hallmark of scholarship in the humanities than of the practice of science. Conversely, employing instruments that extend the human senses, developing mathematical models, and conducting controlled experiments are more the hallmarks of science than of scholarship in the humanities.
However, scientists and humanities scholars both need to use logic, including hypothetico-deductive reasoning. They may both need to carry out various kinds of close observation, and so on. There may be circumstances where it would be helpful for a scientist to understand a foreign language. There will certainly be times when humanities scholars will use scientific instruments and other devices. None of this is a matter of drawing sharp lines.
There would be a problem with scientism if it meant the idea that the methods that are hallmarks of science are the best, or the only, approach to all problems and that the methods that are hallmarks of the humanities are never useful or the most useful – so it is useless learning foreign languages, or mastering a reasonably integrated technique of interpretation of certain kinds of documents such as might be used by a legal scholar making sense of a statute or a literary scholar making sense of, say, a seventeenth-century poem.
If that is how scientism is understood, then scientism is clearly wrongheaded and a bad thing (where “bad” has its everyday meaning). Of course it can – and often is – useful to learn a foreign language, for example.
But how many people really do embrace scientism in that sense? It’s very difficult to think of examples. Perhaps there are scientists who are sufficiently ignorant of the humanities to despise them or to think their methods are useless, or to think that they could do better with, say, making sense of a legal statute or deciphering an ancient inscription in a dead language. But any scientists like that would be rare. At least I hope so. I certainly don’t see them involved in serious debates about religion and philosophy.
All that said, the methods that are so much the hallmark of science have been very effective in opening up the universe to our inspection over the past four to five hundred years. In particular, science has enormously extended our knowledge of the natural world, enabling us to probe the depths of time, the distances of space, and the many scales of the micro-world that is invisible to our ordinary senses. I’m a great fan of science.