Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weak Minds and Strong Soju

The other day I had an interesting exchange in a gay chat room I frequent. Another regular there, a white American (call him X) in his mid-30s living in Seoul (lucky dog), was teasing a Korean half his age, whom he apparently knows in real life (call him Y). The American thinks that such teasing is "good fun," in his words. He kept typing in "X pulls down Y's pants", which Y would protest and ask him not to do. This pantsing was virtual, of course -- they weren't in the same physical space at the time -- but it still seemed to disturb Y.

Finally, when X said that he was just teasing Y because he likes him, I commented, "And whom the Lord loveth, he pantseth."

X's response surprised me. "Don't say the Lord," he admonished me. I figured I was dealing with a religious nut upset by my blasphemy, but before I could reply, X wrote, "Religion is for weak minds."

"Well, then you'd fit in perfectly, wouldn't you?" I wrote. X then wrote something that indicated he thought I was a Christian. "I'm an atheist, fool," I wrote.

"You've been reading it or you couldn't quote it."

"I'm an English major, so of course I've read it. I also read Shakespeare." I then asked him if he was a fan of Ayn Rand, but he'd never heard of her. Reading his chat profile later, I found that he listed one book he liked, namely Sam Harris's The End of Faith, another prop for weak minds. Only a weak-minded person would object to someone's being acquainted with religious writing as literature, as though you'd get cooties just from touching the pages -- let alone forbidding others to use religious terminology in their presence. ("I'm an atheist and my ears aren't garbage cans!") We're all familiar with the parallel case of religious people who try to avoid "worldly" media or pursuits, lest they fall by the wayside. (And "Whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth" is a fairly notorious verse; I know it mainly by quotations in other writers, not in its original context.) But after all, refusing to learn about opposing views is so much easier than learning about them, whether you're a Christian or a Sam Harris fan. Finally, X was so offended by my playing with religious terminology that he didn't notice I was making a a joke. Maybe not a great joke, but it was a joke, and one that I would expect an atheist to appreciate. I've known Christians like that, too. Some atheist blogger, Greta Christina I think, once objected to the term "fundamentalist atheists," professing not to know what such a person would be like. I present X as an example.

All of which made me think of Antony Flew's 1950 paper "Theology and Falsification," a very powerful contribution to the philosophy of religion. It has been reprinted many times -- if you have an old Intro to Philosophy text around, chances are it includes this essay; and most of it is available online (it's only about a thousand words in total). The gist is that Flew challenged theists to explain what, if anything, could constitute evidence against belief in gods. He was concerned primarily with discourse, the utterances about God that believers make:
For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
Flew's paper is sometimes dismissed as a relic of early 20th-century Logical Positivism, a philosophical movement that is now passe. ("Logical Positivism?" today's professional philosopher is likely to say, aghast. "That's, like, so 20th century!") But it has the virtue of having contributed to its own obsolescence, because religious philosophers mainly reacted by granting the force of Flew's objection, denying that religious utterances were supposed to make assertions about the world, and trying to find other kinds of meaning that religious utterances could have. Like Flew's later book God and Philosophy, "Theology and Falsification" changed the landscape of Philosophy of Religion and of religious apologetics. This reaction took the form, however, of declaring that not only atheists like Flew but most religious believers misunderstood what religion and religious talk were all about. (Flew also remarked, "Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective." I agree.)

There's something else in Flew's paper I want to look at, though. I remember it well from past readings, but this time it jumped out at me:
Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications. And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance.
Flew seems to be saying that theological utterance is peculiarly susceptible to killing "a fine brash hypothesis by inches, the death of a thousand qualifications." It is, he says, "the endemic evil of theological utterance." I agree that the tendency is common in theological utterance, simply because it's so easy to indulge in it when you're talking about something immaterial, invisible, intangible, etc. By "endemic" I suppose Flew was thinking of Webster's definition 1b, " characteristic of or prevalent in a particular field, area, or environment ", and while I'm inclined to agree with him, I hesitate. Not because the death of a thousand qualifications isn't common in theology, but because it's so common everywhere else: in political discourse, artistic discourse, in personal relationships, even in the sciences. (Need I mention philosophy here? I hope it goes without saying. A lot of people, especially laypeople, think of what Flew is talking about as endemic to philosophy -- analyzing things to death until they no longer mean anything, sophistry, obfuscation, "what exactly do you mean by that?" Sometimes they're right.) I don't think Flew meant to single out theological utterance absolutely here; I know he has complaints about other kinds of discourse too. But many atheists are less careful.

For many atheists, religion is the Original Sin, so they might blame the equivocation in non-religious areas on the bad example of religion itself. For me, such a move would fit with the tendency I've noticed in many atheists to talk as though religion were not the invention / construction / creation of human beings, but an autonomous entity that goes around telling lies, starting wars, and teaching children not to touch themselves down there. I don't think so. I think the tendency Flew criticized is a peril endemic to language, discourse and analysis itself, to the fact that categories and classifications don't work neatly in the real world and so must be qualified; and there's no foolproof way of recognizing when you've crossed the line into killing off a fine brash hypothesis by inches. From time to time anyone involved in thinking and talking about the world would do well to reread "Theology and Falsification" and ask himself or herself if it's pertinent to what they're doing. I try to.