Sunday, 7 June 2009

Alister McGrath's System of Belief

A common accusation levelled at the faithless is that they are just as much prisoners of faith as the 'faithful'; this charge can come from believers and the patronising non-believer 'post-modern' type of thinker alike. There's a good reason for doing this - it's to allow the apologist to create a straw man for them to attack in contrast to their own worldview. The unpalatable alternative is that they must positively defend the truth of their worldview; which is often indefensible. So it's a *deflection* strategy, when one has run out of arguments, and a tu quoque fallacy to boot.

A good example is this article, in The Times, by Alister McGrath, a softly spoken master of the non-statement. He starts by comparing the anti-apartheid ANC to atheism, pointing out the difficulties the ANC is having to create a *positive* identity for itself. He then cites Christopher Hitchens' work, and then says of his argument:
It locates the virtues of atheism firmly in the alleged outrages of religious believers.
That may be, but this is just one minor argument in favour of atheism. He goes on to point out that Christianity offers a transformation to the human situation, overcoming the fear of death and a 'pervasive sense of hopelessness in the face of human mortality and transciency'. Once again, this may well be true for some, but doesn't speak to the *truth* of the proposition. A more rational approach would be to understand the nature of human transciency and *embrace* it, and *revel* in it. It's our very transciency that gives our brief flicker its value, is it not? Theists want to *deny* us our humanity and replace it with a curious, ego-boosting, god-like, *immortal* state of being. And the key word there is *want*, because they cannot justify it in any other way.

McGrath's task in this article appears to be to cast *non-belief* as *belief*. But there's a twist; he *discredits* belief:
The demand that we limit ourselves to the logically and scientifically certain sounds reasonable until we realise the limits of both logic and science. Beliefs that we cannot prove to be true are part of the fabric of our lives, whether we are religious, secular or indifferent.
True, we all have beliefs we can't prove; but then 'proof' is an unattainable objective outside of maths and logic.  As with many apologists, McGrath doesn't see any difference between something which cannot be *proved*, and something for which there is *insufficient evidence*, because he doesn't approve of *non-belief*. Witness:
For example, Christians believe in God; the “New Atheists” believe that there is no God to believe in.
He cannot even write the line 'the “New Atheists” don't believe that there is a God'. This True/False boolean approach to belief is superficially attractive to many but doesn't acknowledge our knowledge or ignorance. Every proposition we are exposed to is weighed on the evidence presented, and when there is no evidence, we are naturally uncommitted - the Null position compared to True and False. When there is lots of evidence we are usually in a position to commit to True or False. For example, there is lots of evidence that we live in a heliocentric solar system. I would have difficulty *proving* this to you, but there is a mountain of evidence to this effect. It is *reasonable* to adopt the position.

Atheists don't adopt the *theist* position because the evidence presented for it is thin or contradictory. The worldviews of most theists are incoherent and redundant. It is quite difficult for an atheist to say they believe there are no gods (although some do) because it is an *absolutist* statement normally reserved for the all-knowing theists. I, personally, would always resist it for this reason, but I'm happy to say that I believe that all of the god stories so far presented to me are false. There may be a convincing story round the corner, but theism's *coherence* has yet to be established, so I will look again when a coherent story *is* presented. And just to be clear, for such a remarkable explanation of the human condition to be acceptable, the nature of any god and his workings need to be understandable. If anyone wants me to be believe something that is, by definition, inexplicable then they'll be wasting their time. 

McGrath quotes the rationally-challenged Terry Eagleton:
“We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.”
So what? 'Reasonable to entertain' is completely different from 'reasonable to accept', and *that* is what theists harangue the rest of us to do. McGrath sums up:
All of us want to celebrate our beliefs. Yet can we do this without condemning the beliefs of others? It is an important question in contemporary Britain. The threat of social fragmentation is easily worsened if interest groups, secular or religious, lash out against others when justifying themselves. A rhetoric of dismissal and ridicule plays well to a populist gallery. Yet a robust civil society is fostered by a culture of respect and civility rather than derision and censure. Neither of these civic virtues seems to be much in evidence at the moment.
But the condemnation of the beliefs of others is *written in* to his credo, and many other theisms. Atheists merely point out the problems in his belief, and yet *we* are the ones condemned by *him* for pointing out the Emperor is naked, and further condemned by his church to an eternity in hell. A little ridicule and derision for such hypocrisy is surely in order.

Everone has a worldview they think is most in tune with reality. It is only the dogmatic who look to *punish* others for not conforming to their worldview, so one may ask why McGrath clings to a *dogmatic* worldview among the many available.

Consider this quote from the Sunday Times:
“Who are these British?” he asked. “Just western unbelievers. Islam tells us not to have any links with unbelievers. That is why this man [Dyer] will be executed in the name of God.” - Abel Hamid Abu Zeid, Algerian militant
Rather than railing against harmless non-believers, I think McGrath's time would be better spent wondering what it was about this theist's worldview that drove him to commit the murder of an innocent tourist in his god's name.


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