Thursday, October 16, 2008

John Haught's intellectual and moral bankruptcy

John F. Haught responds to John Loftus' five-part review of Haught's book, God and the New Atheism.

The main theme of Haught's response is that the "new atheists" criticize something that is very different from Haught's own theology. I've seen this theme repeated time and again, from H Allen Orr's review of The God Delusion to Haught's response, as well as many theistic (and some non-theistic) bloggers.

This theme, though, is fundamentally dishonest. If I were to criticize the vapidity of Bollywood* cinema, it would be not merely dishonest but ridiculously irrelevant to answer such criticism by pointing out the structure and complexity of Citizen Kane. Fine: Haught does not have the kind of religion that the "new atheists" criticize; if the shoe doesn't fit, you're not obliged to wear it. So what? Haught's answer is just as dishonest, just as ridiculous.

*India's version of Hollywood

Atheists are not completely stupid; we realize there is a very wide range of opinion on what constitutes religion. (Indeed, there's precisely the range we would expect if the term had absolutely no objective, physical referent.) We're not interested in defining the "essence" of religious belief; we merely observe what a lot of stupid, cruel and malicious people themselves call their religious beliefs and practices and criticizing that. If Haught does not have the sort of religion that these assholes do have, good for him, but so what? That doesn't make the assholes disappear.

There are only two possible answers to the "new atheist" criticism of fundamentalist, literalist religion. One might argue that it's a straw man: nobody (at least not very many people) has such a religion. But of course it's blatantly obviously true that many people — tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion — actually do subscribe, in whole or in part, to precisely the sort of religion that the new atheists criticize. Not even Haught is stupid enough to assert that there's no such thing as fundamentalist, literalist religion.

The only alternative to the Straw Man approach is, "Thank you." Thank you, Richard Dawkins, for pointing out to us that the religious beliefs actually held by a large number of people are completely irrational and philosophically stupid.

But Haught cannot say, "Thank you," at least not without exposing the vapidity he must himself adopt to avoid irrationality and philosophical stupidity. So he tries to have his cake and eat it to: By implicitly making the "Straw Man" argument, he does not have to actually address the underlying criticism; Dawkins et al. are criticizing something that doesn't exist, so the substance is irrelevant.

Usually I just stop at intellectual dishonesty; once you've determined someone is not an honest seeker after the truth, there's little point in engaging him further. But Haught is famous enough that his response deserves more thorough, detailed criticism.

Haught asserts that unlike Nietzsche and Sarte "most atheists..., in defending moral values they have inherited from a Christian culture, are still theistic at heart." Notice the dishonest segue from Christian culture to Christian theism. One might as well say that most Americans, in defending a democracy they have inherited from a slave-owning culture, are still slave owners at heart. The association between democracy — at least the good parts, the parts even a revolutionary would want to keep — and that the founders did indeed own slaves is an accident of history. You can take out the slave-owning and still keep the democracy, and it's entirely plausible that non-slave-owning people could have just as easily (if not more easily) come up with the same (or better) democratic system.

Thus the underlying argument cannot be simply that these moral values happened to arise in a Christian culture; the underlying argument must be that these values could have arisen only in a Christian (or theistic) culture. Theism must be an essential cause of these values, not merely an accidental association or even one cause among many.

Put another way, it's just as plausible to turn Haught's charge around: Because Christians hold values that are and can be held by atheists, those values cannot be essentially theistic.

Haught goes on to implicitly label the new atheist critique a critique of theological scholarship:
You rightly point out that scholars have read the Bible with diverse hermeneutical perspectives, but most of them [i.e. most scholars] no longer read the Bible in the moralistic and accusatory way that you and the new atheists do.
But of course the new atheist critique is not at all a critique of scholarly Christianity, it is a critique of fundamentalist pulpits and millions of ordinary people. The actual theological scholars are irrelevant. If millions of religious people ignore these scholars, by what virtue are we atheists required to ignore these millions and attend exclusively to the scholars?

Haught goes on to denounce the "ahistorical perfectionistic ideal of biblical inspiration." (Ahistorical? Didn't Haught just say that most scholars "no longer read read the Bible in [a] moralistic and accusatory way?") Well, perhaps the expectation of scriptural perfectionism really is ahistorical. But so what? The perfectionism entails directly from the idea of a perfect God; if scholars of times past did not expect perfection, they were wrong.

But again, Haught is trying to switch the focus. The point of the atheist critique is not that the Bible merely "falls short" of perfection, but that it's incredibly bad. We're not just running a white-gloved fingertip over the top of the door frame and finding a spec of dust; morally and scientifically speaking the Bible is a frat house after a three-day, twenty-kegger toga party. That the moral horror of Christian scripture is attributed to a God called perfect by its own worshipers just adds gross stupidity to egregious moral evil.

Haught is not above blatantly poisoning the well.
At this point, judging from your blog, I can anticipate that your next step may be to repeat the new atheist’s typical reproach that I have departed from theological rectitude and am not playing by the rules. The Bible, you will insist, is supposed to be inspired, inerrant, and morally perfect, and yet we now know (from natural and historical science) that it is all poisoned by the ambiguity, contingency, and messiness of history. Therefore, Christian faith is false.
I know of no new atheist who insists on "theological rectitude". We merely observe that millions of actual people have actual religious beliefs, beliefs that are not only irrational but that they use to substantiate moral positions that we find profoundly objectionable and downright evil. We observe that millions of people who call themselves Christians do in fact insist that the Bible really is inspired, inerrant and morally perfect... and they're dead wrong. If Haught agrees with us, then why is he criticizing us? Why isn't he thanking us for demonstrating that those other guys really are getting religion wrong?

But what about Haught's actual theology? Regardless of who is actually getting it wrong, precisely what does he offer as an alternative to fundamentalist religion?

I agree that Haught's God is not, as Loftus asserts, a distant God. Calling Haught's God distant gives it far too much credit; to be distant you have to be somewhere, but Haught's God is too vapid and vague to be anywhere.
[T]he dominant biblical contribution—from Genesis to Revelation—is not moral instruction, but an emphasis on the themes of liberation, promise, and the need to trust in spite of all present doubts about there being any final redemptive meaning to history and the universe.
Excuse me? Trust God in spite of my doubts? Does Haught have $19 million in an abandoned Nigerian bank account that he desperately needs my help to transfer to the US? "Trust me" and "ignore your doubts" are the words of shysters and con artists... and theologians.

And precisely where are these "present doubts" coming from? A knotty question; surely the can't be coming from the whole first half of the Bible? Surely Yahweh's constant smiting and plagues and death, his fucking with Job just to make a point about how awesome He is, the genocidal wars of aggression, the smiting, stoning and slaying of pretty much everyone who puts one fucking toe out of line, His scarpering off when the iron chariots showed up... surely none of this raises any doubts? Well, maybe one or two.

He goes on:
Jesus’s main concern, namely, that people, starting with the most immoral of us, should trust that our lives have everlasting value in spite of all pain, death, mourning, persecution, personal failings, and needless guilt heaped upon us by the morally righteous.
"Sure, I killed your wife, raped your daughter, burned down your house and molested your cat," one might say, "but that just gives you the opportunity to have a purer faith. Trust me, in spite of your present doubts."

I don't think so. Homey don't play that.

And why do I need God for themes of liberation and promise in the first place? God did a piss-poor job in the "liberation" and "promise" department until He — and his priests — stepped in to take credit for the efforts of human Enlightenment philosophers from Locke to Marx and human liberators from Washington and Lincoln to BolĂ­var and Mao. I can find more liberation in ten pages of Marx than I can in the whole of the Bible.

Haught denies that the Bible is a simple instrument of direct moral instruction (if we try to use that way I definitely agree we will be disappointed, very disappointed... not to mention in jail) but he seems to try to relate the Bible indirectly to moral behavior. He approves of Whitehead: "Conduct is a by-product of religion — an inevitable by-product, but not the main point." Just "conduct"? Not good conduct? I have to agree here: child molestation is "conduct", n'est pas? and I can see how child molestation — and covering it up and giving the molesters another... er... bite at the apple — is a by-product of religion, even an inevitable by-product... but not the main point.

Haught also quotes Kierkegaard — Soren Fear and Trembling "faith is founded in the belief in the absurd" Kierkegaard — "the opposite of (moral) evil is not virtue but faith." So... belief in the absurd is the opposite of moral evil... Wait, what?

According to Haught, the "radical message of Christian faith" is John Paul II's "understanding of God’s kenosis [self-emptying], a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.."

Yes, John Paul, you're right: It's inconceivable — at least for me — that suffering and death can express any kind of love. I do not kill my my children, my wife, my friends, nor do I try to make them suffer; does this mean that I don't love them? By this standard, Hitler loved the Jews, loved them more intensely and more unselfishly than I love my wife.

John Haught praises Loftus for "avoid[ing] the lovelessness and ad hominem attacks featured by some other blogs on the topic." I have a sneaking suspicion he will not so praise my blog.

I think Loftus goes too easy — far too easy — on Haught. At least Fred Phelps puts his hatred, bigotry and sadism right out front; Haught tries to sugar-coat the same evil in lofty words and sophisticated-sounding circumlocutions. If this is the best the "sophisticated" theologians can muster, we must put Christianity in the same dustbin that we put slavery, genocide, colonialism, anti-Semitism, and other egregious human evils.


  1. Yeah, these jesus freaks are lying sacks of shit.

  2. Yes. Even the "sophisticated" ones.

  3. Issues with assholes?!

  4. Great post but perhaps self defeating in the "respect" it inadvertently gives any and all theists. Just one line is enough.

    Get them to answer you here only:

    "..why do I need God for themes of liberation and promise in the first place?"

  5. I am sorry. Of course its not "self defeating" just pisses me so much that when you answer them at length it makes them actually believe they have equally good counter arguments.

    We need to pin them down.

  6. Don't apologize, sista. You're right. We don't need to do anything but ask what you suggest: "Why do I need *God* for themes of liberation and promise in the first place?"

    We should look at the bible to see (I suppose in a few parts) humanity's hope and struggle for liberation from the tyranny of each other and the tyranny of physics.

    But I do think Haught deserves more than just a pointed question; these slippery bastards can bullshit around anything. I think they need to be called out as bullshit artists and assholes.

    I mean WHAT THE FUCKITTY FUCK FUCK is the connection between love and suffering/death? That's not just retarded, it's actually fucking evil.


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