Monday, June 15, 2009

Rowan Williams on religion

Archbishop of Canturbury Rowan Williams claims that atheists misunderstand theism. I don't think this is the case, but let us examine his own definitions of theism. [I'm unable to locate the full text of his speech; I must rely on the two excerpts quoted in the article.]

Williams first says that religious believers do not use scientific means as a justification of their belief:
Williams said religion cannot be accurately viewed in terms of science, as hypotheses, because belief in God comes with no conditions attached. For believers, he said, God is real and existed before the universe did.

"The believer who worships assumes absolutely that God is there and worth attending to."
It is difficult to understand how atheists are misunderstanding this attitude, except in the sense that many believers explicitly reject this understanding of faith as absolute assumption with no conditions attached. Skeptical atheists are opposed in principle to making absolute assumptions about the world, assumptions without conditions. We object even more strenuously when these unconditional, absolute assumptions are made about ethics. Ethics must be conditioned on (for objectivists) the same sort of epistemic basis that justify beliefs about the physical world or (for humanists) the well-being and happiness of actual human beings (itself only naturally and empirically determinable).

I've had this conversation a hundred times with religious believers:

Me: Faith is belief in the without regard for (or in direct opposition to) empirical, public evidence. [i.e. Williams' definition above]

Believer: I object! You're misrepresenting and trivializing faith. There's actual evidence for my faith.

Me: Perhaps I'm wrong. What is the evidence for your faith?

[At this point some believers will take a detour to evidentiary apologetics, such as Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig. Their evidentiary arguments simply do not stand up to careful scrutiny. Once these evidentiary arguments have been debunked, these theists will rejoin our discussion]

Believer: The evidence of our senses is consistent with belief in God.

Me: You're using evidence in a completely different way than skeptics use evidence. "Consistent with" doesn't cut the mustard: we've known for more than a century that the evidence is "consistent" with every possible logically consistent set of statements — Islam, Hinduism, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Standard Model of physics, evolution, intelligent design, Velikovskyism, and the delusions of every paranoid schizophrenic — if you're allowed to make up axioms at will to support your core principles at will. When you make up extra axioms to preserve your "core" axioms "come what may", those core axioms are not conditioned at all on the evidence. Your faith is just as I described: held without regard to empirical evidence.

Believer: But you yourself hold some propositions, such as the privilege of evidence, without regard to the evidence.

Me: I disagree, but that's beside the point: you just told me that your "faith" is conditioned on the evidence, when it manifestly is not. We can discuss metaphysics if you want to admit my definition of faith is an accurate representation of your own methodology, but pick a leg to stand on; don't just switch back-and-forth between definitions to escape the criticism of the moment. It's irritating, obnoxious, and intellectually dishonest to tell me I "misunderstand" your beliefs when you won't define them consistently.

The problem is that Williams' description of faith is not susceptible to any criticism more sophisticated than, "Well, that's just completely fucking stupid."

Williams goes on to tie religious belief to morality, supporting my argument that the controversy between religion and skeptical atheism is not primarily an ontological (how the world actually is) or an epistemological (how we know things about the world) conflict, but rather fundamentally and primarily an ethical conflict. The article quotes Williams:
The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else.
I hear you: you say that moral integrity, etc. connect with the character of God. One can thus infer, therefore, if one's style of living does not connect with God, then one must be lacking at least one of the qualifiers: moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and/or trust.

(I must commend Williams at least for not making the obviously ridiculous assertion that a connection to God leads to moral integrity, etc.)

One must thus ask: is this an analytic statement, a definition, or is it a synthetic statement, a statement whose truth must be established by some sort of interaction with the world? Is "moral integrity" defined to be a connection with God, or can moral integrity and connection with God be defined independently of each other, and the consistent connection between the two established independently of their respective definitions?

The analytic case is boring: it's trivial and entirely unpersuasive to simply define morality as religious belief. Not only that, but such a definition would require the addition definition of correct God (a definition the ecumenicalists deny and a definition the fundamentalists all disagree upon violently) or we have to accept that anyone doing anything because of his religious belief — including slaughtering heretics, abusing children in orphanages or locking schoolgirls in a burning building — was acting morally. This analytic definition also says that anyone doing anything without a connection to God is by definition acting immorally, even if she is being helpful, charitable, kind and considerate.

If the analytic case is boring, the synthetic case is ridiculous. By any humanistic standard, tens of millions of atheists and irreligious (not to mention billions of people with the "wrong" religion) do in fact have a style of life that includes "moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust," without having any connection whatsoever to any deity.

Atheists do not spend much time talking about Williams' definition of religious belief because it's trivially and obviously false; easily refuted and dismissed by a relatively bright and well-educated teenager. It's more important (and more fun) to focus our attention on the attempts of the religious to disguise and obfuscate the trivial stupidity and falsity of Williams' version of religion.


  1. "The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust..." are virtues that connect with my wholly atheistic life! Why, they are, in fact, virtues I would consider to be in connection with how I try to live my life and maintain my free agency, indeed, are virtues I would ascribe as intrinsic to the character I strive to live up to. Why, I must be a god! I knew it!

  2. This analytic definition also says that anyone doing anything without a connection to God is by definition acting immorally, even if she is being helpful, charitable, kind and considerate.

    Many years ago, I heard a believer make exactly this claim. I rejected fundamentalism shortly afterwards, largely on account of that, and certain closely associated ideas (not immediately in favour of atheism, but that's another story....)


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