Theist apologetics

June 23, 2009

This is one of a thousand examples of theist apologetics I could have chosen; they all more or less peddle the same canards. Tiresome task but I’m going to analyze it paragraph by paragraph for the kind of intellectual disrepute which in any other field wouldn’t pass editorial muster.

The article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This is its url:

“Reason vs. Faith: the Battle Continues” by Richard Wolin

Wolin characterizes “the Enlightenment credo” as “the sovereignty of reason.” This is an extremely common dishonest debating tactic of theists, implying that non-theistic thinking is all about the exercise of pure reason, whatever that might be. The operative word here is “sovereignty.” Enlightenment thinkers opposed religious authority, whether based on the church or the supposed revelation of scripture. Reason has never been the preserve of non-theists: just consider the notion that a Jesuit education is the best preparation for atheism. The question is what reason goes to work on. Theists use reason to buttress a pre-decided belief.
Scientists properly employ reason to ascertain provisional beliefs which can then find instrumental application.

Wolin compounds his error with his next pronouncement – “From that standpoint, human intellect was a self-sufficient measure of the true, the just, and the good.” It’s difficult to comprehend what this could possibly mean but that’s because Wolin has chosen to omit reference to the crucial elements of evidence and experience. In fact, the scientific method is designed precisely to combat the errors to which “human intellect” is prone, so Wolin’s assertion is ridiculous.

Possibly attracted by the challenge of cramming more intellectual dishonesty into his opening paragraph than even his confreres, Wolin concludes with the dog-eared accusation of utopianism – “Once the last ramparts of unreason were breached — our mental Bastilles, as it were — sovereign reason would take command and, presumably, human perfection would not be long in coming.” Immersed in secular thinking as i have been these last few years, i haven’t come across a single scientist, philosopher or thinker who claims the perfectibility of humankind. The aim is more modest; one of amelioration of the human condition through advances in secular moral thinking, science and technology. (Incidentally, if this straightforward point was more widely apprehended, then that rabid misanthrope and vapid blowhard John Gray would be forced to retreat to his proper condition of obscurity.)

Wolin, fortunately for the attentive reader, gives the game away in his next paragraph with this bizarre onslaught – “By making the lowly human intellect the measure of all truth, weren’t the philosophes arbitrarily isolating humanity from the possibility of attaining a higher order of truth? Who would really want to inhabit a totally enlightened universe, denuded of mystery, plurality, and sublimity? What if ultimate reality weren’t attainable by the prosaic methods of cognition or secular reason? What if, instead, the Absolute had more to do with the faculties of the imagination, intuition, or the unfathomable mysteries of the human unconscious.” Does Wolin imagine the scientific enterprise is mysteriously directed by god? Does he have any awareness of the discoveries of science in the last ten years, let alone the last two hundred? What is “lowly” about a “human intellect” that, basing its reasoning on rigorous empirical research, has taken both human self-understanding and understanding of the universe to levels beyond the wildest imaginings of the eighteenth century? And what does he mean by “a higher order of truth”? Theists throw around such phrases without elucidation and have the conceit they are taking the high ground. And where does the phrase, “a totally enlightened universe, denuded of mystery, plurality, and sublimity”, come from? Not from any secularist or scientist; rather from the childish nightmares of a frightened theist who has failed to spend any time at all in a non-theist mindset and fails to perceive any of its glories. “Plurality” is precisely what most secular thinkers call for. “Mystery” is one of the words overused to the point of having no meaning whatsoever (of course Wolin declines to say what he means by it). “Sublimity” can mean a whole number of things but, for example, there is nothing inconsistent about a non-theist attempting to sublimate sexual energies by directing them towards a sole loved partner. And as for “imagination”, does Wolin not realize that the whole scientific enterprise is built on imagination? Just that those imaginings are not taken as intimations of some mysterious realm of (higher-order) knowledge, but are subjected to rigorous testing and discarded if found wanting. And as for his praise of intuition and the fruits of the human unconscious, rejecting theism doesn’t mean rejecting music, poetry, art, dance and so on. Even the most thoroughgoing materialist is perfectly at liberty to enjoy Bach. But as for the trustworthiness of intuition as knowledge, i refer Wolin to Richard Burton’s On Being Certain. Intuitions are ideas buoyed up by emotion. Strong emotion equates to certainty! Set that up against the discoveries of the scientific method!!

Oh christ, i’ve only got through the first two paragraphs …. let me conclude for now by pointing to the need for a scientific account of how religion can so thoroughly subvert the mental processes of undeniably intelligent people. There’s “mystery” for you.


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