I have been interested recently in a lot of the posts I have been seeing on Sam Harris’ blog. I particular, I picked out a TED talk he gave in 2010
He discusses the issue of whether or not the recipe for right living, happiness and well being is something that may ultimately be discernible in the same way as scientific facts.
He seeks to refute the notion that values and facts inhabit their own spheres – non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA.
He points out, correctly I believe, that the notion that facts and values should inhabit separate domains may lead us to into the realm of moral relativism where we might claim, for example, that, because Proverbs 13:24 suggests that sparing the rod is spoiling the child, that view is the moral equivalent to the point of view that corporal punishment is child abuse.
We may claim also that judging as primitive and not conducive to well being the practice of clothing women in a full burkha is cultural imperialism.
He remarks that we accept that certain opinions on certain matters are owed more deference because of the evident expertise of those who hold those opinions. His opinions on string theory are not consequential because he knows next to nothing about it. Why, he says, is it less obvious that the Taliban [or ISIS] has nothing to say worth listening to on matters of well being and how to run a society properly aligned with human happiness?
So, why is this post about The New Atheism and how does this relate to something near and dear to me, namely Christianity?
I have been puzzling lately about the issue of freewill and prayer. The following HuffPost article is on point.
New Atheism is largely about the importance of not allowing what the movement’s adherents would describe as flawed reasoning to lead people astray from the true path of human progress by distracting them with religion. In some cases – this certainly has been observed by religious critics – New Atheism can be quite evangelical.
The Huffpost article skewers religion and belief in God on the twin horns of freewill and omnipotence. I do have trouble in reconciling prayer with freewill. It does not stop me praying, but I do wonder about its effectiveness.
So, here is where my thinking is evolving. I don’t believe God is omnipotent and I don’t believe in God’s omniscience – as those terms are typically used in debates concerning freewill and the problems of evil. In summary, the arguments go, if God is omnipotent, how can he permit evil; if he is omniscient, doesn’t that undermine freewill?
In the Old Testament, God put his thumb on the scale quite a bit. He helped out in battles, took sides, gave instructions, destroyed (almost all) creation, allowed it to rebuild and definitely picked winners. Unfortunately, it didn’t all go according to plan.
He gave us an instruction manual to live well in the world – The Ten Commandments. We didn’t do a good job of following instructions and lost our way.
I do believe in God as creator and I do believe that, as creator, he intervened in the world through Jesus. He gave us not just instructions for right living, but a model for right living.
God gave us freewill to be the best we can be and the worst we can be. He gave us the discernment to tell one from the other and the capacity to move our world in the right direction. He gave us the capacity to discern false arguments and clever wordplay (if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big he cannot move it?) God, as C.S. Lewis put it, cannot do things that are non-sensical such as not be God. Nonsense cannot make a good argument.
I view God’s supposed knowledge that we will take a certain course as no different – if considerably better informed – than a parent’s knowledge that their child will most likely do a certain thing because of their deep and intimate knowledge of their child. The concept of God’s foreknowledge undermining our freewill requires us to enter a realm of thinking that is foreign to the way we actually behave.
So, yes, Sam Harris, I do believe that values may ultimately be known to be as incontrovertible as facts. In reaching that goal, we will return to the point of actually knowing that, for example, the Ten Commandments do contain the essence of what we need to live a good life and have a healthy society.
What we discern now, in many cases, as being the right thing to do as a matter of faith, we will one day know as a matter of fact. Restraining ourselves from advocating right action that is demonstrably consistent with right living and from condemning behavior and belief systems that are manifestly evil is an abdication of our duty as human beings to advocate for the well being of our species and the world we live in.
When we arrive at this point and the need for faith is reduced if not removed, will God be happy or sad? I don’t know. This may be the return to the garden before Adam and Eve’s misstep with the knowledge and strength to resist the temptation to which they succumbed. It will be progress at least.