6/26/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Richard Harries on Christopher Hitchens

Something a little different, sent in by Philosopher D. R. Khashaba

Yet another adverse review of Christopher Hitchens' apparently provocative book, "God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion," but this time the attack from the Christian camp is staid and soberly reasoned, as befits a former Bishop of Oxford and honorary professor of Theology at King's College, London. LINK

I'll set down my thoughts and reactions as I jotted them down while reading the review without much editing or refinement.

First I must say that I am not defending Dennett or Dawkins or Hitchens whose "diatribes against religion" Professor Richard Harries is concerned to counter. In my view the onslaughts of recent advocates of atheism while satisfying confirmed atheists fail to win over any believers.

Professor Harries admits that the evils perpetrated in the name of religion are real enough. He also admits that the intellectual crudities of some of religion's defenders are obvious enough. I would say that the theological subtleties of some other defenders of religion while the reverse of crude are still as absurd as the crudities of the first group.

Then Professor Harries poses a good question: "But how is it that the majority of the world's great philosophers, composers, scholars, artists and poets have been believers, often of a very devout kind?" This is a very good question and I think that the major fault of the advocates of atheism is that they direct their energies to the easier task of showing the crudities and absurdities of common religion instead of addressing the harder question posed by Harries.

My answer in brief to the question –- the brief answer I give here can be no more than a rough sketch; all my writings can be seen as an attempt to give a fuller answer -– is that the religion of an Einstein, a Whitehead, a Schleiermacher, a Shelley (to throw in some names at random) has nothing to do with the religion of even the best of 'ordinary' Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Shelley’s poetry reveals a deep devotion to the all-pervading, all-encompassing spirit of Nature, yet he was expelled from Oxford for defending atheism. Whitehead defined religion as what one does with one’s solitude. Schleiermacher said: "Religion's essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling ... religion is the sensibility and taste for the infinite … to accept everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite is religion. But whatever would go beyond that and penetrate deeper into the nature and substance of the whole is no longer religion, and will, if it still wants to be regarded as such, inevitably sink back into empty mythology."

These are specimens of 'religion' with which no observing Jew, Christian, or Muslim can identify. Let us remember that many a profoundly 'religious' mystic was murdered by his co-religionists. I need only mention Giordano Bruno among Christians and Al-Hallaj among Muslims. Personally, I wish Schleiermacher, Whitehead, Einstein, had not spoken of religion or of God; that only makes for confusion, for what these words meant for them was utterly different from what they mean for the followers of established religions.

Professor Harries writes: "Religion is rooted in our capacity to recognize and appreciate value; in our search for truth; in our recognition that some things are good in themselves." I am all for that, except for my reservation as to the use of the word 'religion.' Harries goes on to say that "it is in this capacity to recognize, appreciate and respond to what is of worth that religion has its origin."

The roots in their natural soil and without external manipulation flower in Kant’s "ever new and increasing admiration and awe" that fill the mind when we reflect on "the starry heavens above and the moral law within." but no further. They certainly do not bear the fruit of "submission and surrender" which Hitchens rightly rejects and Harries tries to justify. But how does that support belief in a personal creator? The weakest link in Kant's majestic critical system is his jump from the Ideas (in Kant's sense) or ideals of reason to a justification of belief in God and the immortality of the soul.

Harries says: "If 'submission and surrender' have a place, it is only in the final insight that, if there is an ultimate goodness, it will by definition make a total difference to the way we view life." I believe in "an ultimate goodness," and this is a point where I part company with some of my atheist or anti-religion friends. (Incidentally, this is also what makes my position so unpopular, angering both the theists and the atheists equally.) But then my position differs from that of Professor Harries in two ways: (1) Mt idea of "an ultimate goodness" in no way leads to belief in a personal creator over and above and beyond Nature (which includes human beings and human minds). (2) My idea of "an ultimate goodness" is my idea, is a vision that lends intelligibility to the dumb appearances thrust by the world on my apprehension but that in no way justifies me or anyone else in making an objectively valid judgment of the world.

I also agree implicitly with Professor Harries's penultimate paragraph. I agree that secular ideologies can be as pernicious as religious ones. Materialism, consumerism, cut-throat competitiveness are such ideologies. A humanity where abundance exists side by side with poverty, a humanity where scientific and technological miracles rub shoulders with deprivation, disease, and starvation, is a very sick humanity. But the cure is not in the unreason of established religions; the cure of reason gone astray is in yet more reason.

Professor Harries is certainly right in maintaining that the real problem of humanity resides in human beings being "organized in groups of various kinds, still beset by … lack of self-knowledge, viciousness and moral weakness." He is right in saying that "all people of wisdom need to cooperate, whatever the springs of their moral outlook." But are the followers of established religions prepared for such cooperation? The politicizing of religion not only by fundamentalist Muslims but also by fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews is ominous.

Besides, supposing we could have a world where all the major religions, not only the monotheisms but also Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., agreed to a policy of peaceful co-existence, would it really be a good thing for humans to live under x different dogmatic belief-systems where x-1 systems are necessarily false and no one can decide which is the one that is the exception? That would be the final surrender to unreason.

Harries concludes that "Hitchens has written a book that is seriously harmful." I beg to disagree. I would say that Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and others have written books that fall short of the mark. They do not do enough to free people from the bondage of dogmatism and superstition. Kant wrote a book entitled “Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone". What recent advocates of atheism failed to do was to address the need for "Spirituality Within the Bounds of Reason Alone."

D. R. Khashaba

http://khashaba.blogspot.com

http://www.Back-to-Socrates.com

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9 comments:

Ryan Scott said...

"Religion is rooted in our capacity to recognize and appreciate value; in our search for truth; in our recognition that some things are good in themselves."

Huh?

Let me rephrase it "Belief in supernatural beings without evidence is rooted in our capacity to recognize and appreciate value;..."

How does that make sense? It seems like the sentence is trying to credit religion by associating it with something apparently admirable - 'recognizing value'. But that doesn't make religion valuable, or more importantly, RIGHT.

Telmi said...

"But how is it that the majority of the world's great philosophers, composers, scholars, artists and poets have been believers, often of a very devout kind?"

A good question. But there is another good question:

How is it that the majority [over 90%?] of the scientists in the world are non-believers?

If the world is more theistic than non-theistic, it is because people tend to want to be followers than leaders.

The majority of people, it appears, have generally shown a willingness to accept authority, for example, the authority of government or community or even the authority of the dead, expressed in tradition or in so-called sacred text, in matters affecting their lives.

Once a particular trend has taken route, over thousands of years, it may take time, in terms of new discoveries and the spread of education, for a trend-reversal to happen on a wider scale.

Atheism is growing, and you can bet your ass on that.

Telmi said...

Corrigendum.

the word "route" should be read as root.

Badger3k said...

Re the "philosopher" question, I assume he is unaware that, with some few exceptions, most of the people he refers to grew up in times and cultures where disbelief in the reigning superstition would almost certaily result in suppression or death. Where most believers got their beliefs from early indoctrination and were strongly discouraged to think otherwise, even if they knew that an alternative was possible (similar to today, but at least today many people are at least aware that there is an alternative, even if they are taught to despise it). Is he really that clueless?

I guess the argument from popularity (perhaps mixed with an argument from authority) is all he might have, lacking, I don't know, actual evidence for his beliefs. Considering that many of those same people also believed things such as a flat earth, or that demons caused illness, or that certain people (races, sexes, etc) were inferior to others since that is the way God inteded it....well, perhaps that argument isn't the best one to use.

Kenny said...

The best thing about reading this section was Ryan's Scott's comment. Substituting the word "religion" for something like "belief in invisible supernatural beings" really helps you to keep things in perspective.

Huey said...

"soberly reasoned"!?

"But how is it that the majority of the world's great philosophers, composers, scholars, artists and poets have been believers, often of a very devout kind?"

Soberly reasoned huh? The use of logical fallacies does constitute reasoning. Professor Harries indulges in not one but three logical fallacies in this one sentence.

By using the term “majority” he is employing the Argument Of Numbers, in that since these people quoted, if that term can be used (see below), are a majority, then there must be something to it. It doesn’t follow.

The second is the Argument From Authority. What do philosophers, composers, scholars (too generic a term; what are they scholarly in?), artists, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, know about god? It’s like Einstein pitching Pepsi because he claims that it is the better cola.

The third is the Argument From Unnamed Authorities, a variation of Argument From Authority. Stating that all the world’s great philosophers, etc, believed carries no argumentative weight. Who are these people? What precisely did they believe and what were their reasons for said belief? Were they even all Christians?

You stated that “This is a very good question”. It is not. Axiom: if you have to rely on logical fallacies to prove your point then there is something wrong with your point.

D. R. Khashaba said...

I am sorry to see that all comments so far have missed the point. In referring to the views of Schleiermacher and Whitehead on 'religion' my point was exactly that the fine thing these thinkers advocate is totally different from what the Pope or any common believer understands by the word 'religion'.

My second point was to say that giving up religion should not mean giving up idealism or spiritual values. It's the one-sidedness and imbalance of my fellow atheists that irks me most.

I dont't see it as wrong to say of Professor Harries's article that it is soberly reasoned. He does not shout or curse or insult. He puts his point of view forward for consideration. I did not say that I agred with him. I said that he raised a question that has to be given an answer different from his.

D. R. Khashaba

Kenny said...

If you're amenable to constructive criticism, I didn't so much disagree with your article as I just had difficulty reading it. It's a bit wordy and somewhat pedantic.

For example, you wrote: "My idea of 'an ultimate goodness' is my idea, is a vision that lends intelligibility to the dumb appearances thrust by the world on my apprehension but that in no way justifies me or anyone else in making an objectively valid judgment of the world."

This is a paragraph where you attempt to summarize your view. I've read that several times and I still don't follow it.

It needs a little more of the simple model of- Tell us what you're going to tell us, Tell us, then tell us what you told us.

Peace.

Huey said...

D. R. Khashaba said:

"My second point was to say that giving up religion should not mean giving up idealism or spiritual values."

Everybody has ideals whether high and lofty or comparatively insignificant, even us evil atheists. But what do you mean by "spiritual values"? Are you trying to say that some values are only spiritual and cannot be had any other way? (Smacks of the "morals" argument!)

"I dont't see it as wrong to say of Professor Harries's article that it is soberly reasoned. He does not shout or curse or insult."

The fact that he does not use insults or abuse, while appreciated, does not make his argument reasonable. If you had said that he put forth his views in a reasonable manner, then you would have communicated you thoughts more clearly.

"It's the one-sidedness and imbalance of my fellow atheists that irks me most."

I am sorry but that is downright insulting. Our requirement for accepting dogma is simple: PROVE IT! Logical fallacies, inspirational anecdotes, mythes claimed to be true because god said so, etc, do not constitute proof. You have been treated fairly here, no one has abused you. They have just not, as you are probably accustomed to from your peers, accepted your comments blindly. You have no reason to irked.