A Polish philosopher

July 21, 2011

One of the pleasures of this Jesuit life is being a part of such a remarkably mobile international organization.  In my community at Loyola Chicago, one regularly sits down to dinner next to a Bolivian, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole.  And the latter two don’t even fight.

The last of these, our resident Polish priest, has been urging me for some time to take a look at a favorite Polish philosopher, whose name had too many consonants in it for me to remember.  I admit, I wasn’t overly eager to dive into tomes of what I was sure would be grim and turgid prose.  When I returned to the house after our Christmas break, however, I found a book by Leszek Kolakowski in my mailbox.  I had been outflanked by the Polish intelligentsia!

Once I read the title, I was won over:  My Correct Views on Everything.  The title comes from the rejoinder Kolakowski wrote in The Socialist Register to the British Marxist E.P Thompson.  Both Thompson and Kolakowski had started off as communists, and both had experienced some disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.  Kolakowski’s questioning had run deeper, however, and led him to see that Marxism itself, and not just its manifestation in Stalinism, was rotten to the core.

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Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

June 21, 2011

Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.”

Billions, huh?

Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)

His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.

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Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

June 14, 2011

I’ve made little secret on these pages of my disdain for the crop of neo-atheists who have gotten so much acclaim over the past several years. Most of their arguments wouldn’t merit a passing grade for a high school sophomore.  (No offense intended to our exceptionally bright high school readers, especially those from MUHS.)

Nonetheless, Pope Paul VI in 1966 entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission to make a “stout, united stand against atheism,” so I’ve devoted some time in my philosophy studies to the work of these neo-atheists.  Of the bunch, Daniel C. Dennett has a reputation for seriousness in part because he is a philosophy professor at Tufts, so I decided to review his book Breaking the Spell for a philosophy of religion class—and to share parts of my critique with you, dear readers of Whosoever Desires.

Dennett frames his book as a plea for the rational study of religion, a rather innocuous suggestion to which believers themselves should pose no objections.  I wish, in fact, that Catholic leaders would study seriously the research done by sociologists such as Christian Smith or Rodney Stark.  (Stark’s analysis disproves the common assumption that the growth of religious communities comes by loosening religious demands, when quite the opposite is true.)  Dennett claims that the only “prescription” he intends to make “categorically and without reservation” is to “do more research.”

Unfortunately, Dennett’s true agenda is revealed at the end of the book when he advocates a program of worldwide reeducation into a “historically and biologically informed” view of religion in order to combat “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”  Such reeducation would be conducted “gently, firmly,” Dennett reassures us, but would necessarily involve depriving parents of the right to bring up their children in their own religious tradition.  Rather more than research is involved in the spell Dennett attempts to cast.

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God for Atheists

February 28, 2011

Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.  But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.

The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters.  McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God:  God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase.  In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question.  Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide.  It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »