I seem to spend a lot of my time in discussion defending Medhi Hasan. I find him to be an interesting figure. He doesn’t always say things I agree with, but I like disagreeing with people. I find that we learn more in disagreement than we do nodding our heads in agreement.
He made comments earlier in the year that were far more controversial than the ones I’m reacting to now. I defended him then. He chose his words poorly on that occasion and waded into a loaded issue with no sensitivity for the offence it brings, but I could see an honesty in his opinion. I’ll always defend that. Even if I disagree strongly, I would rather have a conversation with someone who is stating an honest opinion than someone who is saying what he or she thinks people like to hear. I strive for an intellectual honesty in that regard.
‘Intellectual honesty’ is not a term I’m comfortable using, but it’s at the very core of todays post.
I’m not religious. Over a pint or a coffee in private company I enjoy stating my full opinions on religion, and bringing facts and history to the table to show how I formed that opinion. But I hesitate to attach myself to any ‘ism’ and so it follows that I also hesitate to call myself an atheist. There is no place in my life for a God and so I see no need to define myself by my relationship to one. This is already a step further than I usually take into publicly nailing myself to anything, but I felt it was important to state where I was coming from.
Last week Hasan posted this piece as a follow-up to his discussion with Richard Dawkins. I should also say that I don’t tend to pay much attention to what Professor Dawkins says on the subject. Even as someone who could be said to be “on his side” I find his approach patronising and feel he often overlooks that he is leading an organised non-belief that attacks organised belief.
Hasan’s piece, however, reads as someone who has thought of the wittiest and sharpest come-back to a question the day after it was posed, and just needs to tell the world. But also shows that nothing reduces an intellectual heavy-weight to a light-weight quicker than a discussion on religion.
He accuses atheists of “intellectual dishonesty,” when they claim that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Okay, fine. Perhaps there is a point to be made there. But if it is to be made, then he utterly fails to make it. To elaborate he states that atheists fail to make the distinction between proof and evidence. Again, okay, show me and I’ll agree. And again, he fails to do so. This is the kind of smoke-and-mirrors argument that makes for great stage magic. State something is the case, convince your audience of what you are saying, then slip in some utter humbug once you’ve distracted them. It would also be great for a snake-oil salesman, perhaps, but not a political blogger on a nationally respected website. He makes broad points before failing to prove or follow-up on any of them.
Under the heading, The Science Bit, he points out that we cannot scientifically prove that the Taj Mahal is beautiful, or that the Nazi’s were evil. Firstly neither of these have anything to do with the proof (or lack of) of a God. They are merely snake-oil level distractions. Secondly, I’m sure a scientist probably could come up with a solid argument for the former, based on the effect the Taj Mahal has on our eyes, on the electrical impulses that follow through to our brains, and to the release of certain chemicals and hormones into our body. It’s not a point I’d want to dwell on, but it is one that shows there is already a lack of thought in his words. Can science prove that Nazi’s are evil? Well, a follow-up question would be why would science be involved in questions of good and evil? ‘The science bit’ indeed.
From there he really exposes himself by quoting “philosopher” William Lane Craig to state that;
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
To which, many scientists would nod, then shrug and ask what the point of this little three-step exercise is. The whole point of science it to accept that there are things we don’t know, and things we will never know, before setting about trying to close that gap with evidence (and proof.) The scientist looks at that three-step thought process and (aside from picking semantic holes in the “whatever begins to exist,” issue) says that step four is currently a big black hole in our knowledge and what can we do to fill that in.
Could step four turn out to be “God”? Sure. It’s possible. But we can’t claim to know that answer at this point. All we know is that we don’t know. But the argument of William Lane Craig, and now of Medhi Hasan, is that 1,2 and 3 suggest that 4 is God. Furthermore Hasan goes on to state that this is;
..a valid deductive argument, a genuine appeal to reason and logic.
This is where I start to worry. Hasan accused a great many people of intellectual dishonesty before then going on to claim that a leap of faith is a “genuine appeal to reason and logic.” My point here is not to ridicule anyone who shares that leap of faith. If you look into the vast emptiness of our knowledge and fill it with a god, or the God, or gods, then that is your personal choice and we are all grown up enough to respect that. But I take a major issue with people who pretend that these leaps of faith have anything to do with reason or logic.
Why do I take issue? Because it’s that kind of thinking -or fraud- that leads to children being taught things as “facts” for which there are no basis, that lead to wars, to fights and to bigotry. It also raises the question of whether someone can be trusted on other issues of fact-based logical discussion when they have such poor grasp of logic.
All that the three steps prove is that we don’t yet know what the fourth is. And for Hasan to state that this is proof of anything else, or that it is intellectually dishonest to point out his thought process involves a leap of faith is…well….dishonest. Or it’s based on honesty, but one that simply doesn’t understand logic or reason. I don’t know which of those options I find more troubling.
If you’re reading this and you are a person of faith, I’m not belittling you. Perhaps someday over a drink we will debate the issue, and perhaps you will provide an argument that changes my mind. I would welcome the chance for that debate. But I would hope that you, theoretical believer, are also embarrassed by the form of snake-oil argument that I’m railing against.
And as a final thought, let us indulge this idiocy and pretend that it is logic. If steps 1, 2 and 3 lead to a logical theory that the fourth step is God, do we not then apply the same three-step process to God and ask, what caused God? And if the attempt to answer that is ‘God never began to exist,’ then I would think it is fair -since they want to engage us on logical and reasonable grounds- to ask them what the proof (and evidence) for that claim is. Then probably be accused of being dishonest by a liar or a fool.