Saturday, 2 April 2011

Shelley was wrong: a response to Andrew Copson.

Andrew Copson the chief executive of the British Humanist Association has written a piece in The Guardian in praise of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Copson draws attention to Shelley’s argument for the non-existence of God put forward in The Necessity of Atheism. The conclusion of Copson’s article I wholeheartedly agree with, as he calls for his readers to challenge the persecution of people in different parts of the world for thinking and speaking freely. Copson has in mind the non-religious but the argument applies to all, religious and non-religious alike.

In support of his case, Copson cites the case of a young man in Saudi Arabia facing persecution.
One of the most upsetting stories I was ever told was by a young humanist from Saudi Arabia who grew up so frightened of what would happen if he spoke out loud about his beliefs to another person that the only outlet for his thoughts was to go on long walks away from all people, and speak his mind only to the air. In fact, he never spoke to another human being about his most fundamental beliefs until coming to Britain in his late 20s, and experiencing then for the first time what those of us who live in freedom take for granted: the joyful dynamic of testing and developing our own ideas in conversation and dialogue with others.
It is a terrible story and I am pleased to hear the young man now enjoys the freedom to express his beliefs. I use the word ‘beliefs’ because that is the word Copson uses twice in recounting the story and the second time he refers to ‘fundamental beliefs’. Is Copson now accepting what many of us have been arguing for a long time, that Humanism and Atheism are belief systems? And if Humanism and Atheism are beliefs then why should they be considered any more rational than religious beliefs?

This brings me to the problem with Shelley’s argument or at least with Copson’s brief summary of his argument about the non-existence of God. Here is how Copson describes Shelley’s thesis:
The argument itself is simple. If you have seen or heard God, then you must believe in God. If you haven't, then the only possible reasons to believe in God are reasonable argument or the testimony of others. The main argument given for believing in a deity – that the universe must have had a first cause – is not persuasive because there is no reason to believe either that the universe must have had a first cause or that this cause, if it existed, was a deity. The testimony of others – a third-rate source of knowledge in any case – is invariably contrary to reason. This is not least because it reports God as commanding belief, which would be irrational of God, given that belief is involuntary and not an act of will. So there is no reason to believe in God.
The first part of the argument is to dismiss the necessity of belief in God as the first cause of the Universe. Given that everything else we observe in our universe seems to have a cause why should the Universe be any different? I would suggest it is as much a matter of belief to say the Universe has no first cause or creator as to argue that it does, given that we have no other examples of anything not having a cause. I am no cosmologist but my reading of the latest debates about the origins of the Universe suggest that at best the jury is out on this one.

However, my faith is not primarily based on belief in a first cause / creator God. This brings me to the second part of Shelley’s argument, the testimony of others, which is described as a third-rate source of knowledge contrary to reason. Testimony may be a third-rate source of knowledge but most of us live our lives depending on it otherwise we might never try anything new. Or is he only saving this judgement for testimony regarding belief in God.

Is it irrational to take the testimony of others to find out if something is true and finding it is true to believe in it? It strikes me we do this all the time in our lives. Was Shelley and is Copson seriously suggesting that it is irrational to believe anything on the basis of testimony, for that would seriously undermine most scientific endeavour which builds on the testimony of others. I fly in aeroplanes not because I know how they fly but because I have trusted the testimony of others  who have flown and then discovered it to be true for myself. Scientists would be required to keep repeating the same experiments if they didn’t trust the testimony of others. 

Or is Shelley arguing that it is only testimony about belief in God that is third-rate and irrational? I presume he is as it would be irrational to dismiss all testimony as third-rate and irrational. How does Shelley’s claim stand up?

The claim is that testimony to belief in God is irrational because God demands belief and such belief would not really be belief because it would be involuntary, forced on us, and not a decision of our free will. It would therefore be irrational of God to demand we believe in him. Testimony to such a demand of God would also be irrational. Now this might be true if that is what testimony about God is like but is it? It certainly doesn’t sound like the God I was invited to consider believing in by the witness of others. The God I was invited to consider was the God of Jesus Christ who called me to join with him in the great adventure of the Kingdom of God. No one demanded that I believe, no one forced me to believe, no one asked me to abandon my reason or free will in deciding to become a follower of Christ.

I came to faith as the result of the testimony or witness of my parents and other Christians I knew. I was brought up to believe but there came a point when I had to decide whether this belief was actually true or simply something I was conditioned to believe by my upbringing. The point about testimony is that it points to something else and we only discover if that testimony is true when we begin to live as if what that testimony points to is true. This is how I define faith; living as if what I say I believe in is true. Having committed myself to living in this way I find it to be true. I can’t convince or compel others to believe, all I can do is invite them to try it for themselves.

If Shelley’s caricature about Christian witness and the God of that witness were true then he would be right and belief in such a God would be irrational. However, this is not the God I believe in and it is not the testimony of the vast majority of the Christians I know.

In his article Copson asks that we stop caricaturing humanists and atheists and he is right to make that plea. As Copson says:
The works of Shelley join the novels, poems, songs, sculptures, paintings, architecture and plays of generations of godless artists in exposing the straw man of the desiccated rationalist for what it is, and showcasing a humanist vision of life.
I’d be grateful if Copson would return the courtesy and stop caricaturing the God that I believe in and the testimony of others to that God in order to dismiss my faith as irrational.

7 comments:

Alijean said...

I'm so glad that Phil has pointed out the repeated use of the word "belief". Why is it that so many people who would categorise themselves as intelligent, fail to recognise that everyone, not merely those viewed as "religious" (a term which carries its own baggage), exist within their own belief system? We all have a world view which has been carefully moulded by aspects such as home, family, schooling and our favoured mentors. Add to that our human propensity to think we know best and our "beliefs" become more entrenched.

Surely the intelligent thing to do would be to admit that Christians, Jews, Vegans, Racists, Humanists, Conservatives etc. all have beliefs and to respect their right to hold those beliefs. That doesn't mean to say you agree with, or condone those ideas, but the extent and stature of your intelligence could determine if you might be open to listening to conflicting testimonies.

Copson appears to pooh-pooh testimonies, but Shelley's writing became popular because those who were moved by his works testified to that effect; Dawkin's testimonies are popular with many Humanists; my husband's Great Aunt Margaret's testimony of answered prayer hit home with me. The next step should be acting on testimony and following the truth, but that's another discussion.

Brian Westley said...

Given that everything else we observe in our universe seems to have a cause why should the Universe be any different?

But your "given" is incorrect; radioactive decay seems to NOT have a cause, and spontaneous particle-antiparticle pair production also appears to be causeless.

Is it irrational to take the testimony of others to find out if something is true and finding it is true to believe in it?

If many people using the same technique come to mutually exclusive conclusions, that shows that this method can't be reliable, so yes, it would be irrational.

For example, people using the above technique can end up believing in many different gods, not just your god, yet each one believes that their beliefs are true. But if you ask them about, say, moral questions where their particular gods disagree with your god (e.g. is polygamy moral? Is homosexuality moral?) this shows that at least one of you must be wrong. Which means your method of determining truth is faulty.

Archdruid Eileen said...

Brian, doesn't radioactive decay have a very clear cause - that there are stable and unstable configurations of atomic nuclei? Unstable heavy nuclei over a period of time will revert to the more stable ones. I believe the way in which this works spontaneously is subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, and we are capable of understanding this - so I think it's fair to say this does have a cause and it's completely knowable.

Likewise, I'm not up on pair-production but as I understand it there's a known set of criteria under which it can happen and therefore again the "cause" exists.

This doesn't help with the existence of God, but I think that quantum physics is nice.

Philip Ritchie said...

This comment was posted by Gurdur:

Phil, this is a really interesting blog post, with a million different aspects to address. I like it a lot, even though:

Pardon me, I happen to think you're gravely wrong on a whole lot of points in it, but I am really glad you brought up these points, since at their best they can lead to productive discussion. If you don't mind, I am going to address sets of points from your post in blog posts of my own.

Just a quick note: you leave out the null condition too often. Just for one example only, you want to put "Atheism" and "Humanism" on the same level vis-a-vis religion regarding "rationality"; yet in doing so, you begin trivializing the concept of "rationality" itself out of any significant existence (and destroying the concept of logical conclusion; see below). Or, IOW, over-relativizing.

Another point would be conflation. There's religion, and then there's religion. Ditto with atheism.

Some atheism is quite simply a deductive and inductive conclusion after examining all the evindence for a god/gods.

That you cannot put on the same level of alleged "Belief", otherwise, as said, exactly where in your universe is there room for logic and deduction?

Other forms of atheism may fall into a belief category; but allow me to be very blunt here. Always trying to equate atheism with "Belief" (itself left there as a very nebulous entity) is quite often a favourite tactic among the religious, yet I can only see it as a tactic that eventually backfires for the religious when reality simply doesn't match up with the claim.

So: sometimes, quite often, atheism is the outcome of deduction, not belief.

In an analogous manner, humanism is often simply the adoption of certain values, not a "Belief". Sometimes it can be a "Belief"; often it isn't.

Anyway, many thanks for this, and will reply through blog.

Philip Ritchie said...

This comment was also published by Gurdur:

To Alijean:

mutual respect and toleration is a different matter. I don't think one can win that through the use of such arguments as here; I think that can only be won with different arguments.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for your comments Gurdur, I will try and answer the points you raise. I should point out my post is specifically in response to Copson’s claims based on Shelley’s arguments.

'Just for one example only, you want to put "Atheism" and "Humanism" on the same level vis-a-vis religion regarding "rationality"; yet in doing so, you begin trivializing the concept of "rationality" itself out of any significant existence (and destroying the concept of logical conclusion; see below). Or, IOW, over-relativizing.'

I don’t believe I do trivialise rationality. It is perfectly rational to draw conclusions based on evidence and I am saying that when I look at the evidence about the claims of Christianity I find it reasonable to draw conclusions about belief in God. Likewise my belief in a first cause / creator. That is a rational process. Or are you saying that the many scientists down through history and up to the present are irrational when they come to this conclusion? Your argument seems to be that only people who look at the evidence and conclude God does not exist can be rational but on what basis?

'Another point would be conflation. There's religion, and then there's religion. Ditto with atheism. Some atheism is quite simply a deductive and inductive conclusion after examining all the evidence for a god/gods. That you cannot put on the same level of alleged "Belief", otherwise, as said, exactly where in your universe is there room for logic and deduction?'

I’ve yet to meet anyone who has examined ‘all the evidence’. But the same can be true for belief in God. Having examined the evidence I deduce there is a God.

'Other forms of atheism may fall into a belief category; but allow me to be very blunt here. Always trying to equate atheism with "Belief" (itself left there as a very nebulous entity) is quite often a favourite tactic among the religious, yet I can only see it as a tactic that eventually backfires for the religious when reality simply doesn't match up with the claim. In an analogous manner, humanism is often simply the adoption of certain values, not a "Belief". Sometimes it can be a "Belief"; often it isn't.'

As I said I am addressing Copson’s argument and his use of the language and in the example of the story of an atheist he cites he uses the term ‘belief’ twice. He doesn’t qualify or define this differently from his other uses of the term when talking about religion, so it is reasonable to conclude he means what he says; this young man’s worldview as an atheist is a belief.

Brian Westley said...

Brian, doesn't radioactive decay have a very clear cause - that there are stable and unstable configurations of atomic nuclei?

No. I'm referring to WHEN an unstable particle decays. That moment of decay appears to have no cause. Nothing (heat, chemicals, etc) seems to speed it up or slow it down or trigger decay events. It's an uncaused event.