October 30, 2010

"Orgulous infidels"

David B. Hart, ...of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves...

...As far as Patrick was concerned, the matter had been settled; [his young son had been "taught," absurdly, that science had proved there were no "spirits of the trees and streams."] but I have to admit that the episode continues to trouble me. It is not that I expect my son never to be exposed to any of the conceptual confusion or magical claptrap of his age; and I trust to his native intelligence to disabuse him of the worst of it. But it is still depressing to think how much conceited gibberish has become simply part of the received wisdom of our time.

It puts me in mind of a particularly annoying witticism that one occasionally encounters in the current popular debates between atheists and theists: the orgulous infidel waves his hand contemptuously and announces that he believes neither that there is a God nor that there are fairies at the bottom of his garden—or (a slight variation on the theme) observes that everyone in the room is an unbeliever when it comes to Thor or Baal, and that the atheist is simply an unbeliever in one god more.

There are two reasons for treating such remarks with indignant disdain: the obvious one and mine. The obvious one, of course, is that only a simpleton could mistake these two orders of conviction for specimens of the same kind of belief.

A person who believes in fairies or in Thor may or may not be mistaken about certain finite objects within the cosmos; a person who believes in God may or may not be mistaken about being, the nature of existence itself, the logical possibility of any world, the moral meaning of the universe, and so on. The former kind of belief concerns facts of experience, the latter truths of reason, and to suggest that they occupy the same conceptual or existential space is either to confess one's own stupidity or willfully to engage in cheap rhetorical thuggery.

That though, as I say, is obvious. My reason for taking exception to such remarks is perhaps somewhat more precious, but still quite sincere. Simply enough, what if there are fairies at the bottom of one's garden? Or, more precisely, what the hell is so irrational in believing there are or might be?

One may be in error on the matter, naturally—one may just have misread the signs—but one cannot justly be accused of having committed any trespass against logic. Nothing gives us warrant to imagine that, on account of our grasp of various organic processes, we have succeeded in lifting the veil of Isis....

I've just started a very witty and interesting book by Mr Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, so it was a treat to enjoy this article, and then belatedly realize that they were by the same person. I think the book is going to be one I'll recommend.

Posted by John Weidner at October 30, 2010 5:10 PM
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