Andrew Sullivan: Embrace your Inner Atheist.
One of the blogs which I read is Andrew Sullivan. He often makes sense, though not always. While he has been a strong opponent of fundamentalist Christianism he is religious. And now and then he goes into his faith babble and when he does he often becomes totally incoherent. I heard him lecture in Amsterdam and remember some of the kind of comments he made.
One particularly incoherent comment of his was along these lines: “I believe because I doubt, I doubt because I believe.” It is the kind of rhetoric one can only get away with when talking theology. I suspect that is because most people assume theology isn’t supposed to be understandable anyway. After all we are talking about the “mysterious” and the “unknowable”. In others words it is about people saying incoherent things about topics which they know nothing about and deny the ability to know anything about. Yet one is always faced with them talking about it -- often endlessly.
Now if this makes no sense to the human mind, if it is unknowable then logically we can have nothing to say about it. In fact we can’t even claim that it is unknowable since that is to claim some knowledge about it.
Sullivan is having an on-line debate with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. And while I won’t report on the debate here is a section of what Sullivan said, and this is what I want to comment upon.
Sullivan talks about “truth” but what is his truth? First, can you have truth without a comprehending mind? Is there truth if there is only immaterial objects or lower order animals incapable of rational thought? I’m wondering if you can even speak of truth outside the existence of man. Otherwise what you have is just existence. But “truth” is not another word for existence. It is an evaluation about a theory of existence. When we say something is truth we are saying it is a theory that, in comparison with existence, is rationally shown to be valid.
So for truth to exist you need a human mind, developing a theory, comparing the theory to the reality of existence and then logically appraising it as valid. But for Sullivan “truth” is a vague term that can not be as I’ve describe it. For instance he says that there is no conflict between reason and faith “since both are reconciled by a Truth that may yet be beyond our understanding.”
What sort of truth is that? If it is beyond our understanding how does he know it is ‘truth”? He can’t. But he realizes there are problems between faith and reason so the invents an explanation that is not an explanation at all -- it is truth that is yet beyond our understanding.
Further theobabble from Andrew: “But just because that Truth may be beyond our human understanding does not mean it is therefore in a cosmic sense unreasonable.” This is what I mean about saying things that sound profound but lack any substantive meaning. There are facts we don’t know. But “true” is not an evaluation of existence. Existence simple is. It can neither be true nor false.
To say there is truth we don’t understand is an absurdity since truth is an evaluation of our estimation of existence. If we have no understanding we have no theory and we are saying nothing. You can not evaluate nothing as true or false.
More theobabble: “At some point faith has to abandon reason for mystery -- but that does not mean -- and need never mean -- abandoning reason altogether.” Here is how I see what this means: when we invent gods and the supernatural we are getting into things which by definition are invalid rationally, so we call them mysteries. Of course he has to say this a mystery because there is no reason or logic to it. The entire premise is false. Now they will attempt to smuggle in premises and then logically argue based on the false premises. But when you challenge the false premises they either try to smuggle in further false premises or appeal to mysteries, the unknowable, etc.
Always at the bottom of theology there is a foundation of emptiness. They may construct great edifices of logic but these are based on ultimate premises that are vacuums. You go down to the foundation and find a black hole staring back at you. Everything that is based on a nothing is itself nothing.
Andrew talks about “mystery as the core reality of any religious life.” Notice he smuggled in the idea that this mystery, this black hole, is somehow reality. The vacuum at the bottom of religion is not reality. It is the absence of reality. Andrew tells Harris that he finds religion troubling “purely because it upholds truths that cannot be proven empirically or even, in some respects, logically.”
Then by what standard does he call these things “truths”?
When we say that something is true we specifically mean that the statement that is made is consistent with reality and has been demonstrated as such. When Andrew speaks of true he speaks of things which are not demonstrated and which apparently can’t be demonstrated. Truth has no meaning in that sense. Any statement, no matter how absurd, could be true since truth no longer is tied to demonstrating the reasonableness of a theory.
What Sullivan does, whether it is his intention or not, is to chuck our reason and logic. But since he is not a fundamentalist he does this. He accepts reason and logic for most things. But there are things he wants to believe, things for which there is no evidence that can be verified. So for the things he feels emotionally attached to, but which for which there is no evidence, he then invents a second means of understanding which he calls faith. It is trotted out to justify beliefs that can not be justified in any other way.
He likes the pageantry and ritual of Catholicism. Its theater for him. He doesn’t accept most the doctrines of Catholicism. He thinks them wrong on most such issues. In the film Jeffrey, the main character seeks out a priest for advice. But he finds a priest who is an atheist who find meaning instead in Broadway show tunes. I see Andrew as somewhat like that priest. He has abandoned most the doctrine, clings to a few ideas he finds comfort in (ideas that make him feel good) and then finds meaning in the theater of religion -- the show tunes, if you will.
Take away the theater of Catholicism and he’d lose the last thing about the church that really seems to inspire him. But then he’d cling to the “feel good” ideas about a deity just because they meet some emotional need. But find comfort in ideas does not make the ideas truth. And throwing out reason and logic so truth means nothing doesn’t solve the problem.
Here is my theory about Andrew Sullivan. At his core there is atheist screaming to come out. But there is a frightened individual fearful that meaning will vanish is his god dies. So he indulges in theobabble that sounds profound but which is an intellectual void. My advice: come out of the closet, embrace your inner atheist.