Faith – apparently little more than a mushy pile of peas

According to John Haught, who is apparently a theologian (he certainly writes like one), faith can be defined any way you want, as long as your definition makes believing in unproven, unevidenced mysticism a reasonable proposition – in fact, by Haught’s reasoning, reason itself wouldn’t exist without belief in the unbelievable. Much like Humpty Dumpty, who famously proclaimed that words can mean whatever he wants them to, shortly before being butchered by horses masquerading as ovologists.

Found at Metamagician Russell Blackford’s place:

“Faith, as theology uses the term, is neither an irrational leap nor ‘belief without evidence.’ It is an adventurous movement of trust that opens reason up to its appropriate living space, namely, the inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth, and Goodness. Faith is not the enemy of reason but its cutting edge. Faith is what keeps reason from turning in on itself and suffocating in its own self-enclosure. Faith is what opens our minds to the infinite horizon in which alone reason can breathe freely and in which action can gain direction. Reason requires a world much larger than the one that mere rationalism or scientific naturalism is able to provide. Without the clearing made by faith, reason withers, and conduct has no calling. Faith is what gives reason a future, and morality a meaning.” (God and the New Atheists, page 75)

Is this the carefully thought-out theology that atheists like R. Dawkins, C. Hitchens, S. Harris, R. Blackford, J. Coyne, O. Benson, PZ Myers and others are accused of ignoring? Truly? I ask because we see that complaint a lot – some theologian or accomodationist pops their head over the parapet, sees a “New Atheist” article or book and attempts to rip it to shreds, citing along with the usual hollow accusations of militancy, stridency & fundamentalism a rank ignorance of modern sophisticated theological argument. If this is meant to be such, I confess it bears no further resemblance to sophistication than a Corvette sports car does to its maritime namesake.

Now, while I do consider myself reasonably fluent in English and reasonably familiar with how it is to be used, I’m not a strict dictionary-definition kind of guy. I understand that meanings of words are malleable and even prone to about-faces over time. But what Mr Haught (or is he a doctor? Can you get a doctorate in making yourself comfortable with a religion you most likely didn’t choose but had thrust upon you?) is doing is precisely the kind of thing Humpty was talking about above: redefining, at its core, a word to suit his purposes. Case in point: after some infuriatingly syrupy New-Age-y waffle about the “inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth and Goodness”, (yes, he’s of the Capitalist school of modern theology, seeking to confer doubleplus Pondering Gravitas to particular Key Words by judicious applicaton of the Shift Key) Haught describes faith as being more or less indispensable to reason. Faith, he appears to believe, is a necessary – the necessary – prerequisite to reason. Faith in a religious context isn’t, as most dictionaries would have us believe, believing in a proposition in the absence of evidence for that proposition; no, to a theologian, faith is a machete that makes the clearing that reason requires in order to function. Faith isn’t, as proclaimed proudly by believers from Islamabad to Islington to Illawarra, belief without evidence. No, without faith we wouldn’t even know the meaning of evidence, because we wouldn’t have sufficient reason to define or comprehend it.

Really? Reason couldn’t exist without unreasonable belief in unreasonable propositions? Well, I suppose so – in some internally-consistent belief system where definitions of commonly understood words are as plastic and subject to interpretation”” as the very scriptural underpinnings of that belief system, anyway. But the best-written and most compelling fan-fiction that’s most faithful to the source material is still fiction.

[As an aside, I love the little morality nudge n’wink at the end, presumably added just for good measure as it has no apparent bearing on the preceding paragraph. As we all know, “morality”, when written by a theologian or any spiritualist, is a dog-whistle to the faithful; a code which means “Good behaviour = Jesus”. Everyone knows people aren’t capable of being nice without believing God killed himself to save you from his chamber of horrors.]

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve not read this book of Haught’s, just the excerpt posted by Russell. I doubt that I will read it either, but not out of any fear of having my worldview shaken to its core. You see, we not-really-that-new-at-all-atheists have dog-whistles of our own; you just know, for example, that whenever a theologian or theoccommodationist even uses the term “New Atheist” in passing, let alone entitles a book with it, there’s a fair chance that the work of theirs you’re about to read will make you cringe and raise your eyebrow, Spock-like, at least; hurl the book or your PC out a window at worst. If this one (mercifully) brief example of opaque & pompous prose is any guide, the time I’d take slogging my way through Haught’s tome and arranging repairs to my various computers and windows would likely be better spent elsewhere – perhaps counting my toenails and then doing it again to confirm my initial total. Haught, far from being the skilful writer and thought-provoking theologian he clearly thinks he is, seems more like Humpty Dumpty, taking such extreme liberty with the definition of a key word in the discourse on religion that he might as well just hold up a mushy pile of peas as his Gold Standard of evidence for the reasonableness of believing in God and leave it at that.


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