Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Leaps of faith -- part 1

John Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian who specializes in the relationship between science and faith. He warmly embraces scientific knowledge of the world, and he has been a firm ally in keeping creationism and intelligent design out of public school science classrooms.

I have kept up with Haught's work because he has been so often recommended to me by Catholic friends. I have now read his latest book, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens -- one more in a spate of books responding to the three bad boys of God-bashing.

Haught goes out of his way to give his opponents a fair shake. In fact, I thought Dawkins and company come off rather better in the book than do Haught's counter-arguments. Let me address just a few of Haught's ideas.

He repeats the standard argument that the new atheists' have their own belief system, grounded in faith, which Haught calls scientific naturalism. And indeed it is true that the practice of science makes no room for supernaturalism or miracles of any sort. Science works on the assumption that everything that happens is a product of inexorable natural laws that are part and parcel of the universe itself.

Is this a leap of faith? Yes. Why then do scientific naturalists make the leap? Because the enterprise based on the naturalistic assumption has proved to be astonishingly successful. It works! Who would be so perverse as to deny it? Certainly not Haught. How, then, to respond to those who claim that scientific naturalism is itself a "religion"? My answer would be simple: Whack them over the head (gently, of course) with any weekly issue, say, of Science or Nature.

Can science prove or disprove the existence of a personal, transnatural God who intervenes in the creation to answer prayers, for example, or to incarnate himself in the person of a Galilean? No. Why then choose not to believe? Because there is not a shred of reliable, non-anecdotal evidence that requires such belief. One looks long and hard through Haught's book for evidence one can sink one's teeth into. Scientific naturalists choose not to believe in Haught's personal God for the same reason Haught doesn't believe in Zeus or fairies. We simply take one more stroke with Ockham's razor.

Haught gives a fair hearing to these points; indeed, he presents them better than I can. Yet he chooses to believe. Why? More tomorrow.