Some recent posts on The Corner touched a nerve. Mike Potemra invoked some pretzel logic to claim that Christopher Hitchens does believe in God. Having just attended a debate between Hitch and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete he writes
In the course of the discussion, Hitchens claimed not to be a reductionist; he said mankind cannot do without the “numinous” and (I think this was his other phrase) the “transcendent.” (He located this in, for example, Verdi’s “Requiem.”) Now the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God. Hitchens says what he doesn’t believe in is the “supernatural” — but that’s merely a quibble about words. If you use the word “nature” — as so many people do — as interchangeable with “what is” or “being,” then God is not “super-natural” at all, because — as Aquinas, chiefly, reminds us — God is the pure act of Being itself, Ipsum Esse Subsistens.
Then a like-minded poli-sci professor emailed in to opine
I have often made a similar point to my students and to other professors: Hitchens acts as if there are moral standards that never change—take human rights. For Hitchens, human rights can never be contravened morally or rightly. In some sense, I argued, he believes in natural rights (as opposed to natural wrongs). To make it more interesting he is piously outraged when some rights have been violated. Hitchens may not believe in the personal God many do, but he does believe in a god that is a non arbitrary standard of right and wrong, good and evil.
Jim Manzi later piped in
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve banged on and on and on in blog posts about the point that morality (as opposed to prudence dressed up as morality) strikes me as absurd in a purely naturalistic universe.
All I can say is that God is quite the moving target. He’s a supernatural deity who is sometimes not supernatural, he’s anything “numinous” or “transcendent”, and he’s a “non arbitrary standard of right and wrong”. That’s when he isn’t busy being the pure act of being. It’s no wonder I’m dizzy what with the goal posts whizzing about so.
I’m not here to defend Hitch. He’s quite capable of doing that on his own, and I fully recognize he can be abrasive and overbearing. I want to concentrate on what these gentlemen seem to be claiming, in spite of the fact that they’ll probably never see my little blog.
The first problem I have is with a false dichotomy. Saying that science provides no moral guidance reminds me of Thomas Sowell:
“Many have argued that capitalism does not offer a satisfactory moral message. But that is like saying that calculus does not contain cabrohydrates, amino acids, or other essential nutrients. Everything fails by irrevelant standards.” (emphasis added)
Science is a method for knowing the truth about nature. Morality is about behavioral choices. Conflating the two is as false a dichotomy as having to choose between science and religion. As John Derbyshire pointed out, “the opposite of science is not religion; the opposite of science is wishful thinking”.
Playing semantic games with the word “supernatural” is just Orwellian. It’s not moving the goalposts; it’s erasing the boundaries of the playing field. The natural world can be observed and tested. God can’t. Appealing to authority, even Aquinas, to arbitrarily redefine something which must be taken on faith as natural is fallacious.
Claiming that recognizing the numinous and transcendent in man is a belief in God is a willful misreading of the words. When Hitch used numinous he clearly meant “appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense” and when he said transcendent it meant something more like “relating to experience as determined by the mind’s makeup” than what Potemra and Manzi claim.
I used to be one of the faithful. The God I believed in was not some vaguely numinous transcendent idea, but a specific being. If Potemra and Manzi believe in such an ethereal notion that’s their business, but I don’t think they can speak for all believers with howlers like “[n]ow the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God.” This reminds me of the “god of the gaps” maneuvering at the Discovery Institute: Just keep redefining the problem until the only possible solution looks like your deity.
Getting finally to the matter of morals in a godless universe, I think the problem is explainable as internal versus external decision making. A wonderful book on child rearing I read makes the case that children who do things because their parents want it are responding to external guidance. If the child learns what is right and wrong and makes his own choices he is using internal guidance. It should be obvious which one will best survive the buffeting of peer pressure in later life.
The most comfortable thing about a belief in God is not having to worry about where the rules come from. They simply come from the Ultimate Authority. Period. That’s external guidance. It’s also one of the most common and pernicious logical fallacies – the Appeal to Authority. I happen to think that religions have evolved to help form cohesive groups and pass along moral guidance. At their best they represent the wisdom of the masses, and the accumulated wisdom of experience. On the other hand it should not come as any shock that many of our morals have evolved with us biologically. It’s an evolutionary advantage to love your children, because human children can’t survive on their own. The fact that my love for my daughter came from nature and my own choices makes it no less real than a love gifted by God.
Repeat after me: I have a right to exist.
Yes, I’ve read my Nathaniel Branden. Once you can say the above and mean it, rationally you must conclude that others also have the right to exist. From those two statements you can derive just about all the morality you need. But let’s even include that accumulated wisdom from the great religions and recognize that fidelity and responsibility and all the nice refinements are also required for success. That’s internal guidance.
While man requires an external diety to justify the law, even if that diety exists, then man is still a child. Healthy adults make their own choices and evaluate their own consequences, as well as observe the consequences of choices made by others.
It’s a wonderful, numinous and transcendent thing that man has figured out morality. Why is it so hard to take credit for it? The founding fathers of this country knew that certain truths were self evident. That’s because they are. It is quite possible to believe in a fixed set of morals and not believe in a supernatural being. One need not believe in any sort of god to know that Verdi’s Requiem is transcendent and numinous. And, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, God is not a natural thing. He is not necessary to explain anything.
If anybody tries dragging Darwin into a debate on morals, they are being dishonest. Evolution just happens to be the scientific truth about how we became the species we are. It is completely silent on many things, notably the origins of life and morality. It was the Marxists who tried to co-opt Darwin to justify their junk political “science”.
If God has accomplished wonders, we invented him. Any species that can create Mozart, pesto sauce and space ships is divine in its own right. It’s about time we grew up and took credit.