Friday, June 18, 2010

More on Midgley

PZ Myers leaped on a comment on my earlier post on this Mary Midgley post before I'd even formulated my own response. How he manages this, I do not know. Perhaps he gets more from those squid than simple sexual fulfillment.

The commenter Nick Matzke suggests Myers and I read two of Midgley's books before criticizing her work (at least I think what he means by saying that after reading these works "then we'll talk") and argues that Midgley thinks there's more to life than science, and that those who would use scientific evidence to draw conclusions about something as fundamental as the existence of God miss what's most important about religion.

I'm not arguing about Midgley's overall view, about which I know little, but focusing on this article. Perhaps some of my questions about her meaning could have been answered by reading these other books, but if her audience is limited to those who have read all her books, then she's got a limited readership.

Anyway, Matzke lists four potential benefits of religion.

providing a sense of community
instilling values in children and in themselves
providing a hopeful view of their place in the grand scheme of things (the typical atheist alternative is pretty dour and depressing)
providing an organizational framework for social action, charity, and/or political action

There are two problems with this as a defense of Midgley's article.
The first problem is that, as Myers argues, these are benefits or social goods that do not rely in any way on religion. One of the benefits of the New Atheists is that they are forming exactly the social and philanthropic groups that can achieve these benefits.

The only benefit Matzke mentions that an atheist cannot have is hope for a future afterlife. Unfortunately, such a future life does not exist, and there's no significant evidence that it does. It would be nice to think that there is such a heaven --if it didn't get too boring -- although if there is a corresponding hell for non-believers, then it would be hard to believe a God who treated people in that way was good. The larger question is whether a naturalistic, atheistic worldview can provide as hopeful and happy life as a religious one, and whether that hope and happiness are more rational than the hope and happiness one gets from religion. Although we could not hope for a future afterlife in heaven, we could still hope for human progress here on earth. Theism may, and often does, focus people's attention on that false hope and takes the focus away from the value of life on earth. Not all theists have done this, but I don't think it's a strawman to say that atheism and naturalism more properly focus our attempts at happiness for ourselves and others solely on earth.

The second problem is that I cannot see Midgley's argument in this case as relying on benefits. She argues for respecting religious worldviews, not for recognizing benefits of religion. The factors mentioned could only relate to worldviews if the worldviews included a claim that these benefits are not available without religion. Unfortunately, these benefits are not unique to religion.

Let's assume then that the issue is holism about worldviews. One cannot argue effectively against a religious worldview in isolation since religious believers will have other justifications for their beliefs, and explanations for why their views are not undermined by science. Thus, a complete attempt to refute a worldview must involve giving good reasons to replace these alternative sources with other sources and replace their views about meaning, morality and human life with non-religious views. Interestingly, there is at least one New Atheist who attempts to do this, and that is Owen Flanagan in his The Problem of the Soul.

Strangely, when a professional philosopher who is familiar with all the relevant philosophical literature and who produces a careful, thoughtful and respectful presentation of the alternative non-religious worldview that religious believers could and should adopt, no one ever seems to mention it (Midgley, for example, as far as my internet searches can determine, does not ever comment on him). Perhaps that just means that it's more fun to deal with controversial figures, and it's easier to respond to the arguments of less careful writers. I am not trying to suggest everyone should read some particular author, but it is notable that whenever someone does what the critics of those obtuse and offensive New Atheists insist should be done, that person's work is rarely mentioned.


  1. Flanagan's book looks interesting - is it accessible to nonspecialists?

  2. Yes, Flanagan's book is accessible. I've always liked his work on philosophy of mind, and in this book he tries to show how to understand ourselves without relying on religion. There really aren't any dualists in philosophy any more, but most ordinary people, in America anyway, are dualists. So what Flanagan tries to do is show how we can have our humanity without an immaterial soul.