Douglas Adams, power atheist

This excerpt is from an interview with Douglas Adams published in American Atheist some time ago. I think it rules.

I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” – then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically.

God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

You should read the whole interview, just like you should read anything by Douglas Adams. (well…maybe not the fifth book in the Hitchhiker “trilogy”; you can probably skip that one!) I was tickled even though he devotes most of it to attacking my own position of agnosticism, rather effectively I must admit. His is the kind of logic that could possibly bring me around to the atheist point of view.

Say, there are some religious folks who read this blog I think. (half or so have got to be kin because my daily hit count suggests that half or so of my readership has got to be kin :D) Anyone want to take a stab at refuting the above passage by Adams on logical grounds? He’s calling you guys the arrogant ones. You gonna take that from him?


6 responses to “Douglas Adams, power atheist

  1. As one of your loyal reader-kin, I am answering the call! As far as Adams’ assertions that, before science came around, God, and religion by extension, were merely the best explanations we had for the world, I say: Puh-leeze! Is that the only role God has played in people’s lives for so many centuries, to fill lines of textbooks explaining why the world is? Granted, I do think that God and religion have historically been used as explanations and rationalizations for all sorts of things, but to say that such uses encompass the entire nature and role of God is simply silly. I think it odd that agnostics and atheists tend to treat God and religion like math problems, because in my view (and this is in contrast to traditional Western heritage which considers God a relatively aloof three-part spirit something-or-rather) God is an embodied, perfected being who thinks, feels, and acts. Furthermore, I think that the math problem approach ignores some very significant admonitions given about finding truth, such as Jesus’ very clear explanation that one can know the truth of some principle by applying it in real life (John 7:17). It seems to me that inaction is one of the hallmarks of atheism and agnosticism, which instead prefer logic, seemingly logic and logic alone. Thus, when you say Adams’ logic could potentially sway you to atheism, I say “Big whoop!” That’s like someone persuading me to sit around and be lazy at home – it’s barely significant at all! I think one of the big appeals of the logical approach is simply that it doesn’t require any actual action or commitment, which understandably is appealing for someone in your situation. Nevertheless, pretty much every religion I know of asks not only for willing minds (and if it doesn’t, then beware!) but also for conscious action (if it doesn’t, then don’t expect that such a religion will have much of a positive impact in your life). In short, I have never met a person with apparent conviction who didn’t think his (or her) beliefs through and then put his (or her) beliefs into action.

    As for the arrogance bit, I’ll be the first to admit that I personally have a tendency towards self-righteousness, but that is not quite the same thing as arrogance. Certainly, there are people who claim to be devout and religious who are also arrogant, which I think severely weakens their claim, although perhaps that depends on the religion, as some may more tolerant of arrogance than others. It seems to me that, in the quest to be “neutral”, “objective”, and “rational”, all esteemed virtues of the secular world, those of the atheist/agnostic mindset are inclined to distrust any expression of faithful assurance. Admittedly, this may be because the source has been shown to be suspect, but personal character is a matter somewhat separate from the truthfulness of some principle; a principle can still be true even if one of its proponents is not. Basically, whether I or any other religious person is arrogant or not is only peripheral to the veracity of a religious claim.

    And I still think most atheists are arrogant 🙂

  2. Let’s see, he won’t argue with someone that thinks the moon is made of blue cheese, but you expect us to argue in favor of God.

    I like Heinlein and he had an excellent line. He said (roughly) that he couldn’t prove there was a God and he couldn’t prove there wasn’t. Sooner or later, we will know. Heinlein no knows the Truth. So do I. I just didn’t have to wait.

    Arrogant? Maybe. Or maybe just convinced.

  3. Zugman and Randy, great comments as always!

    Randy isn’t going to “fall for it” and will be content to be seen as arrogant in Adams’ eyes, assuming Adams, also dead now, does not now know the Truth as well.

    I like Heinlein’s line too. Iirc he enunciated that position in Stranger In a Strange Land, which I thought was neat of him to do, as much of that book (and others he’s written) went around poking fun of religion.

    Zugman, since Adams is unable to answer for himself, would you mind if I gave it a try?

    If you reject the idea of God being first and foremost an attempt to answer those fundamental metaphysical questions humanity is prone to ask (“Why are we here?”, “Where did we come from?”, “Where are we going?”, etc), then what in your view is the primary reason any person ought to care whether there is or is not a God? Why does The God Question even matter? If God as an explanation for the big questions is not the most significant area of investigation of any assertion that he exists, then I would imagine Adams would conclude that he ain’t worth nearly the amount of time we spend contemplating him.

    Now, when you criticize skeptics for “treating God like a math problem”, is this not simply another way of saying that a skeptic, when confronted with the assertion that a God exists, refuses to recognize any special exemptions from the rules of logic and empiricism that all serious fields of inquiry are subject to? No such exemptions are claimed by math, science, history, economics, philosophy, or any other field that serves the purpose of expanding human understanding. Why, asks the skeptic (Douglas Adams, in this case), must the notion of a God be granted a special pass?

    Regarding your own criticism that the atheist or agnostic position is one of laziness (Go back and read what you wrote; I’m not sure you realize how condescending you sound :)) you ought to know better than to say that. And I would add that the duty to integrity/consistency is one commitment that no conviction is free from. (Yes, atheism is a conviction, too)

  4. “Now, when you criticize skeptics for “treating accountable to theGod like a math problem”, is this not simply another way of saying that a skeptic, when confronted with the assertion that a God exists, refuses to recognize any special exemptions from the rules of logic and empiricism that all serious fields of inquiry are subject to? No such exemptions are claimed by math, science, history, economics, philosophy, or any other field that serves the purpose of expanding human understanding. Why, asks the skeptic (Douglas Adams, in this case), must the notion of a God be granted a special pass?”

    Not kin, but religious enough to want to make a comment here anyway.

    From my perspective, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, the two sides (religious and non-religious) aren’t able to answer each other’s questions because they can’t agree on the fundamental basis on which to create a debate that allows for both sides to be equally represented.

    The reason I quoted your paragraph above is just for that reason. Science is good at some things. One of those is being critical and changing their understanding of the world, over time. However, in the moment, scientific argument always presumes that their current assumptions are correct to the point of holding everyone in the world to their standard.

    Unfortunately, as we’ve seen particularly in the last century, many of our scientific principles that hold up to our current logic, fail miserably when we gain a new insight into how the world works.

    I have faith that God exists without scientific proof. And, I do not think that our collective human knowledge information about the world, and certainly not the assumptions we base our logic on, are far enough advanced to ‘settle’ the debate about the existence of deity.

    So, as you may be expecting, I reject Douglas Adams’ premise that the burden of proof has shifted.

  5. Hi John.

    You bring up a valid point about science. (the divide is really between reason and faith, but we can talk about science too; science is in the service of reason). I think the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” applies here.

    The scientific method is a fairly reliable filter for determining what is objectively true. It’s track record really is not bad, when you consider all the accomplishments of man that trace back to it. In a world where anybody can make any kind of crazy claims about anything, you would agree it is useful to have such a filter?

    That science can sometimes get things wrong–which it certainly can–doesn’t mean we should throw it out without having something better to take its place. And whatever we replace it with ought to be categorically applicable.

    Can anybody (anybody who didn’t receive his education in a place like Saudi Arabia, I mean) seriously suggest that religious faith is a more reliable method of determining what is objectively true?

    I think that clearly we are nowhere close to being able to settle the debate. At the same time, I also think that the skeptics can score a point over the believers by getting them to admit, as they must, that their position is, if not demonstrably false, at least demonstrably irrational given the best tools and knowledge that we now possess. As I noted last time we he had a discussion of this sort, irrational conclusions can sometimes turn out to be correct. I just wouldn’t bet on it.

  6. Now that I finally have enough time to create a response with some degree of lucidity, I’m going to try to clarify what I meant in my previous comment from what was apparently conveyed. In true Marty McFly style, I had perceived this post’s challenge as an invitation to recklessly defend my honor, and thus it ended up for the most part like an impassioned straw man attack. After reading Adams’ original article, I got the feeling that I actually would enjoy his intelligence and wit if I knew him personally, and likewise, the Libertarian in me really wants to respect an individual’s right to believe whatever the heck they want so long as it doesn’t harm others. Thus, I am very sorry for the condescending tone of my original comment. However, few things rouse me to action as strongly as when religion is under attack.
    That said, in agreement with John, I would say that science and religion operate on different fundamental assumptions. Science is based on the naturalistic assumption that phenomena and theories can all be examined by the same general methods, and that anything which requires an exemption from such scrutiny must therefore be nonexistent or unknowable. You essentially said this in your response to my comment. If science were the only and/or most trustworthy epistemology -an implicit premise of your argument- I would agree, then, that God must either not exist or be forever shrouded from the agnostic’s view. The thing is, I disagree with that premise!
    Although clichéd, the classic dichotomy between “book smarts” and “street smarts” succinctly suggests the existence not only of a mental way of knowing, or in other words a rational epistemology, but also an experiential epistemology. Add to the latter the relational nature of life, and you have a very robust approach to life which cannot easily be ignored by those who love reason and snub their noses at all things “irrational”.
    What I mean by relational nature of life is this: the most real things you experience in life are all the result of interactions with other agentic individuals. Although science has improved our lives in countless ways, it is still merely a tool in the interactions among beings who think, feel, and act. The food we eat, the conversations we have, the roads we drive on, the computers we use, the laughs we share with others – all of these daily realities stem from human relationships.
    Life is composed of countless decisions which very appropriately require the application of reason. However, when we speak of reality and existence, reason, although still indispensable, nevertheless provides only part of the answer. I think that if you limit your definition of reality to what can be thought up in the unseen mental world, you are bound to come up with some explanation barely more useful than that we’re brains in a vat. I believe that experience teaches us what is real in a way that can be, but is not always allowed to be, complementary to reason. One of my beefs with atheism is that it doesn’t require much beyond sitting and thinking, and it generally considers experience to be a nice little vacation from the reliable, real world of rationality; it is a null belief, if it is any belief at all. Again, (and this is actually what I meant originally, although its expression was more condescending than informative), in a situation such as yours where physical freedom is limited, atheism and agnosticism are understandably more agreeable because they seem like some of the only options you’ve got. I don’t think that such a conclusion is the most correct, but to come to that conclusion in your circumstances is certainly understandable.
    In short, I believe that an approach to determining God’s reality that relies solely on science or which ignores experience inevitably will fail to find Him. In contrast, an approach which applies reason, recognizes the relational nature of life, and pays attention to experience (including -gasp!- impressions and feelings!) will be able to lead to that quiet assurance of God and His love that so many people (some of them even quite intelligent and otherwise rational!) keep talking about.

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