Phil Clayton Reviews His Debate With Dan Dennett

Philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton shares his thoughts on the debate he had with “new atheist” and fellow philosopher Dan Dennett a couple of days ago:

What was at stake today was not whether theism and atheism are finally identical; surely that much is beyond dispute. Instead, what most divided Dennett and me was the question whether in the end worldviews make any difference. Dan is prepared to call religion “benign”—which means: not outright malignant—when it supports values that he endorses. (His friend Richard Dawkins would not give as much ground.) Beyond that, however, religion is of little interest to him. For religious believers like me, by contrast, religious belief is never reducible to the moral convictions it supports or the behaviors it produces. It functions as an entire world- and life-view, permeating all that I do, affecting how I see, interpret, and evaluate everything I encounter. It’s that truth that I sought to communicate this afternoon.
Dan Dennett and I will probably never agree on whether it’s probable that God exists. But I hope that those who view today’s debate online will ask themselves why it matters that we were defending different understandings of what ultimately exists. If we can’t even agree on the significant difference between the two speakers, and how that difference is revealed in our different ways of approaching a whole host of philosophical questions, we won’t begin to be able to evaluate the competing arguments for our different positions.


Phil Clayton and Dan Dennett Will Debate Today

A couple of weeks ago, philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton publicly challenged “new atheist” and fellow philosopher Dan Dennett to a debate. Well, Dennett has accepted the invitation, and the two will debate today in Albrecht Auditorium at Claremont Graduate University in California from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST. As Clayton sets it up:

This will be an open-ended conversation. The flyer says simply “Science, Philosophy, Theism.” Here’s a face-to-face meeting of a Christian philosopher and theologian, one who endorses evolution and works extensively on science-religion issues, with the leading philosopher among the New Atheists—one who proudly describes himself as “one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” We’ll take on the question: Is there any real (argumentative) common ground between our two positions?
What do you think will happen? Will we really connect as philosophers? Will we even be able to formulate arguments that the other can respond to? Or will it just be two ships passing in the night, shooting rhetorical salvos in each other’s direction as they steam in their different directions? In his post on Richard Dawkins’ Web site, Dan responded to my talk on theology and evolution at the Cambridge Darwin Festival by simply concluding, “in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it.” [Clayton responded here.] When we meet this week in Claremont, will we get any further in exploring forms of theism that are not anti-philosophical and anti-scientific?

We look forward to hearing how it goes.


Should Science Groups Share Their Views on S&R?

quiet-pleaseYesterday, Chris Mooney defended science organizations that make statements about the compatibility of science and religion. In his view (like that of physicist Chad Orzel), addressing the issue makes the organizations more effective in reaching religious believers, and there’s no question that there are people who don’t think science and religion are incompatible:

The issue here is simply whether such people exist, and of that there’s no doubt whatsoever. In this blunt factual sense, at least, science and religion are compatible—they are reconciled all the time by actual living, breathing human beings. You might take issue with the logical basis for such reconciliation in a particular mind, but you can’t deny that it happens regularly.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll disagrees with Mooney, however, arguing science organizations like the National Center for Science Education should stay silent and neutral on matters of religion and theology:

Some people have as their primary goal advocating for some sort of cause, whereas others are simply devoted to the truth. But an organization advocating for science needs to take both into consideration.

I have no problem with the NCSE or any other organization pointing out that there exist scientists who are religious. That’s an uncontroversial statement of fact. But I have a big problem with them making statements about whether religious belief puts you into conflict with science (or vice versa), or setting up “Faith Projects,” or generally taking politically advantageous sides on issues that aren’t strictly scientific. And explaining to people where their pastors went wrong when talking about damnation? No way.
Right now there is not a strong consensus within the scientific community about what the truth actually is vis-a-vis science and religion; I have my views, but sadly they’re not universally shared. So the strategy for the NCSE and other organizations should be obvious: just stay away. Stick to talking about science.


Sam Harris v. Karen Armstrong on Religion

Near the end of last year, Karen Armstrong wrote a defense of religion for Foreign Policy in which she asked us to rethink some ideas about God:

So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.
These writers are wrong—not only about religion, but also about politics—because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. … And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

Now, Harris has responded, challenging her sympathetic depiction of religion:

Armstrong assures us that because religion has existed for millennia, it is here to stay. Of course, the same could be said about a preoccupation with witchcraft, which has also been a cultural universal. The belief in the curative powers of human flesh is still widespread in Africa, as it used to be in the West. It is said that “mummy paint” (a salve made from ground mummy parts) was applied to Lincoln’s wounds as he lay dying.
This is now good for a laugh. But in Kenya elderly men and women are still burned alive for casting malicious spells. In Angola, unlucky boys and girls have been blinded, injected with battery acid, and killed outright in an effort to purge them of demons. In Tanzania, there is a growing criminal trade in the body parts of albino human beings—as it is widely believed that their flesh has magical properties.
I hope that Armstrong will soon apply her capacious understanding of human nature to these phenomena. Then we will learn that though witchcraft has occasionally been entangled with political injustice, an “inadequate understanding” of demonology and sympathetic magic was really to blame.

Armstrong replies back (after Harris’ letter):

Religious traditions are highly complex and multifarious. Like art, religion is difficult to do well and is often done badly; like sex, it is often tragically abused. I hold no brief for witchcraft or the superstitious trading of body parts. Like many religious people, I do not believe in demons. I abhor violence of any kind, be it verbal or physical, religious or secular.
I have written at length about the desecration of religion in the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history. I have also pointed out that, driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the “effort” required to implement the will of God in a violent world.
But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.

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