I’ve been waiting a while to see if Pinker would say something about religion, rather in trepidation because I feared it would damage my regard for him. Sadly, my worst fears have been realised in his feeble response to the Templeton Foundation’s question "Has Science made Belief in God Obsolete?"
Pinker’s answer is yes, although he admits that all modern rationality is required to do the job to debunking God. The trouble is that his argument is pitiful. It is in three parts. The first says that because science has successfully rendered the Book of Genesis obsolete as a scientific text, religion has lost one of its major purposes. This is a standard atheist trope but it wholly ill-informed about what religion is about. A tiny part of the Bible and other sacred texts deal with quasi-scientific explanations. Furthermore, although many have seen God in His Creation, the design argument is such is a modern invention that only really appears in the eighteenth century. When religious people saw God in the workings of nature, they never thought this was some sort of proof he existed, but rather something to praise him for. The idea that religion primarily provided an exposition on the natural world is a throw back to the nineteenth century for which we have now realised there is almost no evidence.
In short, religion got going without the design argument and it will happily keep going without it as well. That said, I do find some mileage in both the fine tuning and the cosmological arguments. Pinker dismisses both of these with the old saw “who made God?” Fifty years ago, almost all atheists thought the universe was eternal and dismissed as nonsense the idea it had a beginning. It is odd that they won’t extend the same courtesy to God.
In the second part of his argument, Pinker moves to morality. I praised his recent article on the evolution of morals while pointing out its limitations. Pinker admits you can’t get ethics from science but insists you can’t get them from religion either. The argument he uses, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, is 2,500 years old and so I assume does not form part of modern science. The trouble is, Plato’s argument cannot be applied to a transcendent deity. It is quite possible (actually it is true) that morality is not to be derived from natural causes. But we cannot say from this that an external God who created nature cannot impose rules upon her that nature herself is unable to produce. Nor can we say that those external rules, like the truths of mathematics that Godel showed can’t be reduced to axioms, should not be objectively true.
Thirdly, Pinker claims that the Golden Rule is a rational ethical system in itself. It is good to see that Pinker has cracked all the ethical problems that have kept philosophers up at night for centuries, but I fear you cannot reduce morality to such a single rule. Nor can Pinker escape the fact that he is rationalising a system he has inherited from Christianity. Given the state of today’s world, I think it would be foolish to assume that all moral difficulties have been solved.
I’ve mentioned Russell’s Syndrome in the past. This is a medical condition whereby highly intelligent people start talking nonsense as soon as they turn their minds to religion. It is sad to find that Pinker is a sufferer. Would anyone like to hazard a guess from whom he caught it?
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