Friday, January 05, 2007

Intellectually Lazy? You bet it is!

Cal Thomas (of whom "nuff said" is usually enough) wrote a bizarre piece for the Washington Post's On Faith section. He ended it with - no kidding - Pascal's wager (though he pretended he'd come up with it on his own) and also recoiled in horror at the thought that without the fear of god, we'd all be murdering each other: "if God is not the Author of life, then we are evolutionary accidents who may treat each other as we please" - a statement made to explain why atheists who are "pro-life" are irrational ("they have an inadequate base for being so"), and therefore one which must mean that he believes atheists place no value on life, period. (And don't get me started on the way he punctuated that paragraph - the man is supposed to be a professional writer, yet he misuses parentheses something fierce... but I digress.)

In this piece he said this:
It takes more faith not to believe in God than to believe in Him. It is also intellectually lazy. You have to believe the vastness of the universe “happened” without a Designer and that unique things like fingerprints and snowflakes occurred by pure chance.
Lots of people are taking him to task for that: Number 80, for instance, who calls it "breathtaking inanity"; PZ, who calls it "smugly inane"; and, a little more substantially, James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt, who asks "How can it be intellectually lazy to abandon the intellect in favor of faith? Why should it require more intelligence to believe the universe was called into being by a designer but not worry about what called the designer into being?" But I think Thomas is absolutely right.

Oh, not about the "more faith" thing: that's just illogical. At its best, faith is "the evidence of things unseen and the substance of things hoped for" - you will agree we can let Paul (or whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews) call it? That means that the more evidence you have - of things you can see - the less faith you actually have, right? Or at least, the less faith you need. Evidence is destructive to faith. What you can hold in your hand you don't "believe" in. I've never been able to understand those who seek so desperately to find scientific evidence of their god. Finding evidence for god would be pinning it down, like a specimen butterfly on a board. God is supposed to be transcendent, beyond space and time (which means beyond the world of evidence), and supernatural - above nature. How do you have evidence for that?

(Sure, back in the day Yahweh and Jesus were there - Jesus was a man, and Yahweh walked and talked with people, had hands and feet, a face and a backside - and they interfered often. But not nowadays, because "the age of miracles is past". Perhaps people just hanker for that old-time religion: the god in their face, smiting and (occasionally) blessing. But that's not the god they're going to prove with their snowflakes and fingerprints and whatnot.)

So, the whole "[i]t takes more faith not to believe in God than to believe" - meaning "it takes less faith to believe than not" - is silly. Or perhaps that's a harsh judgment. It's almost certainly because Thomas - in common with many believers - doesn't really understand what "does not believe" means. For them, "not believing in God" is akin to "not believing in drinking, pre-marital sex, or (if you're Amish) telephones or helicopters": you know the things exists but you reject them for one or more reasons. Thomas can't grasp what it means to think - to know, perhaps - that God does not exist. So he thinks that rejecting something you know exists takes an act of greater faith (in what, he doesn't say) than accepting it; he actually thinks Pascal's tired wager is meaningful, because he actually thinks atheist have chosen to reject an existing god.

But it's the "intellectually lazy" part of his statement that most people have reacted to. And there's where I think he's right.

I want to remind you of a survey I read back in August, a survey of Orthodox Jewish science students in New York. question asked about the age of the universe. 48 respondents said 15 billion years, and 123 said 7000 years. Remember that. ... And then there was a question with three possible choices about the dinosaurs: lived at the same time as humans; extinct millions of years before the first humans; never existed at all. The numbers were: 68, 70, 31.

Yes. Of the 176 respondents, 24 of them actually manage to believe, simultaneously, that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago even though the universe is only 7000 years old.
Now that is some intellectual workout! It's a lot easier, intellectually, to hold a set of internally consistent "beliefs" (if you will) than several which flat-out contradict each other. It's much harder to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in your mind at the same time - two ideas which cannot possibly both be true - and work to not even notice it.

You can certainly call it "lazy" to refuse to work that hard, if you are of a mind to, as Thomas apparently is.

And I'm okay with that.

After all, it's "lazy" to drive from California to New York instead of walk.



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