This week, fun and inspirational. As someone who has travelled a bit in in some of the poorest parts of the world, I am always encouraged to see solutions which bring improvements to the lives of folks living in poverty most Americans can’t imagine. Better still when those solutions are homegrown and provide a living to someone who lives there. Not to mention the water bottle lightbulb is just a cool idea in and of itself.
There is no little irony in the fact that the Occupy folks are having their hardest time in Oakland, California, one of the most secular leftist cities in the US.
Philosopher Edward Feser, who is turning out to be one of the preeminent defenders of theism, writes an excellent piece on his blog about the atheist misperception of the term ‘magic’, and the application of it to theistic (especially Christian) beliefs. Indeed I find in reading Feser that he often clarifies thoughts I have intuited previously, but never elaborated on.
One warning – Feser expects readers to come with their brains fully engaged. Unlike atheist blogs by Coyne, Myers, and Harris which are nominally about ‘science’ but are in actuality paeans to New Atheism (and in Coynes case, cats) and diatribes on the evils of religion, Feser actually discusses philosophy and it application to thought, culture, and politics. And he does so utilizing the proper terms and with a deep understanding of the history of thought on various subjects. So it is never a light read. It is however quite refreshing for those willing to plow through it.
That being said, Feser’s latest is on the misapplication of the term ‘magic’ to theistic belief. As he notes, a proper definition of magic is “powers which are intrinsically unintelligible”. A Christian at least holds no such beliefs which is why the primary bulwark against paganism and mysticism over the ages has been Christianity, not atheism. Christian notions of God are overtly intelligible; God follows certain comprehensible purposes and acts in a way one would expect of a Being of His type.
As Feser points out, by the proper definition of ‘magic’, it is actually atheists who hold to magical thinking, because they hold that the universe arises by powers which aren’t ultimately intelligible:
Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism itself. The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell. The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact — that it is intelligible through and through — seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense. And that would in turn be to allow (so the traditional metaphysician will argue) that there is something which, as the Thomist would put it, is pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens or “subsistent being itself” — and thus something which has the divine attributes which inexorably flow from being pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens. Hence it would be to give up atheism.
But to operate in a way that is ultimately unintelligible in principle — as the atheist arguably has to say the fundamental laws of nature do, insofar as he has to say that they are “just there” as a brute fact, something that could have been otherwise but happens to exist anyway, with no explanation — just is to be “magical” in the objectionable sense. In fact it is only on a theistic view of the world that the laws of nature are not “magical”; and the Mackie/Russell position is (as I argue in the post linked to above) ultimately incoherent for the same sorts of reason that magical thinking in general is incoherent. As is so often the case, the loudmouth New Atheist turns out to be exactly what he claims to despise — in this case, a believer in “magical powers.”
I see this sort of thinking so often in discussions with atheists. I can’t count the number of times I have seen atheists counter something like William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological argument by claiming the first premise , “Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence” simply isn’t true and that things can begin to exist in nature ‘uncaused’, often citing something like virtual particles. The moment they do that they are engaging in magical thinking i.e., that the universe operates according to forces which are intrinsically unintelligible.
This is just one of many ways that in the final evaluation it is atheists who undermine logic, reason and ultimately science through magical thinking.
Recently PZ Myers was considering a question from an atheist who wondered whether it would be better to hold false beliefs if those beliefs led to a more peaceful and fulfilling world. PZ answered that such a scenario would not be better, reminding me why I consider him to be one of the most honest atheists out there. As he explains:
“You see, living a lie is nearly universally considered a bad thing. Even the people who most devoutly believe in the most wacky fundybeliefs, or scientologists, or Mormons, do not argue that their ideas are falsebut that they believe in them anyway — they all argue that they are literallytrue. The truth of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever is consideredvery important, but they’ve simply deluded themselves into believing that they
are true (and we know that they can’t all be true, since they’re mutuallycontradictory).”
The problem with this answer is that almost all atheists do live a lie; they have to or they couldn’t live. As I have pointed out elsewhere there is no reason for atheists to believe they can choose their beliefs, or that human rights exist, or human equality has any basis in reality, or that they should be concerned with the suffering of strangers. In fact PZ’s statement contains a lie he himself apparently holds; namely that it should be considered bad to ‘live a lie’. There is in fact nothing in atheism that would lead one to that conclusion. For the most part atheists conform to the morality of the society around them because it is comfortable to do so, not because such conformity proceeds from beliefs they hold to be true.
And that is one of the primary differences between atheism and Christianity – atheists must live a lie in order to operate in ordinary society. Christians on the other hand can act consistently with their beliefs to the betterment of society.
So whether or not atheists consider it bad to live a lie, they all do.
“Arguments on these subjects are tricky to make, particularly in the rough world of politics. They touch on deep feelings, deep beliefs and thousands of years of searching for the best way to live. Gay marriage is not a simple issue of fairness for all. The obsession with defining an individual’s identity by his or her sexual desires, and putting the fulfilment of those desires above everything else, is only about 100 years old and will, I suspect, pass. The need for men and women to have children, bring them up and look after one another is much more important. So Mr Cameron should tread more carefully.”
Charles Moore, Gay marriage is not as simple as David Cameron believes in the UK Telegraph
Show me a country whose origins are primarily atheistic and I will show you a country no atheist who was born into a country whose origins are Christian wants to live in.