Further Thoughts on John Haught

Since the comment thread for my post “On Amateur Atheism” has sparked a lively debate, I looked around on the internet earlier today for some further explanation of John Haught’s views. I found them in this Salon interview, and I’d like to offer some further comments on the theology outlined therein.

One of Haught’s major points regarding modern atheists that they rely too much on scientific inquiry to learn about the world:

Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth.

The problem with this paragraph is that Haught, like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth, inevitably never explains what alternative he has in mind. If you have knowledge that you did not come by scientifically, how did you come by it? What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I’m confident that it’s because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

Like many theologians, Haught wants to have it both ways with regard to science. Despite his lengthy complaints in the article about “scientism” – he says that atheists like Steven Weinberg illicitly assume that “that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like [God]” – he does not hesitate to draw the opposite lesson when he thinks it’s warranted.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it’s something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that’s a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite.

The hypocritical message of this statement is that Haught is permitted to make claims about the implications of “the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology”, but atheists are not. When a theist says that science suggests the universe is continually growing toward greater complexity and this suggests a divine purpose, he’s fine with that. But when atheists say that the rampant evil and diaster in nature suggests that the universe was not made with us in mind, suddenly Haught is indignant about this “abuse” of scientific reasoning to discuss areas it has no right to talk about. The double standard he’s using is very obvious when you look for it.

So what is the proper place of Haught’s god, if it can’t be discovered through science? Apparently, according to Haught, the proper answer is to assume that God is found only in the realm of “higher” reasons – that is, what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than material causes. Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen. A corollary of this is that God does not intervene in history. As Haught puts it:

Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

…What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But now Haught has a large problem: Christianity absolutely does require an interventionist god. Even if one dismisses the Old Testament narratives as allegory, even if one believes that God does not provide miraculous answers to prayer, Christianity is still built on a fundamental, keystone claim – the resurrection of Jesus – which implies that, on at least one occasion, God intervened in the world to change the course of events in a way that natural law would not permit.

Haught strains mightily to get around this problem. Here is his solution, which I’ll quote in full so I’m not accused of misrepresenting him:

But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it.

…We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

In the end, it’s not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means. It’s a simple question of fact: Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did he not? Did his body resume functioning? Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Did his disciples see him in the flesh, handle him, and watch him eat and drink? These are all yes-or-no questions!

This is where Haught’s contorted theology is stretched to the breaking point. Even if we grant his argument that science cannot speak to teleological claims, science most certainly can examine empirical claims, and the resurrection of Jesus absolutely is an empirical claim. Clearly, what he’s trying to do is to somehow remove this empirical claim from the realm of science and place it safely within the realm of faith, where it can’t be examined or disproved. The only way he can do that is by asserting that the very occurrence of the event is somehow just a matter of faith.

It’s not at all clear what he means by this. If we’d had a video camera in the upper room, would it have recorded the disciples interacting with an invisible, inaudible person? Or would it have found the room itself empty, as though the disciples resided in some parallel universe where their existence was only accessible to those who believe? More importantly, if we’d trained the video camera on the dead body of Jesus, would that body have winked out of existence at some point (as it entered the “realm of faith”), or would we have seen the body remain dead, as if a totally different set of events happened for those who chose not to believe versus for those who did?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught’s god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught’s god, then that means that Haught’s god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught’s god and Haught’s theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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