September 30, 2008

Last week John Derbyshire posted on NRO a justification for his atheism, a comment that brought forth a thunderous response on this website from a devout Catholic John Zmirak. Having read both these commentaries, it seems that neither is entirely convincing. Zmirak goes after those who treat sociobiology as the key to human behavior; in the process he makes light of the loyalties that result from biological kinship. From reading his satire, I would also suspect that John Z is not quite happy about admitting that DNA has something to do with our intellectual and social capacities. But these reservations do not necessarily flow from a belief in divine intelligence.  For if there is such an intelligence (and John Z and I both believe there is), one would have to notice that the Deity has wired His creatures to feel intensely about those who share their genes and has likewise equipped them with differing quantities of grey matter. Loyalty to ones kin group is not a cultural eccentricity but from what I have read on the subject, embedded in our natures and vital to our social survival. As for the demonstrable differences among individuals and ethnicities, I see no reason to dismiss this situation as incidental to our existence on earth. And though I can laugh at John’s witty remarks about members of a subspecies being “€œconsumed with fear”€ that their descendants may “€œdwindle in size”€ or “€œlose their dominance over food sources,”€ I”€™m not sure why such concerns about one’s posterity are morally or intellectually unjustified.

Further, I find nothing anti-theistic in the concern that if the cognitive elite fail to reproduce, less capable people will be running our complex economy. This does not mean that a civilized society does not have to depend on factors other than measurable raw intelligence. But in a world of diminishing intelligence, everyone is likely to suffer from a loss of g factors. And while I can appreciate the fun being made of self-indulgent thirtysomes, I suspect that what John Zmirak is describing has nothing to do with a naturalist worldview. He is presenting the products of a late modern society, one in which the younger generation has been raised in a welfare state, with a consumerist economy and sentimental, humanitarian education. Social Darwinists in the late nineteenth century preached the purest naturalism, but they behaved nothing like the silly people John is pillorying. They stressed virility and natality and would have arrested as vagrants the type of asocial perpetual adolescents whom John presents in his satire.    

As for Derbyshire, I am shocked that he would try to make a case for unbelief by citing the special pleading of Michael Novak. Outside of neocon-financed Catholic front organizations, Novak has no record, as far as I know, as an acute theological or philosophical mind. Having seen him on several occasions make a total fool of himself when asked elementary historical and philosophical questions, this AEI luminary hardly fits the job of being a suitable debating partner for someone as cerebral as John Derbyshire. Derbyshire in his comment also engages in a useless aside by citing the LA Times about a priest who believed that he “€œwas on the train [during a crash] and survived so that he could pray for the victims.”€ I am totally at a loss, about how this priest’s sense of purpose militates against the existence of a Deity. Such a divine being may or may not exist but the statement of the priest, who was looking for the silver lining in a disaster he had just experienced, demonstrates nothing about the theological question considered, save for the priest’s personal conviction about the why he was present at the site of a grim accident.

Can”€™t John find other minds to test his wits against, such as brainy theologians and philosophers, who have strenuously argued for the premise he rejects? Voltaire, contrary to John’s suggestion, did indeed believe in the argument from design, which is known as the teleological argument. Although critical of Panglossian optimism and the Catholic Church, Voltaire was far from an atheist and in fact shared the widespread deism of his age.

John does not have to agree with such a thinker as Michael Behe, who famously defends divine design while drawing on his own field, organic chemistry. In his widely available writings, Behe dwells on the complexity and regularity of natural processes that most people when they look at the world take for granted. John is entitled to dissent from Behe and from a thousand other thinkers who have made similar arguments about a higher than human intelligence, on the basis of their scientific findings or reflections on the findings of others.

And he need not agree with the lifetime skeptic and philosopher Anthony Flew, who became a theist, albeit not a Christian, in his seventies. Unlike Novak, Flew is a trained and subtle philosopher, who does not seem to have any political or denominational axes to grind. Flew advances theological positions which he believes he can fully demonstrate as a rationalist and logician. And while John is free to try to challenge him, it is important for him to recognize that many theists have been as reflective as he about the possibility of divine intelligence while reaching radically different conclusions. Nor does one have to assume, like John during the time that he spent at Novak’s book-signing, that anyone who talks about God’s existence is trying to convert him to Brand X- Christianity. And in the case of Novak’s book-signing event, I am particularly skeptical that such was taking place there. From the list of dignitaries, it would seem that the only thing Mike’s groupies might have been trying to convert him to would be Joe Lieberman’s foreign policy.  


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