Sometimes I think atheists are simply having arguments with themselves – or, more precisely, with phantoms bred by their own ignorance. It’s easy to see why atheism does not make more headway, even in modern secular society: Once atheists begin to spell out the sort of deity they are rejecting, it becomes clear that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Julian Baggini, author of the Very Short Introduction of Atheism (perhaps the only one you need) and founding editor The Philosopher’s Magazine, is a very clever and amiable guy — under normal circumstances. But have a look at this piece, which appeared as the lead opinion piece in the most recent Saturday edition of The Independent, the liberal UK broadsheet paper. When an atheist pens a piece with the title, ‘If science has not actually killed God, it has rendered Him unrecognisable’, one wonders which screws have become loose.
Like others on this blog, I am always bemused by the ways in which atheists strive to say convincing things about a deity in whose existence they supposedly do not believe.
The occasion for Baggini’s piece is the publication of Stephen Hawking’s latest book, which apparently concludes that God was not necessary for the origin of the universe. (Since the book only comes out this week, no one has read it yet but there has been considerable media publicity surrounding this one point.) Baggini’s point is that physicists should not be taken as experts on God – even if, as in Hawking’s case, it’s not necessarily to God’s advantage – because physics is most likely atheistic anyway, and if not, then the sort of deity it allows is not one anyone believes in. Baggini appears to think that he’s doing both physics and theology a favour here. In truth, he is slighting both – not to mention the vast majority of religious believers whose idea of God is not tied to the ‘chap depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel’.
It’s clear that behind Baggini’s belligerent rhetoric is a plea for philosophy’s role in matters relating to the nature of God. This is fine, but it need not require driving a wedge between physics and theology, say, by dismissing appeals to the ‘mind of God’ as mere metaphor or (amazingly) singling out the Abrahamic God as the sort of deity that modern physics rules out of court. Both claims betray ignorance of various sorts.
In fact, I would suggest that perhaps the most fruitful way to understand the relationship between theology and physics is as accounts of reality’s ‘mind’ and ‘body’, respectively. This certainly allows much room for exploring possibilities, given the many positions philosophers have taken on the mind-body problem over the centuries.