I’m not sure who’s in charge of “The Stone,” the New York Times‘s philosophy column, but that person is not doing their job. Imagine if some of our greatest living philosophers would post there about matters diverse: ethics, animal rights, abortion, drone strikes, and so on. But all too often the column is about God; that is, we have Great Minds lucubrating about nonexistent beings. Among all species of philosophy, the philosophy of religion is the most intellectually depauperate. It’s a waste of time.
And so it is with the March 26 column by William Irwin, which you know from the title alone will be a stinker: “God is a question, not an answer.” What does that mean? I bet you can guess.
First, who is William Irwin? Well, he’s got credentials: he’s the Herve A. Leblanc Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He also wrote “The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism” and is the general editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. He seems to have a sense of humor, as witnessed by his “Jeopardy Dream Board” on his university website. But oy, is he convoluted about God!
Irwin begins with Camus, who is his novel L’Etranger show the protagonist rejecting God when a priest visits him right before his execution. He then fast-forwards to a 2013 novel by Kamel Daoud, whose protagonist declares that “God is a question, not an answer.” And so it is for Irwin:
[This] declaration resonates with me as a teacher and student of philosophy. The question is permanent; answers are temporary. I live in the question.
Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all — if not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind. Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Herman Melville, “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question.
This is bogus. Any honest person must also admit that there might be fairies, or Santa Claus, or any number of fanciful illusions for which there is no existing evidence. But saying that there is no evidence for something is not the same as saying that there’s a decent probability that that something might exist. I see no evidence for UFO abductions, but of course one can’t rule them out with absolute certainty. But I would bet my life savings that none have taken place. Likewise with wonder-working leprechauns. So why don’t we have Irwin writing a column that “Leprechauns are a question, not an answer”?
Likewise, anyone who does not occasionally worry that she is wrong about the existence or nonexistence of God most likely has a fraudulent belief. Worry can make the belief or unbelief genuine, but it cannot make it correct.
People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.
Yes, and it’s also impossible to be dead certain about the nonexistence of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Xenu and his thetans, and the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith. Does that mean that we should give them a shred of credibility; that there’s something wrong with people who refuse to even consider them? I don’t think so. The onus on those insisting on the God’s existence is to provide at least a shred of credible evidence for a god. There is none: no more than for Nessie or leprechauns. Yes somehow Irwin wants us to think that we should take the existence of God—excuse me, the question of God—more seriously than for these other fictions. Why? Only because far more people share delusions of God than do delusions of leprechauns.
The problem is, of course, that most atheists don’t claim they know with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist. Many theists, though, claim the opposite—with much greater certainty. But putting that aside, how, exactly, could atheists “impose their nonbelief” on others? Does Irwin mean that we shouldn’t favor the First Amendment? That we should allow prayers in all public schools? It is not atheists who impose their views on others, but religionists who think it’s their duty to make their moral code into civil law. All we do is try to convince others that we’re more reasonable than they, and to prevent them from foisting religious beliefs on the rest of us.
Irwin goes on, but he really says nothing more than this: that both atheists and believers should have some doubt. And then his whole exercise degenerates into a why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along lovefest:
What is important is the common ground of the question, not an answer. Surely, we can respect anyone who approaches the question honestly and with an open mind. Ecumenical and interfaith religious dialogue has increased substantially in our age. We can and should expand that dialogue to include atheists and agnostics, to recognize our common humanity and to stop seeing one another as enemy combatants in a spiritual or intellectual war. Rather than seeking the security of an answer, perhaps we should collectively celebrate the uncertainty of the question.
Does Irwin not see that we are indeed combatants—fighters in a war of rationality against superstition? And it’s no mere intellectual combat, either: lives and well being are at stake. But Irwin, of course, refuses to go the last step and see that there are real consequences of religionists working out their certainty in the public sphere. His is a chickenshit compromise that ignores the realities of faith.
Finally, if God is a question, not an answer, that pretty much guts conventional religions—or at least religious practice. How do you pray to a question? What about the certainties evinced in practices like Communion, or wearing Magic Underwear? Do we still keep these practices? I suspect Irwin would say, “Yes, but we should just have more doubt.” Well, fine. But I don’t see much doubt coming from those who should be the biggest doubters: those who assert the existence of God, and put on their magic underwear before going to Temple.
In the end, Irwin says nothing new; his column is a total waste of space. But of course how much new stuff can you say about a practice for which there’s never been any evidence? Irwin is certainly not the first religious philosopher who says that “we should be less certain.”
Reader Enrico, who sent me the link to Irwin’s column, sent me another link as well, as well as a comment:
I stick to Sarah Silverman (extract about religion from her award-winning show We Are Miracles):