On the evening of November 1 I was pleased once again to share an evening with the motley crew at the Society of Edmonton Atheists. My topic for the evening was “What hath God to do with the flying spaghetti monster?” I spent the first section of the talk summarizing a range of entities that are popularly compared to God from Bertrand Russell’s famous flying teapot through Santa Claus, invisible pink unicorns, Zeus, and fairies, and finally settling on the most recent member of this most ignominious pantheon, the fabled flying spaghetti monster.
What is the point of comparing God to all these fantastical and enormously implausible entities? The basic idea seems clear enough: demonstrate the manifest absurdity of belief in God by comparing that belief to other beliefs that strike us as absurd (at least for adults; certainly a six year old can reasonably believe in Santa Claus and fairies, but if that belief remains when the individual is twenty-six then it would seem something has gone awry).
I closed off this section by noting that the more sophisticated forms of argument of this type are satirical in nature, but the less sophisticated forms (typified classically in Bil Maher’s horrible film “Religulous”), are nothing more than strawmen mockery.
This raises a very practical question for the Christian theologian like myself. How does one begin a meaningful conversation with people who think of Christian doctrine, and belief in God generally, against the backdrop of these analogies? To answer that question I presented an analogy of my own: how does a resident of a country like Canada who believes deeply in not-for-profit universal healthcare have a meaningful conversation with a friend south of the border who is convinced that not-for-profit universal healthcare is simply “socialism” or even “communism”?
The problem is that the skeptic in this conversation has bought into a woefully simplisitic picture in which the institutions of society are either public not-for-profit (socialism/communism) or private for-profit (capitalism). Thus to open the lines of communication the proponent of universal healthcare must challenge these assumptions. One way to do this is by pointing out that there are in fact many different positions on a continuum. This is evident in the simple fact that society is a network of multiple institutions, and thus we can ask in each case whether a particular institution ought to be public not-for-profit or private for-profit. Just think about it. Would you want the fire service, police service and military all to be private for-profit ventures? Not many people would. And this means that most people think at least some societal institutions should be public not-for-profit. This in turn means that we are not dealing with only two positions: socialism/communism vs. capitalism. Rather, we are dealing with multple positions all united with a single question: which institutions are best run as private ventures and which as public ventures? And with that you can open a discussion about healthcare in particular.
Those atheists/skeptics/agnostics who think of all religious doctrines within the absurdist framework of the flying teapot to flying spaghetti monster have their own set of simple categories which inhibit them from taking religious doctrines seriously. In order to begin to deconstruct this grossly simplistic, dichotomistic thinking, I introduced a concept which would open up a similar continuum of positions: the plausiblity structure.
Plausibility structure: The set of background assumptions by which one judges the initial plausibility of a truth claim.
I then pointed out that we all accept certain claims which would strike others as arbitrary, absurd or deeply counterinuitive, but which we accept nonetheless. And we do that because those claims somehow fit within our plausibility structure. I illustrated the point by drawing from Richard Lewontin’s famous book review of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. In the review Lewontin points out how absurd it is to believe that the blue cheese he ate for lunch is composed of tiny tasteless, odorless, colorless vibrating packets of energy with empty space between them. So why we we believe it? He writes:
“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism.”
Now I have one quibble with the point. Many people accept this claim about the blue cheese without having a commitment to naturalism. Indeed, as we have noted often enough in this blog, it is not clear at all what “naturalism” even means. But one thing is clear: many of us accept claims without a second thought which appear on the face of it to be absurd.
In the blue cheese case, we accept a claim which appears to contradict our senses quite directly. And what is more, we accept that claim with little or no cognitive dissonance. Moreover, we accept it despite the fact that few of us can articulate all the scientific reasons why we are supposed to believe that the cheese is in fact made of tiny tasteless, colorless, odorless packets of energy. Finally, we are perfectly reasonable when we do this.
In the talk I noted how Bill Maher tendentiously defined faith as follows “Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.” How foolish. I suspec that Bill Maher is unable to articulate all the scientific reasons why we are supposed to believe the cheese is composed of these vibrating packets of energy. But he accepts it nonetheless. Faith is not as Maher defines it. Rather, it is accepting the truth of a claim without having immediate access to the evidence for that claim. And thus Maher exercises faith when he accepts that the actual physical composition of the cheese is so radically different from his experience of it.
So what would Maher have us do? Withold any beliefs about the nature of cheese until we ourselves as individuals can confirm through our own research into the subatomic structure of that fine food? If that is what he would demand then I suspect we should likewise withold any belief in the existence of the subcontinent of India until we ourselves have the opportunity to visit there. And we should refuse to believe the earth is a sphere until we have the good fortune to take a ride on Virgin Galactic and confirm for ouselves the shape of the earth.
Our prior commitments may not be to naturalism per se, but we do have a prior commitment to the deliverances of science. It forms part of the plausibility framework of most modern people. This despite the fact that science presents us with many extraordinary claims. Nonetheless because we accept the authority of people within the scientific community we accept on faith their testimony of various truth claims, even if we cannot ourselves confirm the truth of those claims.
The first step for those who make various comparisons between religious beliefs and their favorite absurd belief is to recognize that all our beliefs are socially embedded within complex plausibility frameworks. And those outside those frameworks will find many of those beliefs bizarre along the lines of flying teapots and atomic blue cheese. This is true whether the plausibility framework in question includes a particular scientific theory (e.g. the atomic theory of matter), an economic theory (e.g. laissez-faire capitalism) or a metaphysical theory (e.g. Christian theism; naturalism).
And this leads me to my conclusion. The first step in intellectual maturation is when you stop pointing and laughing at the beliefs of others and make an effort to understand them.