January 06, 2012

R. Joseph Hoffmann — #frenemy of modern secular humanism

R. Joseph Hoffmann, religious scholar, former chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, and former associate editor of the journal Free Inquiry is a good secular humanist in many ways.

He’s insightful enough about the realities of religion, and knowledgeable enough about the history of secular humanism, that Gnu Atheists can’t refute most of his claims against their atheist evangelism and the concepts on which it is built.

But, in a blog post like this, “Complacency and Excess,” he earns the title above: “frenemy of modern secular humanism.” I’m not a fan of neologisims that are Internet or entertainment derived, but I make an exception in this case.

I’ve said before that Hoffmann’s brand of humanism is an Enlightenment-era humanism, one from the era when scientists were still “natural philosophers.” I don’t know if Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz was quite as much that way as Hoffmann is, but Hoffmann is definitely that way.

For example, in a blog post of about a month or two ago, which I blogged about without linking to, sadly, he went beyond criticizing overblown claims some neuroscientists make for what tools like fMRIs of today show about brain functioning to, at least as I saw it, criticizing the entire idea of daring to make too much scientific investigation of what the mind is.

The “frenemy” part, and related concerns, starts here:
Let me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.
While it’s true that many Gnus believe that, not all do. More to the point of my previous critique, successors to fMRIs, CT scans, single-emission positron scans, etc., may just reveal much more of the brain’s working, on a smaller scale, and in something nearer to “real time.”

Next comes a “huh” comment like this:
Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist?
I agree with the idea behind the first half of the quote. Liberal Episcopaleanism is nothing like the Church of Christ, for example. But, the part in parenthesis is a head-scratcher, at the least.
First of all, when did “collapsing” become “mystical” in this instance? Second, is Hoffmann confounding “science” with “scientism”? Take away “mystical” and I’d agree with his parenthetical observation IF that is the case. But, IF that is the case, then Hoffmann’s engaging in either sloppy verbiage or goalpost shifting.

And there's more that to come, if you'll look below the fold.
Next, there’s this:
(D)oes “subject matter” mean a certain kind of theology? Or does it mean (I think is often does in new atheist harangues) apologetics–which is unknown in many religious traditions?
Well, it IS known outside of Christianity. Islam certainly has an apologetic tradition, albeit less than Christianity. Judaism does to a degree, also. Polytheistic traditions are less likely to do so, perhaps. But, even they do to a degree. And, as their face-to-face contact with Western empiricism grows, their apologetics will, too.

Hoffmann knows his Greek, and knows that an “apologia” is simply a “defense.” Whether it’s a more “active” defense, as shown above all in American Christianity, and somewhat in the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, or a more passive defense like Buddhism’s moving target about what constitutes the “life force” that is reincarnated, well, that’s still apologetics.

But, let’s get to the next wrong quote:
Predictably, I am going to say that the best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”–are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time.
Nonsense. 

I think everybody would call the Dalai Lama a theologian in a metaphorical sense, while allowing for him not believing in a personal divinity, a personal theos (unless he believes in the old, old Tibetan pantheon of gods and demons).

Anyway, the Dalai Lama, allegedly a great ground-mover in reconciling science and religion, is on record as saying more than once if science presents evidence it strongly claims clearly shows the nonexistence of either karma or reincarnation, science goes out the door.

In the Christian world, I’ve no doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, still believes in some sort of immaterial, metaphysical “soul” and, in the case of things like teratomas, brain-conjoined Siamese twins, etc., rejects inferences from science about the nonexistence of souls, i.e., does the “bit of human” teratoma have a “bit of soul” inside the full human “host”?

Next comes this fun one, where Hoffmann shows not much more political insight than P.Z. Myers:
Atheists, as usual, weren’t quite sure what to do (about the Iraq War) because while many hated George W. Bush they hated Islam more and so–like Christopher Hitchens–they backed the wars. They were, in a phrase, paralyzed and morally invisible.
Tosh, or bull, or, per an above comment of mine, sloppy.

Is he saying all atheists weren’t sure what to do, not just Gnus? He’s very wrong there, as I can personally attest. And, speaking of P.Z., I don’t think he ever supported the war. I don’t know about a Dan Dennett, a Vic Stenger or other leading Gnus, other than to say most of them weren’t focused on this, perhaps.

Finally, Hoffmann makes a simply unsubstantiated claim that a scholar of religion, or at least of the sociology of religion, shouldn’t have:
Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.
Nonsense. Western Europe had pretty high church attendance rates, fairly high “religiosity,” etc., until World War II. Nazism, the Holocaust, and the realization that in many countries, especially Catholic ones, religious leaders were at least partially acquiescent in Nazism’s rise, is what killed Christianity in Europe as much as anything.

As for his paean to Stephen Jay Gould and his “nonoverlapping magisterial,” plenty of non-Gnu Atheists find it wanting. It’s really just a science-based riff on the old “god of the gaps,” retitled as “religion of the gaps.” Again, for Hoffmann to not see that as being what it is leads me to raise an eyebrow.

And why, between this and his seeming Enlightenment-era gravitas, he is indeed a frenemy of modern secular humanism. And, why I hope that some of my online friends see that while he can be a useful A-list ally, he's not close to a fantastic one.

 UPDATE: On his latest blog post, he spells "favoUrite" the British way, too. For a native American to do this is a bit of pretentiousness, in my book.


And, per this column, he appears to pull his punches on the question of the historicity of Jesus AND the worthiness of study of whether he existed and who he was, if he did.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rowan Williams has a more sophisticated use of the word ‘soul’. It is a useful metaphor to express aspects of human nature and life. http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1592/sound-in-spirit-soul-and-body-malling-abbey-sermon http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/1/4.full For the best theologians, religious ideas do not contradict the evidence of science. When they do, you know you are dealing with an apologist, and not one of the best theologians.

It is true that the Dalai Lama is in favour of scientific research. However the statement referred to by Steve is inaccurate. Carl Sagan, speaking of their meeting, reported asking the Dalai Lama what would he do if a fundamental tenet of his religion (reincarnation) were definitively disproved by science. The Dalai Lama answered; “if science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation… but it’s going to be mighty hard to disprove reincarnation”.

It is true that many atheists were confused at the time of the illegal invasion. Most Democrat candidates supported it and prominent atheists and leftists followed too. There is a surprising amount of information from news media and blogs, on the internet. Alot of the names surprised me because I never knew them until after they had changed their minds Robert Wright suggests some reasons why many of the new atheists are right wing on foreign policy. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-wright/why-the-new-atheists-are_b_230448.html


And just because humanism isn’t atheistic, and just because it is critical of 20th and 21st century movement secular humanisms, confused with their political and causes, ideological positions and social movements, doesn’t mean humanism is ‘stuck in the enlightenment’. Modern secular movements with their special ideologies and interests all have corrupting and limiting effects which, in significant ways, run counter to the critical spirit which humanism has always fostered.

Update: It seems a bit precious to complain about 'favourite'. And there's a bit of history with Earl Doherty. I wouldn't take that seriously.

Gadfly said...

Looks like I'm dealing with an "apologist" here, whether for Hoffmann, liberal theologians or both.

First, Williams was a stand-in for liberal Xn theologians in general, who generally DO believe in metaphysical principles. However, they often tend to hide their beliefs in the mush of neo-Tillichian language.

Second, the Dalai Lama has said what I report him as saying, and more than once. You're not the first person to claim otherwise and you're not the first person I've bluntly told "you're wrong."

You're wrong.

On Wright, the only two names he mentions are Hitchens and Harris. That link adds nothing to the discussion. AFAIK, Dawkins did NOT support the Iraq War, which is the claim at hand.

The next paragraph, about "corrupting influences," paints with a big of a brush as Hoffmann did himself.

Doherty? His link was at hand; the real question is ... does Hoffmann now not want to give "mythicism" an open hearing, and I think the answer is, he does not.

Anonymous said...

I am an apologist for nobody and nothing. My concern is for accuracy and honesty and you fail both tests. You have not read liberal theology, and that is evident from the assumptions you make about it. Williams is at the conservative end of liberalism in any case, but modern liberal theologians do not believe in things which conflict with the evidence of science. Metaphor abounds. You have not studied theology at all. You prefer to select a few apologists perhaps and impose their fundamentalist arguments on the entire world of theology. Secular Christianity is widespread, and Christianity without God. Read Lloyd Geering, James Veitch, go visit the library. Even decent conservative theologians, like Williams, and Richard Bell, Roland Deines etc, do not believe in things which conflict with the evidence of science. You make false assumptions with no evidence at all.


The Dalai Llama is not a 'metaphorical' theologian and does not claim any language of god ideas. However your claim contradicts all the discussion he has contributed to in which he is clear that he does not believe in things which contradict scientific evidence and he is a supporter of scientific research. I have seen the interview with Carl Sagan - I expect you or I could find the link to the full interview if we tried. I quoted words in an article by the interviewer.


The original post discussed 'atheists', not the four horsemen or 'new atheists'. Wright didn't claim Dawkins supported the war. He didn't. But many atheists did. Dawkins does hold right wing views on other policies, you must be well aware of this, and many other atheists do too.


It is clear you have a personal dislike of the author and your nastiness is very revealing and not very humanistic. You make many assumptions and accusations without evidence.


On Doherty, you don't know the history - and your assumption is wrong. The original poster is a supporter of social scientific investigation and critical academic historical research of Christian origins. Doherty is not a qualified critical academic historian.

Gadfly said...

First, I have a graduate divinity degree myself; second, I've talked to liberal theologicaians and graduate students who go directly to neo-Tillichian style of talk about various metaphysical issues. In fact, I've had exactly such a dialogue in the last 2-3 months. I quickly discovered why that person so loathed analytic philosophy - because the content of their language was, per analytic philosophy, meaningless.

The DL? I used the word "theologican" in scare quotes precisely because I know he's not a theist. Said that in the original post. Nonetheless, he IS a metaphysician. And, I already said I was talking about other instances, including a quote in a book on Buddhism which I reviewed on Amazon, and to which I referred the last person who tried to claim the Dalai Lama did NOT say what I noted he said.

Altho not referencing the Dalai Lama quote, John Horgan has some other interesting thoughts on Buddhism with which I alraedy agree: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/12/02/why-i-dont-dig-buddhism/ (Hitch's possibly greatest service as a Gnu was to tackle eastern as well as western religions.)

That said, even the Sagan dialogue can be seen as the DL going beyond scientific-type skepticism as to what constitutes disproof of reincarnation. I've always held that.

So, in short, liberal theistic theologicans and non-theistic "theologians" still are metaphysicians.

On atheists, many hold left-wing politics, including all those I know personally. "Many" is a slippery word; it can imply "a majority of ... " To say "many" while citing a couple of "Names" by name is ... not very thorough. And, if Dawkins was NOT a war supporter, then your linking to Wright was even weaker, mentioning just Hitch and Harris by name as pro-war atheists.

As for nastiness, if a bit of snark about Hoffmann's British affectation in my original post is "nasty," you have a very tight definition of nastiness, at least.

That's enough from me for right now. Whether your name is "Steph" or someone else, I stand by what I have said.

Anonymous said...

Your persistent criticism and petty attacks are nasty. As for complaining about spelling, isn't it you who is a little precious and pretentious? I believe literature is published all over the world, people travel all over the world, and I believe Hoffmann has taught all over the world if he vita brevis is correct. And as for 'British' spelling, it isn't exclusive to 'Britain' or British people. British spelling is employed by English speakers all over the world.

I wonder where you got you divinity degree. 'Divinity'.

You need to read some current theological studies and current interdisciplinary research on theological trends and you can get accurate figures there.

Weaker for what? You must have missed the point. You do. Often. Shame really.

Gadfly said...

I have less doubt this is Steph. If you don't like this, go write your own blog post. I reserve the right to delete further comments.

Gadfly said...

Oh, and BTW, I one-starred Wright's "The Evolution of God" at Amazon. It was a horrible book.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised. He's a journalist. He doesn't have degrees in history and religions. He's not a theologian or a historian of religion.

Anonymous said...

You have no evidence for what you accuse the Dalai Lama of saying, which he did not say. I don't see how the Dalai Lama or your opinions on Buddhism are relevant to the original post, nor a journalist's book on religion. Buddhist thought, Confucianism, Daoism, and eastern philosophical ideas generally are far more humanistic in their approach to the environnment, knowledge, wisdom and learning, and humanity, than modern western 'humanist' movements are. So you did a degree in 'divinity'. Your bias against Eastern religions appears to reflect the widespread opiniated anti religious atheistic attitude. And incidentally Christopher Hitchens never called himself 'gnu'. I referred you to a journalistic article which reflects a common realisation that atheists hold right wing views on foreign policy. My religious and non religious friends are all left wing but that means nothing, in the same way that your personal experience of atheists is insignificant from a global perspective.

Gadfly said...

Nice to see shifting goalposts now, as well as the refusal to even consider that the DL might just be a hardcore metaphysician at heart. And, there's nothing inherently superior about Eastern thought. I counter with Gandhi wanting all of India to go back to household spinning wheels without wasting more time.

Anonymous said...

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims. (14th Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005))

Gadfly said...

Still doesn't change what I said about his comment to Sagan. He's trying to put the burden of disproof on science, when, per Sagan's own comment about "extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence," the burden of proof is on him.

Anonymous said...

You really hate 'religion' don't you. Believe what you like. You have authentic quotations now versus the false one you accuse the Dalai Lama of.

Gadfly said...

You have no idea what I hate, or don't, about religion in general or particular belief systems in specific.

I will say that karma and reincarnation are, at best, the equivalent of Catholic purgatory and at worst, as I've blogged before, the equivalent of a conservative, original-sin based, Christian idea of hell.