SocraticGadfly: Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen have lightweight religious dialogue

January 15, 2018

Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen have lightweight religious dialogue

The piece is about six months old, but I only came across it recently, and it's a hoot, while also being a sad illustration of the Peter Principle, especially in Douthat's case, and a warning about false appeals to authority, if anybody thinks Cowen's thoughts on religion are worth crap just because he's a thought-provoking (though not necessarily insightful) economist.

Anyway, here it is — Ross Douthat and Tyler Cowen have a back and forth on religious belief that is laughable.

Among Cowen’s biggest hoots is deploring the lack of Bayesianism in most religious belief. I suppose he thinks Richard Carrier’s Bayesian book-cooking in the name of Jesus mythicism is spot on? Cowen also confirms that his libertarian bona fides are deep and thoroughgoing when he claims to be a Straussian on religious issues. Anyone who invokes Leo Strauss for THAT bears careful watching. (Note to Massimo Pigliucci: Cowen strongly blurbed Harry Frankfurt’s new book, which was the first reason I became highly skeptical of it.)

Straussianism plus Bayesianism brought to putative religious study.

First, miraculously-based religious events, per a Humean definition of miracles, don't have priors, you know what I mean, Vern? Yes, one can crack open "The Golden Bough" and point to something like a virgin birth in places around the world. Whether or not the Frazier-Campbell type approach to comparative religions in myth and ritual is true or not (less true than not, usually), or whether this reflects a quasi-Jungian mindset that Stith-Thompson and the encyclopedias of mythology reference, nonetheless, in the naturalistic, Humean world, such things have no priors, period.

That said, I'm on record multiple times in multiple places in thinking that Bayesian probabilities as used by Gnu Atheists like Carrier is a bucket of warm shit.

And, a Straussian? As in the big noble lie? Well, Paul said "I am all things to all men," and Og Mandino lauded him as the world's greatest salesman, so in that case, Cowen may have more in common with Douthat than he recognizes!

Douthat responds by ignoring that both Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis stacked the deck with their wagers on, respectively, the existence of god and the divinity of Jesus.

It's true! For an existentially-thinking secularist, this life, as the only one we have, IS "eternity," if you will. So, Pascal stacks the decks that way. Second, he ignores whether this is the Christian god or some other, though, as a semi-orthodox Catholic with touches of Jansenism, we know where he was placing his bet, and it wasn't on Allah or Yahweh. It may not even have been on the Protestants' version of the Trinity, for that matter.

Cowen then replies that he takes William James seriously. Wow. “Varieties” only shows how deep-seated are the human mental evolutions that have been “hijacked” by the development of religion. Nothing more.

Worse, this is from someone claiming just a few paragraphs earlier to be a religious Straussian? While William James was about many things, I don't think he was about the Straussian big lie. On the other hand, his insistence on interpreting religious experiences by pragmatic value could leave him open to being moshed up with such things.

Rusty then extends that to a “mystical ineffability means its true!” stance. He doesn't question how this might lend itself, or not, to a Straussian take.

Surprisingly, near the end, Douthat lays out his own Bayesian take, and only 45 percent of his total of 100 percent is for classical theism.

That’s called “Cafeteria Catholic,” Rusty, next time you lay that label on the likes of John Kerry or any pro-choice Catholic.

Douthat finishes by invoking Nicholas Taleb’s black swans and saying that, among religions, Christianity is the blackest of all. This is nothing more than a fancy new presentation of Tertullian’s “Credo quia absurdum.”

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