Religion, Arguments and Editing
Posted by Philosophy Foundation on August 16, 2011
Oliver Leech MPhil writes a philosophical argument about God, but also invites you in to a meta-level discussion about the problems of working with the press:
WRITING ABOUT RELIGION
The New Statesman (July 25th, 2011) published an article called ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams. In its heading readers were reminded that earlier in the year the magazine had asked public figures why they believed in God. In ‘Faith No More’ another set of public figures, this time atheists, were invited to explain why they did not believe in God.
The atheist public figures included writers, scientists, philosophers and humanists; among them Philip Pulman, Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee and Stephen Hawking.
I read the article keen to learn the key reasons for contemporary atheism and noted that one recurring very frequently was ‘lack of evidence’. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘I don’t believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.’
From my very basic understanding of the philosophy of religion I realised that this approach to the question of the existence of God was wrongly directed. Why? It assumes that asking whether or not God exists is the same sort of enquiry as trying to find out whether a particular object (from a black hole to a red herring) exists among other objects. A comparable misunderstanding might be looking for a washing machine by opening a door and searching among socks, shirts and underwear. The error is to confuse an item with that which contains the item. What believers take God to be – and whether they are right or not is a completely different question – is that on which the whole universe depends not an item capable of being discovered within the universe.
In an attempt to contribute this point to the discussion I emailed the following letter to the New Statesman. Before reading it please note that it is not in any way meant to present a counter argument, to make a case for the existence of God. The aim was simply to point out that this particular ground for atheism, the lack of evidence argument, is based on a definition of God that serious students of religion do not actually hold. Now, whether there exists or not such an entity, namely, that on which the universe depends is a very challenging question but not one about which my letter was concerned.
LETTER TO NEW STATESMAN
in response to Faith No More by Andrew Zak Williams (New Statesman 25th July, 2011)
‘I was fascinated to read the reasons given by ‘public figures’ for their atheism. Prominent among them was the lack of evidence argument. The practical difficulty of proving the non-existence of God was acknowledged but then came the telling point that in general we do not believe to exist whatever we cannot prove not to exist. Examples offered were leprechauns, werewolves, goblins, fairies, pixies and gnomes. There is no need to show that they do not exist to have no faith in them.
In relation to the question of the existence or non-existence of God, however, this approach can be challenged. Leprechauns etc. are possible items in the universe. Since there is no evidence that such items are to be found anywhere in the universe, we dismiss them. The Higgs-Boson is a possible item in the universe. Experiments in the Hadron Collider are intended to show whether or not there is evidence for its existence. So in the case of items in the universe evidence is rightly regarded as the basis for belief or disbelief.
The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God as usually defined is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence.
The objection raised here is not in any way intended to serve as a contrasting proof of the existence of God but merely to point out what I take to be a mistaken approach to the question.’
The New Statesman (8th August, 2011) published my letter but in a much edited form, just one paragraph of it in fact, as you can see below:
‘The term God has many interpretations but it is not standard belief to the best of my knowledge to assert that God is a potential item in the universe whose existence might or not be brought to light by evidence. To think in such terms as many of the respondents in the article did is to make a category mistake. God is not one thing among many things accessible to observation and experiment but rather that on which the universe depends for its existence. ‘
Not only has all the philosophical argument been omitted but the crucial phrase in the penultimate paragraph after the word God ‘as usually defined’. I can quite understand that a reader would assume from the printed form of the letter that its author was responding to rational argument with a dollop of dogma. No wonder the following letter appeared in the New Statesman (15th August, 2011):
‘Oliver Leech (Letters, 8 August) grandly asserts that “God is … that on which the universe depends for its existence”. He also states that it is a “category mistake” to think that any evidence is require to demonstrate God’s existence. So that’s all right, then. Would it be judged ironic to ask Mr Leech politely on what he therefore bases his remarkable assertion?’ Max Fishel, Bromley, Greater London
What does this all amount to? It has certainly been a learning experience for me. I now know if I did not before that almost any statement about religion is open to misunderstanding and especially if there is a Chinese whispers effect as clearly happened here when the New Statesman, carelessly or mischievously to provoke, put a spin on an attempt to join in a reasoned debate.
LETTER TO NEW STATESMAN
New Statesman Letters, 8th August, 2011 printed one paragraph of my letter in response to ‘Faith No More’ by Andrew Zak Williams (25th July, 2011).
I understand that letters need to be edited and reduced in length but why did you omit from that paragraph the crucial phrase (after the word ‘God’) ‘as usually defined’, a phrase that makes all the difference to the point I was trying to make, except deliberately to change a rational argument into what reads like a piece of religious dogmatism. It can only be a mischievous attempt to provoke a response based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote which is exactly what you got in the letter you published from Max Fishel (15th August, 2011). I thought that the New Statesman was a magazine devoted to serious subjects discussed in a grown-up way.
PS Please send a copy of my letter as you received it to Max Fishel. It is not his fault that he got the wrong end of the stick.