Monday, March 12, 2007

Massive Retreat

Stephen Weinberg, a brilliant cosmologist, makes some very puzzling assertions in his favorable review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Indeed, if Weinberg weren't such a brilliant scientist I'd almost think some of what he says is kind of dopey. Take this excerpt for instance:

[Dawkins] calls the God of the Old Testament "the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully". As for the New Testament, he quotes with approval the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, that "The Christian God is a being of a terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust". This is strong stuff, and Dawkins obviously intends to shock the reader, but his invective has a constructive purpose. By attacking the God of sacred Scripture, he is trying to weaken the authority of that God's commands ....

Well. Which commands would Dawkins and Weinberg wish to weaken, I wonder. The command not to murder? The command not to commit sexual infidelity, or steal, or lie? The command to honor our parents? Maybe it's the command to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves that Messers. Dawkins and Weinberg find offensive.

Maybe these two prominent atheists want to weaken all of God's commands the better to facilitate the creation of an atheist paradise. Of course, should they manage to bring such a utopia about they'd have to build a Berlin wall to keep people from trying to escape it.

Weinberg goes on to meditate on the mass retreat from Christianity he sees reflected in the high degree of religious tolerance he finds everywhere in the U.S.:

Most Christian groups have historically taught that there is no salvation without faith in Christ. If you are really sure that anyone without such faith is doomed to an eternity of Hell, then propagating that faith and suppressing disbelief would logically be the most important thing in the world - far more important than any merely secular virtues like religious toleration.

How does it follow that suppressing unbelief would follow from a conviction that unbelievers are eternally lost? Why not think instead that Christians recognize that a belief that is not freely accepted is not genuine belief and that the suppression of dissenting views does nothing to change the hearts of those inclined toward unbelief.

Weinberg has more:

Yet religious toleration is rampant in America .... My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don't really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain "not important what one believes" to Luther or Calvin or St Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.

Of course there are people in the church who say that it doesn't matter what you believe, and of course religious toleration is rampant in America, but why conclude from that that there's a massive retreat from Christianity going on? It could be as easily assumed that professor Weinberg's Christian friends pray for him often and believe his salvation is in God's hands, not their's. It might also be the case that professor Weinberg's friends are only nominal Christians.

In any event, the most interesting part of his statement is his use of the phrase "loss of certitude."

It's not at all clear what he means by this. Is Professor Weinberg claiming that American Christians are less sure today than in earlier times that God exists? Does he think that Christians are losing their confidence that there is an afterlife? If so, I doubt very much that he's correct. I don't think that Christians are any less convinced of the truth of these beliefs than they ever were.

Perhaps what Professor Weinberg means is that Christians are not as certain about the fate of non-Christians as they once were, but if they are (and I think they are)that's hardly indicative of a massive retreat from Christianity. For an atheist to take hope that Christianity is weakening because Christians are not as soteriologically exclusive as they were in the early 20th century is to doom oneself to a frustrated hope. It'd be like a 16th century atheist hoping that the Reformation's challenge to the doctrine of papal infallibility would result in the collapse of the Christian faith.

Since we're talking about hopes, I hope Weinberg's Christian friends haven't given up on him, but I have to admit that it'd take a miracle to bring him to belief.


Barking Mad

You have doubtless heard by now of the unfortunate confrontation between House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) and some anti-war folks in the hallway outside his office. Unaware that he was being taped, Obey candidly demonstrated the disdain our public servants sometimes have for their constituents who pay their salaries. It appears that liberals cannot even be civil to each other. Michelle has the video and the transcript at the link.

A little background: Obey is trying to end the war in Iraq through a piece of legislation that will remove the president's authority to wage the war. The citizens he encounters in the hallway are apparently anti-war activists who want him simply to vote to defund the war. Obey doesn't want to do that because it will put the troops in the field in jeopardy and take resources away from veterans' programs and hospitals.

Obey quickly grew impatient with the woman, who is evidently the mother of an Iraq war vet in his third deployment there, and acts pretty much like the south end of a north-bound horse in this intramural squabble among opponents to the Iraq war. In the process he offers some choice descriptions of those groups who are pressuring congressional Democrats to take more radically decisive action to end the war - at one point calling them "idiot liberals."

The incident reminded us of Peggy Noonan's quip that elected officials of both parties are contemptuous of their base but that Democrats tend to think of theirs as "barking mad."

Obey later apologized when he learned that his whole ugly performance is now on YouTube.