Sunday, October 12, 2008

Derbyshire’s Dismissal Part III

See the first and second parts.

Derbyshire wrote a long, rambling diatribe at “The Corner.” Can you tell?:

It's no crime to change your mind, and a believer might of course doubt his belief. There's a lot to be said, though, for just getting on with life, and in particular for resolving your doubts. Having come to doubt you're on the right path, weigh the evidence as best you can. Then either stay on the path or (as in my case) get off it onto some other. What seems unconvincing to me is the claims by some believers to have wrestled with doubt for years or decades. To people making those claims, the only thing I can think of to say is: "Isn't it time you, like, made up your cotton-pickin' mind?"

What does he mean by “unconvincing?” Does he believe these people are lying? If so, why not just say that, straight out? Why beat around the bush? And offer a possible motivation for their doing so, while you’re at it.

Wrestling with doubt is a common human problem--even for lengthy periods of time. Derbyshire acknowledges this, to his credit. Obviously, one should make up his mind; otherwise, death will decide for him. But the question is: Why does he care, one way or the other? If I struggle over the question of God’s existence, or my own salvation, or whether or not a miniature troll lives under my footbridge, what is that to him? As an atheist, why does he give a hillbilly hee-haw?

Faith of the Founders. There are different opinions about this too, and I am not competent to judge which of them is correct.

You know what they say about opinions. People differ on this issue because they know little about the Founders. Someone who actually looks into their lives and personal beliefs will find that the vast majority were devout Christians. The reason why this is a contentious issue is because some folks wouldn’t know the truth if it walked up and swatted them in the face with a Bible, while others actively work toward obscuring it.

I note that the Founders all believed in the Four Humors theory of human metabolism — a belief that led, in at least one case, to untimely death from excessive chirurgical bleeding. Fortunately they did not put that theory into their Constitution, so we are not bound by it. They did not put their religious beliefs in, either; so we are not bound by those, either, whatever they were.

So, you have no idea what their religious beliefs were, but you can state in confidence that those beliefs appear nowhere in the Constitution? This is like stating that atheism appears nowhere in the various Humanist Manifestos. Its role may not appear as an overt declaration, but it exists in the spirit and ideals espoused in the documents. And so with the Constitution and Christianity. John Adams—one of the primary Founders--said: Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."--October 11, 1798. This means people like you, Mr. Derbyshire. The very concept of freedom as fleshed out in the document originated in Western Civilization’s Christian traditions. Saying that those beliefs appear nowhere therein indicates more than mere unfamiliarity with America’s social contract; it reveals ignorance of Christianity’s influence on the development of freedom as we in the west understand it.

To the claim that without Christianity there would have been no U.S.A. (or Western Civ, or science, or orchestral music, or Froot Loops breakfast cereal — the claims here seem to be innumerable) I'll give the answer Macaulay gave two hundred years ago: Even if I allow the claim, it is just as true that you need a midwife to bring a child into the world. Once the delivery is accomplished, however, the midwife is no longer required. That Christianity was necessary in order for X to come about, even if true — and the arguments here strike me as feeble, but let's allow them — does not prove (nor, of course, disprove) that Christianity is necessary for the continued existence and health of X. That has to be proved (or disproved) independently.

This is downright incoherent. With Christianity playing midwife, and the U.S.A. as newborn child, he concludes that Christianity is obsolete and irrelevant to the U.S.A.’s continuance. In the next breath, he speaks of proving or disproving its necessity independently, but makes no efforts toward that end. So what is the point of this paragraph? Regardless, his comparison remains inapt. When a midwife aids in birthing a baby, her continued presence becomes unnecessary after a successful delivery. Her hovering has no bearing on the babe’s life course, from that moment forward. With Christianity, we’re discussing a philosophical outlook, a particular moral world view, informing the existence of our nation; whereas the midwife had no part in the baby’s being, just in its delivery. It would have existed—and probably fumbled its way into the world—even if she weren’t available as an usher from birth canal to waking reality. It’s as if Derbyshire’s intimating that ideas have no consequences, that they don’t shape or change the course of history. This stands as both counterintuitive and demonstrably inaccurate, from a historical perspective.

Suppose an atheist forms a club for atheists. Suppose the organization’s ideals are rooted in atheism. Later, the group’s founder rejects atheism. With this startling metamorphosis, what happens to the club? The answer is simple: It either ceases its existence, or transforms into an entity that bears no resemblance to its former self.

Now suppose Christians build a nation. Suppose their social contract is rooted in Christianity. Later, the populace discards Christianity. What happens to the nation? Again, the answer is simple: It either ceases its existence, or transforms into an entity that bears no resemblance to its former self. This latter transformation is in the works in the U.S. and Europe, as I type these words.

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