I’ve put a lot of attention into the latest book I’ve read.  Maybe my focus on this text is ill-advised, since the class I’m reading it for is available only as a credit/no-credit course.  Still, this book keeps speaking to me even days after I’ve finished it.

The book is called Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope by David Tracy.  I won’t go into the full content of the book.  If you’re interested, see the link above.  It’s expensive for a paperback, but the content is dense – there’s a lot crammed into the small packaging.

One of the things that’s jumped out of the page and landed in my brain is a statement Tracy makes in the book about the argument between theists and scientific non-theists (my language, not his).  He talks about argument as an interruption of the flow of conversation.  Tracy doesn’t mean interruption in a negative sense.  Interruption in this case is about argument – a process that helps us distance ourselves from the conversation in order to employ various methods and explanations in order to make ourselves clear.  Argument, Tracy maintains, is sometimes necessary for real conversation.

The reason I’ve been thinking so much about this is because I’ve spent too much time of late trawling around various websites, many of which are maintained by atheists, anti-theists, and anti-Christians.  I don’t have too much of a problem with any of those folks believing what they believe.  I’d certainly never try to force them to believe what I believe.  Apart from that being a rather fascist thing to attempt, it simply wouldn’t even work.  It’s none of my business, really, how God speaks or doesn’t speak to others, or even whether others believe (fundamentalist arguments about the Great Commission notwithstanding).  No, the problem I have with some of the websites I’ve run across is this ironic insistence that theism is untrue (or a blatant lie, as some of them say) – ironic because they are completely unwilling to entertain the possibility that they are wrong.  That’s the functional definition of fundamentalism, isn’t it?

Anyway, many of these sites insist that theism (usually Christianity in particular) is foolish, because science “has disproven” the truth-claims of the great religions.  I put “has disproven” in quotes, not only because that’s the verbatim language many atheists use in order to make their claim, but also simply to stress the grammatical use of the perfect tense:  this disproving has taken place in the past and has continuing effects into the present.  In other words, the matter is settled.

This strikes me as bizarre, given how much acid many of these folks fling at fundamentalist Christians (to whose tribe I do not happen to belong), because “fundies” tend to say things like, “It’s in the Bible.  I believe it.  End of story.”  Pot, may I introduce Kettle?  Kettle, Pot.  I’m sure you have much to discuss.

Back to Tracy.  Tracy studies hermeneutics – interpretations.  The title of the book points to the fact that there are many ways/numerous methods of interpreting texts (not just written texts, but also experiences as texts), and his point is that humans are always interpreting, whether they realize it or not.  This also goes for scientists.  Scientists often like to claim that they base their conclusions purely on objective data, but as Tracy makes clear, the data themselves are laden with interpretations and are built on certain presuppositions.  It’s interesting to note how what’s perceived as law in astrophysics may completely contradict what quantum physicists know as law.  Everything is…ambiguous.

Tracy isn’t saying that we should or even could just throw up our hands and say that all interpretation is futile.  He points to Luther and says that it would have been very unsatisfying had Luther made his proclamation, “Here I stand; I can do no other…but if it really bothers you, I’ll move.”  But what bothers Tracy, and I guess what’s been bugging me about some of these websites, is the refusal on the part of strict scientists to acknowledge the interpretive aspect of their discipline, as if they are the only ones with Real Truth (TM), and to disagree with them means that you’re a complete dumb-ass, and a deluded one at that.

Many of the atheist websites I’ve looked at call upon Reason to make their Truth claims.  This is an Enlightenment worldview (not that it’s inherently wrong, but it’s a hermeneutic).  Tracy writes, “The Enlightenment both freed us from the weight of certain oppressive traditions and taught us, as Kant insisted, the we must dare to think for ourselves.  But as the dialectic of the Enlightenment unfolded, it became trapped in ever narrower models of what could count as truth and what could count as free action, namely, purely autonomous action.  The once emancipatory concepts of the Enlightenment, as Adorno suggested, became mere categories.”

He later adds, “Scientism has pretensions to a mode of inquiry that tries to deny its own hermeneutic character and mask its own historicity so that it might claim ahistorical certainty.”  That’s the problem.  Again, if atheists want to use science to come to conclusions about the validity of religion, that’s fine.  It just perturbs me to see them claim that their interpretations are the only true interpretations.  I had never thought of it this way, but Tracy calls this “a Whig history on the triumph of the final scientific method or the ultimate explanatory theory.”  “Whig history” seems a very good term to describe the attitude.

I’m prattling now and I have “real” work to do, but this topic has been under my skin for the last couple of days, and has really put me in a bit of a funk.  Now that it’s off my chest, I feel a little better and can get on with life.  Which for me right now – unfortunately – means writing a paper on a Friday night.


2 Responses to “Pot=kettle=black”

  1. truthwalker Says:

    I am an atheist, but I claim “atheist” as a title for the convenience of others, not because it’s a perfect fit. I think it’s very odd, actually to define my whole self by merely stating my theology. I don’t believe in Santa, yet I don’t call myself an asantist. Define myself by what I DON’T believe is odd to begin with.

    In a perfect world, I would say that I am an existentialist, determinist, pragmatist, whose theology happens to be atheist. I agree in general with the view you express here, but what add a priviso. Truth is that which conforms to reality. You’re right that reason is a flawed method of interpreting reality because reality IS. Reality is not subjective, but the observation of it is. Reason asserts that there is something higher than reality that judges it, and that which is found wanting is not real.

    The weakness of reason accepted, I think is not just another construct for viewing reality but the one that offers the best chance of placing one’s thoughts (subjective reality) most closely to tangible reality (objective reality.)

  2. Hi, T-dub,

    Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your insights.

    I like your point about not defining yourself by what you don’t believe. That makes complete sense. I suppose there may be a difference between being an “asantaist” and an atheist, since few people (I hope) pin their identity and their worldview on the existence of Santa, but your point is well-taken.

    I don’t take issue with your statement of your own worldview. You appear to be a very well-reasoned chap, and you’ve given me no cause to think that you view people who disagree with you as delusional idiots. (You may think that, for all I know, but you don’t indicate it.) My problem is not with atheists, per se, but with the particular breed of people who brand themselves as atheists – theoretically based on scientific reason – and who then take the next step to label those who don’t agree as morons.

    As you point out, reason IS flawed. Religion is also flawed. It is the height of folly to use a flawed system to stigmatize other human beings, and both the religious and atheistic camps have a tendency to do this. There’s a certain delicious irony in that sharing of common ground, I find. 🙂

    Thanks again for coming by. If you get a chance to check out that Tracey book, I’d recommend it. It probably wouldn’t change your mind, but reading the actual text might present his argument better than I did.

    – R

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