Posted by: gcarkner | February 14, 2023

Brilliant Reflection from Christian Smith

Dr. Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Smith is well known for his research focused on religion, adolescents and emerging adults, and social theory. Smith received his MA and PhD from Harvard University in 1990 and his BA from Gordon College in 1983. He was a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 12 years before his move to Notre Dame.

Smith is a leading American theorist of the philosophy of critical realism and the social theory of personalism. His larger theoretical agenda has been to move personhood, morality, motivated action, culture, and identity to the center of sociological theorizing generally and the sociology of religion specifically. Smith’s critical realist personalism require social science to revise its dominant approaches to causation, social ontology, and explanation. Recent personalist works by Smith include What is a Person? and To Flourish or Destruct. Earlier in his career, Smith’s work on social movements emphasized not only structural political opportunities but also personal moral motivations for participation in social movement activism. In his work on American Evangelicals, Smith developed a subcultural identity theory of religious persistence and strength in the modern world and highlighted the massive cultural complexities within conservative Protestantism. His book, The Secular Revolution, emphasized the centrality of culture, agency, and moral vision by religiously hostile actors in the secularization of American public life. Moral, Believing Animals’ anthropology underscored the morally-oriented, narratological, and epistemically anti-foundationalist condition of human personhood. Smith’s more recent work on the religious and spiritual lives of U.S. adolescents–in his books, Soul SearchingSouls in TransitionYouth Catholic America, and Lost in Transition–emphasizes the interplay of broad cultural influences, family socialization, and religious motivations in forming the spiritual and life experiences and outcomes of American youth.

See also Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Brilliant Thought Quotes from Christian Smith’s Oxford University Press 2019 book Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver

It focuses on evaluating certain key positions and claims that many atheists assume or make about science, morality, and human nature. Smith contends that many contemporary atheist activists are trying to claim too much, attempting to establish positions that are unwarranted, going overboard in confidence and enthusiasm in prosecuting their positions.

Chapter 1. How Good Without God are Atheists Justified in Being?

I maintain that a truly good reason for moral actions requires both a warranting explanation and a motivational justification.

Our contemporary atheist moralists assure us that we humans still can and must aspire to a highly demanding version of a universalistic, egalitarian, and inclusive humanism…. But, none of them provides a convincing reason–sometimes any reason–for the universal scope of humans’ asserted obligations to promote the good of all other human beings.

Charles Taylor “The question is whether we are not living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our [high] standards of justice and benevolence. Do we have ways of seeing-good which are credible to us, which are powerful enough to sustain these standards? If not, we would be both more honest and more prudent to moderate them.”

Smith speaks of the systemic vulnerability to moral hackers: “Again, I say atheists have reasons to be good without God, but not as faithfully and consistently good as these atheist moralists would like to think.”

Absent from these works is any recognition of human history’s tragic quality, to which (not only religious) human literature, drama, philosophy, and social commentary have testified for millennia.

There is a credulous faith in the innate and reliable goodness of human beings (against the evidence).

Chapter 2. Does Naturalism Warrant Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?, i.e. Does the moral beliefs of universal benevolence and human rights fit well with and flow reasonably from the facts of a naturalistic universe?

Many modern people tend to believe strongly that all human persons everywhere possess inalienable human rights to life, certain freedoms, respect of conscience, and protection against unwarranted or arbitrary violations of personal property and choices by government or other persons.

Officially science is only methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically so, meaning that scientific methods and explanations only appeal to natural causes but science makes no judgments about the nature of ultimate reality.

Metaphysical naturalism is a general picture of all reality as consisting of nothing but the operations of nature. Atheism, by comparison, is the specific, “not-theism” answers to the question of whether some form of divine being exists.

Someone who believes in a naturalistic cosmos is, it seems to me, perfectly entitled to believe and act to promote human universal benevolence and human rights, but only as an arbitrary, subjective, personal preference–not as a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation.

Many ancient civilizations and cultures readily accepted and practiced different forms of slavery, infanticide, patriarchy, and sometimes human sacrifice. Many took for granted innate inequalities between different groups of people. In general, few possessed the cultural resources to develop a strongly humanistic morality of the kind we affirm today.

By contrast, the transcendent monotheism of ancient Judaism introduced a set of uncommon ethical sensibilities that were crucial in the eventual development of the culture of benevolence and rights. Elaborated on page 51.

Christianity directly inherited this ethical legacy and added to it the demanding teaching of Jesus on love for one’s enemies, universalizing the neighbour, self-sacrificial giving, the disciples’ worldwide mission, the sacred value of caring for the physical needs of others, and the dignity and importance of women, children, “sinners”. The Christian Apostles further taught the duty to share material wealth, respect for the conscience of others, the priority of persuasion over force, and the power of God’s kingdom to dissolve divisive social distinctions–“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, because all are one in Christ.” ~Paul the Apostle

Few ancient human cultures appear to have possessed the embryonic moral and metaphysical material from which could have evolved the robust commitment to universal benevolence and human rights…. What actually did develop, at least in the West, was in large measure the cultural and institutional outcome of deep historical Jewish and Christian roots. And at the heart of those traditions was the belief in a transcendent personal God who is the source, governor, and judge of moral order and action. [Historian Tom Holland agrees with this in Dominion: how the Christian revolution remade the world.]

Many people are not naturally and predominantly altruistic, self-giving, considerate of the needs of others, and more committed to the truth and justice than their own welfare [a general empirical observation]…. Most people have not only a bright side with capacities for genuine good but also dark sides with capacities for deep selfishness, self-deception, and indifference toward the needs of others.

Nothing about the human capacity for complex reasoning, forethought, or planning per se naturally leads to universal benevolence and belief in human rights…. However, in the globalized world in which we now live, given the huge military and environmental challenges humanity now faces, the very survival of our species depends not only on human cooperation but also the imperative of universal benevolence and rights.

But the grounds for such require a cogent justification running in the background, capable of being brought to the foreground and vindicated when necessary. In the future of our dangerous, globalizing world, those wishing to champion and defend universal benevolence and human rights will have to think more clearly and explain more persuasively than their skeptics, however barbaric and heartless their skeptics may seem now.

Morality of the sort we are trying to justify here has to do with what is right and wrong, good and bad, et cetera, which are believed to be established not by humans’ own actual desires, decisions, or preferences but by sources believed to exist apart from them.

Plausibility Weakness of Naturalism: All versions of such rational, nontranscendent moral philosophies, it turns out, fail to account successfully for universal benevolence and rights in one or both of two ways. Either they surreptitiously smuggle in assumptions and commitments from the Judea-Christian or some other moral heritage, or they simply fail on their own terms as rational systems justifying universal benevolence and rights. See also Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Nagel is probably most widely known in philosophy of mind as an advocate of the idea that consciousness and subjective experience cannot, at least with the contemporary understanding of physicalism, be satisfactorily explained with the concepts of physics.

Chapter 3. Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail

See also our GFCF lecture on Science & Scientism with Oxford’s Physics Professor Ard Louis:

Vulgar imperialistic scientism means claiming that if science cannot observe or discover something, then it cannot be real or true. Stated slightly differently: the only things that could be true or real are those that science can observe or validate. Examples used are: Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Weinberg, Edward O. Wilson, Victor Stenger, Richard Leakey, Marcelo Gleiser, science writer Roger Lewin.

The bemusing irony in all of this is that the presuppositions that authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and that produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not a scientific statement and could never, ever itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a philosophical presupposition, something not unlike a faith commitment.

Science is a dominant institution when it comes to knowledge claims. And one of the privileges of dominance is not having to learn and think as hard as one should when it comes to making claims beyond one’s core competence.

When science writers publicly pronounce on metaphysics and theology, they should be obliged to satisfy two conditions. First, they should learn enough about real metapysics and religion to be able to speak accurately and intelligently about them. And second, they should make clear in their writing and speaking that they are no longer making scientific claims but rather switching modes of discourse and epistemological frameworks to discuss metaphysics or religion. To fail to do either of these I think is irresponsible and deceptive…. They are making a basic category error in thinking in the first place that they can even judge such religious claims with scientific tools.

Science is itself grounded on a set of presuppositions that are ultimately taken on faith or not. And, as Michael Polanyi has shown, scientific discovery is actually driven not by strict adherence to some Method but by deeply personal, prescientific commitments to human values like wonder, beauty, and truth. Both science and religion are thus implicated in personal belief commitments of various kinds, and to the evaluation of the truth of those beliefs through the facts of lived experience.

The difference that does matter here is something like this: science seeks to understand the natural workings of matter, energy, life, the mind, and society that can be theoretically understood through direct and indirect empirical observation, whereas most religions seek to understand and engage either realities that transcend creation, even if they interact with creation, such as a personal God (as in Abrahamic faiths), or realities that the immanent material world actually obscures, such as the force of Brahman (as in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism). In both cases, even the most powerful of science’s tools are constitutionally incompetent to penetrate and evaluate religion’s claims.

A thought on scientists smuggling metaphysical atheology into their scientific writing: I think when we get down to it, a good part of what motivates many of these scientists to reject God, religion, and other nonnaturalistic metaphysical views are not the findings of science but instead personal moral and emotional objections. He gives examples from Steven Weinberg and Edward O. Wilson on page 101.

Finally, it is incumbent on scientific atheology writers (people who use science to dismiss God and religion) to think harder about the presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism that drive them into narrow imperialistic claims…. Science qua science is constitutionally incapable of disproving the possible reality of what is most important in most religions: whether that be the God of Abraham, Saint Paul, Muhammed, or Zoroaster…. Let’s have good, rigorous arguments about science and religion… ones that are well-informed, fruitfully constructive when possible, and fair and honest when they must be critically destructive.

See also quotes from David Bentley Hart on Scientism:

Chapter 4. Are Humans Naturally Religious?

Based on critical realism as a background guiding philosophy. Critical realism reconstructs our basic assumptions, telling us to ask different questions … opening up new, helpful possibilities, understanding and explanation.

Definition of Religion: a complex of culturally prescribed practices that are based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers (personal or impersonal)…. Everything in reality has some kind of nature … insofar as entities possess and so can express particular characteristics, capacities, and tendencies by virtue of simply what they are.

Premises of Critical Realism:

  1. Real entities with essential properties exist in reality, often independent of human mental activity.
  2. Real entities possess certain innate capacities and powers, existing at a “deep” level of reality, that only under certain conditions are activated so as to realize their potential.
  3. When the causal energies of entities are released in particular cases, they are neither determined nor determining, neither absolutely predictable nor random, neither chaotic nor incomprehensible.
  4. The social scientific task in not to discover the covering laws that explain and predict observable associations of conditions and events…. The task rather is for our theorizing minds to use all available empirical evidence and powers of reason to develop conceptual models that as accurately as possible descriptively represent the real causal processes operating at a “deeper” unobservable level of reality, through the agency of real causal mechanisms that produce changes in material and nonmaterial world.
  5. We must always pay close attention to the environmental and contextual factors that do and do not activate the causal capacities and powers of different entities, which then produces a variety of possible, sometimes-observable outcomes…. We have to be willing to deal with major complexity.

Are people religious–in what sense?

Smith does believe that human beings are naturally religious in this way: They possess a complex set of innate features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies that capacitate them to be religious (i.e., to think, perceive, feel, imagine, desire and act religiously), and that under the right conditions, strongly tend to predispose and direct them towards practicing and believing religion. The natural religiousness of humanity … is located in the distinctive, inherent features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies of human persons that are rooted, ultimately, in the human body and brain and the emergent (often nonmaterial) capacities that arise from the body and the brain.

I am speaking here of very powerful causal forces and dispositions that are rooted in the nature of reality and are chronically triggered to become operative in human life in a variety of contexts. That helps to explain religion’s primordial, irrepressible, widespread, and seemingly inextinguishable character. See also by Christian Smith What is a Person?: Understanding Humanity, Social Life, and the Good from the Person Up; and Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.

All humans are thus believers before and more basically than we are knowers. There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing (presuppositions). That is the human condition…. Religious commitment is not fundamentally different, at bottom, from all the human belief commitments, insofar as religion involves trust in and response to believed-in realities that are not objectively verifiable or universally shared by all reasonable people. Religious believing is thus not at odds with the broad trajectory of all human believing.

When the prospect of a helpful superhuman power is present, it is quite natural for humans to be interest in the possibility of appealing to those powers to help avert or resolve their problems.

Humans also ask and wrestle with the “Life Questions” (Brad Gregory): What should I live for? What should I believe and why? What is morality and where does it come from? What kind of person should I be? What is the meaning of life, and what should I do to lead a meaningful life? Other existential questions that emerge are in our consciousness of existence: death, tragedy, the character of love, obligation…. We are meaning-making animals (see Charles Taylor, The Language Animal). We need language for these awarenesses–Taylor calls it constitutive language.

At the end of the day, if atheism is not compatible with moral excellence, universal benevolence, human rights, the authority of science, and basic human nature, then its attractiveness is significantly diminished…. They are overplaying their hand, trying to claim more for their viewpoint than reason and empirical evidence justify…. Considered rationally, metaphysical naturalism is simply not a worldview that independently possesses the intellectual resources to warrant a commitment to benevolence afforded and human rights honoured for all humans everywhere…. Science is inherently incapable of proving or disproving God’s possible existence.

In most historical eras, it has not been hard for people and cultures to come to believe, embrace, practice, and pass on religions to subsequent generations. It has been much, much harder to extinguish them…. Humans not only have the capacity to be religious, like the capacity for anything else humans can do, including rare and difficult things, but also those capacities are directed by strong natural tendencies that turn them toward religious expression.

Notre Dame Sociologist, Christian Smith, documents the contemporary outlook in Souls in Transition, his award-winning book on Americans aged 18-23He notes the following revealing traits among university undergrads. They are:

soft ontological anti-realists: there is no real world as such.

epistemological skeptics: question every truth claim, including moral truths.

perspectivalists: mine is only one of many ways to see things.

subjective isolation: pursuing my own unique path in life, but with a sense of loneliness.

constructivists: building myself and my morality from the ground up.

moral intuitionists: how I feel about a situation or a decision is the most important factor, even if I am uncritical about such feelings.

-antipathy/rebellion towards parental shaping, social conventions and institutional morality.

See also my blog posts on moral relativism at ~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner Dr. Paul Allen on Critical Realism

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