Truth and Beauty

TRUTH AND BEAUTY….Lee Siegel is — what? Nervous? Uncomfortable? Anxious? I’m not quite sure, but he’s something over the recent release of several books attacking religion:

I’m not a particularly religious person. These arguments don’t offend me or my beliefs. But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

….When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all….After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means.

Let me get this straight. Lee Siegel himself is “not a particularly religious person.” But he nonetheless thinks that attacks on religion undermine our ability to believe in “truth, beauty, goodness and decency.”

This is nuts. After all, Siegel presumably believes in all these things. If cold logic hasn’t stopped him, why should it stop anyone else?

I don’t happen to care one way or the other whether atheists write books promoting atheism, but surely Siegel understands the difference between believing in an actual existing deity who controls the physical universe even though there’s no evidence for it, and believing that human emotions are real even though they have no physical existence? This isn’t really a subtle distinction. If it were, then Siegel’s own lack of religiosity would undermine his ability to engage in flights of imagination. But, as this op-ed demonstrates, it hasn’t.

On a personal level, I can understand why religious believers get tired of being pilloried as irrational zealots. Conversely, though, I get tired of believers who seem to think that atheists are incapable of morality, awe, appreciation of beauty, or the ability to lead a meaningful life. It’s even more tiresome coming from someone who is himself not a believer and really ought to know better.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

You seem to me to be missing Siegel’s point. He’s not presupposing that moral values, etc., are based in religion. Rather, he’s saying that the reductionism presupposed by the atheist authors winds up undermining much more than just belief in God — including things that atheists agree are very important, such as moral values.

Sure. But Siegel doesn’t even even bother presenting an argument for this. He’s just saying it’s so.

But is there any reason to believe this? Human beings wall off different things in their minds all the time, and an intellectual belief in a Newtonian universe has no effect on whether you love Mozart or think Keats is sublime. Nor does it have any practical effect on one’s sense of morality. If anyone has any serious evidence to the contrary, I’m all ears.

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