Category Archives: Atheism

Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

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Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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Unholy Trinities

The superstitious say that bad things come in threes, though this is probably due to the clustering illusion, cognitive bias, and an emphasis on trinities in western culture. We can only hope, pathetically, that all the blood shed over Arianism was not for nothing. I am feeling superstitious today because it has been a gloaming week here in America. It began (first) with Duck Dynasty “star” Phil Robertson giving a gruesome speech, to applause from Christians at a prayer breakfast, about the rape, killing, and torture of a hypothetical atheist family:

Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at [the atheist father-husband] and say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it [sic] dude?” Then [they] take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say: “Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.”

Who exactly is sick in the head? Is it the Christians in the audience who applauded this hate speech or the Christians who are now defending it? Ironically, I am glad that these people — who clearly suffer from an absolute failure of moral imagination — believe in a “moral” God. Without such beliefs, they might feel free to act out these sorts of sick fantasies. This is the kind of thing that plays well in large parts of camouflage-wearing Christian America. God may yet save the South, but it has not happened yet.

Moving north to Indiana, where things are supposedly more sober, we find (second bad thing) that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has been enacted. For those who did not know that religious liberty was under siege in Indiana, this may seem a bit strange. It would indeed be odd if Hoosiers, protected in their religious beliefs by the Constitution and favored in those beliefs by tax-exempt status, were being prevented from worshiping as they see fit. Needless to say, nothing of the sort was happening. What did happen is that Indiana’s ban on gay marriage was overturned last year, so horrified lawmakers in the state needed to strike back. They apparently were having nightmares about “religious” bakers, florists, and photographers being forced to do gay wedding business.

Let’s be clear about this: when we are talking about “religion” in Indiana, we are talking about Christianity. Eighty percent of all Hoosiers are Christian.* So while Christian proponents of this law talk loftily about “religious liberty,” it really has nothing to do with imperiled beliefs. For the non-sophists among us, the intent and purpose of the law is clear: it enables Indiana business owners to refuse anyone service if it would offend their Christian religious sensibilities. While Indiana’s governor appeared on national television today to assure us that the law won’t be used that way because Hoosiers are “nice” and “don’t discriminate,” this is hardly assuring. Having just given religionists a legal weapon that can be wielded, are we now to believe this will not happen? This is an especially pertinent question for Indiana, which has a history of not being nice.

Let us not forget that during the 1920s, Indiana was the national epicenter for the Ku Klux Klan. In 1925, thirty percent of Indiana’s white males were members and the Indiana KKK had over 250,000 members (largest of any state). That same year, over half the elected members of the Indiana General Assembly were Klan members, as was the Governor and many other high ranking state-local officials. While some may wish to say this is long past and best forgotten, the Indiana Magazine of History instructs otherwise in its lesson plan on the subject:

As a political influence, the Klan faded quickly in Indiana, but its social and cultural influence dovetailed more subtly into Hoosier life. Klan literature capitalized on American racism, nativism, patriotism, and traditional moral and family values. Klan members targeted blacks, Catholics, and Jews, but also immigrants, political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, gamblers, bootleggers, thrill-seeking teenagers, and motion picture producers. In one sense, Indiana’s Klan was a populist organization: it engaged community interests, presented a program of action, and promised political changes.

The Klan’s message of patriotism, American superiority, and Protestant Christianity united native-born Hoosiers across many lines — gender, geography (north and south), class (white and blue collar), religious (many denominations of Protestants), and residential (urban and rural). But this populist club also propagated a negative and wicked influence. Historians have found no documentary evidence to directly link Hoosier Klan members to lynchings in Indiana, but their marches, burned crosses, brazen publications, and boycotts of community businesses evoked fear, intimidation, and lifelong trauma. Historian James Madison has observed that Indiana’s Klan “cannot be dismissed as either an aberration or as simply the insidious appeal of a fanatical few. Nor should the Klan be seen as thoroughly dominating the state and accurately reflecting racist, violent, or provincial beliefs shared for all time by all Hoosiers” (The Indiana Way, 291). Somewhere in the middle we find the meaning of the Klan in Indiana history.

Given this sordid history, with its lingering cultural legacy now making an appearance in the form of a Christian “religious freedom” law, we should justly be suspicious. One way to evaluate a law is to ask if it stands the test of different times. We should thus consider whether Indiana’s new RFRA would have been a good law during the 1920s, when the Protestant KKK was dominant in the state. How might white-Christian Hoosiers have used RFRA back then? Would they have been nice? Would they have used it to discriminate? These are of course just rhetorical questions. Hoosiers should be ashamed.

And just to show that neither the South nor Indiana are alone in their Christian foibles, here in Colorado we find our third event to complete the cluster. Some may have heard about the young woman in Longmont whose 34-week-old fetus was cut from her stomach by a lunatic who wanted a baby of her own. Fortunately the expectant mother survived but unfortunately the developing child did not. One of Colorado’s state legislators, Republican Gordon Klingenschmitt, linked this tragedy to biblical prophecy and claims that the crime was committed because God is punishing America for legal abortion. Klingenshmitt, a former Navy chaplain and current Christian minister, here lays out his logic:

God Bless and/or Curse America, but please only in clusters of threes. This was quite enough for one week.

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Science of Good & Evil

Are the New Atheists “scared” and panicking? Are they “fervently vocal” because they realize that religion is not in retreat and is instead flourishing? I don’t have answers to these questions because I don’t know any New Atheists, don’t read their books, don’t listen to their podcasts, don’t attend their gatherings, and don’t pay them much mind. These don’ts derive from my assessment of New Atheism as a cultural or dialectical response to an historically particular form of western Christian religion. To combat this peculiar form and its Abrahamic relatives, New Atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where New Atheists and their Christian opponents do loud and dirty battle, it offers little to those of us not bound by the sterile binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.

My understanding of this localized (i.e., the US/Britain) and provincial (i.e., Christians/Atheists) phenomenon owes something to John Gray, who for several  years now has been scourging the New Atheists for their foibles and faults. With his latest crack of the whip over at the Guardian, Gray takes aim at Sam Harris and his dubious arguments for “scientific morality.” While Harris claims that morals can be derived from and founded on science, it seems odd that the morals he deduces match perfectly with liberal values. Surely this is no coincidence and Gray is justly skeptical. He notes that “science” (there is no such reified or unified thing) has historically been deployed on behalf of all manner of morals, many of them odious. Harris, a neuroscientist by training and polemicist by penchant, has not finally discovered the elusive philosopher’s stone which transmutes science into morals:

Following many earlier atheist ideologues, Harris wants a “scientific morality”; but whereas earlier exponents of this sort of atheism used science to prop up values everyone would now agree were illiberal, Harris takes for granted that what he calls a “science of good and evil” cannot be other than liberal in content.

Harris’s militancy in asserting these values seems to be largely a reaction to Islamist terrorism. For secular liberals of his generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.

This progressive march of science and secularism, which was never more than a minority movement found mostly in Europe, has been rudely interrupted:

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way. The rise of violent jihadism is only the most obvious example of a rejection of secular life…The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.

These are the facts, Gray asserts, which have thrown New Atheists into a panic and accounts for their quixotic quest to establish a “science of good and evil.” This is a phrase, coined by Harris, which immediately arouses suspicion for anyone well-versed in Nietzsche, whose Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Genealogy of Morals (1887) thoroughly historicized and deconstructed the contingent categories of “good” and “evil.” Alert to these issues, Gray brings them the fore:

How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him…It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure.

Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

While this is not an entirely accurate, and certainly not complete, rendering of Nietzche’s genealogical project, it’s accurate and complete enough for Gray’s well-taken point. Science, sensu lato, has some enlightening things to say about morals, or what I would call talking primate ethics. History, in my estimation, has even more enlightening things to say about the development of morals. But I’m not sure that anything Sam Harris says about the so-called “science of good and evil” is enlightening; indeed, it may be darkening.


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Gutting on God

Over the past ten months the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone,” hosted an interview series on religion. It was conducted by Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting, whose parochial interests are such that most of the questions were narrowly God-centric. Throughout the series Gutting seemed flummoxed by the fact that the philosophers he interviewed were not much interested in metaphysical arguments for the existence of God, and were not particularly concerned about the rationality or logic of such arguments. These are of course major concerns among a tiny subset of philosophers or theologians, such as those found at Notre Dame and the Vatican.

In his penultimate interview with Princeton philosopher Daniel Garber, Gutting posed the scholastic kind of question that has been the dreary hallmark of the series. Garber’s answer, while not quite dismissive, is deflationary:

G.G.: So are you saying that the philosophical books are closed on the traditional theistic arguments? Have atheistic philosophers decisively shown that the arguments fail, or have they merely ceased thinking seriously about them?

D.G.: Certainly there are serious philosophers who would deny that the arguments for the existence of God have been decisively refuted. But even so, my impression is that proofs for the existence of God have ceased to be a matter of serious discussion outside of the domain of professional philosophy of religion. And even there, my sense is that the discussions are largely a matter of academic interest: The real passion has gone out of the question.

This would have been a fitting conclusion to the series had not Gutting wrapped the whole, with a thirteen installment, by interviewing himself. It is interesting primarily as a psychological exhibit: when one wants to believe in God, or feels the need for a false binary (theist-atheist) position on God, then all manner of intellectual gymnastics and normative conclusions are bound to follow.

Perhaps the best that can be said of all this, and Gutting’s interview series, is that belief in God can be considered “rational.” But when making this claim, it is important to remember that “rationality” is an historically situated, philosophically technical, and ideologically loaded concept developed over the last four centuries by (mostly Christian) philosophers in the West. For nearly everyone else, which is to say the 99.9 percent of the people who have ever lived or are now living, these arguments and considerations simply are not relevant, however “rational” they may be.


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Ungodly Science: Dawkins

Since we are on the subject of John Gray, let’s look at his most recent review: a withering attack on arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. The occasion for this lambasting, which assumes the form of a book review, is Dawkins’ self-important and yawn-inducing autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. So it’s not like Dawkins wasn’t asking for it, but I wonder whether the review (“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”) is entirely fair. Though I am ignorant of such matters, I sense a sub-current of sneering British politics or classicism running throughout. Some fairness might have been achieved had Gray observed that there are three incarnations of Richard Dawkins and each deserves to be evaluated independently. By treating Dawkins as a seamless and ungodly whole, the good gets swamped by the bad and we lose valuable context.

The first Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. This Dawkins has performed many valuable services, even if the particulars of his selfish-gene case are the subject of major scientific dispute. Disputes are the stuff of science and the ensuing debates over genes, functions or purpose, and levels of selection have been invigorating and healthy. And popular science books like The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution are just splendid, indeed masterful. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and applaud these contributions to the larger culture.

The second Dawkins is the scourge of creationists and religious fundamentalists of all stripes. I don’t have a problem with this Dawkins, though I doubt he has persuaded fervent believers of their cognitive errors. To the surely limited extent that books like The God Delusion have converted any of them, then more power to Dawkins. In religiously bizarre places like the United States, where 150 million people are creationists, someone has to get down in the cultural gutter for these kinds of fights. But those who do so run a risk: combat with zealots can lead to zealotry. As Nietzsche once observed in a different context, those who stare long into the abyss should be wary of the abyss staring back. Confrontations with creationists may have similar effects.

This brings us to the third Dawkins, the one with whom I do have a problem. We can get a sense for this Dawkins, overweened on science, in books like The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. What’s really true – or the nature and structure of “reality” – is a difficult philosophical problem, cosmological conundrum, and open scientific question. While some skepticism and modesty is surely in order when it comes to subjects like this, Dawkins has no doubts. And it is on this issue that Gray, who is also an atheist, blasts Dawkins:

[I]t is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

[Evangelical Atheism] testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.

This is admittedly harsh, perhaps even intemperate, but it rings true. John Gray, for his part, is not without his foibles, particularly his promiscuous penchant for calling just about everything – political movements, social formations, and various worldviews – “religion.” This conceptual categorization could be useful, if well-argued, but simply labeling Dawkins’ atheism “its own kind of narrow religion” is in no way helpful or enlightening. While I find much that is valuable in Gray, particularly a healthy skepticism toward blind-secular faith in progress, we can and should interrogate him on these matters. But those are posts for another day, when I complete the series on Progress.


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Secular Prophets

As lead book reviewer for the New Statesman, John Gray has a superb platform for elucidating, in acidic prose, the kludgish philosophy of John Gray. The books themselves seem to be an afterthought, mere vehicles for the critical scorn Gray so often pours on the secular faith in progress. In his most recent review, of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Gray takes aim at the rationalist prophets of that faith: evangelical atheists. He also happens to like Armstrong’s book, which is a bit surprising. Before Gray gets to her book, he diagnoses the historical and cultural angst that may be motivating these prophets:

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the [progressive cultural evolutionary] process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

This is classic Gray: heavy on rhetoric and light on argument. His own fulmination would fall flat without further analysis, which Gray then provides:

It’s a confusion compounded by the lack of understanding, among those who issue blanket condemnations of religion, of what being religious means for most of humankind. As Armstrong writes [echoing Talal Asad], “Our modern western conception of religion is idiosyncratic and eccentric.” In the west we think of religion as “a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities”. But this narrow, provincial conception, which is so often invoked by contemporary unbelievers, is the product of a particular history and a specific version of [western Christian] monotheism.

Atheists think of religion as a system of supernatural belief, but the idea of the supernatural presupposes a distinct sort of cosmogony – typically one in which the material world is the creation of a personal God – that is found in only a few of the world’s religions. Moreover, the idea that belief is central in religion makes sense only when religion means having a creed.

Throughout much of history and all of prehistory, “religion” meant practice – and not just in some special area of life. Belief has not been central to most of the world’s religions; indeed, in some traditions it has been seen as an impediment to spiritual life. Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism caution against mistaking human concepts for ultimate realities; Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain currents of what is known as apophatic theology, in which God can be described only in negative terms. It is only those who are hung up on creeds who become missionaries of unbelief.

Gray’s last sentence hits at least one nail squarely on the head. Evangelical atheism is dialectically engaged with an historically particular and peculiar form of western Christian religion. To combat this creedal form and its Abrahamic relatives, atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where large numbers of people happen to reside, it offers precious little to those not bound by the tedious binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.


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