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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More on H.E. Baber's piece in The Guardian

This is adapted from a long comment that I made over at Butterflies and Wheels, where H.E. Baber has engaged with criticisms.

I found the original piece in The Guardian nonsensical, to be blunt, but it makes a little bit more sense now that it has been qualified in the course of discussion. It would have been nice if the original piece had made clear that it was not attacking the (supposed) irrational certainty and aggression of the people who are usually called "New Atheists" (such as Dennett) but that of some of their fans. Using Dennett as an example of a New Atheist, Baber felt free to write:

"New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them."

She concluded:

"I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief."

In the thread at Butterflies and Wheels, she now writes:

"Atheism has been the norm in in Academia for decades and currently I suspect most educated people even in the US are at most polite agnostics. Of course I know that Dennett, Dawkins, et. al know that atheism is nothing new. It's the village atheists who rant in the comments section in the Guardian, imagining that they're sniffed out theism in the most unlikely places who think they're onto something revolutionary."

I do agree that there are some people who could be said to believe in unbelief with a dogmatic and manifest sort of conviction: we even have words for them, such as "knee-jerk atheists". There are people who will take what they imagine to be the atheist stance on any possible issue and will never be civil or thoughtful, even when dealing with the most liberal (and possibly non-literal) religionists (and I do agree that some are all-too-quick to accuse others of bad faith).

For an example of mindlessly cheering for the atheist side, when Yoko Ono sued the Expelled people over what I believed to be a very fair use of a small snippet of the John Lennon song "Imagine", many atheists commenting in the blogosphere cheered for Ono by reflex. The main point seemed to be that she was on their "side" - when it would have been better to stop and ask whether this might be a case where intellectual property rights were being pushed too far to the detriment of free speech. They were failing to see the larger picture, and were rooting for Yoko Ono much as one might root for a football team.

I blogged at length, setting out why I thought that the Expelled people should win in court, much as I disliked their general position as opponents of good science and purveyors of clear falsehoods about an academic conspiracy to silence dissent. As it later turned out, the makers of Expelled won the case - using arguments very similar to those that I'd suggested (not that I claim they got them from me!).

So, yes, we do have knee-jerk atheists who are far less nuanced and thoughtful than Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves. But that is inevitable. What movement doesn't attract a lot of people who adopt a relatively crude version of its ideas? It's very unfair to write in a way that perpetuates the myth that Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves are unnuanced and dogmatic. Any fair reading of their work shows the opposite. If anything, there is now some urgency in dispelling that myth, which is not only unfair but also making it more difficult for the individuals concerned to get a decent hearing, i.e. they have been demonised with some success.

I do believe that religion should be challenged publicly, and I'm frankly amazed at the suggestion that nothing turns on the question of whether the epistemic content of the various religions is actually correct. Much, very much, turns on it. The Catholic Church and other religious organisations claim to be in a position to speak with great epistemic and moral authority. This enables them to pronounce in public on all sorts of issues, including abortion rights, censorship, gay rights, stem-cell research, IVF, and on and on. I can think of no more important issue for public consideration than whether or not these organisations really do possess the epistemic and moral authority that they claim - and which politicians and journalists are all too ready to assume they actually have.

For this and similar reasons, I've become vocal about the issues in the public sphere, including co-editing the forthcoming book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (which H.E. Baber may be interested in reading when it is published soon from Wiley-Blackwell).

I live in Australia, where most of my friends are writers, artists, academics, and the like. In my own social milieu, most people are atheists. It doesn't follow that the churches lack political influence here, or that they receive no deference from the media and politicians. In fact, they receive much deference and exert great political influence. The question is whether that deference and influence can be justified if the churches do not really speak for a God. We need a debate here, as elsewhere, about just how much epistemic and moral authority these organisations should be accorded.

Although I don't encounter much day-to-day religiosity in my current social world, I have encountered plenty of it in my life. Don't assume it's not there because it's not found much among the ranks of university academics (for example). In any event, even in academe there has been a taboo, here in Australia, against strong criticism of religion or the churches.

I didn't see this as a student in the 1970s, but during the 1980s and until very recently, with Dawkins, etc., breaking the ice, it became unacceptable to criticise religion, certainly in any way beyond the most respectful and genteel. Of course, it was still possible to write articles arguing for atheism in professional journals devoted to philosophy of religion, but beyond that the taboo became very strong.

I may be wrong about this, but I see the taboo that developed in the 1980s as part of that decade's obsession with identity politics. The religious of various kinds became groups who had to be treated with total respect, or so it was thought, much like (in my circles) gays and people of colour. However, if that was the justification for shutting up about religion, it was a very poor analogy. In Western societies, the religious are not - like gays or Australian Aborigines - a group that needs special protection. On the contrary, it is often the rest of us who need protection when our freedoms are threatened by legal restrictions enacted by governments that defer to the religious lobby.

In all, Dawkins, Dennett, and others who get labeled as "New Atheists" have performed a public service by opening up a public debate about the epistemic content of religion. I continue to think that much of the reaction to this - much of the distaste, bemusement, whatever - is ill-founded and even nonsensical. It displays a failure to grasp the real-world problem of religion's persistence and its ongoing power and influence, even in supposedly secular societies.

7 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

"It's very unfair to write in a way that perpetuates the myth that Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves are unnuanced and dogmatic. Any fair reading of their work shows the opposite. If anything, there is now some urgency in dispelling that myth, which is not only unfair but also making it more difficult for the individuals concerned to get a decent hearing, i.e. they have been demonised with some success."

Quite. Andrew Brown is making quite a cottage industry of it all by himself at Comment is Free 'Belief'. One atheist-wallop after another.

Jackybird said...

"I may be wrong about this, but I see the taboo that developed in the 1980s as part of that decade's obsession with identity politics. The religious of various kinds became groups who had to be treated with total respect, or so it was thought, much like (in my circles) gays and people of colour. However, if that was the justification for shutting up about religion, it was a very poor analogy. In Western societies, the religious are not - like gays or Australian Aborigines - a group that needs special protection. On the contrary, it is often the rest of us who need protection when our freedoms are threatened by legal restrictions enacted by governments that defer to the religious lobby."

I'm glad you've noted this. I have the same impression regarding our timidity to criticize religion in the U.S. It's never seemed to me to be solely the fault of the relgious right. I wonder if this is the source of the hostility of some of the atheists' critics on the left.

I also get the feeling that there are weird class and social biases wrapped up in the positions of the people who criticize outspoken atheists like Dawkins. For instance, you quote Baber as saying, "Atheism had been the norm in Academia for decades and currently I suspect most educated people even in the US are at most polite agnostics." A comment like that holds no sway with me since I am not an academic. I guess I'm just a "villager." What do these subtle people offer the riffraff like me? Blasphemy laws, creation science classes?

Is atheism a privilege of the elite?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"It's very unfair to write in a way that perpetuates the myth that Dennett, Dawkins, etc., themselves are unnuanced and dogmatic."

"Dogmatic" may be unfair, but I don't see how saying that theology hasn't "moved on" in eighteen centuries and then contradicting himself by noting the existence of feminist theology, is nuanced. I've heard better things about Dennett, but then I've also read this from Taner Edis, on Dennett's performance a conference on the evolution of religion:

"He ended up with a plea for scientists to be more forthright in their criticism of religion: Dennett thinks that even academics end up being reticent and giving religion a free pass too often.

"No doubt there is a good deal of truth there. But it was interesting that the audience didn't entirely buy it. Most people doing scientific research on religion are either outright nonbelievers or on the very liberal fringes of religiosity. But they tend to distance themselves from calls to a more activist style of nonbelief. Sometimes this has to do with reasons such as not wanting to antagonize religious people who are the subjects of their research. But also they perceive some of the more aggressively anti-religious authors out there as having a rather limited understanding of religions. Dennett received some very critical questions, some of which pointed out that a number of features of 'religion' he identified specifically had to do with contemporary conservative Christianity in the United States, and did not generalize to other traditions and other times."

I don't think that you can blame the charges of a lack of nuance entirely on the critics of the "New Atheists" (or whatever you want to call them).

articulett said...

I think that the faitheist brain is inventing "stridency" and straw men in outspoken atheists as a way of keeping themselves from understanding that there is not reason to treat religion differently than any other superstition. They are inventing snide characteristics that they would not be noticing if the person was simply speaking about Scientology or voodoo. But is there a reason to treat religion differently? Isn't it part of the same "supernatural" magisterium?

When people like Dawkins treat religion the way believers treat other superstitions or faith, then the believer imagines "militancy" in order to keep themselves from understanding that the emperor is truly naked and it's delusional to think otherwise...

Such people enable the delusion by attempting to silence or vilify those who speak the truth.

Whenever I ask for a specific example of what some "militant atheist" supposedly said that is dogmatic, I never get a single quote-- just a paraphrasing that is incorrect. I'm beginning to wonder if there really is a dogmatic "new atheist" that pushes unbelief on others. I don't recognize any one I know in Baber's characterization of "new atheists". If Dennett is an example, then I think the Haber is as delusional as the gods she covers for.

I just don't think you can get rid of peoples' primitive demon-type beliefs without banishing their gods under the same methodology.

Parrhesia said...

Wow, JJ Ramsey, you are sounding much more polite and less arrogantly antagonistic. If you keep it up, maybe you'll be allowed back at Pharyngula again! ;-)

J. J. Ramsey said...

"If you keep it up, maybe you'll be allowed back at Pharyngula again!"

Doubt it. I pointed out that PZ's own daughter had called a unnamed bunch of theists "retards" as a counterexample to his claim that "strident" atheists were merely vocal ones. I guess that got him mad enough to obfuscate on his Dungeon page about what I actually did.

Kaath9 said...

I'm a fellow science fiction writer and SFWA member who also happens to be a member of the Baha'i Faith.

I'm in complete agreement that the "new atheists" have indeed done a public service by opening up the debate on the content of religious dogma.

While I wish they could do so without the sarcasm, vitriol and obfuscatory rhetoric, it is still of benefit to have the light of reason shed in the "'cause that's the way it is" room.

The rhetoric (such as Hitchens' derogatory comments on Christ's "primitive understanding of agriculture") only serves to inflame rather than communicate and just about guarantees an emotional response rather than a rational one. I am cynical enough to wonder if this is not actually the intent.

Here's to honest communication and a moratorium on demonization ... on both sides.