TAG | atheism
Writing in The Week, Damon Linker wades into the controversy over the comment by Sam Harris that Islam is a “motherlode of bad ideas”. In many respects the controversy is more interesting than the insult, but that’s a discussion for another time. What caught my attention the most in Linker’s article was this:
Now, I’m no fan of the New Atheists. I think their understanding of religion is shallow and their dismissal of it facile. And then there’s their insouciant attitude toward the prospect of godlessness. As I’ve argued before, the New Atheists prefer sentimental, superficial happy talk to sober reflection on the challenge of living a life without God.
“Sober reflection on the challenge of living a life without God’?
Dear oh dear.
That’s a generalization too far.
For some people, living without God may be indeed be a challenge (as Linker rightly points out, it certainly worried old Nietschze), but for others it’s no big deal. They can accept that the sources of morality lie–as they do–in a mixture of genetics and customs, a rough-sewn patchwork that presents some conceptual difficulties, certainly, but only for those inclined to worry about such matters. Most have other things to do with their time.
And yes, some non-believers may indeed be perturbed by the idea of a meaningless universe. But others may prefer it, and others may just not be too bothered.
The answer, I suspect, is that we end up believing in whatever works best for us. And, as Linker suggests, humanity probably does have a bias in favor of the belief in the idea that the universe has some purpose. Why? Well, if I had to guess, there’s an evolutionary reason for that.
That’s an argument that Linker dismisses as “viciously circular” (and no I didn’t see the viciousness either) a rebuttal that moves from the merely lazy to the entertainingly inconclusive:
The prevalence of providential thoughts and feelings might be a response to something real, permanent, and important, if not in the universe itself, then within us.
And the latter probably leads us back to Charlie Darwin, yet again.
Settling the matter requires that we listen to what the great religions of the world — including their most intellectually formidable theological representatives — have to say about the character of providence.
It does? Why?
Writing in response to the uninviting of American Atheists to CPAC, Charlie Cooke has a very fine article over on NRO on the topic of whether atheism and conservatism are compatible. As an atheist and a conservative he thinks, not unsurprisingly, that they are, and, as someone who is agnostic and on the right, I can only say, well, amen.
Charlie’s piece is eloquent and carefully reasoned and well worth reading in full, but FWIW I wrote a far shorter article on (more or less) this topic for Politix late last year. Perhaps it is worth excerpting this:
[T]he idea that it is essential philosophically for conservatives to be religious believers is nonsense. Dig around a bit, and you will discover quite a few here in America who have declared that they are not (although none of them – how odd – hold significant elective office). Look across the Atlantic (I am British-born) and you will find many, many more.
It is no coincidence that Charlie also hails from Blighty. The notion that it is impossible for a conservative—and I mean a ‘proper’ Conservative in the Thatcher or Reagan sense rather than a Cameron-style whatever he is—to be an atheist would be thought over there to be very strange indeed.
I went on to write this:
Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious [Charlie makes a similar point]. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.
That means facing the fact that gods will, one way or another, always be with us.
And facing that fact includes contemplating the reality that some gods are considerably less benign than others, a point that those pushing for a very expansive view of ‘religious freedom’ would do very well to ponder.
Being a philosophical sort, Charlie mulls the philosophical implications of his atheism, where do rights come from and all that. Well, I’m not a philosophical sort…
A few years back, Jonathan Rée wrote a review of a collection of writings by the British (yes, them again) historian, the undeniably conservative, undeniably non-believing Hugh Trevor-Roper:
I wrote a bit about it here at the time. In the context of the current discussion, this section from Rée’s article is worth repeating:
He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.
Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.
Anyway, please read Charlie’s piece. It’s terrific.
The American Atheists, not so much.
A poster which replaced the image of God from the Sistine Chapel with a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been removed after with a row with a London University.
The South Bank University Atheism society created the graphics for their freshers’ fair stall last week, but returning to the pre-prepared stall on the University campus for the first day of the fair, they allege the posters were removed by union representatives.
Cloe Ansari, president of the Atheist society, alleges she was told initially that the Michelangelo Sistine chapel ceiling was offensive in itself, because it included a “naked man”. But she claims she was later told, having offered to blur the image, that the issue was that ‘The Creation of Adam’ is a religious painting.
Pause to consider the absurdity of the fact that Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam could be considered “offensive”.
And then there’s the whole business about religion.
Ansari claims the stall was removed entirely the following day and says she has lodged an official complaint, though a union representative told HuffPost UK that any such complaint had yet to be seen by officers.
“This incident is just one of a catalogue of attempts to censor our society,” Ansari said in a statement. “I never expected to face such blatant censorship and fragile sensibilities at university, I thought this would be an institution where I could challenge beliefs and in turn be challenged.
Good grief, Cloe, where have you been living all these yours? I thought atheists were meant to see the world as it is….
In any event, the university has now apologized.
In an admiring review for The Week of theologian David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Damon Lineker writes that it “demolishes” the “straw man Atheism” of those who treat “God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe”:
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
And one, I suspect, that may be lost on many of their followers.
Back to the review:
[God] is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp [possibly because it is, at its core, a cop-out], but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.
It does? “Ecstatic”? Really?
In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be “wholly and coherently rejected” — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.
“Enrage”? I doubt it. A gently raised eyebrow would suffice.
And then comes the inevitable Hallmark moment, some sweetener thrown in to what looks to me like very thin gruel:
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.”
Disappointingly, Greaves turns out to be a rather wishy-washy devil worshiper:
In 2005, Greaves had lunch with Peter H. Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey. Greaves felt that a cultural shift had occurred with the rise of the New Atheist movement, led by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and that Satanists should participate in this new conversation about religion in the public sphere. As a cognitive scientist, he was suspicious of Dawkins’ claims that humanity can live without religion since he felt that humans are “hard wired” to interpret the world through a rich language of symbol, narrative, and ritual. So Greaves imagined Satanism as a religion that could combine Dawkins’ aversion to supernaturalism with powerful and compelling symbols—what might be called a “sacralized” atheism.
Greaves is dead right about the hard wiring, but somehow I cannot see old Nick as an entirely plausible object of veneration to be used in the rites of—no God help us—“sacralized” atheism. There’s just too much baggage there, souls in torment, fire, brimstone, apocalypse, Rosemary’s Baby, you know how it goes.
Read on further, and it turns out that Greaves is using his supposedly Satanic agenda to make a decidedly political point.
Greaves was eventually approached by The Satanic Temple, a group that shared his political goals and saw Satanism as a “poison pill” that could be used to check the erosion of the establishment clause by reminding the public that privileges afforded to Christians could also be afforded to Satanists….
Future plans involve legally ordaining ministers and using the free exercise clause to claim privileges for Satanists. Satanic ministers could, for example, illegally marry a gay couple and then, when the state refuses to recognize the marriage, claim that their free exercise rights have been violated.
So satire then?
To gain any legal traction, Greaves will have to demonstrate that he is sincere about Satanism and that these projects are more than just pranks, which may prove difficult for a newly formed group that denies any belief in the supernatural. His opponents understand this too. Greaves described how, before his work with the Satanic Temple, advocates of SRA produced conspiracy theories about him, claiming that only someone secretly connected to criminal Satanism would challenge their claims. But now that he’s demanded Constitutional rights for Satanists, his detractors have reversed course. In an interview with Fox News he was repeatedly challenged as not being a real Satanist. Even the Church of Satan has joined the queue to call Greaves a phony Satanist.
In an article for Time, the Church’s High Priestess Magistra Peggy Nadramia, claimed that Greaves is not an authentic Satanist and merely “riding the coattails” of the Church of Satan, adding that “The Church of Satan is decidedly uninterested in politics.”
Greaves dismissed these attacks, asserting that preserving their status as the monolithic embodiment of Satanism appears to be the Church’s only goal. For his own part, Greaves claims he has no interest in being the public face of Satanism and that struggles over leadership are at odds with Satanism’s anti-authoritarian philosophy.
Satanism has an “anti-authoritarian” philosophy? That’s not how it looked in The Omen.
The conclusion to this piece though is well worth pondering
Greaves feels that a community centered around Satan—not as a literal entity but a potent metaphor for values that he holds sacred—is more than just a philosophy and should enjoy the same Constitutional protections afforded to religion. If the Satanic Temple’s campaign has any traction it will force a public discussion not simply on the Constitutional issues surrounding religion, but on the perennial problem of what religion is.
Once-in a saner era-there would have been no problem at all about defining what a ‘proper’ religion was. Well, not too much, anyway. But now…
To repeat the point that I made the other day, those pursuing a highly expansive definition of “religious freedom” in today’s very changed America may well not appreciate where such arguments may lead.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has just been reading Tony Judt’s Postwar (which I have yet to tackle, but plan to) and cites that book, together with Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands (which I reviewed here) for a grander thesis about the failings European civilization. There’s a lot to take issue with there, to put it mildly, but I did like this:
I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.
Coates then lets what seems like despair grip him as a result of this discovery (odd, as if that is how things are, it’ll be a bit of a relief):
I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
Not necessarily. Chin up!
But then he brightens:
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.
And gets it:
Or perhaps not.
Writing in Politico, Jennifer Hecht laments the absence of any ‘out’ atheists in senior elective office.
On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “You were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.
The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?
Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”
Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a 2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view….
Hmmm, “representing their point of view”? There are many things that I might hope for from legislators. Agreeing with their thoughts about God is a very long way down the list.
When it comes to this sort of thing, I’ve always thought that the late Henry IV of France (1553-1610) was onto something when he explained (apocryphally at least) why he had converted to Roman Catholicism on ascending the French throne. “Paris,” he supposedly said, “is worth a mass”. Going through a (to him) presumably meaningless ritual was no big deal if it paved the way to power.
What mattered was what he did with that power. And what he did was to be a good king, with achievements that included crushing the fanatics of the Catholic League, and promulgating the Edict of Nantes, which granted a good degree of religious tolerance to France’s Protestant minority.
And so it should be here. If it takes a little hypocrisy for a good sound godless politician to get elected, so be it. Bring on the prayer breakfasts!
But one real cost to this silence it is the role that it has played in the rise of the assumption that those on the Right (except Randians and some of those wacky libertarians) are by definition religious, something that is by no means the case, as visitors to this site must surely know.
Atheists need to stop making fun of “Christian rock” and the assorted second rate derivates of culture produced by the evangelical subculture if this is not a rip-off of The Onion, Atheist ‘mega-churches’ look for nonbelievers:
It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
This is almost a parody of what organized atheism can become.
Maria Popova has written an interesting piece on Isaac Asimov’s attitude towards religion.
Here’s the great man himself:
I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void.
That Asimov never “felt” the tug of any faith, let alone any God-shaped hole is, I suspect, a reflection of the fact that an individual’s susceptibility to religious belief or even to “spirituality”(to use that gelatinous term) almost certainly owes more to his or her psyche (we can debate how much of that is down to the genes) than to anything else.
Asimov then succumbs to hubris:
I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.
Oh come on. The idea that anyone’s beliefs are founded solely on reason is a leap too far. Robots may be built that way. Humans are not. Judging by the section I have highlighted in these comments below, Asimov was no exception:
The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.
Under the circumstances it’s perhaps not a surprise that Asimov bought into the soft-left mush that is so much of Secular Humanism (there’s a reference to that creed elsewhere in the piece), but I did like this:
There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”
And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”
Over at the American Conservative, Noah Millman is frustrated by the nature of the debate between scientists (or “science popularizers”) and theists.
I feel like we go around this track every other month. A scientist or science-popularizer writes an unpersuasive essay arguing that science “proves” that religion is bad for children and other living things; a theist responds with an unpersuasive essay arguing that without some grounding in the divine, we’re doomed to become Nazis.
Millman makes some leaps that I wouldn’t, but this is worth noting:
It’s almost as if neither side can accept the possibility that religion is a natural phenomenon. Steven Pinker wrote a whole book against the idea that we can simply ignore our innate natures when we concoct schemes for social improvement. How, then, can he blithely assume that we can, as a species, move beyond a phenomenon – religion – as old as our knowledge of ourselves?
Fair point. We cannot. Religion will always be with us in some shape or form. It’s that shape and that form—and how to house it—that should really concern us.
Anyway, read the whole piece. Food for thought.