Monday, March 9, 2015

New atheists, old atheists

John Gray in the Guardian takes on the fervant "evangelical atheism" of the "new atheists"
Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.
I am with Gray.  Why do they fuss over religion, if it means nothing to them?
 ....beneath the fervour with which [missionary] atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic. 
He sees in this a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  That would explain why prominent "new atheists" like Harris and Dawkins are so anti-Islam.

While moral behavior needn't rely on God, Gray argues that the IDEA of moral behavior may have its roots in monotheism.  That may be true, to some extent.  God and Jesus don't have to be REAL for their stories to have an effect on us.

Gray goes on to consider atheists like me, tolerant non-believers.
Above all, these unevangelical atheists accepted that religion is definitively human. Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?
Why indeed?
The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.
I have often said that the "new" atheists  are practising a religion of non-belief.  And their intolerance and narrowness is just as offensive as the religion that they scorn.


Marshall Scott said...

I certainly agree that one need not base moral principles in belief in God (however one may describe God), and I'm as frustrated with those who say one must as I with those who say one mustn't.

Central to my profession as a chaplain is the concept of "spiritual assessment." Over the years, I've come to see this as addressing three questions one might call existential. With appreciation to Douglas Adams, they are:

1. What does one believe about the nature of Life, the Universe, and Everything?

2. In light of the nature of Life the Universe, and Everything, who am I, and what is my place?

3. In light of who I am in Life, the Universe, and Everything, how ought I to behave?

Or, as I summarize these, questions of Reality, Identity, and Morality.

I developed these specifically to have a way to understand and speak about folks for whom the nature of reality does not include God, and especially God as person. We're all addressing these questions, so as to function. And I've long appreciated that one could function, and develop a sense of stable identity and moral principles as a mechanical materialist who sees reality as random.

That said, I do often see the folks who don't find God in reality as defending their views "religiously;" by which I mean not only faithfully and with determination, but also coming back to depend on principles that can't be demonstrated or at least demonstrated yet. Mathematics can become, then, the language of "theology," describing reality that most of us can't see in terms that most of us can't use. My usual question, if we get to that point, is, "Can you show me a quark?" It's not that I don't believe in quarks; I do. I do so as a matter of faith, trusting in those specialists. Sometimes I wish those specialists would acknowledge the limits of what can be demonstrated, and how much they are also making faith statements.

JCF said...

"The fault is in the intractable human animal."


Now, WHY the human animal is "intractable" is an important question. The two main answers tend to be 1) Evil Hearts or 2) Ignorant Minds. For Yours Truly, the answer is 3) Yes (aka "You're both right!", which is to say, paradox). If we can't teach our way out of Evil, neither can we moralize our way out of Ignorance, either.

Atheists, the new, anti-theist sort, would seem to be of the 2nd camp. But it's strange: unlike our Buddhists friends, I don't really see them trying to formulate a Teaching which would enlighten the ignorant (beyond screeching "Read Darwin! Better yet, just read Dawkins! Best of all, just turn on any theist you know and yell 'Idiot!' at them!").

In throwing out theism, the anti-theists seem to throw out *Meaning* (and How to Find It) as well. It's strange (though just so reminiscent of those other "Why Search for Meaning? Just Give Your Life Over to _____!!!!" crowd, the Fundies)

Tracie Holladay said...

They believe that religion leads to harmful lifestyle choices, such as the people I read about in a news item about a year ago, who (because of their religious convictions) did not get their daughter treated for type 1 diabetes, and she wound up dead. These atheists believe that belief leads to child abuse, etc.

Kevin K said...

I think that the atheist who needs to convert the religious into atheists is expressing the inability of some people to tolerate significant difference of opinion in society. There is a tendency for people to desire conformity of opinion on what they believe to be important.