Tuesday, May 08, 2007

God's Funeral

has been postponed, as the announcement appears, once again, to have been premature.

Dear old MadPriest (I think that's the properly British form of endearment) put me on to this, and it is interesting, if only because it says (in part) what I've been saying all along. The qausi-interesting point is this:

The danger is that the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms (moderates are castigated as giving the fundamentalists cover for their extremism) deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate. The durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking, one of Britain's most eminent evolutionary psychologists acknowledged to me recently. Scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?
Which I would just encapsulate as: world religions. Human beings are not just inherently reasoning creatures (a very Greek view, btw, and not at all universal; nor need it be); they are also, quite clearly, inherently religious creatures. And there are far more religions in the world, Virginia, than Christianity and Islam. And far more versions and types of Christianity than American Protestantism (which has all the critics cited in the article upset) and Roman Catholicism (which is hardly so solidly unitary, either, eh?) So, is religion really going anywhere just because the Enlightenment mind has established evolution as the "grand unified theory" of existence (and when did that happen, by the way?)?

Well, as the article notes, this argument that God is really, really, dead, we mean it this time!, has been going on since the Victorian era. And frankly, it's about as obsolete as the phonograph and the coal-fired steam engine. But I digress.

The really interesting part of the article is here:

This isn't the kind of debate that the New Atheists are interested in (with the possible exception of Dennett, who in an interview last year was far more open to discussion than his book would indicate); theirs is a political battle, not an attempt to advance human understanding. But even on the political front, one has to question whether all the aggression isn't counterproductive. Robert Winston voiced increasing concern among scientists when he argued in a recent lecture in Dundee that Dawkins's insulting and patronising approach did science a disservice. Meanwhile, critics in America argue that the polarisation of the debate in the US is setting the cause of non-deism back rather than advancing it.
This is, of course, the nature of polemics. They do not seek to persuade, they seek to incite; they do not seek to inspire, they seek to enrage. They are the person urging the mob to action, then running out in front of it and claiming the leadership role. So long as the mob lasts, their power lasts. And all in all, it's a pretty shameless display. I've already mentioned that Sam Harris is nuts, and Richard Dawkins's "expertise" is unburdened by any knowledge of the subject he rises to denounce. This bit is particularly funny:

Dawkins is an unashamed proselytiser. He says in his preface that he intends his book for religious readers and his aim is that they will be atheists by the time they finish reading it.
I heard a story in seminary which I took as true when I first heard it. Later I thought it might be apocryphal, but only the last part; the first part I was quite sure was true. The story goes that a pastoral candidate in a particular denomination (that part I'm quite sure is untrue) reached his ordination proceedings after 3 years in seminary, and when asked if he "accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior," said that no, he didn't. After three years of seminary training, he was an atheist, having lost all faith in the religion of his ancestors.

That part, I believe. People imagine seminary is like 3 years of Sunday school, where you learn about Noah and Jonah and David and Goliath. In 4 years of seminary (I took the last two years part-time to work while in school), the only one of those stories I actually studied was Jonah's, and we didn't focus on the "whale." We learned there was no "Red Sea" anywhere near Egypt; that Solomon was not "wise" (he was rich; he kept scholars on staff and bought their knowledge); and that Jesus most likely didn't walk on water or perform miracles. Believe me, seminary is not where you go to get your mythology reinforced. But Dawkins, sure in his ignorance that he is wiser than the trained priest (who, after all, is a brainwashed servant of a vast multi-national institution which is only one grand conspiracy against the laity), overlooks all of that in setting up his straw man and getting out his box of matches.

Bunting mentions, but has little space (alas!) to develop the idea that religion is an inevitable part of politics (Dr. Martin Luther King, in my lifetime, didn't act motivate people to non-violent resistance out of appeals to the reasoning Dawkins and company pursue, nor to the piety of Dobson, Robertson, or George W. Bush. He was much closer to the liberation theologians still busy in Brazil. I can think of many examples outside of my lifetime, too.), so she ends with this:

I suspect the New Atheists are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use religious identity in political contexts, they've missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension, they may be morale boosters for a particular kind of American atheism that feels victimised - the latest candidate in a flourishing American tradition - but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.
I especially like her jab at "the latest candidate in a flourishing American tradition." Ouch! But read Sam Harris and tell me it isn't dead on target (or don't bother; I'm not going to waste my time on Hitchens). Of course, I think Bunting's primary thrust is exactly right: Dawkins and Hitchens and all the rest are generating far more heat than light. Indeed, if this is the best eloquence Hitchens can muster against monotheism: "a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events" (and does he even understand the concept of radical monotheism?), then he's not even generating sparks. And that heat is not really going to become any kind of wildfire. After all, who really wants to start an atheistic version of jihad aimed at those who believe in any religion whatsoever?

Religion, for better or worse, is a motivator of human conduct. For better, it leads to the American abolitionist movement, and later the Civil Rights movement; for worse, it leads to the Crusades and the brutality of European empire, often conducted on the backs of Catholic monks serving their particular State (and later, Protestants, too. The UCC has atoned for its role, as the Congregational church, in some of the sins of the destruction of culture and life in Hawaii). But the death of God has always been announced prematurely, and the death of religion always has a peculiarly narrow, and wholly Hellenistic, ring to it; as if the Greeks were still the only "civilization" on the planet, the only progenitors of proper human conduct, and those who claim to be their heirs the persons authorized, if not anointed, to declare: "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them". That is the position of the "civilized" man pronouncing those who do not think like him "barbarians." The Greeks would understand that well; and understand the hubris of it, too. (Funny how this argument always comes back to: "If we do it, it must be what nature intended!") Indeed, the very idea that religion is merely a vestige of human evolution is laughably reductionist, and apparent only from a very narrow point of view which tries to slice the evidence so thinly it has only one side. No surprise: reductionism seems to be the point of science. But if there is a nuerobiological basis for religion (Dawkins is a biologist), then there must also be a neurobiological basis for atheism:

After donning a helmet wired with electromagnets, some subjects reported experiences they described as mystical, or at least misty. When Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, put on the hood, it only made him a little dizzy. Persinger was quick to note that Dawkins had scored way below average on a psychological questionnaire measuring temporal lobe sensitivity—hints of a neurobiological correlate for atheism.
As Thomas Adams points out (for whom I must also credit the Slate link):

Johnson's last line here is brilliant. After all, if theism is simply a product of neurochemistry, then so is atheism - something that the "explainers of religion" all too often forget. Perhaps, in the end, the neurotheologians will show that it is atheism, not theism, which is caused by a mental defect (this would be the logical conclusion, of course, since the vast majority of the world's current and past inhabitants have been theists). If so, will Slate.com then treat us to articles that attempt to explain the "atheism meme" and the "agnostic delusion"? (emphasis supplied)
That parenthetical is, of course, exactly right. But whether or not Slate, or anyone else, ever attempts to explain the "atheism meme" or the "agnostic delusion" is really neither here nor there, because in the last analysis this entire discussion is not a discussion but is, as Bunting points out, the same old song, and it is only about power. Power, however, serves no one, and makes sure always that its own ends are served. If Dawkins and Harris and now Hitchens, want to claim control over that power, it is my duty as a Christian to let them, to not try to stand in their way, to not try to oppose their power with mine. It is my duty to preach and to observe the power of powerlessness, and to remember that there is no power without resistance.

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