Monday, December 09, 2013

Do They Know It's Christmas?

The conversation at Salon has gone over 500 comments (at the time I wrote this; it's close to 600 this morning), mostly screaming loudly that Christopher Hitchens never said he wanted to abolish all religion, and by extension no atheist, "new" or otherwise (someone actually tried to argue against the label "New Atheists."  Lots of straining at gnats and swallowing camels in those comments.) said it either.  Which is something of a tribute to the argument they so vociferously decry.  So let's start with this:

"Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?" (Richard Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens in the Christmas edition of "The New Statesman.")
Maybe Chris Hitchens disagreed with Dawkin's sentiment (George Pitcher thought so), but I really don't think Sam Harris does.  If you want to quibble that Christopher Hitchens never held such an absolutist sentiment, you could be right.  If you want to quarrel that no atheist would ever be so absolutist, well:  sorry.

Is the vitriol displayed at Salon surprising (no other post this weekend has drawn nearly so many comments.  This "religion v. atheism" topic has run away from the rest by at least a factor of 15)?  No, sadly:

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists' temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.
“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts," wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. "You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy." Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, "You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die."
(And once again I have to admire the British press, where sensible people and even sensible clergy can take to national newspapers about subjects other than inerrancy and evolution). Indeed, you could follow the comments at Salon and end up agreeing with Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the British Conservative Party and a Muslim, who asked Bryan Appleyard:  “Why...are the followers of reason so unreasonable?"  What Appleyard says of Stephen Hawking is equally revealing:

I first became aware of my own complacency in this regard when I interviewed Stephen Hawking just before the publication of A Brief History of Time (1988). He had become - it was his then wife who told me this - vehemently anti-religious. And in my presence he was contemptuously anti-philosophical.
Which, ultimately, is where I wind up in these conversations (and why I haven't tried to engage it at Salon):  realizing my "opponents" are not only anti-religious, but anti-philosophical.  Not that either field is the ultimate arbiter of truth, but the discussions of these topics go on in one or both of them; and if you end up violently opposed to either, from what are clearly not wholly rational motives, it's impossible to hold a conversation.

And I have to say, this, to me, factoid is kind of funny:  "In the postwar period, both Francis Crick and James Watson conceded that one of their main motivations in unravelling the molecular structure of DNA was to undermine religion."  Really? I'm going to keep it in mind the next time I'm assured (as some tried to assert, at length, in those comments) that atheists know far more about religious tenets than "average believers" do.

There is still more to be said, however.  This New Statesman column is so interesting (imagine ever reading something similar in the vaunted New York Times.  I can't.), I'll admit it sounds oddly familiar:

It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.

For [Fodor], evolutionary psychology plays a large part in this mindset with its loathing of religion. "I think the story is that we are supposed to understand why there is religion on Darwinian grounds without having to raise the question as to whether it's true. But these are just fabricated stories. If you found something with two heads and a horn in the middle you could cook up some story from evolution saying it was just dandy to have two heads with a horn in the middle. It's just sloppy thinking."

Ultimately, the problem with militant neo-atheism is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion - or, indeed, the human experience - in scientific terms is futile. "It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love," de Botton says. "It's a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science . . . It's a kind of category error. It's a fatally wrong question and the more you ask it, the more you come up with bizarre and odd answers."
 And by "oddly familiar" I mean similar in some parts to my own thoughts, and similar in others to what you could find at Thought Criminal.

To return to my point of origin, however, and here the serendipity of the world is truly profound (or the Holy Spirit blows where it wills; I didn't find this statement via Google), Appleyard notes the following that he heard on a car radio he'd rented in L.A.:

The project is also curiously pointless. A couple of years ago I hired a car at Los Angeles Airport. The radio was tuned to a religious station. Too terrified to attempt simultaneously to change the channel and drive on the I-405, the scariest road in the world, in a strange car, I heard to my astonishment that Christopher Hitchens was the next guest on a Christian chat show.

In his finest fruity tones and deploying $100 words, Hitchens took the poor presenter apart. Then he was asked if this would be a better world if we disposed of all religions. "No," he replied. I almost crashed the car.
Seems the dissenters at Salon scored one point for Hitchens; he shouldn't be the whipping boy of McElwee's blog post after all.  But one could substitute Dawkins without a hitch; and besides, Hitchens' answer surprised Appleyard, who views it as indicative of the problem New Atheism has:

 The answer demonstrates the futility of the neo-atheist project. Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown.* Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery, absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn't.
The entire column at New Statesman is worth reading (where the comments at Salon are not).  As of this morning those comments have become even more vitriolic, and reflect the usual psychological basis for the debate:  identity.  Not unlike the fear of gays and lesbians, usually voiced most strongly by those who have engaged in homosexual acts they denounce, identity and the fear that you might become the "other" if you don't denounce them loudly and constantly, is a powerful motivator. (No, I just find them intellectually debased, and I don't suffer fools gladly.  I have great admiration for sensible critics like de Botton or agnostics like Appleyard).   I debated even writing anything about those comments, but they gave me the excuse to look up a vaguely remembered quote, then Google it for a source, and find the Appleyard column.

All in all, not such a bad result for serendipity; or the Holy Spirit, if, like me, you are so inclined.

*I have to add that, while this is news to fundamentalists of all stripes (insisters on the absolute truth of their "side" as they understand it, and on the inerrancy of their knowledge), it is something human beings, believers and non-believers, seem to have to learn over and over again.  The very moment you are sure you have God in a box, especially as a believer, is the moment when, with Ezekiel, you see the Spirit of God leap out of the Temple you thought you had trapped it in.

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