Complacency and Excess

January 6, 2012


“Our century is probably more religious than any other. How could it fail to be, with such problems to be solved? The only trouble is that it has not yet found a God it can adore.” Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1959)

“The reach of naturalistic inquiry may be quite limited (Chomsky 1994)

“We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (Chomsky 1988)

THOUGHTFUL response from a reader asked me why I had stopped commenting on the excesses of “religion” and turned my attention to damning the excesses of atheism.

I haven’t. But it’s a good question. I replied that it would be like asking Luther why he stopped momentarily condemning the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and turned his attention to the marauding protestants. For everything nasty Luther had to say about the pope being the anti-Christ and Rome the whore of Babylon, he had equally vicious things to say about the religious militants in a treatise eirenically titled “Against the Thieving and Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Who were these “hordes”?

They were Luther’s supporters in the protestant cause, disillusioned that he haden’t taken his revolution far enough. So others, like Thomas Müntzer, took it for him. Similar (harder to prove) theories have suggested the same dynamic at work in the transition between Jesus and his followers, and a definite comparison can be made in the transition from earliest Christianity to the studious nastiness of some of the Church fathers, the founders of “orthodoxy.”

Polemic–rhetorical sling-shotting–wasn’t born yesterday, or even the day before. It just spreads more quickly now.

I am not anti-atheist. I am anti-excess, and everything about the Dawkins revolution has spelled excess. No matter who tries to persuade me that I am making this excess up in my head, it’s excess. Fueled by the repeated assertion of its promoters that it is (secularly) providential, righteous and true (just as all zealotry convinces itself), it is excess.

Sometimes, as Caspar Melville (editor of the New Humanist) mildy suggested in a Guardian article in 2010, it’s useful to hit the right targets–namely, an aggressive religious fundamentalism–hard, and in that regard “irascible, rhetorically florid, sweeping, intellectually arrogant New Atheism certainly has its place – some arguments are just asking for it.” (Funny, those adjectives remind me of a few things said recently about yours truly: how can it be?).

But I know Caspar to be a smart guy, someone who still sees the humanities in the word humanist, so in reponse to the famous Dawkins dictum (spoken to Laurie Taylor way back in 2007)–that there is no more reason to pay attention to theology than to fairyology– I wasn’t surprised to find Caspar saying this:

Entertainment value aside it is surely false, as well as politically unwise and, well, pretty impolite, to say that “all theology” is irrelevant (some of it is moral reasoning, isn’t it?), still worse to say that “religion poisons everything”, or that without religion there would be no war, or that bringing a child up within a faith is tantamount to child abuse, or that moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists because they prepare the ground for extremism, or that “all” religion is this, or that, or “all” faith is misguided, or to suggest that those who believe in God are basically stupid, or that science, and only science, can answer our questions….The picture of religion that emerges from New Atheism is a caricature and both misrepresents and underestimates its real character.

ET me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.

No one with a semblance of a brain would ever suggest that science can’t do a lot, hasn’t done a lot, and that the world science has explained for us doesn’t leave a lot of room for traditional religious beliefs, stories, and explanations of physical reality. It is a leap into nowhere, however, to say that accepting this as a fair description of the current state of knowledge requires someone to say, “Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all,” as Dawkins does to Taylor.

First of course, we need to find out what the speaker means by “theology.” Then we need to know what he thinks qualifies as “subject matter.” Presumably English literature qualifies because it exists. But so do the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Pali texts, the movements those texts have produced and the cultures and ideologies they have influenced. –Not to mention alphabets that were developed largely for the preservation of sacred writings.

What aspects of those topics, given the facile dismissal of theology, can be recognized as subject matter? Have the revolutionaries acquitted them of all responsibility to subject matter in the denial of the existence of God? Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist? If so, life is simple and the mortgage is paid.

But, if so, equally–if the texts and traditions of the world’s religions are really no different from stories about fairy tales and leprechauns–then attacking and ridiculing them is just as pointless as systematic exploration of their meaning–which is one of the things theology does. Is the ridicule justified because while nobody believes in the story of the Frog King or Thumbelina (does anyone even know those stories any more?) a few do believe that Jonah was swallowed by a ravenous fish and (a few more) that Jesus walked on the sea of Galilee? I’d rather buy Plantinga’s argument for epistemic defeaters than that rationale for why ridicule is justified but explanation isn’t.

Or does “subject matter” mean a certain kind of theology?Or does it mean (I think it often does in new atheist harangues) apologetics–which is unknown in many religious traditions? The analogy to fairies and leprechauns makes it difficult to know. If you say the analogies are all wrong, remember: I didn’t make them.


Predictably, I am going to say that the best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”–are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time. Even many not very good theologians see things this way but pretend it’s none of their business.

The history of religion in the last two hundred years has been a history of religion redefining itself–a bit like Britain when it went from imperially great to little England. Yet religion has done a pretty good job of doing just that: the “war between science and religion” is treated in history-of-culture classes as a topic in nineteenth century studies, especially in the work of Cornell’s first hard-headed, science-first president, Andrew Dickson White. But if you look at the section headings of White’s famous book on the subject, you’ll see that he had a broad and humanistic definition of culture in which science played a magisterial, not an imperial role. He was as impressed with the results of the higher biblical criticism as he was with development in chemistry and medicine.

Andrew Dickson White, Yale ’53

Too many vaguely religious people aren’t aware of the “magisterium issue,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s linguistic stab at declaring a truce. Religion and science are compatible (to the extent it even occurs to ordinary people to wonder) because they don’t know much about either, and because they are encouraged in this superstition by dumb priests and ministers, the self-interest and reflexes of many churches, and the at-best tepid curiosity that characterizes their day to day life–whether in relation to politics, religion, world affairs, or national education policy. (And don’t mention vote-grubbing politicians who try to out-right-to-life their way into office by appealing to the worst instincts of NASCAR America. This may be the year that foetuses are declared citizens of the United States at seven months.)

What is the effect of this dumbness, this complacency? Loud, that’s what. Getting attention for your “message” by forcing people to pay attention to hate ads, grotesquery, libelous caricatures of ideas, and repeated falsehoods–all of it communicated in a kind of pidgin that can only be described as Dumbglish: these aren’t tactics that diminish and cheapen the American spirit. This is the language that American culture seems to require to wake it up. It flows like poison soup in the veins of the internet. This is where the American spirit is.

After some thought, I have to concede that maybe the shouting is necessary. Most people don’t pay attention to much of anything–not what politicians say, or what bishops teach, or what billboards shout at them along the highways.

The failure of the culture to inspire has led to the failure of people to be curious and a general acceptance of the status quo in most things–especially religion. Why should people want to know more about anything when they have a thousand bucks in the bank, an iPhone, and a new MacDonalds opening up down the street? Starbucks is for people with jobs.

American culture is not hardwired to evoke curiosity about science, religion, or anything else. It’s designed to breed complacency. If Theodore Roethke had lived today, he would write about the inexorable sadness of shopping malls and gated communities and universities where nothing happens and a society where conscience dies daily in the onslaught of the latest economic data.

AN indirect proof of that is an unbroken succession of wars, thousands of American dead, a broken Middle East, an Arab spring that looks like winter, and nary a protest movement to remind us that man is a moral animal [sic, or lol] who ought to oppose such things. Bishops made noises and a few liberal protestants and Jews occasionally marched. Atheists, as usual, weren’t quite sure what to do because while many hated George W. Bush they hated Islam more and so–like Christopher Hitchens–they backed the wars. They were, in a phrase, paralyzed and morally invisible. No William Sloane Coffin emerged, no John Howard Yoder, no Elie Wiesel. Complacency.

Rather than say Europe isn’t far behind in this, I’m going to say Europe is far ahead. Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.

The Christianity that Kierkegaard tried to resuscitate in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1843) became the Denmark where only 31% of the population believe in God but 82.1% are members of the Evangelical Lutheran (the State) Church.

How can this be? It can be, according to Richard Norman, because religion ”is a human creation … a mirror which humanity holds up to itself and in which it sees itself reflected….Human beings attribute to their gods all their own human qualities – cruelty revenge and hatred, but also love and compassion and mercy. That’s why you can find a justification for anything, good or bad, in religion.”

It follows as the night the day that Danish religion is not American religion. British religion is not American religion, and I’m loath to say British atheism is therefore not American atheism. This cultural specularity has always been true, as when long ago German Christianity was not Roman Christianity.

HE opposite of complacency is not excess. It is moderation, and if the argument against moderation is that it has nothing to show for itself, the counter- argument is that excess has much, much less.

The classical aphorism, σπεῦδε βραδέως, “make haste slowly” is a good motto for what needs to be done in the conversation between science and religion. It was the motto of the Emperor Augustus who as a military commander deplored rashness. Suetonius says that he would often tell the generals, “Better a safe commander than a bold,” and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”

In the final tally, as long as rashness rules and shouting scores, the atheists worry me at least as much as people who believe in souls. Realizing that he is now a template for what I consider atheist rash, as in red and irritating, consider this of P Z Myers reviewing the conservative philosopher Alvin Plangtinga

I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing.

After a scissors and paste attack on the philosopher punctuated by non sequiturs and hooplah that makes no sense, Myers says simply that it is all “muddled lunacy.” As a matter of fact, I don’t like Plantinga much either. The summary Myers attacks (fortunately for him) appeared as a piece in a religious periodical. But Plantinga deserves much better, even if only because once upon a time academics who despised each other didn’t mistake emotionalism for argument. A vestige of this is that not once in his summary does Plantinga call the proponents of naturalism “stupid.” The legacy of the Dawkins revolution will be to make this completely emotional, unquantifiable term and all of its sisters and cousins and aunts permissible discourse in the defense of science. I know, I know: I have had my lapses in calling screed-writers screed-writers in screeds of my own.

SO let me revert to someone else. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his famous 1997 Natural History article a couple of paragraphs which would have caused his immediate expulsion from the atheist camp as an accommodationist or worse if he had written it in 2007. He died in 2002. With him at the Vatican meeting on NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) in 1984 was Carl Sagan, who had organized the event.

…I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in the occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held such secular power during so much of Western history. When my folks held similar power more briefly in Old Testament times, they committed just as many atrocities with many of the same rationales.)

Stephen Jay Gould

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

I stop what will be described as a tangent, a screed, a hateful assault, another outburst close to tears at Gould’s words. The year he wrote this article (1997) was also the year of Carl Sagan’s death. Sagan perhaps did more to make science magical than any other scientist of the twentieth century, though his primary celebrity was where it belonged and was most needed: in the United States. Gould commenting on Sagan’s death had this to say: “Carl shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship.”

That is the language we need.

52 thoughts on “Complacency and Excess

  1. The New Atheists are the infantry of humanism. Specialists in living Heller, they shanghaied themselves and are now growing weary of hardtack. Whose words will next be their rum?

    Bravo on bringing the ship about.

  2. Pingback: Complacency and Excess | saynotoiphone

  3. “The opposite of complacency is not excess. It is moderation, and if the argument against moderation is that it has nothing to show for itself, the counter-argument is that excess has much, much less.”

    It couldn’t be clearer. What an excellent motto, and one history has proved to be true.

    “[T]he best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”– are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time.”

    That’s perfectly true too. It’s a shame about the not-so-goods. We’re all embarrassed to know a few. They don’t deserve their theology degrees…

    Ursula Le Guin writes in ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’: “True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero — really look — and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you. The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Apollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. “You must change your life,” he said. When true myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life.”

    I appreciate the quotation of Noam Chomsky, “We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” As Somerset Maugham writes in ‘Cakes and Ale’, “…it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial and significant creatures of fiction than with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life.” The novel is the genre which allows incisive expression of characters with unshackled freedom.

    The wisdom of the past enriches the present.

    • Indeed. The atheists face a Sisyphean prospect, as befits them, with their projects to destroy myth. As Twain commented “A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.”

  4. I was at the debate at the RSA which Caspar mentioned in the article you quote, and can thus personally attest that he had very good reason to worry that:

    ‘I have a more base reason for wanting to move beyond New Atheism. I’m bored, and I fear my readers are becoming so too.’

    It was then that I discovered the intellectual level of the NAs had sunken so far that the NAs believed that asserting that one is an atheist deserves a round of applause. Asserting that one is a NA deserved a standing ovation, and ‘I believe in science’ would have brought down the rafters were it not for the fact that Robert Adam was rather good at designing buildings.

    Unfortunately the NA’s language skills did not extend beyond simple declarative sentences, and thus they probably did not even know that they were abnegating reason, much less that they were doing so in one of the great temples of the Enlightenment itself.

    Caspar’s hope that the debate might:

    ‘map out a new, specific, patient and subtle future for the God debate’

    was, I fear, doomed at the outset. The vast majority of intelligent people know that they are intelligent; they do not need to shore up their egos by buying books which tell them they are intelligent.

    The fact that so many do buy the books reflects the -at the best- intellectual insecurities and -at the worst- intellectual inadequacies of the purchasers. Neither group is capable of providing what Caspar seeks.

    Unfortunately their shortcomings pose a rather more important problem than the declining readership of the New Humanist; we do not need people who ‘believe in science’. We need good scientists as well as good historians, and, since neither good scientists nor good historians spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, we need intelligent schoolchildren to conclude that doing science is just as worthwhile a way of spending their lives as doing history.

    Unfortunately, if you want to persuade intelligent schoolchildren that science sucks then directing them to PZ Myers’ website is an excellent way of setting about it…

    • Thanks for that Stevie. I enjoyed your incisive analysis. And so true, “we do not need people who ‘believe in science’. We need good scientists as well as good historians, and, since neither good scientists nor good historians spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, we need intelligent schoolchildren to conclude that doing science is just as worthwhile a way of spending their lives as doing history.” Sorry to quote you back at you, but … 🙂

      • steff

        Thank you but we need to be cautious here; if we are not careful you and I will be categorised as Joe’s sockpuppets. After all, we share 3 first letters in our names and what better evidence could exist to prove that neither of us do exist? Bearing in mind, of course, that reasoned arguments and logic are not strong point in the NA’s mindset…

      • Probably a bit late, alea iacta est. I wasn’t familiar with the sort and didn’t anticipate their imaginations or the weaving of such myths, but the myths, if believed, are believed only by themselves. Life goes on. As Joshua Rosenau wrote yesterday “It’s odd, people are wrong on the internet, but somehow, I can’t work myself up over it. Maybe it’s because they’re just talking in circles and making things up.” Sensible man. He has his feet on the ground.

      • You’re right of course Stevie. I should have called myself Hohepa Kahu and posted a profile of George Nepia leading the Rugby All Blacks in a haka before the game.

  5. I was extremely encouraged by this post. Articulate and apt. There is an element of hyperbole, perhaps, in the characterization of European Christianity’s “not giving damn about anything,” but the same diagnosis was made by Nietzsche, By Dostoevsky, by Baudelaire (“Ennui! …You know him reader! Hypocrite reader, my twin, my brother”). Excess and complacency tipping back and forth into one another seems a close description of the dialectic of our time: boredom tends to secrete excess, as an attempt at self-therapy (the most obvious example of this excess is fear, for excess usually has to excuse itself, and fear is the usual suspect named in these excuses –see here the panic over Islamicism which justifies the indignant gnu), and every excess in turn becomes boring. This is why I am most struck by the perspicuity with which you call the opposite of complacency “Moderation,” a stance with an ancient philosophical pedigree. In the interests of “keeping it brief” I have kept most of my remarks over at my blog. But thank you for this.

  6. Joe sed: ” …if Theodore Roethke had lived today, he would write about the inexorable sadness of shopping malls and gated communities and universities where nothing happens and a society where conscience dies daily.”

    It may not be useful to characterize (malls et al ) as such. As a species we once were eagles, and are now learning to live like ants – the malls are happy anthills for families and ‘dreams are thunder, lightning is desire’ venue for teens and earnest house cows.

    To denigrate ‘the wasteland’ may be to repeat the nothingness of the NA’s junior relationship with religion – this was tired with Eliot, Camus and Sartre when we were Childe Harold’s puppies – let’s lift up our eyes,

    Intellectuals have plenty to contemplate, and it may be best to address issues directly. We don’t always have to grind the same blade, and faith takes many forms.

  7. I second Dwights response, however, there now seem to be too many who wish to see faith as only being a religious manifestation rather than part of a deep seeded desire to understand, to penetrate the more complex aspects of human existence.

    Socrates, if we’ve ever needed your measured, undogmatic approach it is now! Time to read “The Aplogy” and “Before And After Socrates” again.

  8. Wow. There is a a lot here to agree with, and a lot to disagree with. Where to start? I’ll pick one of each. Better to start with the former and finish benignly, I think. 🙂

    From ‘The Poverty (sic) of the New Atheism.

    ‘….Rather, to be “dis-illusioned” is to expose oneself to the anxiety of the bare, unadorned fact of one’s existence, to live unaided beneath what Baudelaire called “the horrible burden of Time, which racks your shoulders and bows you downwards to the earth”.’

    Don’t share this gloomy prognosis myself. It’s a bit, er, unnecessarily gloomy. Perhaps the writer is speaking personally?

    ‘In Capital, Marx demonstrated that the advent of capitalism itself had the effect of denuding the world by ripping off the shroud of religion and dissolving the communal and familial ties that bind. But the mechanistic world laid bare by industrial capitalism induced madness among those that prospered from the wealth it generated and among those that found themselves dispossessed of the fruits of their labour.

    Consequently, it is as if capitalism generated its own antibodies, a form of religion inherent to its processes of production, exchange and consumption that would guarantee its survival by palliating its devotees. Walter Benjamin developed this further, suggesting that “capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement … A vast sense of guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal, to hammer it into the conscious mind.”

    And yet even the atonement for guilt comes within the purview of capitalism. This religion now has its own acts of penance for one’s economic debauchery in the form of tokenistic charity, delayed gratification and the production of “green” or “fair trade” commodities.

    The great irony of capitalism is that its progress has seen the corruption and fragmentation of morality and the decimation of institutional religion, but in their place persists the menagerie of pseudo-moralities and plaintive spiritualities (often in the form of so-called Western Buddhism or what Martin Amis calls “an intensified reverence for the planet”) that somehow sustain, or perhaps lubricate, its global machinations.’

    And what’s this? A smooth segue into conflating capitalism with atheism? Surely not?

    Sadly, unless one can justify this segue, the bulk of the article is very suspect, IMO.

    ‘To paraphrase Marx, the abolition of these false moralities and neo-paganisms would constitute the demand for the rediscovery of authentic reason, integral morality and sustainable, virtuous forms of communal life. And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

    By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

    However noble the goals of the “New Atheism” may be, armed with nought but an impoverished form of commonsense rationality (of which Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and the rather unwieldy The Australian Book of Atheism are the most opprobrious examples I’ve yet seen – but more on these books in a later piece) it is simply not up to the task of confronting the idols and evils of our time. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.’

    To blame atheism for not tackling the evils of our time is a bit like blaming the London Symphony Orchestra for not tackling Osama Bin Laden. 🙂

    In short, there is nothing ‘lite’ about New atheism, any more than there is anything ‘dim’ about theology. When Dawkins says that it is for him about as important as faeriology, he is correct, in the context in which he meant it, as he is, IMO, in rejecting NOMA.

    Regarding agreement, I can understand what irks non-atheists about some of the New Atheism. Not sure how many New Atheists are culpable of the charges laid, not even sure the main protagonists are (did Dawkins actually say that he thought religion was the root of all evil?).

    I do agree that the sentiment that ‘accommodating’ liberal (theists) gives cover to extremists is, IMO, unhelpful and mostly incorrect, and I have personally heard this one more than once, on atheist forums, and disagreed, though to be fair even at said forums it was probably a vocal minority saying it.

    And, as I’ve said, Dennett’s ‘brights’ was lamentable and embarrassing.

  9. “Consequently, it is as if capitalism generated its own antibodies, a form of religion inherent to its processes of production, exchange and consumption that would guarantee its survival by palliating its devotees.”

    Superbly said. Somewhere in there, Henry Ford is one more fallen, anti-Semitic pope, and Detroit his ruined, satanic legacy.

    Lest we chart only Caucasian pilgrims, it may be time to review the influence of Confucius over the past millennia, and whether his common sense admonitions of personal responsibility (of all things) might find appreciation, at last, among the white guys.

    Somewhere in Asia, the next Karl Marx is likely among us, a kinder, gentler mentor who does not require grand sociological schema to explain anything.

  10. “Somewhere in Asia, the next Karl Marx is likely among us, a kinder, gentler mentor who does not require grand sociological schema to explain anything.”

    Well, if that’s the case lets hope this person is truly kindernot to mention gentler and will refrain from imposing anything upon us in a jackbooted fashion.

    • “Well, if that’s the case lets hope this person is truly kinder not to mention gentler and will refrain from imposing anything upon us in a jackbooted fashion.”

      You mean compete with the Pentagon? That’s not the Asian way; in that culture a man’s character has value.

  11. No Dwight, no competition with the Pentagon, just hoping the person is kinder and gentler. I do think that character is in the person and expands into the culture, provided it is a healthy culture.

    • @ joseph,

      I gotta say this, I’m not with this guy Scott Stephens, who wrote the ‘Poverty of New Atheism’ piece. If I were to sum it/him up in one word, I’m afraid that word would have to be ‘floundering’. His problem, it seems to me, is this – what does religion (the supernatural variety) have to offer, as a role, now? And, rather than bite the bullet and admit ‘not a lot’, he has a go at atheism (as if it were to blame) and largely gets it confused with capitalism, or religion with anti-capitalism or whatever. And to cap it all off, he finishes with;

      ‘In Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart has described the original Christian revolution in terms of the stripping bare of the pagan life-world with its pantheon of gods, demigods and spirits who guaranteed the proper order of things, established political authority and provided life with meaning.’

      Er, no, the cult of Christianity displaced earlier cults with a slightly different version of superstious beliefs and explanations. This cult spread more than the others (up to now) for a variety of reasons. Which cult was ‘better’ is almost entirely up for grabs, as is the argument as to whether ‘western’ ‘civilization’ flourished because of christinaity or in spite of it (probably a mixture, as ever).

      One of the big problems for Christianity is that it has tied itself to a bunch of writings from some ancient, superstitious middle eastern chaps who I have heard described (by one of the most perceptive people I have ever met online, and a devout Catholic) as ‘the Taliban of their day’.

      Really, what could those goat-herding blokes have written that we can use (sans clumsy cherry picking, which is possible, I’m sure, even with any set of writings) to address the big issues of today, such as overpopulation, environmental issues, human rights, etc. Not much, IMO, and not surprisingly, since one can hardly blame the writers for not having 20-20 advance hindsight stretching over 2000 years.

      As for your article………I would not use the word ‘floundering’……except perhaps to describe the way I feel when I try to understand the nub of what you are saying (repeatedly, here on this website, in various forms). The reason I wouldn’t say YOU were floundering is because I get the impression that you are far too intelligent and ‘properly cynical’ not to be able to handle uncertainty and confusion without casting about for something to cling to.

      But, I am still left with this question. Are you (and some others here) really asking for atheists/atheism to be a bit nicer? 🙂

      • Oh, by the way, although I admire Chomsky a lot, and can go a long way with the idea that literature (as in fiction) can, in many ways, be richer, or as rich as, reason, and that almost everything may be said to boil down to language, and that there is no way, that i can see, to fully and truly escape subjectivity, I have to say I would contend his two statements you quoted.

        Anyhows, I have had a bad day at the office and am probably just spoiling for an argument. I am going to go to bed now and count to 10 and remind myself that more comes from agreement than from disagreement, usually, at least in discussions. 🙂

      • “But, I am still left with this question. Are you (and some others here) really asking for atheists/atheism to be a bit nicer?”

        No, if atheists are ineluctably obsessed with religion; that’s your own cross to bear. For all I care, you might be against women’s make-up, or Rugby League, and how both are a huge waste of money.

        My objection is solely that your aggressive non-religion gratuitously terms itself ‘humanism’ for its own aggrandizement. I’d much rather discuss bringing Confucius into humanism than kicking Christ out.

      • @ dwight,

        ‘My objection is solely that your aggressive non-religion gratuitously terms itself ‘humanism’ for its own aggrandizement.’

        I honestly have no idea where you get that idea, but then, it’s not the first time I’m perplexed about what you write.

      • @@David:

        1. I don’t endorse what I link to. It is the average opinion, not only mine, that new atheism is characterized by not-niceness (that’s what makes it gnu) and I have been in the pincers since (with a few others: you might troll n’ scroll through NO) I suggested that it was strategically suicidal to make antipathy for religion in general the total message of atheism. (Think of saying that science in general is the cure for the world’s ills: we know the good part–maybe we can even be programmed for world peace! Ah, wait: that sounds complicated). That is why my unbelief is way down the list of what I am. I am a humanist.

        So I plump for moderation of discourse, even though I know only ten people are listening. The internet makes moderation a quaint custom of the last century.

        Carl Sagan was an atheist. Stephen Jay Gould was an atheist. I am an atheist. But the Gnus would probably say, have said, show us your papers. It is this ever-narrowing vision of unbelief that concerns me, and not only me. It is the fact that to criticize atheism, as I have done openly and often, will get you a degree of ridicule usually reserved for a southern Baptist creationist, abortion-hating yahoo. Hoffmann (check it) has become a problem. A faitheist. An accommodationist. The number one frenemy of “secular humanism.” And generally, when things become problems, they are problems in relation to an evolving orthodoxy.

        There should be no such thing as atheist orthodoxy, at least not if dogmatism in religion is what you oppose. I am an advocate of the scientific method. The scientific method depends not on certainty but the nagging condition of uncertainty. I regard scientists who retain that uncertainty like Sagan and Gould–and Einstein (all Jews, oh my!)–exemplary. I regard scientists who regard it as a mere posture, a necessary posture in relation to the assumptions of Popperian falsifiability, arrogant and under-trained–and for me, Dawkins showed his true undertraining in The God Delusion. It was a travesty of a book that set into motion a fortunately dwindling “revolution” that is coming (I think) to an end. But harm was done. People are always looking for a messiah; and some thought they had found one.

        But this is not a war; it is an “intellectual” conversation; and the new atheist conversation has been leaden-footed, hamfisted and frankly as embarassing as M. O’Hair was in her heyday: this is not the first time atheists have spoiled their chances to take an amorphous anti-church, anti-organized religion demographic and screw it up, making no difference in the long run. Think fishing (but perhaps you haven’t fished.)

        2. I won’t comment on your comment about Christianity because to quote the great Durante, “Everybody wants to get into da act.” It looks easy from the outside, I admit. Much harder under the lights.

  12. “British religion is not American religion, and I’m loath to say British atheism is therefore not American atheism” and way down in the Pacific, Kiwi atheism is generally unindentified and apatheistic. It doesn’t believe in God but it’s not about pointlessly trying to prove there’s nothing, especially as alot of us grow up not believing. It’s not central to life and is irrelevant considering more pressing issues like the environment, with which we’re united in our concern. Mind you quite alot of Antipodean Christians don’t believe in God either. Religion is rightly seen as a human creation

    • Perhaps Don Cupitt has it right: ‘…the Church and the ancient supernatural theology are finished… we need to move on to build a kingdom (sic) theology for our own secular humanist culture (The Last Testament, 8)
      The problem is that that there has been a conservative-turn withim secular humanism in the last few years – climate change deniers, refugees are queue jumpers, resurgence of capitalism etc. ‘God’ might be thought to have died in the 60s, but he (and it’s normally a he!) keeps returning

      • I’d agree with Don here but as with all good scholarship, humanism is critical, not secular. A secular society is not a society without personal beliefs. What’s wrong with kingdom? I’m not a royalist – it has a lower case ‘k’.

  13. Joseph,

    Pardon my harping on, I’m sure it’s possible I’ll be ejected at some stage, given that the word ‘troll’ has been deployed more than once already. I will quite understand if you see my posts that way, and I will not say nasty things about you afterwards. You are entitled to not have your particular brand of confusion, contaminated by the likes of mine. 🙂

    Here’s what I imagine I’m ‘hearing’, in between the actual words, from you and steph and dwight and others: ‘We know god is (probably) dead but we still like having him around’. Fine. Even I like to visit the grave once in a while, put a few flowers there. He wasn’t such a bad old dude, really. He had his moments. Can’t see the point of digging up the corpse and trying to do CPR on it.

    • “An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence.” Carl Sagan 1981

      Ok. All is forgiven. If even the Great Carlness himself can get it completely and utterly wrong, I can’t really blame anyone here. 🙂

      • Nobody has compelling evidence that all ideas of ‘god’, conveniently termed, maybe for want of a better one, are wrong. We can demonstrate religious creations and stories of God intervening in history depicted in the Bible and Quaran as products of human imagination but we don’t know everything. Sagan got it right here, and he knew about humility. He wasn’t interested in denying people faith.

      • Yes steph. I know that. I only said that it was incorrect to define an atheist as having certainty or compelling evidence. Oh I don’t doubt there are a few, but they’re not typical. Even Dawkins (spits) would say that he feels only that there is probably no God.

      • I’m so glad you know that. You missed the point. Do you think Carl Sagan doesn’t know too? We also know about Dawkins and his atheist slogan and other atheist slogans. We have seen it and talked about it here. Perhaps you ought to read Joe’s posts.
        and these

      • I’m confused. What point am i missing?

        To repeat, that is not an accurate description of atheism, any more than ‘fundie’ is an accurate description of ‘Christian’.

      • It is a perfectly accurate definition of atheism. It is what atheism is. There are variations of atheism which could be defined as ‘unidentified atheism’ ‘soft-shell atheism’, ‘not central to life atheism’, ‘apatheism’, ‘silent atheism in which like many religious people, personal belief is personal’ and ‘agnostic atheism’ for example. Ideas evolve and language evolves and is used in different ways. There is no law, except in a fundamentist’s concept of language and logic, which restricts ideas from variation. And Carl Sagan’s definition is a strict definition and Carl Sagan demonstrated humility. That is the point. He wasn’t interested in denying people faith or ridiculing and misrepresenting religious people and religion, or eliminating religion from society – he was more interested in sharing ideas.

      • Steph,

        Unfortunately, not for the firstr time, I have to say I fundamentallly disagree with you on something. I have spent a lot of time during the last few yesrs on atheist forums, getting to know literally hundreds of actual athesists. Carl Sagan was not correct. I think we will have to agree to disagree.

      • Atheism isn’t just one thing and is defined according to perspective. It certainly has many variations and certainly isn’t the same as the atheism of greater men like Shelley and varies considerably around the world. Sagan wasn’t wrong. People define it according to their perspective. Atheisms are not the same as Australia, or America or Canada, or New Zealand where it’s more personal and not a personal definition. And atheists who spend time on internet forums aren’t the same as each other or atheists who would never bother with such a thing. Carl’s point is about humility and not denying people faith. While I had guessed you’ve spent years on atheist forums, it actually doesn’t matter that you don’t know of any atheists who fit his definition.

      • “Carl Sagan was not correct.” So now we are choosing our science? That is quite a claim. I frankly don’t know any scientists who given the standard parameters of certainty make it. May I know the compelling evidence please? Your reply alas must exclude any reference to falisifiable gods.

      • There appears to be some misunderstanding. I’m not making the claim that there is compelling evidence against god (there isn’t), or that the concept is falsifiable (it isn’t), or that there is certainty, except among a small section of atheist ‘fundies’, perhaps.

        What I’m saying is that to define an atheist as someone who would make those claims is to mistakenly misrepresent atheism.

        And why this is important is because if one is going to have issues or objections to something, one should at least try to understand it as accurately as possible.

  14. If one’s religious tenets can fairly be said to be a personal and private matter for many, or most people, would that give you any insight into why some atheist initiatives are seen as boorish and obnoxious?

    • Yes, and to embrace a slightly wider view, if one’s philosophical perspectives and beliefs on life, religious or not, are a personal and private matter for many or most people, it does provide insight into why some atheists’ (and some fundamentalists’) initiatives are seen as boorish, obnoxious, and uninformed.

    • Yes Dwight (to butt in here) I do. I do see that anyone who deals with their religious beliefs as a personal and private matter will see certain atheist initiatives as boorish and obnoxious.

      • I might add that the vast majority of atheists have very few problems with religion as a personal and private matter, and even then, the majority of the minority who take a different view have issues with theism, not individual theists. You may find this hard to believe, but it is an important distinction, and the case.

      • Nobody denied it. Atheism isn’t just one thing. It certainly has many variations and certainly isn’t the same as the atheism of greater men like Shelley. Sagan wasn’t wrong. People define it according to their perspective. Atheisms are not the same as Australia, or America or Canada, or New Zealand where it’s more personal and not a personal definition. That was my point above, and Carl’s point is about humility and not denying people faith. I had guessed you’ve spent years on atheist forums. It shows. It actually doesn’t matter that you don’t know of any atheists who fit his definition.

  15. I think that while it is important to define terms and have some general agreement, eventually we have to leave the realm of defining those terms and get on to to ideas part.

    • Fair point. Indeed, I suspect that there is much we could be discussing, and even agreeing on, or if not agreeing then disagreeing on more fruitfully. 🙂

      I’m sure we all here would like to see a fairer, more egalitarian, less polluted planet, where humans (and indeed other species) are as comfortable and happy as is reasonably possible.

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