06 February 2012

No Weakening on the New Atheism Front

I have been following the development over at Russell Blackford's blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club (easily one of the best blog names I have come across) of an argument taking places at various places across the net about how the 'New Atheists' present themselves, specifically how they are thought of as shrill, strident and unwavering.
In particular today I was directed towards this particular article in the Daily Mail online.
Reading over the article by this George Pitcher guy, I can’t help but notice the same mistakes in reasoning that are made so often by people that are tackling atheists, but don’t seem to understand them.
I am going to go through this article with my objections as they appear in the order they are presented, as there seem to be a few I have noticed upon a quick scan of the piece.
Let the rant begin!
“Just before he died, Christopher Hitchens expressed some generous sympathy for the Christian worldview, much to the evident frustration of his interlocutor Richard Dawkins.”
First of all, let's dispel anything akin to a deathbed confession right now. He did not express this form of sentiment, nor did Dawkins express a sense of frustration. This one is just a downright lie, as Hitchens himself was not only an atheist, but a proud anti-theist; not to mention that Dawkins refuted his supposed frustration on his own website.
Next Pitcher mentions the recently prominent views of philosopher Alain de Botton who he says “had his own transfiguration moment the other day when he proposed a "temple to atheism", because (I think) he acknowledges a human capacity for transcendance.”
De Botton is copping a lot of flak due to his recent calls for a ‘religion of Atheism’, or as he calls it, Atheism 2.0. I seen his book in a shop today, titled Religion for Atheists, and was tempted to buy it, were it not for the $35 price tag. Usually this wouldn’t deter me from a book I want, though in this case as my desire stems not from wanting to read it, but rather wanting to disagree with it; I decided to keep my money for the time being.
His next book, 'Sex Positions for the Celibate'.
I could rant about this guy’s ideas for ages, but I will try and give a quick digest in order to thin this post a bit. Basically de Botton seems to think that us atheists shouldn’t dismiss the virtues of religions, but rather that we need to adopt the better of them in order to fit our atheism. This is why he suggests the creation of an atheist temple, and atheist rituals; as he believes that such congregations and pointless ceremonies are an undeniable human need, or have benefits that override their downfalls. I on the other hand think that us godless few can handle a bit of socialising on our own accords and prefer my secular ‘rituals’ to be a by-product of my personality, rather than any pre-scripted nonsense.
A simple ritual, but I am quite devout in this sense.
But beyond my disagreements with de Botton’s religious atheism, I also don’t like the way that his views are presented in the article I am discussing.
Pitcher seems to suggest that he is acknowledging something that is inherent to theism, or at any rate antithetical to atheism, when he says that “he [de Botton] acknowledges a human capacity for transcendance”. Not only is this an ill-defined term, but it is something which if looked at from an atheists point of view, can be explained rationally without recourse for supernatural beings, or platitudes towards religions seemingly inexplicable ‘ownership’ of transcendence.
I think, as is often the case, that our vocabulary is filled with many religious sounding terms that can easily be related to secular counterparts, without the godlessness losing any of its validity.
For instance I can use the word soul in conversation without needing to concede that this falls from the purview of an atheists worldview. I can say that in my soul I know something, or that someone else has a gentle soul, and still sit firmly in the material world, describing purely naturalistic phenomena.
So I don’t see why someone accepting the human capacity for transcendence in is any way a kowtow to religion. Indeed Sam Harris is quite the proponent of transcendence, or spirituality, whilst remaining a strident atheist. Even Hitchens himself speaks of the numinous without it retaining any theistic flair.
"If we could find a way of enforcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious, we would be doing something culturally quite important." 
Moving on.
The article then turns to Sir David Attenborough, who was recently quoted as saying that “I don't think an understanding and an acceptance of the four billion-year-long history of life is any way inconsistent with a belief in a supreme being”. A statement which I agree with, but only on the grounds of the words being used in specific circumstances. The author however takes things a few steps further, in suggesting that by this admission he is conceding that “that there might, after all, be a God”. There is even a caption of the venerable naturalist which reads: “broadcaster David Attenborough told Kirsty Young that a belief in evolution is not incompatible with religion”.
Now my problem with this sloppy bit of reasoning is that it makes unwarranted leaps from supreme beings, to God (note the capital ‘G’ there), and then from there on to religion.
To say that the acceptance of the four billion-year-long history of life isn’t inconsistent with a belief in a supreme being is not a direct reference to religion, nor is it speaking of the Christian God. I would agree that there are forms of religion out there that can easily fit the current model of evolution as we know it, but they are hardly the main stream brand. For instance Attenborough only applies this compatibility with a supreme being; he doesn’t state what supreme being, or what properties they have.
For instance, the history of evolution as we know it today could be explained by a creator god who started life of billions of years ago, and just let things be. A deist god if you will. But this would seemingly be inconsistent with a personal god, who loves people, and abhors suffering; as this way of life is precisely what the natural world excels in (“Nature, red in tooth and claw” - Tennyson).
For a better understanding of how Attenborough feels when people posit the idea of a loving god, I would refer to this quote of his:
“I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the programmes a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature. To which I reply and say, "Well, it's funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things. They always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses." But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. And I reply and say, "Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well," and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful God with that action. And therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.”
This over liberal linkage of supreme being, God and religion is a sign of a very sloppy understanding of the debates atheists face every day. An atheist doesn't simply face down a religion, or one particular god (in this case, the capital ‘G’ one). Rather we have to deal with every religion, and every god, we have to have arguments that explain why we don’t believe in the Christian god who created the earth 6000 years ago, but also why we lack belief in the Christian god whose hand merely guided evolution to bring us about. We have to deal with concepts of supreme beings, omniscient beings, and more importantly for this example, omni-benevolent beings; of which Attenborough clearly believes is inconsistent with the past four billion years of life on earth.
“Those of us of religious faith need to concede that atheists might be right, however much we believe that they are not. And, by the same token, unbelievers, such as Attenborough and de Botton, need to affirm that we might be right - and they variously and increasingly are, by their words and deeds”
This paragraph highlights an interesting point that needs to be understood by those entering the theism/atheism debate. Namely the degrees of certainty that people claim to have. I am an agnostic-atheist, because as suggested above; I don’t know that there is no god, but I don’t believe there is. Likewise there are gnostic-atheists, who claim to ‘know’ there is no god; gnostic-theists, who ‘know’ there is one; and agnostic-theists, who don’t know for certain, but believe there is (as Pitcher seems to be). However in the article he seems to be suggesting that until now, atheists like Dawkins, with their ‘militant’ brand of 'in-your-face atheism', have been somehow driving forward the view that gnostic-atheism is the only way to go.
Anyone who had actually read Dawkins book on atheism would know that he doesn’t claim to know that there is no god, and is himself a form of agnostic-atheist (he even delineated a scale asserting such in the book). Indeed I would wager that any atheist worth their salt, or of a scientific or philosophical background, would attest similar.
Just because we need to concede that theists ‘might’ be right, does not mean that we need to declare the fact ad nauseum. After all if we needed to argue in such a way about other things we believed, we would need to accept the possibility that man didn’t land on the moon, that JFK was killed by a time travelling version of himself (thank you Red Dwarf), that the world is flat, et cetrera. After all, these claims cant be known to a 100% certainty if we are to accept the possibilities that things like inference aren’t reliable, and our senses cant be trusted.
We could do all this, but then we would hardly find the time to argue anything.
“The narrow and rather meaningless argument to which Dawkins confines himself is the incessant charge that there is no "evidence" for God. And evidence, of course, is defined only within the strictures of his own empirical scientism. The problem is that faith isn't primarily evidential, as he demands it to be, but revelatory - and we would claim no less true for all that in explaining the human condition.”
I had a nice rant in store for this, but then I decided to save some space by putting this somewhat ironic quote from Nietzsche instead:
“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Pitcher closes off his article with what I assume he thinks is a positive note, as he welcomes the supposed emergence of a 'New Atheists Lite'.
“The shrill voice of Dawkins is gradually being marginalised by those of no more faith than him, but who nevertheless perceive mystery in humanity and, while not accepting the presence of God in the world, are prepared to face in the same direction as the rest of us and stand in awe and wonder.”
I often wonder if the religious people who deride Dawkins for his ‘shrill’ demeanour have ever heard the man talk at length, or read his books. He is after all quite a gentle sounding man, who goes out of his way to be polite to those who generally don’t extend the same courtesy his way. Indeed I think if you applied his way of arguing against religion to other topics, would would see how much people want to afford their faith a higher standing than other topics on offer.

At the end of the day I think that though atheism has a much more public image than it did in previous decades, it nevertheless remains quite misunderstood by those who seek to combat it. There is a difference between arguing your atheism adamantly, and asserting its truth. I am an atheist, and will talk your ear off for ages if you let me about why this is, why I think religions are wrong, and hurtful or whatever. But I am not claiming that I know for certain these things are true, any more than I claim to know anything with 100% certainty. Indeed all I can claim in this regard are my beliefs, which is why I feel secure calling myself an atheist, and not trying to hide behind the label of agnostic.

Anyhow, it is getting well into the morning here, and i need to cut this rant off before it consumes too much of my sleep time.
I hope it was somewhat enjoyable.
Good night.


  1. -
    Hi Guy(s),

    Here is a UTUBE by the well known atheist "Greta CHRISTINA",
    where she capably defends why it's OK to be an "angry" atheist.

    See what you think:

  2. As we Buddhists like to say, "Celibate here, celibate there..." ( your 'Sex Positions for the Celibate' joke ).

    The theists have only two solid statements in their grab bag: Causality (it's broken, of course) and Unknowability. From Brahma, God, and the rest, the strong anthropic claim goes "quack quack quack." Naive Theism has become a mockery of itself, it caricatures a God, it makes a mockery of the advances of human knowledge, and it seeks naive materialism as its antipode.

    There is a grand tradition, going back to the era of the first Deists, of sophisticated, intelligently considered theism. We can see it as far back as the Stoics, and the much-suppressed Gnostics, Sufis & dharmic Hindus. Nor is the Buddhist big tent exempt from naive spirituality, but at least the core canon is somewhat consistent (even if subsequent apocrypha has led to the familiar grab bag).

    The Buddhist view (if there is one!?) is that we can't be rid of theism, so we need to steer it by making appeals to its own best instincts. In Buddhism it has adapted to the various creeds while steering them. In China the Buddhist tradition fully tolerates the Confucian cosmology, but you won't find a Ch'an cleric praying to the Kitchen God or the Jade Emperor - and in private and to their better students, they'll deconstruct that whole nonsense.

    So how do we atheists (anti-theists & non-theists alike) participate in the greater culture? How do we eff the ineffable while allowing for 8 billion personal cosmologies that we find naive, and oftentimes petulant without ourselves caricaturing ourselves as naive or acting petulant. One answer is to say that panentheism isn't so bad (now is it?). An atheist who likes God is not a bad person -- the Bodhisatwa response is that if he goes to hell his job is to provide succor to all those suffering there (kalpa, eternity, same thing only different ... even the Buddhist system has invented Hell, and Eleven Hells (just for fun)).

    There's a middle way ladies, & in this Buddhist's view, getting angry & anti- all over the human race can only get you so far.

    Erm. Just sayin'.