I am a little amused by the confluence of three things I have read in recent days on arguments for atheism.
It seems that there are three kinds of atheism out there – not mutually exclusive: stroppy, sloppy and soppy.
Melanie Philips, an English journalist with the Spectator, had a piece in The Australian about a month ago after the Global Atheists Conferance in Melbourne: “Dawkins preaches to the deluded against the divine.” In this piece she wrote:
For someone who has made a career out of telling everyone how much more tolerant the world would be if only religion were obliterated from the human psyche, Dawkins manages to appear remarkably intolerant towards anyone who disagrees with him…
[H]e seems almost to believe that, since everyone who believes in God is stupid or evil and Christians are stupid and evil because they believe in God, those who oppose him must be Christian and can be treated with contempt.
I had first-hand experience of this when, addressing an audience of US atheists, he accused me of “lying for Jesus” by misquoting him. This came as something of a surprise since I am a Jew. …
This anecdote raises in turn the most intriguing question of all about Dawkins. Just why is he so angry and why does he hate religion so much? After all, as many religious scientists can attest, science and religion are – contrary to his claim – not incompatible at all.
A clue lies in his insistence that a principal reason for believing that there could be no intelligence behind the origin of life is that the alternative – God – is unthinkable. This terror of such an alternative was summed up by a similarly minded geneticist as the fear that pursuing such thinking to its logical ends might allow “the divine foot in the door”.
Such concern is telling because it suggests a lack of confidence by the Dawkins camp in its own position and a corresponding fear of rigorous thinking.
To stamp out the terrifying possibility of even a divine toe peeping over the threshold, all opposition has to be shut down. And so the great paradox is that the arch-hater of religious intolerance himself behaves with the zeal of a religious fundamentalist and, despite excoriating religion for stifling debate, does this in spades.
Ms Phillips has just published a book on the subject of “The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth and Power”. See her website for more info here.
Picking up the “fear of rigorous thinking” suggestion is David B. Hart in the current edition of First Things: “Believe it or not”. He writes about “New Atheism” (on which he is also about to publish a book: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies ) in general that it:
has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.
Take, for instance, the recently published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists . Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. Certainly that was my hope in picking it up. Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.
…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.
…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.
And finally, to round off the trio, let’s hear something from a man who is himself an atheist, even if, as he himself admits, not an entirely “happy” one. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite authors (see here for a list of his writings). I find his writing thought-provoking, unpredictable, and even a little “musical”. I can listen to his writing (and, BTW, I best like to digest novels through the medium of the audio book) like listening to a creative piece of music – it inspires my to follow my own thoughts and meditations. I am currently reading – or rather, he is reading to me – his book “Nothing to be frightened of”. It is not memoirs or an autobiography, but it is recollective and auto-reflective. In any case, here is a great section (I can’t tell you what page it is on – it is on disc two!). I will quote it at length.
I ask him [my brother] to elaborate on his dismissal of my line “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him” as “soppy”. He admits that he isn’t really sure how to take my statement.
“I suppose as a way of saying ‘I don’t believe there are any gods but I wish there were’; or perhaps ‘but I wish I did’. I can see how someone might say something like that. Try putting ‘dodos’ or ‘yetis’ for ‘gods’; though for my part I’m quite content with the way things are.”
You can tell he teaches philosophy, can’t you? I ask him about a specific matter; he breaks down the proposition logically, and supplies alternative nouns to display its absurdity or weakness or soppiness. But his answer seems just as strange to me as my question did to him. I hadn’t asked him what he thought about someone missing dodos or yetis or even “gods” in the lower case plural. But God.
I check whether he has ever had any religious feelings or yearnings. “No” and “no”, is his reply. “Unless you count being moved by the Messiah, or Donne’s sacred Sonnets.”
I wonder if this certainty has been passed on to his two daughters, now in their thirties. Any religious sentiments, faith, supernatural longings, I ask? “No, never, not at all,” replies the younger, “unless you count not walking on the lines on the pavement as a supernatural longing.” We agree that we don’t.
Her sister admits to “a brief yearning to be religious when I was about 11. But this was because my friends were, because I wanted to pray as a way of getting things, and because the girl guides pressured you to be Christian. This went away fairly quickly when my prayers went unanswered. I suppose I am agnostic, or even atheist.”
I am glad she has maintained the family tradition of giving up religion on trivial grounds. My brother because he suspected George VI had not gone to heaven. Me in order not to be distracted from masturbation. My niece because the stuff she prayed for wasn’t immediately delivered.
But I suspect that such breezy illogic is quite normal.
Here for instance, is the biologist Lewis Wolpert:
“I was quite a religious child, saying my prayers at night and asking God for help on various occasions. It did not seem to help and I gave it all up around 16 and have been an atheist ever since.”
No subsequent reflection from any of us that perhaps God’s main business were he to exist might not be as an adolescent help-line, goods provider or masturbation scourge. No, out with him! once and for all!
A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like “I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God”
Thus kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. “Soppy!” I cry! You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have his own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether he is an old man with an white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force or a disinterested prime mover, or a clock maker or a woman or a nebulous moral force or nothing at all – what count as is what he/she/it or nothing thinks of you rather than you of them.
The notion of redefining the deity into something that “works for you” is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter that God is just or benevolent or even observant of which there seems startlingly little proof, only that he exists.
So. Soppy, perhaps. But not stroppy or sloppy. Insightful. Why are so many atheists – and even more agnostics – content with sloppy illogic when it comes to their disregard for God (in the singular uppercase)? At least Barnes recognises sloppy atheism for what it is – even if he is reluctant to condemn it.