What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

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What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Gavin » 05 Feb 2012, 15:36

This is one of the first online Dalrymple essays I read, after reading Our Culture, What's Left of It. I was previously quite a fan of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, but soon after reading this I began to see that I differed with them on some topics where I agreed with Dalrymple.

This is not to say, however, that I agreed with everything TD said here. For example, I do not agree that The End of Faith is a "nasty" book (while God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything may be).

This essay caused something of a buzz. Harris' response to Dalrymple's critique is here. TD replies to this at the same link. AC Grayling's response is here.

The main question here seems to be "Is religion on the whole good, or on the whole bad"? I used to wholeheartedly agree with the new atheists. Having read Dalrymple I am now less certain on this topic.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Elliott » 06 Feb 2012, 03:25

Thanks for giving links to the responses to TD's original article. I wasn't aware of AC Grayling's until now.

This seems like a good opportunity to discuss religion.

Let me first state my position. I do not believe in God. But I would not call myself an Atheist. To me an Atheist is someone who has made a decision. I have not, and don't intend ever to do so. Since I have no convincing evidence for or against the existence of God, I think the sensible thing is to keep an open mind. A family friend recently told me that my position was cowardly. In his view, I should make a decision. He said, "you are an agnostic because you lack the courage to be an Atheist". That's just an arbitrary rule that he's invented - but I find that devout Atheists, devoutly out in the cold, often have to invent arbitrary rules in order to warm themselves up.

I have to say that AC Grayling's response to Dalrymple was, in my view, pathetic. It was so smug of tone, and barren of substance, that I considered abandoning it halfway through. He typifies the modern academic, so divorced from real life that his arguments (with which he is naturally very pleased) hardly refer to human nature at all, but focus on logic and rationality - as if the broad mass of the human race think and feel likewise.

Compared to someone like Theodore Dalrymple, Grayling is like an over-grown sixth form debater, appearing to know nothing of the world, or of people as they actually are. I don't care how many historical facts he knows, or how many books he has read, he is still essentially an adolescent being clever.

A number of his points struck me as simply fatuous - typical of devout Atheists.

What really irritates me is the way that these New Atheists (or whatever they want to be called) so often congratulate each other, and themselves, for being so clever. Look at the comment below Grayling's article: "This piece is like a garden: full of joyous blooms that make you gasp with pleasure"... Easily pleasured. They seem to think that their ideas, being so thoroughly logical and rational, will make people work better, in the way that a really good engine oil would make an engine work better - here's to an age of more efficient thinking.

But while such thinking may be fun for someone who has an easy life, no real worries, and who delights in rationality, it is worthless - no, destructive - for people who have it harder. The message is, essentially, nihilism with a smile. It is an attempt to gut out the mysteries of life and re-cast human beings as machines that just need better algorithms.

I have a friend who lives in a town in the North-West of England. Each day he gets the bus to work, and the bus goes through the housing estates on the outskirts of the town.

Image

These estates are grim, squalid, miserable places. Desolation, hopelessness, despair... What do their denizens see when the bus passes them?

Image

And if they get on the bus, what will they have in front of them throughout the journey?

Image

My friend told me about this. Every day, the same bus passing through these estates, and the same people seeing this message, partly funded by the British Humanist Association and endorsed by Richard Dawkins.

What better illustration could there be of the arrogance and naivety of upper-middle-class academics like Grayling and Dawkins? Not to mention Polly Toynbee, of course, she who cares so much for the working classes.

This is what really irritates about the New Atheists, and the normal people who idolise them and repeat their tedious mantras. They seem to have no idea what effect their "message" will have. They also have a ruthlessness, too, about people who benefit from religion and don't want to let go of it - "if people don't accept the truth, that's their problem!"

I knew one person in particular who had no time for religion, and had only contempt for people who relied on it. Why don't they want progress? Why do they cling to the past? I actually wonder if this guy was a borderline psychopath, because he seemed unable or unwilling to get attached to anyone. I say that because I think it's telling of the kind of mind that relishes devout Atheism. It is an empty, destructive pastime and it produces empty, destructive people.

Essentially, telling people that there is no God is to lay all responsibility for their moral outlook on their shoulders. You're telling them that they're on their own, in the sense that they have to justify moral choices because no "sky fairy" is going to do it for them.

You could call that tough love, I suppose. But I think it is cruel. How many people are capable of forming their own moral framework, and of justifying it metaphysically? Almost none. This is why religion has always been needed. I don't think it's got much to do with ignorance, lack of education, etc. It's to do with the fact that life is hard and people are imperfect. Nobody promised to sort everything out for themselves - why do we now think they should be held to that promise?

Of course it's true that religion can be damaging. But when it is benign - as it has been in the West for at least 150 years, I think it is a social good. I also think it must be very comforting. I envy people who can believe in it.

Another thing the New Atheists do - and Grayling does it several times in that article - is pretend that religion creates its own need; ie. that without religion, people would not invent it. I think they would, because people require something to believe in, something to cherish and guide them.

And the alternatives they find may not be nearly as benign as Christianity. In excoriating religion, Grayling never once mentions its godless shadow-self, even though Communism was used to sanction the killing of countless millions of people in the 20th century. If you don't give people religion, they will find something else to devote themselves to. (I think that the climate change thing was taking on the shape of a religion - if it hadn't been killed by the economic crisis, who knows how devout its believers would have become?)

What does this leave us with? The rather sad fact that people are basically lost and will always need to be found. Rationality is only enough for those few among us - scientists, engineers etc. - who are in love with rationality. For the rest of us, there are the perennial questions of the meaning of life, and why to be good and what to believe in.

New Atheists think that everyone thinks and feels like them. We don't.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Mike » 06 Feb 2012, 06:39

All those pieces are well worth a read. Although I remember disagreeing with some of TD's original article at the time, the responses quoted above are far more shrill than his original criticisms, not surprisingly.

It's an issue on which I've had varying views over the years. Like Elliott, I'm not religious and never have been, and would still readily describe myself as an atheist, but there is a distinction between being atheist and anti-religion. Over the years I've become far more sympathetic to organised religion, for a number of reasons.

Some of Grayling's comments really deserve some close analysis to show just how misleading they are:

The question posed by Mr Dalrymple that most got me gasping was, "how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?" At one blow we must say "bad luck Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hume, John Stuart Mill, and all the rest of you who have articulated ethical views for which you claim neither divine inspiration nor heaven as a reward for their observance; nor have you argued that morality must always be instrumental, answering to a purpose beyond itself."


For a professor of philosophy to write that requires either a monumental intent to deceive or gross ignorance.

All of those bolded, for a start, lived in accordance with the prevailing religious views of the time. In the Apology Socrates goes to great lengths to explain that he has not attempted to "introduce new gods" to Athens, and his final words in the Crito are actually "leave me to follow the will of God (i.e. Zeus, presumably)." To slyly imply that these philosophers operated from a secular position is completely dishonest.

And how can "a transcendent purpose" be automagically glossed as "heaven as a reward for...observance"? As Elliott says, a cheap and lowdown debating trick.

He is on firmer ground when he criticises (although in a very smug way) the part of TD's original piece where he assigns the beauty of still-lifes and the like primarily to their creators' religious view of the world. Here is where I think TD's argument is weak, although not as weak as the constant contention of Grayling et al. that the struggle against religion has contributed more to civilisation than religion itself, which is patently absurd in my view.

I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion some time ago (before I'd even heard of TD, if I remember rightly) and remember being very put off by it - if anything it made me more sympathetic to religion than before! - largely because of the religion-equals-child-abuse grandstanding. I did enjoy The Greatest Show on Earth though, a very entertaining and informative overview of evolutionary biology in which Dawkins largely (although not completely) manages to steer clear of the religion-bashing.

Haven't read the Harris book, but I'd be interested to see what it is about it that made TD so hostile.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Gavin » 06 Feb 2012, 09:37

Elliott, I think you made a lot of very good points there, probably echoing Dalrymple's exact position.

The architecture you pointed to reminded me of Dalrymple's excellent essay attacking Le Corbusier and his brutalist architecture (was there ever a more appropriate label?).

I remember having a problem with the "Atheist Bus Campaign" too, in that the chosen wording seemed incredibly naive and even irresponsible. It promoted perfectly the all too common atheist view, one of emptiness and cynicism, "live for the moment". "Throw caution to the wind, you have rights, not duties. Just enjoy yourself, nothing matters. Have sex with whoever you like. Make up your own morality." If I simplify, it probably isn't by much. I have observed from personal experience that "official" atheists often replace religious faith with a faith in, if not socialism, then liberalism, and this message fits in well with that. In a society whose rules seem to be breaking down as we write, this is in my view the last thing that people need to be told.

Mike - interesting comments. These topics remind me also of the recent news that Alain de Botton is trying to establish "secular churches" to offer atheists some of the benefits that religion brings. A lot of Telegraph readers seem to have a vehement hatred of de Botton, but I think he's pretty good. At least he sees the positive aspects of religion - while being an atheist - like several of us on this forum, I dare say. I also liked his book Status Anxiety - certainly many in society are suffering from this. De Botton tries to apply philosophy to everyday life rather than reserving it for the discussion of abstract metaphysics in ivory towers, and I like this. Whether he will have much success with this idea of secular churches, however, I somehow doubt.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Mike » 06 Feb 2012, 10:54

I read just this evening about some of the proposals that De Botton advances in that book, and although one shouldn't be too quick to judge on such second-hand information, some of the ideas appear incredibly naive. At least, though, as you say, he is prepared (unlike a great many modern academics of his ilk) to acknowledge some of the benefits of organised religion.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Michael » 09 Feb 2012, 21:54

As a philosopher with a deep interest in metaphysics and ontology I have always found the theism/atheism debate highly interesting. Though I have no religious faith myself I have found the writings of the New Atheists both vulgar, juvenline, and lacking in any understanding of the good religion does for the religious. Most offensive of all they are shockingly lacking in an understanding of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and show themselves (even Daniel Dennett, supposedly a philosopher) to have little philosophical acumen or argumentative ability.

Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher I greatly respect, has devoted much time and effort to demolishing the fallacious arguments and Straw Man tactics of the New Atheists, and he does so with style and panache. I recommend to everyone here with philosophical interests (and who like good, witty, thought provoking prose) his superb "The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism", where he explicates Aquinas' five proofs of the existence of God, and shows that efforts to refute them require vastly greater philosophical sophistication than any of the New Atheists have demonstrated themselves to be capable of.

For many samples of his prose and thought I recommend his blog. There is a great deal of "Catholic" content there*, but his works on the errors of the New Atheists are separable and worth reading on their own:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/

*One of the upshot's of Feser's arguments, one he does not explicitly acknowledge, is that the proofs of God's existence and basic attributes are independent of religious faith. They do not point to any religious faith, but show that religions are built up around particular claims as to God's nature and purposes based on unrepeatable revelation, which rest on faith alone. Thus one could believe in God and be a strong moral realist while rejecting every religious text and teacher and any claim to know God's will.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Liviu » 03 Mar 2012, 13:55

I am not religious-affiliated, but I am not an atheist either. Over the years I could not establish a firm position for myself in this matter.
In the beginning I was an atheist and a very proud one for that matter. I received what I guess could be called a “humanist” education from my father (“there is no god but religion is not evil”) and an atheist one (“there is no god and religion is evil”) from school (in the 1980s communist Romania). I had what is commonly referred to as a “religious crisis” in adolescence, when for a brief few weeks I believed in god and felt his universal love for mankind. Soon afterwards the reason gained the upper hand and dismissed everything I had experienced those days as just rationalization of repressed love feelings.
Every belief can be interpreted as a rationalization of what someone is experiencing, and I stood by this view in my college years as a Philosophy student.

The majority of my fellow students, or at least the majority of my friends, were Christian believers (of the Orthodox denomination). It was perhaps a reaction against the militant atheism of the communist state that had collapsed just 3 or 4 years before. Being preoccupied at that time mainly by epistemological subjects, it was impossible for me to repress critical thinking.

Every religious doctrine is vulnerable to many criticisms. But what was holding me back in those days and still does it now is the problem of evil. Why there is evil in the first place and why do innocent people (even infants) have to suffer? I believe that every theology is just hot air in the face of this fundamental problem. In that respect, atheism has a stronger theoretical position, because it evacuates the very notions of good and evil as mere figments of a primitive imagination, devoid of ontological meaning. Atoms dancing are all there is, and nothing more.

The curious thing is that I came closer to believing in god for much the same reason I was a non-believer. For a long time I was preoccupied by the history of totalitarian regimes, of communism in particular (which can be explained by having to experience it for my first 15 years). And this history, and the individual experiences you encounter from time to time, gave me a sense of certainty of the existence of evil. There is a point when you cannot say that all can be biologically or sociologically explained, you actually feel that evil is not just an idea. This is not a strong argument, I know, in a philosophical debate. But it was, and still is, a very strong one for my (personal) view of the world. From that acknowledgement of the reality of evil came for me a belief in the existence of good as an ontological (not just subject to social convention) principle.

I think that the belief in a good principle superior to us is fundamental for man as a limited moral being. Imperfect as we are, it is very dangerous to think of ourselves as the sole source of moral wisdom. I strongly believe now that we need to acknowledge a higher authority over our moral lives, to admit in principle that we are limited and subject to mistakes.

The problem of good and evil is closely associated with that of our consciousness and the meaning of our lives. It is easy to “deconstruct” "meaning" as an epistemologically erroneous artifact, but the problem comes back every time you see yourself in the mirror. Not knowing the answer does not automatically imply the problem is just incorrectly constructed.

P.S. In the end I should say that reading a few pages from the Bible from time to time always brings back the atheist in me :)
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Elliott » 04 Mar 2012, 18:17

Liviu wrote:For a long time I was preoccupied by the history of totalitarian regimes, of communism in particular (which can be explained by having to experience it for my first 15 years). And this history, and the individual experiences you encounter from time to time, gave me a sense of certainty of the existence of evil. There is a point when you cannot say that all can be biologically or sociologically explained, you actually feel that evil is not just an idea.


I think many on this forum would be fascinated to know about your experiences of living in a Communist country. What can you remember of life under Communism? What was it like? How did it differ from life in the free West? And why/how did it make you certain of "the existence of evil"? Please tell us as much as you are comfortable disclosing.

Regarding evil, and this should maybe have a thread of its own, I think that while we can reduce it to atoms and animalistic social theory, it is actually more helpful if we don't. I think we stand a better chance of defeating evil if we are honest about how it appears to us (a temptation) and what flows from that temptation (an entire evil way of living, of treating people and ideas and objects).

One of the most evil things I have ever encountered - and this may betray a pampered Western life, though it genuinely took me a few days to recover from this - was the Chapman brothers' artwork The Rape of Creativity. I will not provide links to it as I consider it to be an act of true wickedness. Google it at your own risk. Suffice to say that the Chapman brothers defaced another artist's work, and called this defacement a work of art in itself. The defacement, the destruction, was the art. Now, while this may open up avenues of smug amusement for art critics and the like, it flies in the face of our basic notion of goodness. What they did was evil. They took the creation of a master and deliberately and systematically destroyed it. Worse still, they did not destroy it completely; it is still recognisable as its former self, but now in a permanently disfigured condition, an advert for its own humiliation. As for the Chapman brothers, they are proud of what they did.

Now I don't know enough about these men to say they are "evil". I'm sure they are frequently good, and frequently do nice things. But I will not hesitate to say that what they did was evil. This means they at least have a capacity for evil and are willing to indulge it. Moreover, they are able to find ways to justify and even glorify their evil acts, to feel proud of themselves for the distress they know they have caused hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who cherish art and creativity. (They describe what they did as "correcting" the original artwork - an additional and unnecessary insult clearly designed to pour salt into the wound they had so painstakingly created.)

Apparently nothing penetrates the ego of these men. Sanctity of art? Doesn't matter. Sanctity of an ancient thing? Doesn't matter. Disturbing the public? Doesn't matter. Pointless destruction? Doesn't matter. They inhabit a world of moral relativism where anything is as valuable or worthless as they decide it is. They are the moral masters, and they submit to no higher authority. As you said, Liviu, when men give themselves that kind of power, they are liable to do dreadful things. This is one of the main reasons I think we need religion, or at least a moral code that is self-reinforcing like religion is. If we do not mark things out as "forbidden", people will do them.

But in the world of the Atheist, nothing is forbidden unless it violates some utilitarian principle. This means that acts such as that of the Chapman brothers are perfectly okay. After all, what they did does not "harm" people. It doesn't make life on Earth more difficult. Nobody gets hurt, so it must be okay. Why, then, do we feel instinctual disgust and horror at what they did? I don't think Atheism has any explanation for that. Or rather, the explanations it has are cheap and unsatisfying.

Atheism would say "you feel disgust because you value creativity, and you think the Chapman brothers violated creativity" but that could easily be innoculated by more Atheism: "The disgust you feel is preemptive, designed to prompt you to defend created things from destruction that may endanger your physical existence (destruction of houses, irrigation, etc.). But since the Chapman brothers' act does not endanger your physical existence, the disgust you feel about it is knee-jerk, unnecessary and irrational."

By that reasoning, we should stand by and watch as every artwork on Earth is destroyed.

The stereotype Atheist may defend himself thus: "Of course I don't approve of art being destroyed. I have a heart. I realise that we are bound to romanticise the creative instinct and that, to propagate happiness, that romanticism is useful."

But then we are left with the question of how to protect a romanticism we have admitted is irrational. The Chapman brothers would simply say "you're being irrational" and we would have no defence.

Simply, either we make certain things sacred, and decree that violating them is evil, or we are left to the destructive whims of everyone who has destructive whims. But how to justify something being "sacred"? Personally I think the only way is "God". We say that God created us, so when we create things we are furthering God's work, and therefore to pointlessly destroy something is un-Godly. In an age of scientific rationalism people may find that argument patronising, but it is the only thing that will make them behave, and thus protect the instincts which distinguish us from beasts. These instincts are ones we have effortlessly, yet on their own they do not defend themselves: we are perfectly capable of creating environments which violate them and, in so doing, degrade our humanity.

A culture without God is inhuman - and I say that as someone who doesn't believe in God.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Liviu » 05 Mar 2012, 17:09

I think many on this forum would be fascinated to know about your experiences of living in a Communist country. What can you remember of life under Communism? What was it like? How did it differ from life in the free West? And why/how did it make you certain of "the existence of evil"? Please tell us as much as you are comfortable disclosing.


Elliott, thank you for your interest. I did my best to provide an image of life in communist Romania in this thread in the Off-topic section: viewtopic.php?f=36&t=2330.

I hope it will not bore the readers to death (the text is very long for a forum posting), but I could not tell it shorter.

Refering to your post, I agree with what you said.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Elliott » 30 Mar 2012, 22:07

Caleb wrote:Elliott: I don't believe the presence or absence of religion really leads people to or away from vice or bad behaviour... Any jaunt through the third world will quickly dispel anyone's illusions about religiosity.


Caleb, that certainly puts my remarks into context! Still, we are talking about very different societies - dysfunctional vs. Western - and I maintain that religion can be a benign force when it is tempered by rationality. In any case, I think people in general have a need for religion, and its potential to retard progress will not stop them from needing it.

Of course there could be umpteen reasons why the West is in decline (I think it is a fateful convergence of at least three or four factors) but it is clear that, as Christianity loses its grip, people are behaving in increasingly immoral ways.

For example, today some people in Manchester took photos of a woman's corpse on a motorway and uploaded them to Twitter, including one showing her severed leg. I cannot see Christians doing something like that. Also the reaction to what they did: there is no media furore, no national self-reflection, and Twitter didn't even remove the images or ban the users responsible. They merely removed the photo showing the severed leg - as if the others were quite acceptable and did not have moral repercussions for society (or, indeed, for Twitter).

I have no doubt that religion can be damaging, but I think the loss of it is damaging by default.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Caleb » 02 Apr 2012, 01:56

Elliott: I have to admit that I'm kind of torn on this issue. On the one hand, I do believe that people probably do need religion (or something akin to it, though I'm not entirely sure what, if anything, could fully replace it). On the other hand, I think tempering it by rationality is always going to be a very difficult thing. There's very little room for error there. Once you go even slightly too far to either side, you end up with a system of feedback loops that lead either to the full-blown idiocy that every religion has as its potential, or you end up with the full-blown idiocy that seems to be the case in much of the modern secular world. I think that that happy median was probably always going to be transitory in England (and its colonies) because it seems like once the momentum is going in one direction, it's hard to stop it going too far.

That said, my understanding of the Nordic countries is that they're not particularly religious at all, yet they are quite nice places to live. Maybe we're simply looking at the wrong model(s) of secularism?
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Gavin » 14 Sep 2012, 08:05

I thought I might as well put these observations in this thread.

In the video below the first eight minutes are taken up by conversation with Brandon Flowers, who seems a very pleasant and modest person (especially for a rock star).

Then Richard Dawkins comes in. He says "I think that the world will be explained fully by science". I hope he means it "will probably only be explained by science" because any stronger claim is too arrogant and faith based.

Dawkins then says he thinks one main reason why people are religious that they don't know much about science. I think this is true, but it is not a simple case of science plugging holes, because many people feel the holes are left even if they understand science.

I felt quite uncomfortable when Dawkins flatly told Brandon Flowers on national TV that his religion was a fake. He's no doubt right about that, but it still seemed cruel. As far as I know Mormons are not comparable with Muslims in the terrorism business or with the global ambitions or the denigration of those who do not believe.

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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Elliott » 14 Sep 2012, 09:52

What amazes me about Dawkins and all New Atheists is how they can try to rape a person of his religious belief, even in public and quite casually, and not be ashamed. When Dawkins told Flowers that his religious text was "a fake" and his church was founded by "a charlatan", did he think Flowers was going to spontaneously renounce his religion and see the light? And did he think that this conversion was going to go smoothly and harmlessly? In a TV studio, no doubt being broadcast live to millions of people? Did he think he was doing Flowers some kind of favour?

For people such as Dawkins, it is all about being right, at whatever cost.

Now, a few quotes from his interview (I only listened to the first 5 minutes of it; I actually find him very boring)...

[There is] far more beauty in understanding the reality of nature than there is in reading some ancient book.

For Richard Dawkins, no doubt, but why does he assume that everyone else finds more beauty in science than in religion?

Also, why do New Atheists always reduce religion to "reading some ancient book"? They must realise there is more to religious belief than merely consuming text on a page. I suppose it is part of the "climate change denier" thing; making somebody seem like an automaton by suggesting they do something mindlessly, without awareness.

(It also betrays a certain middle-class academic naivety about people. How many religious people actually read the main texts of their religion? I have no statistics, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a fairly small percentage. In saying that, I am not trying to demean their faith at all, merely pointing out that Dawkins' conception of them is probably inaccurate, and in a fatal way since it misunderstands what makes them religious; it is not the endless repetition of a religion's text, but the comfort, wisdom and understanding that the religion brings.)

The natural explanation is there and so much more fun, and so much more exciting, and so much more interesting [than the supernatural explanation].

For Richard Dawkins. As it happens, I don't find science fun, exciting or interesting. I hated biology at school, and physics, and chemistry. None of these subjects, which I was educated in, gave me the slightest glimmer of consolation (see below), and I find it very hard to believe that I'm alone in feeling that way about science. I'm glad science exists and that it solves problems, but it does not solve the problems of the soul (oops).

I don't care about what's consoling. I care about what's true.

Well, can't he keep that to himself, and let other people be consoled by whatever they find consoling? Or is the truth more important than people finding peace? I wonder how far he would take that. Would he, for example, watch a hundred people committing suicide upon the news that God didn't exist, and think to himself "at least I got them to accept the truth"?

And what's more, wouldn't Dawkins admit that his attachment to scientific rigor is that he finds it consoling? He thinks that nobody should be forced into finding consolation in religion (by being raised in a religion) but that we should all be, effectively, forced to find truth in science - and presumably abandon our desire for consolation, unless it happens to come from science (otherwise you're out of luck: no consolation in life for you).

I can't give you a scientific explanation for why the sound of a Schubert string quintet or a Housman poem move me to tears but I believe that there is an explanation which is ultimately to be found in the natural world. It's not convenient in the short term to attempt to explain it in scientific terms. It's better to explain it in artistic terms.

What he seems to be saying here is that not only will science supersede religion, but it will supersede art as well, since, if we could scientifically explain why art affects us, there'd be no point in producing art anymore when we could target people's emotions using scientific instruments.

He has a completely different mindset from mine. He seems to have no problem with the idea that his emotional/intellectual reactions to art will one day be explained scientifically. I would consider that an extreme form of personal violation, because I consider a person's emotional and intellectual life to be sacred - if not in its daily content, then in its very existence. I don't want it reduced to 1s and 0s; I don't think anyone would be enhanced by that. We are trying to elevate ourselves above the primordial, not understand ourselves as mere conglomerations of it.
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Michael » 16 Sep 2012, 15:17

Excellent post, Elliott. You really nail the almost autistic blindness of Dawkins and many New Atheists. They are the victims of a metaphysics that has become mistaken for physics: materialism, the ontological theory that all that exists is matter, and its allied discipline scientism, the ideology that all facts worth knowing, all truths in the most basic sense of the word are those that can be exposed by scientific investigation. These are metaphysical choices because they are choices you make before you even begin doing science: the separation of primary qualities (shape, size, velocity) from secondary qualities (colour, smell, taste, sound), and the declaration that secondary qualities exist only in the mind. This leads, inevitably, to the need to explain and reduce the mind, an impossible task. I am summarizing a lot of detailed ontological thought very quickly here, but most basically the mind cannot be reduced to matter or the operations of matter because it possesses a quality nothing else in the universe does: intentionality, the fact that it can be about things that are not itself. The mind has been the carpet under which secondary qualities were swept by the natural philosophers of the Early Modern period, doing so for the purposes of making matter amenable to mathematical study (mathematics, being quantitative, has no ability to deal with qualitative phenomena like colour, sound, beauty, and goodness). The problem is, once you've swept everything under a carpet, you can't then sweep away the carpet. Alternative metaphysical and ontological systems exist that also explain and incorporate the discoveries of science but do not deny the reality of secondary qualities outside the mind, and preserve a place for the mind within nature.

Mark Anthony Signorelli has, in e-mails we've exchanged, pointed out a hidden theme underneath the scientism that guides the New Atheists: It is a desire for control - for that is what scientific discoveries cash out as, control by human intentions. It is explicit in the writings of the first scientist worthy of the name, Rene Descartes, when he proposes that the investigation of natural phenomena will make nature yield to human beings, and improve man's lot on Earth. It is utopian in intention. Religious thought, by contrast, and conservative thought whether allied with conservative thought or not, is very much focused on recognizing and working within the limits of our existence, of accepting that there are many things we will never control or understand, and that the pursuit of control can both distort our perspective on what is genuinely valuable and lead us to destroy what is good. Check out his essay on the folly and impossibility of trying to "explain" what morals are naturalistically for a good overview of how the New Atheists go wrong without even realizing it.

I've tried rewriting the above a few times and hope that it is reasonably clear. Basically, you can take heart: you can not only oppose the New Atheists aim, you can actively argue that their goal is impossible and their understanding of the world sick and distorted.
Michael
 
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Re: What the New Atheists Don’t See (2007)

Postby Elliott » 17 Sep 2012, 01:58

Thanks, Michael.

"Autistic" was a word I was trying to steer clear of when I wrote that post, but I do think that it applies to the New Atheist creed. They think like calculators. Even though they retain a certain attachment to "the mystery" of life (eg. Dawkins saying that he is moved to tears by music), their science would destroy that attachment, if pursued far enough. It would create a world of autism, and we would all have to think like calculators, 24/7, because to do otherwise would be to risk ridicule from the scientific faithful.

Actually, even today ridicule seems to be a major part of what New Atheists do - perhaps it is a major motivation for them? Time and again, I see their superiority complex as they make fun of anyone who disagrees with them. Even the phrase "sky fairy" (or Dawkins' term for religious people, "faith heads") shows that ridiculing others is a key "tenet" of New Atheism.

Even if their central claim, that there is no god, is true, they do their work with the zeal of the fanatic and the jealous hatred of the nihilist.
Elliott
 
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