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The Dawkins/Dennet/Harris/Myers kraken called what it really is. March 22, 2007

Posted by Administrator in atheism, Idiots, Smart People.
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Dumb, by George Weigel.

Money quotes:

But as Sam Schulman recently pointed out in a perceptive Wall Street Journal essay, what’s really striking about the new atheism is its tone. In a word, it’s angry; or, as Schulman writes, “Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible…Today’s atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people — which Dr. Dawkins calls ‘a form of child abuse.'” This is, in part, the aforementioned snobbery; as Schulman nicely puts it, the new atheists imagine that “believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence.” But the anger is such that it warps whatever cleverness might be at work in the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. The agnostic H.L. Mencken (a vociferous critic of what he regarded as the absurdities of popular religiosity during the Roaring Twenties) was one of the few commentators who could do brilliant social satire while writing “at the top of his voice,” as one biographer put it. The angers of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris render their writing merely shrill.

And dumb. Read the atheist trinity, and you’ll be amazed at their self-regard — which is based, in part, on a Captain Reynaud-like wonder (“I’m shocked, shocked…”) at discovering the obvious: that the Bible is neither geology text nor critical biography; that, over the centuries, Christian hagiographers have embellished the stories they tell about saintly people; that some uncritically examined beliefs are, in fact, superstitious. Oh, really?
(snip)

Which is to say, again, they’re dumber as well as angrier. Indeed, were I back teaching and a graduate student handed me an ill-informed screed like Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, I’d gently inform the aspiring scholar that there were two options available: an “F,” or a return to the drawing board for some serious thought — the kind of thought that begins with empathetic curiosity and an open mind, not with contempt and intellectual rigidity.

Oh, go read it all.  Niftiness.

HT: Mark Shea

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Comments»

1. jadelane - March 22, 2007

There’s a different, better, humbler atheism out there. Just because all the music on the radio is terrible doesn’t mean that all music is terrible. It’s the kind that, as Weigel notes, begins with empathetic curiosity and an open mind. It also contains intellectual rigor and honesty, though, so it’s avoids the trap of condescending anthropological or ethnological “fascination with the other.” Nor does it pull punches–just because a proposition claims to be true (Jesus is God, gravity exists) doesn’t make it so, and no one should just let it go by without examination.

I, personally, think of religion as quite powerful and, as a result, potentially quite dangerous. Just like science. Just like art.

To you, I say, the public opinion on atheism suffers from the same flaws Weigel accords to “the new atheism.” It is neither empathetically curious nor open-minded. I’d like to avoid the ad hominem attack, but I can’t resist: it seems like that also describes your opinion pretty well. No fair hoisting others by your own petard. Let he who is without a kneejerk opinion cast the first screed.

2. demolition65 - March 22, 2007

PLease note, I am (as is Weigel) addressing the Dawkins/Dennet/Harris sort of atheism, no necessarily all atheists.

If you are judging my level of open-mindedness on this post, then perhaps you may find me closed-minded. Believe me, I have spent a great deal of time cogitating on the attractions of atheism, from both sides of the coin. If I seem impatient/close-minded here, it is due to the fact that I have grown decidely weary of repeating myself.

Yours was generally an elegant comment, even with the “ad hom” attack.

My challenge to you is that if you hold that faith does exist. . .and you are more than correct in doing so, which separates you from the most atheists I have correesponded with.

HOWEVER, I would challenge you that you are not finished with your intellectual explorations if atheism is as far as you have gone.

3. demolition65 - March 22, 2007

Bad grammar on last comment. Too harassed to fix it.

4. jadelane - March 22, 2007

“HOWEVER, I would challenge you that you are not finished with your intellectual explorations if atheism is as far as you have gone.”

Who is? I would argue in return that if you need religion to satisfy a sense of wonder and purpose, maybe your spiritual explorations are far from over.

That’s the thing about all these arguments–and about partisanship in general. Both sides assume they know how things work for the other side. Por ejemplo:

People seem to think that if I’m an atheist that I must hate God or that I’m missing something. In truth, I grew up and remained Christian for a long time; it was a great experience; I truly felt God’s love. I didn’t leave the church because of some trauma, or out of spite, or because I suddenly realized it was all a lie. I just started feeling like other explanations for things made more sense. Little by little, I realized that I didn’t feel sadder when I doubted God’s existence, and that everything made just as much sense as it had before–which is to say, in a few places, I had to replace “because that’s God’s will” with “I don’t know,” but that was more satisfying, not less. It feels good; there’s still just as much beauty and wonder and goodness in the world, if not more; I don’t suddenly think it’s okay for other people to kill, and it turns out that “because it’s a sin” is a crappy line of reasoning anyway–you can just as easily and effectively say “we’re not sure why, but you shouldn’t, so don’t” and it has just as much rhetorical force.

Maybe religion does something for you that you can’t get somewhere else: how should I know? Maybe it does nothing for me that I can’t get from observation, intuition, meditation, hope, and faith in the merely corporeal: how should you know?

E.g. flag burning.

Is flag burning the representative destruction of America or a protest against current American practices? It can certainly be treasonous. Can it possibly be speech? If it can, when is it speech and when is it treason? Who should be empowered to decide, and if they can be empowered then, when can’t they?

E.g. abortion

Is a fetus a human being? Can you be sure? My wife is pregnant and that child is already deeply meaningful to both of us. If it were killed, I would be utterly devastated–it brings tears to my eyes even writing the words.

Can I impose my desire to make that child more real, more present, on somebody else, whose experience makes the whole thing different? Anti-choice agitpropheads act as though people who have abortions are committing premeditated and gleeful murder, and like pro-choice activists seek to maximize abortions. That’s absurd. I’m pro-choice because I don’t think we can know whether a fetus is a person–certainly most societies, now and historically, treat it as though it is qualitatively distinct, and I tend to agree–and I’m hesitant to tell people they have to stay pregnant. Then again, I don’t think life is essentially sacred.

Either way, partisanship seems to come along with a desire to impose one’s will and world-view on other people. That sucks, because those of us who want to let people work it out for themselves are, by our very nature, less likely to speak up about it. Fortunately, there is work we can do: instead of trying to make abortion illegal, we can try to figure out whether fetuses are people, so we can make the right decision about it. I’d like to see that data.

5. demolition65 - March 22, 2007

I see it. . .will respond. . .battles to fight just now. . .with City Hall, in fact. 😛

6. demolition65 - March 22, 2007

Before I respond, let me just say that it is a breath of fresh air to have commentary that is oppositional but also NOT inflammatory.

Well done.

Re: People seem to think that if I’m an atheist that I must hate God or that I’m missing something. In truth, I grew up and remained Christian for a long time; it was a great experience; >b>I truly felt God’s love. I didn’t leave the church because of some trauma, or out of spite, or because I suddenly realized it was all a lie. I just started feeling like other explanations for things made more sense.

Note the bold. Did you really feel God’s love? If so, it seems curious that you would then say it was something else.

Maybe it does nothing for me that I can’t get from observation, intuition, meditation, hope, and faith in the merely corporeal: how should you know?. All the above reasons are fine, but what about thought and reason themselves? in the end, it is due to those faculties that I believe, as did a host of others. Hence my challenge to you. I am uncertain you have fully thought this out.

Re: Flag burning. I am confused as to why you bring this up. It has never been a topic of discussion on this blog. Are you trying to illustrate a broader point? If so, please elucidate. I hesitate to comment otherwise.

Re: Abortion. Is a fetus a human being? Can you be sure? My wife is pregnant and that child is already deeply meaningful to both of us. If it were killed, I would be utterly devastated–it brings tears to my eyes even writing the words. I am truly happy for you. Honestly.

However, Is a fetus a human being? Can you be sure?

Can I be sure it is not? If not, don’t I have a moral obligation to err on the side of caution? regardless of where the morality originates from? I am sure many Germans were uncertain about the humanity of the Jews; as Americans were uncertain about the humanity of the slaves. You may say that to make such a comparison is nonsense. But when a culture is truly uncertain, as we are now according to your definitions, don’t we need to be sure before we resort to ending its (putative) life?

This does not emanate from partisanship. I am not a Republican. i am virulently anti-democratic Party, that much is true.

But if they were to adopt a coherent policy on the value of life, ALL life, I would surely give them a try.

7. jadelane - March 24, 2007

I agree–it’s good to talk in a meaningful fashion about such things. I like to know how to be good, and the only way to do that is to productively challenge one another, and to have my ideas challenged.

Re: God’s love.

This one’s a tough one, because I really haven’t had much of an opportunity to discuss the phenomenon with other people who’ve gone through the same thing I have. The best example I can come up with, and it’s a weak one, I admit, is those optical illusions: Is it a duck or a bunny? Is it an old woman or a young one? Another potential example might be the duality between profit maximization and cost minimization in the theory of the firm. Different premises lead to different interpretations of the same phenomenon. I’d back rthis up by saying that most religions/spiritualities involve a benevolent godhead and experiences of goodness in the world. There seem to be a number of ways to integrate such feelings of transcendence, connection, and meaning into one’s life and world-view.

As a Christian, those feelings of compassion for the world, of incredible humility and unworthiness to be graced with such wonder and beauty, and of an incredible desire to be part of goodness, out of fear and wonder and overwhelming gratitude–it can’t be anything other than God’s love. In my experience, though, those feelings don’t disappear with a lack of belief in God–the world is just as good and amazing and my sense of humility and gratitude are stronger, if anything. Instead, I’m looking at the same thing–or being struck by the same thing, as it were–from a different angle. I think I’m fortunate to have had the experience of it as religious and as simply profound.

There seems to me to be an obvious counterargument–“if you could feel that and then come to disbelief, it must not have been what I mean by God’s love,” but A. that simply defines away the problem by changing the bounds, and B. that falls victim to my previous frustration with staking claims about other people’s experiences.

Re: flag burning. This was a not terribly well-articulated point intended merely to provide an example of where equivocation and lack of empathy lead to enmity–unfounded enmity, because the foundations of both lines of reasoning are actually mutually compatible premises. I think that almost everyone agrees about almost everything, and that most religious and political arguments stem from poor articulation of opinions, rhetorical fallacy, lack of humility (accompanied by an overblown sense of certainty).

Re: abortion.

This seems like a convincing argument, and although bringing in the historical reference to the Holocaust isn’t nonsense–a more productive thing for us to do would probably be to look at our agreed-upon condemnation of the Holocaust and work together in determining what aspects of the Holocaust are salient in leading us to such condemnation, then determine whether those salient aspects are present in the abortion discussion, and thus, whether we can reasonably use history as a guidepost for our present action–as it stands, and as it’s used in most of these discussions, it mostly blurs the issue.

Regardless of where morality originates from, don’t we have a moral obligation to err on the side of caution? I would say that, in a partial equilibrium world, which is to say, all other things equal, yes, we should err on the side of caution.

All this says is that life has value. I agree with that–I think anyone who would argue that life has no value, be it the life of a fetus or a child or a grandparent, has no leg to stand on. Of course all life is worthwhile; every living thing, human or not, is a thing of such magnificent and awfully beautiful complexity that its destruction is a crime against nature, a crime against God, a transgression for which one can never truly atone. Even the life of a sworn enemy is a thing irreplaceable and inimitable, and I agree with Lao Tsu when he said

When many people are being killed,
They should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.
That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.

The hardest part about this discussion, for me, is the continual insistence of those who disagree with me that I must, as revealed by my stance in favor of choice, hold life to be worthless, as must all those who support a right to choose to abort a fetus.

In truth, I think the life of a fetus is valuable, and that we, as a society, have an interest in protecting all life. I think, however, that the value of life on earth has as much value as life in the womb, and I also think that abridgment of rights for any reduces the value of life for all. I think this is essentially different from the Holocaust or American slavery, because neither I nor any seious advocate of choice would promote widespread and institutionally forced abortion. I have never, in fact, heard anyone other than the most vile and racist among us advocate abortion as a good. The costs of abortion are the loss of a life of a child and a life of grief and perhaps regret for the mother.

The debate here, though, is not a debate over whether an abortion is a good idea; it is a debate about whether maintaining the right to make that choice is a good idea. I am not averse to the idea of pre-abortion counseling, although the arguments against it hold water to me–coercion and unsound advice, not to mention outright falsehood, are not new to sexual health discussions (see also the Catholic Church’s widespread presentation of misleading information regarding condom use in developing countries). I am not averse to the idea of adoption strategies. I think subsidizing people who have a child and put it up for adoption in lieu of abortion is likely to provide a perverse incentive to get pregnant (just heard about this this past week). To sum up, I am skeptical about people’s ability to fairly counsel those who are considering an abortion, but done well, I think it’s a good idea–women should know about the choice that they face.

I think, however, that while I am not sure of the certain value of a fetal life relative to a human life, I am quite sure about the certain value of the right to one’s own sovereign being, including one’s mind and one’s body. We could stop crime in one feel swoop by imprisoning everybody. If we have the power to do that, don’t we have a moral obligation to do so? Of course we don’t. I’m not certain that the argument I advance is quite as cut-and-dried as that, but I am sure of this: abortion is not a costless thing. Outlawing abortion is neither without cost. And while if we could end abortion in the world, it would be a good, the ends do not, after all, justify the means. It saddens me that there seems to be no better way to do it, but when people are free, sometimes bad things happen. And when we can’t be sure what the terms are of the decision they face, we can’t tell them what they have to choose.

I don’t expect this to convince you–and I admire and respect your position. I would like you to come away knowing that many of us who are pro-choice are also pro-life. I am also pro-rights. The two come in conflict. I assume you are also pro-life and pro-rights, and simply disagree with me about which moral obligation wins out. I think there are ways to reduce abortion, maybe even eliminate it, without making it illegal: family planning education, readily available contraception, labor force opportunities. In the meantime, if we cannot come to agreement on whether to outlaw it or not, I wish the debate would move to a more productive arena: how to reduce it.

I like to think that’s coherent.

8. demolition65 - March 24, 2007

Your discussion re: “the feeling of God” in the end, if I read you correctly, leaves you with a less-than-compelling argument; as it does for most people. And you would be correct. People who rely strictly upon feelings to buttress their faith are in for either cruel disappointments or long periods of “holding out” with brute determination. And these periods do not hold up well even to to primitive reason. Feeling by itself is not a solid foundation for faith.

Re: Flag burning. Ah. I see now. I would not disagree. The whole discussion has struck me for years as much ado about nothing. . .or at least very little. . .from both sides.

I hesitate where to begin with your extended exigesis on the abortion issues: Allow me to wander from point to point.
yes, we should err on the side of caution followed by;
I am quite sure about the certain value of the right to one’s own sovereign being, including one’s mind and one’s body.

save for a moment the issue of whether or not we really have this sovereign right. Assume you are correct. Where does this sovereignty stop? I cannot -for evident reasons- place my own sovereignty over say, an IRS agent who has audited me and caused me considerable grief. I may not murder this agent despite the fact he is causing me enormous discomfort, distress and loss of livelihood. We would all agree, due to the fact that the agent’s own sovreignty may not be trumped by mine.

Yet when it comes to the fetus, you agree that we should err on the side of caution. Given that, and my crippled analogy regarding the IRS agent, it would seem that we need to extend the same courtesy of sovereignty to the fetus as we do to the agent.

This strikes me as a logical conundrum. The agent WILL be spared, but the baby may not be.

I see how an argument may be made that the agent is not placing a 9-month lien on my body, using it to some extent as he sees fit; and therefore the sovreignty argument becomes muddled.

But an agent may audit out of whim. Pregnancy comes about most often from a behavior choice -said choice allowing intercourse to take place. (I know, I know. Rape and incest. We’ll save that one for later. most abortions are not due to these actions, I believe). That tips the scale balance in terms of relative responsibility back in favor of the fetus, does it not? See Mamacita’s post here (https://demolition65.wordpress.com/2007/03/24/mamacita-on-why-she-now-opposes-abortion/)
for a further reflection on this issue.

Going on:
see also the Catholic Church’s widespread presentation of misleading information regarding condom use in developing countries). I am not familiar with these data. I am familiar with data from the NAS on the success of abstinence in Uganda, while condom distribution programs in other East African countries are doing nothing to slow the rapid-fire spread of AIDS. I know this is a minor detail.

As for this: I don’t expect this to convince you–and I admire and respect your position. I would like you to come away knowing that many of us who are pro-choice are also pro-life. I am also pro-rights. The two come in conflict. I assume you are also pro-life and pro-rights, and simply disagree with me about which moral obligation wins out. I think there are ways to reduce abortion, maybe even eliminate it, without making it illegal: family planning education, readily available contraception, labor force opportunities. In the meantime, if we cannot come to agreement on whether to outlaw it or not, I wish the debate would move to a more productive arena: how to reduce it.

I agree with all you say in this paragraph, save for the part about -in essence- “agreeing to disagree.” For the purposes of civility, as well as continuing what I feel to be a constructive dialog, I can agree with the idea in practice only. You show a breathtaking and from my experience very rare and contradictory approach to this debate.

You’re civil and open.

In principle, an “agree to disagree” arrangement is in some ways incoherent. You state, and I agree with you, that you won’t let that get in the way of debate. Wonderful. So long as you -and I- remain intellectually open to the possibility that the other side might be correct..


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