Baggini on Atheism

Via P.Z. Myers I came across this article by Julian Baggini. Baggini is the editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.

The essay is rather weird. It begins with the standard brain-dead boiler-plate about how Dawkins et al are just too darn mean in their attacks against religion:

When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it. I don’t think many of my fellow atheists would disagree. Why is it, then, that we are increasingly seen as shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual? The answer, I fear, is to be found in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In short, we had it coming.

Last week, in these pages, Madeleine Bunting spoke for many when she complained about the “foghorn volume” and “evangelical fervour” of the New Atheists, with their “contempt for religion”. The piece touched a nerve, producing an enormous volume of responses, including nearly 1,500 on Comment is free.

Atheists who criticised the details of Bunting’s argument missed the point. What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

Baggini, like all people who make this argument, provides no evidence that atheists are viewed more negatively as the result of the work of Dawkins and the others than they were before these books were published.

In the United States atheists have long been viewed so negatively that it is close to a mathematical impossiblity for a handful of books to make things worse. Changing that attitude is a long-term project that begins with mainstreaming atheism as a legitimate viewpoint. Accomplishing that goal requires a bit of screaming and yelling. The surprising success of the New Atheist books revealed that there is a far larger audience for these views than anyone previously believed. It started a conversation about atheism that is still going on today. We need a hundred more just like Dawkins, not a retreat into the polite silence that got us into our current predicament.

Granted, the cultural situation in England, where Baggini is located, is far different than in the United States. Still, one essayist for the Guardian claiming people don’t like the New Atheists is hardly evidence of a wide-scale backlash.

But just when I was ready to dismiss Baggini as a hack, his essay suddenly turned intelligent:

Bunting mentioned several such people: Karen Armstrong, Giles Fraser and Mark Vernon all appear reasonable, offering uncertainty in contrast to the conviction of the atheists. They flatter the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice. Only silly atheists and daft fundamentalists treat religious creeds as though they were factual descriptions of the real world, they say.

The idea that it is a modern distortion to think of religious beliefs as being factually true is manifest nonsense. If people thought their tenets of faith were metaphors, why did they torture or kill people who disagreed with them? Did doctrinal differences about Christ’s divinity have no role in Rome’s split from the Orthodox church? If literal truth is not what matters, why is it so hard to find a practising Muslim who’s prepared to say that the Angel Gabriel didn’t really dictate the Qur’an to the prophet?

Liberal believers and agnostics get away with this nonsense because religious belief is much more than a matter of doctrine, and practice can be as important, or more so. So while the atheists destroy simplistic, traditional creeds and dance on the ruins, much of the rest of the religious edifice remains intact. The fluffy brigade are then free to plant their flag on it unchallenged.

Atheists need to challenge these liberal theologians, so that they admit their vision of doctrine-lite faith is not a description of how true religion always was, but a manifesto for how it should be. If they do that and succeed, then good luck to them. I don’t care if people want to retain a sense of being religious, as long as what they believe stands up to intellectual scrutiny. Atheism needs critical friends as well as true non-believers, so that it is subjected to such scrutiny itself.

Now I’m confused. Those few paragraphs are every bit as hardcore and militant as anything the New Atheists are writing. Referring to religious moderates as wooly-minded and vague, and emphasizing the importance of challenging liberal theologians just as surely as more conservative ones, do not indicate a desire for peaceful reconciliation between atheism and religion.

Baggini finishes with:

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away. If we don’t, we will only have ourselves to blame if the vague platitudes of Bunting and Armstrong win the war for hearts and minds.

But if even the vague platitudes of Bunting and Armstrong do not represent anything of value in religion, then what does? The crude superstitions are no good. Apparently the vague feeling of something transcendant is no good either. What is left?

Personally, I would consider it a great advance if this coumtry would choose vague platitutdes over the rigid dogmatism it currently favors. As for Baggini, I don’t know what his point is. He criticizes the New Atheists for attacking religion generally, but then repeats some of their most incendiary charges. He encourages us to have a conversation about what is of value in religion, but then derides even liberal theology as vague and wooly-minded. It’s all very strange.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    April 16, 2009

    Strange indeed. I’m tempted by the suspicion that Baggini’s piece is a ham-handed attempt at being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. Another version of “Hur hur, watch me critique both sides! I’m awesome!” It does little more than annoy, but I suspect that that’s the point.

  2. #2 dogscratcher
    April 16, 2009

    Tyler : “I’m tempted by the suspicion that Baggini’s piece is a ham-handed attempt at being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. Another version of “Hur hur, watch me critique both sides!”

    A Philosopher splitting hairs? Unprecedented! If it weren’t for crap like that, philosophers would be out of business: it seems like no one notices they really haven’t done much new since the Greeks (other than hair splitting).

  3. #3 jshuey
    April 16, 2009

    Ah yes, the old keep your head down and go along to get along ploy. And how has that worked out for you?

    That is exactly the strategy that earned us the Terri Schiavo panderthon, continuing attacks on the teaching of real science in schools, religious plaques on courtroom walls, huge sums of taxpayer money funneled to religious groups through the “faith-based initiative”, and a President of the United States flatly stating that atheists couldn’t be patriotic Americans because this is “one nation under god”, to mention just a very few of many notorious examples.

    The only ways to achieve full equality with the religious is to push back hard every time they attempt to encroach where they do not belong, and to never miss an opportunity to point out how totally ridiculous many of the things they believe really are. Let them be on the defensive for awhile.

  4. #4 Explicit Atheist
    April 16, 2009

    If not losing a popularity contest is the correct goal then the correct method for atheists is to pretend to be theists. Once we abandon that goal because it requires us to engage in, at a minimum, a politically unpalatable unilateral and unbalanced self-censorship, it then becomes difficult to make unpopularity of our honest views about religious beliefs into the problem without being self-inconsistent. Popularity is nice, but however nice it is, popularity is not a good ethical guide, sort of like good tasting food is nice but it isn’t a good health guide. So we have to choose, is the priority popularity or ethical integrity? We can’t have both. Those who insist on having both are likely going to be both confused and confusing.

  5. #5 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 16, 2009

    Massimo Pagliucci confuses me as much as does Baggini for the same reasons; he critically attacks the same issues that Dawkins does and yet criticizes Dawkins.

    Perhaps it is a matter of philosophers not wanting biologists to be able to horn in on their territory.

  6. #6 Sam C
    April 17, 2009

    Writers at The Guardian have a long history of failing to appreciate that the US and the UK are separate and different countries with separate and different cultures. They often write articles as though trends in the US are also trends in the UK. They mistake what they see from lazy trawling of American blogs and opinion pieces for what is happening on the eastern edge of the pond.

    The religious-political scene in the UK is very, very different from the US. In the US, people fret about your president being Christian enough, in the UK, people fretted about (former Prime Minister) Tony Blair being too Christian when in office and his aide had to deny it (“we don’t do religion” he said)! We have a state church, but it has very little influence – even when its spiritual leaders told Tony Blair that joining in the conquest of Iraq was immoral, he ignored them (perhaps not a fair example, because that psychotic loony has a hot line to God himself, clearly the Archbishop of Canterbury gets only second class service).

    When I was at school decades ago, the only mandated part of the curriculum was to have some RE (religious education) each week, and most schools had daily assemblies with a light religious theme. This would sound horrible to most atheist Americans enthusiastically (and rightly) guarding the separation of church and state, but it was never regarded as much of an issue in the UK, just a waste of time. Because this religious exposure translated into irritation amongst its recipients rather than power over them.

    The editor of The Guardian seems to set a very low standard for opinion pieces on these issues, witness both this incoherent drivel from Baggini and similar incoherent drivel from Madeleine Bunting a few weeks ago. These “thinkers”… don’t!

    We have recently had a spate of church leaders grumbling about people enjoying themselves over Easter, and of the national television service providing little extra religious programming on their most holy festival. Luckily, they seem to have been largely ignored, and Easter is celebrated each year as the start of spring and time to visit the DIY store to buy paint, brushes, hammers, nails,… and eat too much chocolate.

    So the evidence seems to be that in the UK, we don’t really do religion, but we don’t really do atheism either. Result!

  7. #7 snafu
    April 17, 2009

    Yep, Baggini is a strange one. He’s engaged in these confusing about-turns before.

    For example, in February/March, he authored a quite brilliant series of posts on Hume and Humean arguments in general (recommended reading if you dig around the Guardian website). However, just about the first thing he said in post #1 was “critiques of religion not only cannot, but should not, attempt to deliver any fatal blows”

    (Regarding this sentence, the first claim is highly debatable, the second is just bizarre).

    In the whole series of posts, he *never* attempted to justify such an over-conciliatory statement. Stephen Law took him to account (Stephen’s blog is also highly recommended. Google it and browse the archives for Baggini on Hume).

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2009

    “Now I’m confused. Those few paragraphs are every bit as hardcore and militant as anything the New Atheists are writing.”

    I think the reason that you are confused is that Baggini isn’t complaining about the “New Atheists” being vocal, or even of being blunt. He’s complaining about them coming off as “fanatics” or “zealots,” which not only implies loudness but intellectual laziness. You know, the kind that lead to really stupid Nazi analogies?

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 17, 2009

    J.J. Ramsey –

    So an overly casual invocation of Neville Chamberlain is the difference between atheists being viewed as calm, important social commentators versus being viewed as fanatics and zealots? You can bash religion all you want, suggest that even liberal theology is vague and wooly-minded and something in need of attack, and the legions of the religious will be impressed by your desire for a serious conversation. But if in the course of a 400 page book you can find a few instances of excessive rhetoric, then you have hurt the cause and have offended moderates.

    Glad we cleared that up.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2009

    “You can bash religion all you want … and the legions of the religious will be impressed by your desire for a serious conversation.”

    I’m not talking about the “legions of the religious.” I’m talking about where Baggini finds fault with the New Atheists. He thinks that they are sloppy.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 17, 2009

    Baggini didn’t say anything about them being sloppy. He pointed to instances of strong rhetoric and used that as the sole basis for an argument that people think less of atheists because of these books.

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2009

    “Baggini didn’t say anything about them being sloppy.”

    Fanatics and zealots–words which Baggini did use–let their partisanship corrupt their reason and are intellectually sloppy for that very reason. He also indicates sloppiness when he claims that the New Atheists’ tactics have made an opening for the “fluffy brigade,” which is, well, sloppy.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 17, 2009

    But Baggini didn’t say the New Atheists were fanatics and zealots. He said they are perceived that way, and that the reason they are perceived that way is because of their rhetoric. That was the only reason he gave. In his final paragraph he doesn’t say that atheists need to sharpen their arguments. He says only that we need to turn down the volume. This is a bit rich coming after several paragraphs of very strongly-worded anti-religious rhetoric.

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    April 17, 2009

    “But Baggini didn’t say the New Atheists were fanatics and zealots. He said they are perceived that way, and that the reason they are perceived that way is because of their rhetoric.”

    And there is more to their rhetoric than simply being vocal. He’s actually more explicit about the things that the New Atheists get wrong in another article to which PZ linked. But even here, you can’t simply say that Baggini is complaining about them being blunt.

    And it’s not as if saying that theology’s been stagnant since 200 C.E. or making screwy Nazi comparisons is merely being vocal. That’s the sort of thing that conveys that Dawkins really isn’t trying very hard to make sure that what he says is accurate, as if he has so much contempt for religion that he can’t quite think straight about it.

    “He says only that we need to turn down the volume. This is a bit rich coming after several paragraphs of very strongly-worded anti-religious rhetoric.”

    Only if you confuse loudness, especially the sort of loudness that characterizes a shouting match, with bluntness. That he follows the bit about turning down the volume with “engage in a real conversation” implies that the volume was inhibiting debate and being noise, again, like a shouting match.

  15. #15 G Felis
    April 18, 2009

    Jason is right: Baggini talks about how atheists are perceived, but never gives an account of the *reasons* they are perceived that way, and by whom. So let me do a bit of a run-down…

    The first group of people who take exception to various atheists’ rhetoric are conservative theists who also take exception atheists’ very existence. I don’t give a flying frak what that group thinks, and I can’t imagine why any atheist should.

    The second group seem to be made up of liberal theist types who don’t take exception to atheists’ existence, as long as we are hyper-polite and don’t actually criticize faith as a basis for believing stuff. We can go after the beliefs of biblical literalists and creationists and what-not all we want, as long as we stay away from criticizing the sort of woolly beliefs liberal theists approve believing, and the basis for believing them. Julian Baggini seems to care what these people think, even though he thoroughly criticizes them for their woolliness and is more than happy to criticize faith and faith beliefs himself. I think this is because he wants to make a distinction between faith beliefs and religious practices (community, rituals, rites of passage, etc.); he wants to be free to criticize the former while lauding the latter, and he apparently thinks we can get the liberal theists to go along with this if we are sufficiently polite and deferential. I have serious doubts about the plausibility of this agenda, and I utterly reject the notion that this should be the agenda of every atheist public voice. So I don’t give a flying frak what this group thinks either, nor do I in any way respect Baggini’s insistence that all public atheists should kowtow to them. Frankly, I think it’s intellectually dishonest and probably self-defeating. The liberal theists are never going to give up faith because that must ultimately mean giving up God entirely – there’s no basis other than faith on which God belief can be preserved – at which point they would no longer be theists. We can’t expect to turn Maddy Bunting into John Shelby Spong! (For one, she’s really quite stupid…)

    The third group of people who take exception to various atheists’ rhetoric are people who have never actually read said rhetoric, but have heard all the accusations of how horribly heated and insulting and dismissive and [insert other bad adjectives here] from other people and are inclined to be conciliatory themselves, therefore decide that where there’s smoke, there must be fire. Julian Baggini, for example, has admitted that he has not read Dawkins or Hitchens or Dennett or Harris – yet he’s still convinced they are too shrill and forceful and [more bad adjectives], apparently based on no more than their book titles and the things people in the other two groups say about them. I DEFINITELY don’t give a flying frak about such people’s ill-informed opinions. They are just asinine.

    The group of people whose opinion I *do* care about are the sort of people who came up to Richard Dawkins throughout the U.S. on his God Delusion book tour. Many of them had tears in their eyes as they thanked him for making them feel less alone, for saying the sorts of things they always thought but felt couldn’t be said. Those people have voices that have been silent far too long, and they are finally starting to be heard. The only thing I have to say to anyone who wants to shush them is… unprintable.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    April 18, 2009

    G. Felis, there is a fourth group of people, those who think that while the “New Atheists” are great at pithy phrases and whipping up crowds, they are terrible at promoting rationality.

    G. Felis: “Many of them had tears in their eyes as they thanked him for making them feel less alone”

    Argument from emotion. Furthermore, it dodges the underlying problem. The faults in the New Atheists are purely unnecessary. One can be blunt and accurate. If Dawkins had say, written a book called The God Mistake that was well-researched, had bullet-resistant arguments, and lacked the insinuations that the religious are stupid or nuts, it would have made the same splash and gotten the right people angry at him, but it wouldn’t have gotten heat from people like Baggini. And it’s not like Dawkins couldn’t have done that. He’s smart and (from what I’ve heard) has a knack for making complex subjects clear for the layperson without oversimplifying.

    There’s absolutely no need to misquote John Adams, or to make historical howlers on the evolution of theology, or to play games with the word “delusion.” There’s no need for RichardDawkins.net to promote woo-woo from Tom Harper. There’s no need to make bold claims on iffy evidence that moderates enable extremists.

  17. #17 Tyler DiPietro
    April 18, 2009

    “And it’s not as if saying that theology’s been stagnant since 200 C.E. or making screwy Nazi comparisons is merely being vocal.”

    1. I’d be curious as to what, in your mind, counts as an “advance” in theology.

    2. “Nazi comparisons” are presumably comparisons to Nazis, while Dawkins invoked the appeasement-stained reputation of Neville Chamberlain. Whatever criticisms you may have of the latter, equating them is very misleading and “screwy” on your part.

  18. #18 G Felis
    April 18, 2009

    @ J.J. Ramsey

    I was not making an argument from emotion, I was pointing out that emotion – passion, in fact – are a part of this debate. It is political, it is personal, it is REAL FUCKING LIFE! Your insistence that all instances of atheist communication must always be hypersensitive and polite and never ever at all passionate or polemical is just that – your insistence. And your insistence is very dogmatic and rigid at that, hammering the same handful of rhetorical excesses again and again as if they embodied the character of the entirety of the “new” atheist public communications. They do not.

    You say “One can be blunt and accurate,” but in fact you (and Julian Baggini, whom you are defending here) very much appear not to want anyone to be blunt and accurate. Being blunt means not being polite or conciliatory, and the people who get upset at the new atheists will settle for no less than ultra-polite, ever-conciliatory criticism – if that. You appear to want the people being criticized to set the standard for what tone the criticism should take: Julian definitely does take his standards for tone from those being criticized, since he’s never even read the books and evaluated the tone for himself. And being accurate about the excesses of religious belief often requires or inspires anger – which is one of those bad emotion things you (and Baggini) seem to think we should never acknowledge or express. Frankly, you are both simply wrong about the role of emotion in communication about human lives and beliefs.

  19. #19 G Felis
    April 18, 2009

    Oh, and J.J.? If you want me to respect or care about the opinion of this fourth group of people you cite – “those who think that while the ‘New Atheists’ are great at pithy phrases and whipping up crowds, they are terrible at promoting rationality” – it might help if those people could back up their claims with some well-reasoned arguments based on actual evidence. You have not done so here. Baggini doesn’t in his recent essays. Matthew Nisbett certainly doesn’t, ever. So why should anyone give a crap what y’all think?

  20. #20 Mark Fournier
    April 18, 2009

    All the talk about the shrillness of the New Atheists ignores the screeching cacophony that religious fundamentalists and politically motivated believers have subjected us to for three decades now. As a believer in the 80′s and 90′s I was constantly affronted and embarrassed by the most grotesque and facile theology imaginable, which blasted from every media outlet and left me saddled with the stupidity of the likes of the Moral Majority whenever I tried to raise the topic of my faith. It is largely due to the efforts of people like Falwell, Robertson, Swaggert, Hinn, Popoff, the Bakers, and the radical Imams that I am now an atheist. Dawkins and company are addressing this nonsense, and if their opponents are so offended by poor theology, why did they never speak a word against the same theology when it was spouted, at ear splitting volume, by believers? What they owe to Dawkins and the others is praise and thanks, for speaking out against what can only be described as the most vulgar self-serving tripe ever produced by religion. If defenders of religion don’t like crude theology, maybe they should get off their asses and clean their own houses. But, of course, they can’t, because theology isn’t a form of knowledge at all–it’s a type of speculative fiction with political ambitions. Its only standard of truth is popularity.

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    April 18, 2009

    Tyler DiPietro: “I’d be curious as to what, in your mind, counts as an ‘advance’ in theology.”

    I didn’t mention advancing, and neither did Dawkins. Instead he talked vaguely about theology not having “moved on” in eighteen centuries, and he’s been caught at it. As Chris Heard put it on his post “The God Delusion, chapter 2, sections 1-3″ at the Higgaion blog:

    However, there are several statements in chapter 2 that lead me to think that, when it comes to Christian theology, Dawkins either doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, or doesn’t care to be accurate. For example, even though Dawkins is aware of feminist theology, he snipes that “theology … unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship, has not got on in eighteen centuries” (1:20:50). By invoking feminist theology, Dawkins implies that he knows that there have been developments in theology during the past eighteen centuries. Yet he conveniently forgets this when it come times to make a swipe at Christianity.

    This is an unnecessary dumb mistake on Dawkins’ part, and it could have been avoided if he had done due diligence.

    Tyler DiPietro: “‘Nazi comparisons’ are presumably comparisons to Nazis, while Dawkins invoked the appeasement-stained reputation of Neville Chamberlain.”

    … whose reputation is stained on account of how he dealt with the Nazis. Orac explained a long time ago why your attempt to argue that Dawkins wasn’t Godwinning doesn’t work.

    G Felis:

    If you want me to respect or care about the opinion of this fourth group of people you cite – “those who think that while the ‘New Atheists’ are great at pithy phrases and whipping up crowds, they are terrible at promoting rationality” – it might help if those people could back up their claims with some well-reasoned arguments based on actual evidence.

    I already pointed out above places where the New Atheists screw up at promoting rationality. Misquoting John Adams, etc., are things either done by Dawkins, Sam Harris, or both.

    G Felis: “Your insistence that all instances of atheist communication must always be hypersensitive and polite …”

    … is non-existent. Otherwise I’d be denouncing Hemant Mehta and Greta Christina every time they were blunt about religion. Indeed, both blogs are pretty much an example of how to do criticism of religion correctly. Both are straightforward about the faults of religion, but avoid cutesy attempts to insinuate that the religious are crazy or stupid. One can also see that balance being struck by Simon Blackburn in his article on “Religion and Respect.”

    Actually, your claims about my supposed “insistence” are reminiscent of an exchange between Scott Atran and Sam Harris, which you can find on YouTube. Atran berates his fellows for not acting like scientists and instead relying on their own intution about religion instead of working from data, and Harris responds with a non sequitur about Atran supposedly being offended by the lack of respect for religion, even though Atran hadn’t brought up the issue of respect at all. You’re doing what Harris did, trying to make the issue about politeness rather than about trying to get things right.

    Mark Fournier:

    All the talk about the shrillness of the New Atheists ignores the screeching cacophony that religious fundamentalists and politically motivated believers have subjected us to for three decades now.

    Quite the contrary. The fact that I do see that screaming cacophony from religious ideologues–and really, from ideologues in general–makes me wary when I see a similar cacophony from others.

  22. #22 Tyler DiPietro
    April 18, 2009

    “I didn’t mention advancing, and neither did Dawkins.”

    I have neither the time nor inclination to thumb through the entire chapter to find the claim myself so I can see the context. Mind providing it?

    “…whose reputation is stained on account of how he dealt with the Nazis. Orac explained a long time ago why your attempt to argue that Dawkins wasn’t Godwinning doesn’t work.”

    I didn’t try to exonerate Dawkins from the amateur internet accusation that he had “Godwinned”, you specifically said he had made “Nazi comparisons.” Last I checked my history references, Neville Chamberlain was not a Nazi. You, indeed, made quite a “screwy” claim and you should retract it.

  23. #23 J. J. Ramsey
    April 18, 2009

    Tyler DiPietro: “I have neither the time nor inclination to thumb through the entire chapter to find the claim myself so I can see the context. Mind providing it?”

    TGD, p. 34, in the section “Polytheism” of Chapter 2.

    Tyler DiPietro: “you specifically said he had made ‘Nazi comparisons.’ Last I checked my history references, Neville Chamberlain was not a Nazi.”

    Wow. Just … wow. Like I said, Orac laid it out pretty clearly:

    Whom are these “Neville Chamberlain” evolutionists ‘appeasing,’ in Moran’s view? Theistic evolutionists and creationists, of course! Religionists! Therefore, whether he realizes he’s doing it or not, Moran is implicitly likening ‘intelligent design’ creationists and theistic evolutionists to Hitler …

    Just to be pedantically clear, “likening” is a kind of comparison. I suppose that I could press the point further, but really … wow, just … wow.

  24. #24 Tyler DiPietro
    April 18, 2009

    “TGD, p. 34, in the section “Polytheism” of Chapter 2.”

    …and it appears that in context, Dawkins is talking about the cognitive content of theology, not whatever politically correct inclinations it has as far as tolerance of women and minorities goes. In context, he is perfectly right.

    “Just to be pedantically clear, “likening” is a kind of comparison. I suppose that I could press the point further, but really … wow, just … wow.”

    Wow…just…wow. It’s totally an argument just to go wow…just…wow…wowwy wowzy wow. I win!

    Just for me to be pedantically clear, Dawkins invoked Neville Chamberlain. Saying that he’s invoking anyone else when he hasn’t is putting words in his mouth, which you seem to be fond of doing.

  25. #25 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2009

    Tyler DiPietro: “and it appears that in context, Dawkins is talking about the cognitive content of theology”

    Dawkins wasn’t that specific. He just said that theology hadn’t “moved on” in eighteen centuries. Heck, why he even added the “eighteen centuries” bit isn’t clear. Actually, neither is your bit about “cognitive content.” How is that any different from just saying “content” or “ideas”? If by “cognitive,” you are referring to what people think, well, feminist theology has something to say about what people should think about God. Whether it is something good to say is another story, but trying to talk about “cognitive” content doesn’t really help you.

    Tyler DiPietro: “Just for me to be pedantically clear, Dawkins invoked Neville Chamberlain. Saying that he’s invoking anyone else …”

    … is acknowledging that bringing up Neville Chamberlain means bringing up at least the folk history about him.

    In an effort to keep SIWOTI syndrome in check, I’ll try not to say much more about this, since we’re probably going to just repeat ourselves.

  26. #26 DaisyDeadhead
    April 19, 2009

    We need a hundred more just like Dawkins, not a retreat into the polite silence that got us into our current predicament.

    (sigh)

    If you want more insulting atheists like Dawkins, this conversation is not one you want to have with religious people, but only amongst yourselves. And that’s fine, but keep in mind, that is an echo chamber, not a way to increase understanding and respect between atheists and believers.

    Now, if continuing the standoff is your goal, surely, more Dawkins. If not, then….no.

  27. #27 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2009

    DaisyDeadhead: “that is an echo chamber, not a way to increase understanding and respect between atheists and believers.”

    I took a look at your blog. I noticed some of your posts pertaining to atheism, including one Liddy Dole’s attempt to take advantage of bigotry against atheists in the South, where you wrote, “Stigmatizing atheists as Bogeyman incarnate is prejudice.” I think we have some common ground here.

    That said, be careful about what you mean by “understanding and respect.” If you mean that atheists should understanding what believers actually believe and respect believers as people even if we don’t respect the beliefs, that’s all well and good. If you mean a sort of detente between atheists and believers, well, a lot of us see that as a fallback goal at best, and inferior to the prospect of people ridding themselves of the false beliefs found in religion and rolling back the damage due to those false beliefs. Those false beliefs do impact people’s ability to be rational to some extent, simply by the GIGO principle, though the extent ranges from minimal to catastrophic depending on the beliefs. And yes, we do want people to be more rational.

    I’m not sure that we’re on the same page about Dawkins. For me, the fundamental problem I have with Dawkins is that I think he lets irrationality taint his fight for rationality. If your problem with Dawkins is that Dawkins is disparaging to religion altogether, well, that’s another story.

    BTW, you might be interested in this blog: http://friendlyatheist.com/

  28. #28 Tyler DiPietro
    April 19, 2009

    “Dawkins wasn’t that specific. He just said that theology hadn’t “moved on” in eighteen centuries.”

    And given the subject matter he was talking about, the statement makes much more sense. He used a statement by St. Gregory the Miracle Worker as an example of the “characteristically obscuritanist flavour of theology”. Seems like a pretty clear statement to me.

    “Actually, neither is your bit about “cognitive content.” How is that any different from just saying “content” or “ideas”?”

    It means the content one uses to establish the intellectual validity of its subject matter. In that case, theology hasn’t “moved on” at all, only become more politically correct. Which isn’t really a bad thing, it’s just that theology is equally empty and vapid whether it accepts women and minorities or not.

  29. #29 sevisme
    April 19, 2009

    thankdd

  30. #30 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2009

    “It means the content one uses to establish the intellectual validity of its subject matter. In that case, theology hasn’t ‘moved on’ at all”

    If that’s what you mean by cognitive content, then Dawkins’ “eighteen centuries” bit makes no sense, since it’s not as if Dawkins thinks theology had any more intellectual validity before circa 200 C.E. than after. More to the point, you are still imposing a precision on Dawkins that isn’t in what he wrote.

    BTW, another telling thing is that he used a quote with a straightforward point, namely that the Trinity had been around forever and that none of its members had created any of the others, and used that as an example of obscurantism. Huh? You’d think that it would make more sense to cite a quote that was word salad. It’s like Dawkins just didn’t care.

  31. #31 DuWayne
    April 19, 2009

    DD -

    And that’s fine, but keep in mind, that is an echo chamber, not a way to increase understanding and respect between atheists and believers.

    Personally, my goal is not to increase understanding and respect between atheists and believers, it’s to help people who are suffering from the same problems that I did for most of my life, find a way out. Doing so will require that I say things that offend Christians – not because I am rude or militant, but because I am extremely critical of Christianity and theism. And because I refuse to sit back and listen to people who want to try to hammer their faith in my face, without responding – sometimes in a rather nasty fashion.

    And Daisy, I am an ex-Christian. Part of the reason I am an ex-Christian, is because of Dawkins and Dennett and the conversations surrounding their writings (like this one, some of which happened on this very blog). So telling me that using the language that these guys use isn’t going to foster productive discourse between atheists and theists, isn’t going to get you very far.

    J.J. Ramsey -

    Interesting to be on the other side of this argument, when I spent so very much time on your side of it…

    Dawkins wasn’t that specific. He just said that theology hadn’t “moved on” in eighteen centuries.

    On a fundamental level it hasn’t. This is not to say that the surface dogma of mainstream Christianity hasn’t changed, but the bottom line of mainstream Christianity has always been that the bible is absolute truth. The rest is just word games.

    BTW, another telling thing is that he used a quote with a straightforward point, namely that the Trinity had been around forever and that none of its members had created any of the others, and used that as an example of obscurantism.

    But obfuscation is exactly what that statement is, when you put it into the context of the bible and Gregory’s apologetics. It doesn’t clarify anything, rather it pretends that the bible means something that cannot be found within the bible – stated clearly or implied. St. Gregory was basically talking out of his ass, to answer a fairly theologically critical question about the nature of the Christian god.

    And on that level, theology most certainly hasn’t moved forward in eighteen centuries. When you ask questions today, about things that aren’t implicated or stated clearly in the bible, theology still responds by talking out of it’s collective ass. And liberal theologians who are trying to reconcile notions such as evolution or accepting homosexuality, you find ass talking that flat contradicts the bible – often enough coming from people who still believe the bible is the word of their god.

  32. #32 Tyler DiPietro
    April 19, 2009

    “If that’s what you mean by cognitive content, then Dawkins’ “eighteen centuries” bit makes no sense, since it’s not as if Dawkins thinks theology had any more intellectual validity before circa 200 C.E. than after.”

    “Moved on in eighteen centuries” can be inclusive of other centuries. You’re just splitting hairs now.

    “BTW, another telling thing is that he used a quote with a straightforward point, namely that the Trinity had been around forever and that none of its members had created any of the others, and used that as an example of obscurantism. Huh?”

    And in the broader of the nonsensical doctrine of the Trinity, that statement is indeed meaningless gibberish. Your statement would make perfect sense if we were talking about an association with three individual members, it doesn’t make any sense with talking about some vague notion of something being both three and one at the same time.

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    April 19, 2009

    DuWayne: “the bottom line of mainstream Christianity has always been that the bible is absolute truth. The rest is just word games.”

    How very Protestant of you to say that. Not that you are a Protestant now, but what you just said reflects a Protestant outlook. What you said makes no historical sense, since for the first few decades of Christianity, the New Testament didn’t yet exist, and for the first few centuries of Christianity, what constituted the Bible was in flux.

    DuWayne: “But obfuscation is exactly what that statement is”

    If it’s obfuscation, then what’s it hiding? Generally, saying something is obscurantist means that something is written so as to make its meaning unclear, or to hide that it has no meaning at all. Dawkins’ quote from St. Gregory is repetitive, but clear in its meaning. Also, it barely touches on the three-in-one weirdness of the Trinity. “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” in the quote that Dawkins gave might as well be labels for three individuals (that we would regard as fictional, of course), so calling the quote gibberish as Tyler DiPietro does is a stretch. That’s not to say that St. Gregory really believed that those were just labels, only that Dawkins needed to quote something else from St. Gregory to show otherwise. If Dawkins didn’t think doing that was worth the effort, then he shouldn’t have bothered trying to use St. Gregory as an example.

    DuWayne: “It doesn’t clarify anything,”

    Sure it does. It makes clear that St. Gregory doesn’t believe that Jesus is a created being, contradicting what those who now would be called heretics might have believed.

  34. #34 Tyler DiPietro
    April 19, 2009

    Then St. Gregory’s statement was an elaboration on an already meaningless concept, big deal. Just because one statement would make sense in isolation (Jesus was not a created being) does not mean that the other statements, which he is clearly alluding to in his proposition, are meaningful when taken as a whole.

  35. #35 Gratian
    April 20, 2009

    As “it” is all a mystery and it makes good money for it’s professional practitioners couldn’t we all ,as gentlemen ,go back to the position Disraeli mentioned and whilst all sharing the same religion just never tell! Otherwise economic ruin stares a massive industry in the text?

  36. #36 DuWayne
    April 20, 2009

    J.J. -

    Not at all, though I was a protestant of sorts. I am well aware of the history of the Faith and the bible – I was rather sloppy in my language, not my meaning (lots of school work – brain frying). I was rather going with the implied eighteen centuries that make the context of the discussion. And for the record, what makes up the bible took more than a few centuries to determine…

    The bottom line is, that the bible has been central to Christianity, since there has been a bible. And even before there was a bible, the fundamentals of Christianity were spelled out on Paul’s letters, which were also central to Christianity at the time – though obviously not all of them were in any one place for some time.

    …or to hide that it has no meaning at all.

    This would be the key and what Gregory was doing. It is not that he wasn’t clear with his meaning, it’s that he was obscuring what the bible had to say on the subject – or more to the point, obscuring the fact that the bible doesn’t explain it at all.

    When I was a debater in high school, I was a master at obfuscation. I could very clearly make points that weren’t points at all, often doing it well enough that the other side was unable to respond – when the proper response of course, was to call bullshit. That I spoke clearly and eloquently only hid the fact that I had no idea what I was talking about and didn’t have any evidence.

    That is what the last eighteen centuries of theology has been about – I daresay that is what the last twenty have been about, because bullshit in Christianity certainly predates the bible.

    Sure it does. It makes clear that St. Gregory doesn’t believe that Jesus is a created being, contradicting what those who now would be called heretics might have believed.

    See above.

    And with that, I will apologize for bowing out (at least for the moment) because I have a hella lot of work to do…

  37. #37 J. J. Ramsey
    April 20, 2009

    Tyler DiPietro: “Just because one statement would make sense in isolation (Jesus was not a created being) does not mean that the other statements, which he is clearly alluding to in his proposition, are meaningful when taken as a whole.”

    But then why not cite the obscurantist statements themselves as evidence of obscurantism, rather than a quote that only alludes to them? Why bother with such weak evidence if clearer evidence is available?

    DuWayne: “It is not that he wasn’t clear with his meaning, it’s that he was obscuring what the bible had to say on the subject – or more to the point, obscuring the fact that the bible doesn’t explain it at all.”

    That is reading far too much into the quote from St. Gregory, which was simply silent on what the Bible did or did not say about the Trinity. And as I said before, you are being anachronistic. The idea that the Bible is the only authoritative source of revelation is a Protestant one and post-dates Gregory, who would probably have considered the Trinity part of Holy Tradition.

    What I see you and Tyler doing is somewhat reminiscent of what I see defenders of Biblical inerrancy do. For example, the plain readings of the genealogies in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, even when the differences between first-century and modern cultures are taken into account, contradict each other. Yet we have apologists reading in ideas that aren’t in those texts, e.g. levirate marriage, or that one of the genealogies is from Mary’s side of the family, in order to absolve the Bible from contradiction.

    Here, Dawkins says that theology hasn’t “moved on” in eighteen centuries, and the obvious reading of his words is that theology hasn’t changed in all that time, and you guys are reading in ideas in Dawkins’ text that just aren’t there. Dawkins uses an unobscure theological quote as an example of theological obscurantism, and I see both of you throwing up irrelevant objections: Gregory is referring to the illogical doctrine of the Trinity (as if illogic cannot be straightforwardly expressed?); Gregory is somehow hiding that the Trinity isn’t Biblical (when that’s a Protestant concern to which Gregory doesn’t even allude). It’s the same sort of wriggling that I see fundies do. Actually, it’s the same sort of wriggling that partisans in general do.

  38. #38 heddle
    April 20, 2009

    G Felis,

    The first group of people who take exception to various atheists’ rhetoric are conservative theists who also take exception atheists’ very existence. I don’t give a flying frak what that group thinks, and I can’t imagine why any atheist should.

    The situation is symmetric, not asymmetric. It’s true you don’t care what we think. But we also don’t care what you think. As a group, we don’t take exception, although I think it makes you happy to assume that we do. As a group we don’t think about you much, talk about you much, and certainly don’t worry about you. You are inflating your importance in our eyes.

  39. #39 DuWayne
    April 20, 2009

    J.J. -

    The idea that the Bible is the only authoritative source of revelation is a Protestant one and post-dates Gregory, who would probably have considered the Trinity part of Holy Tradition.

    Actually, that’s not exclusive of all protestant tradition – certainly not the way that I was raised. Nor is my point contingent on the bible being the only authoritative source of revelation. I was going to ask where you thought that I was saying that, but I just realized where I probably gave you that impression.

    The issue with revelation outside of the parameters of the bible, is that we don’t have anyone’s word for it, but the word of the person making the claims. Ultimately that is all the bible is as well, but while it is certainly not clear, the bible is definitive. The bible is authoritative and central to all of mainstream Christianity. Everything else is open to debate (not to say that interpretation of the bible itself isn’t) and none of it is universally accepted.

    If you ask ten theologians, from ten different Christian sects, the question that Gregory’s statement answers, you will likely get ten different explanations – though some might be quite similar. Had you asked another priest at the time Gregory made that statement, he would also have given a different answer – unless he was aware of Gregory’s statement and knew that it was now the dogma of the Faith. And even if he did, he might still decide that his take was a better one than Gregory’s – that his understanding is the valid one, because his god gave him the wisdom to understand it.

    (as if illogic cannot be straightforwardly expressed?)

    It’s not that he didn’t express himself in a straightforward manner – that’s simply not the point. Like I was trying to explain, obscuring a concept does not mean throwing out meaningless babble – the very best obfuscation results in the one listening or reading to be wowed by what you say, even though you say nothing and have no idea what you’re talking about. When I obfuscated as a debater, I made a lot of very straightforward statements that sounded authoritative – this is what theology is all about.

    The illogic is not the obfuscation, it’s just evidence that it was obfuscation. And this is not just a problem for theology outside the bible, the bible itself is rife with the same contradictory, illogical obscurities.

    Gregory is somehow hiding that the Trinity isn’t Biblical (when that’s a Protestant concern to which Gregory doesn’t even allude).

    Not at all what I was saying. I think that the bible is as clear about the existence of the trinity, as it is clear about anything else. And that is what makes Gregory’s statement obfuscation – his statement doesn’t make sense in the context of the bible. Or to be clearer, it makes less sense than the little the bible actually says about it.

    It’s not that Gregory’s hiding that the trinity isn’t biblical, it’s that he’s hiding the fact that he doesn’t really understand it. He is either unaware that his statement makes no sense in the face of what the bible says about the trinity, or he is banking on the fact that a relatively small percentage of Christians can actually read the bible. He banks on his authoritative stance and tone to do the rest.

  40. #40 J. J. Ramsey
    April 20, 2009

    DuWayne: “If you ask ten theologians, from ten different Christian sects, the question that Gregory’s statement answers, you will likely get ten different explanations – though some might be quite similar.”

    Notice how you phrased that. You didn’t say, “If you ask ten theologians what Gregory’s statement means, you will likely get ten different explanations,” which is a pretty dicey claim, since what St. Gregory wrote is right in line with what has become Christian orthodoxy, and the bulk of theologians would recognize it as such. Instead, you wrote that these hypothetical theologians would have trouble agreeing on what question St. Gregory is answering, which sounds profound until you notice that even a clearly worded statement could be an answer to several possible questions. “George Washington cut down a cherry tree” has an obvious meaning, but it could be the answer to the question, “What was a tall tale told about George Washington?” or the question “What is an example of a legend that might be taught to schoolchildren?”

    DuWayne: “Like I was trying to explain, obscuring a concept does not mean throwing out meaningless babble”

    True, it can also be done by introducing irrelevancies or writing so as to misdirect people. I’m sorry to say this, but you did the latter in your phrasing that I described above.

    Also, if one is citing a quote as an example of subtle obscurantism, where it is not obvious from the quote that obfuscation is at work, then one would expect one to explain how the quote is an example. Dawkins doesn’t do that with his quote, as if he expected the reader to easily see how the quote was supposedly obscure.

  41. #41 DuWayne
    April 20, 2009

    J.J. -

    Thats not what I was saying at all – again, apologies for not being clear, in my effort to be brief.

    Gregory’s statement is basically a response to a question of how the trinity was formed. His response is that every aspect of the trinity has always been. Ask ten different theologians, from ten different Christian sects and you are likely to get ten different explanations.

    And Gregory’s statement is not really orthodox – it is for some, but definitely not all or likely even most Christian sects. Which is really the point – the bible is canonical for mainstream Christianity, nothing else is – everything else is word games.

    I honestly don’t see this as subtle obscurantism at all. In my mind it’s pretty obvious, but I’ve also spent most of my life inundated with this stuff and engaged in it.

  42. #42 J. J. Ramsey
    April 20, 2009

    DuWayne: “Gregory’s statement is basically a response to a question of how the trinity was formed.”

    Doesn’t look like a response to a question. I would not be surprised if it were in response to a perceived heresy, but that’s a historical issue and not one that Dawkins even broached. There isn’t anything in the quote itself that looks like Gregory is answering any particular parties.

    DuWayne: “And Gregory’s statement is not really orthodox – it is for some, but definitely not all or likely even most Christian sects.”

    Gregory is saying that Jesus wasn’t a created being, something that your biblically literate fundie acquaintances would see as following from the first few verses of the Gospel of John. Heck, Jesus being “begotten not made” is even part of the Nicene Creed. I used to be a nondenominational Christian, and what St. Gregory wrote would have been bog-standard stuff in my old church home.

    DuWayne: “the bible is canonical for mainstream Christianity, nothing else is”

    And that is true because of Protestantism. It is not true of mainstream Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and St. Gregory’s third-century background has more in common with the latter two than the former. And again, Dawkins doesn’t even bring up whether Gregory’s words conflict or twist what the Bible says.

  43. #43 DuWayne
    April 20, 2009

    I’m sorry J.J., but I just can’t take the time to make myself clearer. I am not trying to imply that you are stupid for not understanding what I am trying to say, rather that it is not possible to make myself any clearer, without spending way more time than I can afford on something that is just not worth it.

  44. #44 Nermine
    qZFnNcxzAHMsOHws
    July 25, 2012

    Interesting! I had wondered escepially what atheists do in high-stress situations where it’s possible they’ll die and a quote from one of the women answered it for me they rely on their training and their crew. And I guess they accept the possibility they will indeed die? On my plane last night I accepted I might die and felt ok about it but also prayed like crazy for the ride to smooth out. (All I could think was, I hope my book still gets published even if this is the end for me. )And yes, I think many people do turn to religion out of fear. They’re afraid of death. And much of religion is also predicated on fear do such and such or you’re going to hell. It’s funny because people turn to religion out of fear but there’s also an element of fear within religion. Does that make sense? I think a big difference between religion and spirituality is motivation it seems to me spirituality is based on love while religion is based on fear. The two aren’t exclusive (i.e. a person can be spiritual and religious and the spiritual folks can also be religious). The reason I’m spiritual is from love love for myself, love for others, love for connection. And when I’m afraid I use my spirituality to feel better but my primary motivation is not fear. Sorry for this essay. And p.s., thanks for the link on your blogroll! I’m flattered!

  45. #45 Wow
    July 25, 2012

    Therefore religion is Linus’s security blanket, turned to in fear rather than in love.

    Hence according to its precepts, invalid faith.

    But one day you’ll grow up and put aside the security blanket.