Wednesday, January 12, 2011

a critique of Jonathan Ree's contribution

Don't take up golf.  James Watson

The second speaker in these talks, Jonathan Ree, is a British philosopher and historian, and an atheist who has serious doubts about 'new atheism'. He begins his talk by referencing Robinson, speaking approvingly of her term 'parascience', which is nothing like parapsychology, but refers to the tales scientists tell each other to 'gee themselves up', a kind of scientific jingoism, something like what others have described as scientism chit-chat. The idea is that 'new atheists' are particularly prone to this arrogant scientistic tone and attitude. As Ree puts it, it's rather dualistic - there's either science or ignorance. Yet, again, if you look at the people being dubbed 'new atheists', they are quite various. Certainly, such atheist advocates as Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Daniel Dennett are probably guilty, even self-confessedly, of scientism, but others such as Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Grayling are not so easily classified. I do have an interest in this subject, and I generally take the view that science, defined broadly as an open-ended set of methods and techniques and even ways of thinking, which involve discipline and rigour, repeatability, verifiability and testability, can contribute substantially to our understanding of any subject. It's not so much about reducing all ways of knowing to science, but expanding science to comprehend and judge all ways of knowing. Science is, to me, not just a method, but an organic, evolving set of processes. And the subject matter will determine which process or processes out of the set should be applied. If this is scientism, so be it. It's an approach that seems to be working a treat.
Ree next seeks to criticize the new atheists by arguing that there's really nothing they say that wasn't already said in the nineteenth century. So, guess what, they aren't new. An extraordinary insight, that one. Interestingly, this is one of those truisms that isn't quite true. Yes, the philosophical arguments are largely the same, and I haven't heard any of those dubbed new atheists claiming that their arguments are new. But today's atheists are able to present new evidence, the fruits of archaeology, palaeontology, genetics, particle physics, cosmology, precise evidence about when our universe was formed, when and how our planet was formed, our relationship to other species and our evolutionary history, as well as evidence relating to the authorship of sacred texts, the probable where and when of that authorship, and how the events related in those texts are verified or falsified by archaeological and other evidence. The modern atheist lives in a more globalized world, in which more is known about a variety of religions, through the media and through direct contact as well as via the fruits of twentieth century anthropology, not to mention Wikipedia. Religion can be looked at from a broader and more multi-faceted perspective than it was in the nineteenth century.
Of course, the real issue isn't newness but trueness. Atheists, new or old, are saying what they have long said, that we should look to this world for understanding and meaning, not to some putative other-worldly phenomena. Many atheists would like to say that gods just ain't true, and probably feel gyped that they can only allow themselves to say there ain't no evidence. This has nothing to do with scientism, and often nothing to do with science. Jonathan Ree himself points out that his own loss or lack of faith had nothing to do with Copernicus or Darwin or whoever, and that would be the same for me. It had to do with something ludicrous about the whole god-worshipping ritualistic paraphernalia when I was first confronted with it, a sense of profound ludicrousness which has never left me. This hasn't been a rational response, which is why I'm a little wary of those atheists who connect non-belief to a greater rationalism, but neither is it an irrational response. It's something visceral and basic. I'm reminded of Paul Valery's comment, something along the lines of the 'the nonbeliever is always convinced that the believer is being insincere, and vice-versa'. Maybe there is an unfathomable divide between 'believers' and 'unbelievers', or this-worlders and other-worlders, as I prefer to designate them, and maybe this-worlders will always be in the minority. I personally hope not, but I don't hope with a great deal of confidence.
Ree's objection to new atheism, that it isn't new, is also ludicrous - 'new atheist' is a term foisted on people like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris by their opponents, and once the term is grudgingly accepted by the culprits, since there seems no alternative but to accept it with a more or less good grace, the same opponents leap up and down shouting 'there's nothing new about you lot'. It's all very hypocritical and silly.
Ree's description of the novel Robert Elsmere sounds intriguing, but his attempt to use it in support of multifarious atheisms surely fails. He says that Robert Elsmere's objections to his church, his rejection of certain beliefs, would put him on the same level of belief as the 'reformed' Anglican Church of today, and he uses this example to suggest that there are many kinds of atheism. But this isn't true. Elsmere - and I haven't read the book - might have reacted negatively to some aspects of church doctrine, and had a 'crisis of faith' as a result, but if his belief at the end of it all was the same as what the Archbishop of Canterbury believes now, then it's clear that Elsmere never became an atheist. I'm assuming here that the Archbishop isn't an atheist, which is perhaps a big assumption. Atheism isn't many different things. Atheism is something clearly defined. It's a lack of belief in gods. You could perhaps extend this to a lack of belief in supernatural agency, which would bring ancestor spirits, rainbow serpents and even ghosts into the net, but I think it's safer to just leave it at gods. Apart from this lack of belief, atheists are of course as various as all humans are.
Ree's final remark, referring to William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, is another attempt to have a go at the 'new atheist' straw person. He says we should guard against the varieties of religious inexperience, as evidenced by some of these new atheists. What is meant by this piece of rhetoric? I have never experienced religious belief, it's true, just as, presumably, the pope has never experienced non-belief. I'm talking about direct, personal experience here, of course. There are some who've had faith, and lost it, and there are some who converted to a particular faith, from having no interest in matters religious. These are varieties of experience that we all accept and recognise. I feel no need to apologize for having no direct experience of religious belief. I've learned a lot about religion through reading anthropological essays, through talking to people of faith, through observing various rituals, through reading history and sacred texts etc etc. That's the best that I can do to try to understand religious belief. It's true that some atheists are willfully ignorant of religious practice and belief - it takes all kinds. Some new atheists may fit that description. Some may not. It's not a fair criticism of modern atheism. One is reminded, when talking of the religious inexperience of atheists, that recent research has shown that American atheists are on the whole more literate about the Bible than Christians are. So it might even make sense to talk about the varieties of religious inexperience of the professedly religious.

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