Friday, January 14, 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist 'fashion'

I note that the British Medical Journal, which has spent some time investigating the controversial study of some years ago [published in the Lancet in 1998, and since retracted] linking childhood vaccination to autism, has recently come out strongly against the study [which has not been replicated by other studies], claiming, in particular, that it downplayed the already-present symptoms of autism of some of the children. There were in fact only 12 children in the study. It's reported here.

Now to the last speaker in the public talks I've been critiquing. Roger Scruton is a very well known British philosopher, of a conservative bent. Apparently he plies his trade as a philosopher in the same faculty as A C Grayling, who describes Scruton as a good friend with whom he disagrees about virtually everything. So it amuses me to surmise that he would have heard many times over what I'm going to say in criticism of his position.
By the way, the RSA actually stands for the royal society for the encouragement of the arts, manufactures and commerce, and it describes itself as a charitable organisation which encourages enlightenment thinking.
Scruton at the outset describes himself as someone who lost his faith as a youngster, but who found it again late in life through a circuitous and painstaking journey. So we're dealing with another believer. He then, referring again to Robert Elsmere, claims that the new atheists present atheism as a liberation, in which you gain much and lose nothing - contrary to the experience of Elsmere. A couple of responses to this - many atheists are acutely aware of how difficult it is, in terms of family relations, social status, even danger to one's own life - to openly declare yourself an atheist. From the awful experience of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the awful experience of local religious sect members, horror stories abound. At the same time, for many, atheism is a liberation. It should be remembered that 'new atheism' didn't spring from nowhere, it emerged as a response. A response to one of the most troubling developments of the late twentieth century - that's to say, the rise and rise of a new, more aggressive, more primitive, more intolerant and belligerent form of religious belief, or dogmatism. Richard Dawkins would have felt it most in the rise, particularly in the US, of an antipathetic, indeed an enragedly hostile, attitude towards the theory of natural selection [or any other evolutionary theory], a theory he has spent his professional life expounding and promoting as the most profound and successful theory in the history of biology. I for one can well understand his extreme frustration, and it's hard not to imagine, even for believers like Scruton, that these kinds of rigid, aggressively primitivist belief systems are something of a prison-house, especially for women as they always seem to be profoundly patriarchal.
So, yes, liberation is a theme for atheists, but they don't see it, by and large, in simple-minded terms - at least I don't. I've attended a few atheist meet-ups, and they often feature traumatized members or visitors who have lost a great deal in coming out against the family or community faith.
Scruton points to two major features of religion. One is the set of metaphysical beliefs that point to an understanding of the world as a created, purposive entity rather than an accidental, random one. And the other, which he characterises as much more important - membership of a community of like-minded believers, and the sense of cohesion and identity this brings. He also asserts that the idea that you can be set free from religion is naive 'because it doesn't engage with that part of the human condition from which religion springs'. Now again, I can't speak for other atheists, but I know that I am very much concerned with understanding the causes and nature of religious belief, and I'm massively aware of the fact that religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs are very much at the heart of human being for a lot of people. It would be unthinkable for such people to lose their faith - which is indeed so much a part of their being that they don't even recognise it as faith.
However, it should also be recognised that these people are generally innocent of modern science. In Afghanistan, for example, you'll find virtually no atheists, and you'll also find one of the lowest levels of literacy in the world. There are no debates there, I strongly suspect, around 'intelligent design' and evolution, because the vast majority of the population, outside of some cities, haven't much of an inkling of the theory of evolution. This is important, because there's one feature of modern atheism - one of many perhaps - that differentiates it from the atheism of the nineteenth century, say, and that is the issue of the compatibilism of science with religion. No doubt this was touched on in the nineteenth century with the controversy over Darwin's theory, but today that debate is more complex, sophisticated and urgent. Most of the prominent 'new atheists' today - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, Coyne and a number of others - are incompatibilists. They see science and religion as being on a collision course, and they see religion as presenting a false understanding of our world, an understanding that is a major roadblock to the scientific view and the scientific approach. To these atheists, no amount of sophisticated metaphysics and no amount of community spirit can justify the holding of what they see as patently false beliefs. Many of the most damaging false beliefs - that children can be possessed by demons, that women who dishonor their families should be stoned to death, that those who don't believe in a particular god, or a particular version of a god, deserve death, and so on - are held to be so by the majority of religious people as well as by atheists, but modern atheists argue that a truer understanding of the nature of humanity will lessen our sense of dependence on or subjection to any supernatural agency, from which these pernicious beliefs ultimately spring.
Now, I think it's true that the rise of fundamentalism and Islamism isn't entirely the fault of religion per se. There are a number of complex forces determining this development, which we should try to comprehend and intelligently combat. Religious indoctrination, though, of the sort evidenced in the documentary 'Jesus Camp', and in the head-bobbing youths in Pakistani madrassas, is a matter of serious concern never addressed or even mentioned by the three speakers I have been critiquing.
Scruton finishes by talking of the sacred, a sense of which most people need in their lives. He talks of Weber's idea of 'disenchantment', of the desecration of sex as a formerly sacred activity, and the general downgrading of the sacred, presumably in western society.
Ah, the sacred, the sacred. How often this one is wheeled out in at attempt to diminish the experience and the aims and ambitions of atheists. Of course it's true that many atheists are contemptuous and dismissive of this catch-all term. The concept of the sacredness of sex and the sacredness of the family has been used by the Vatican to promote a homophobic and mysogynist agenda for centuries. The sacredness of life - almost always exclusively human life - has been invoked to prevent the development of medical procedures and medical research of all sorts, not to mention its sometimes pernicious influence on contraception and the treatment of the suffering and the dying. Scruton doesn't sufficiently emphasise, I think, the self-serving nature of the human concept of the sacred - it's generally about the monumental, dare I say god-like, specialness of all things human. So the concept of the sacred needs to be scrutinised much more carefully, I think - and this is being done by our best evolutionary psychologists. Meanwhile, as person who is highly sceptical of the concept of the sacred, and who doesn't feel this metaphysical need to see myself, or my sexual activity, or my impending end, as a sacred matter, I do feel the need to defend myself against the charge of crassness or superficiality that the 'pushers of sacredness' often make. A few years ago I wrote a no doubt inadequate response to two books I read in tandem - both of which were about pilgrimages of a kind, albeit secular pilgrimages. The two books were Roads to Santiago, by Cees Nooteboom, and Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban. They were both deeply reflective and contemplative works, which I found both intellectually and emotionally challenging and satisfying. They both reflected on history, religion, lifestyle, change, questing, the big issues. They were as close to spiritual works as I ever want to come - though of course there are other works of this kind out there, for which we must be grateful. I don't like to use the word 'spiritual' or 'sacred' myself - I think there's far too much baggage attached to these words that I don't want to be a part of. But I've always deeply resented the use of these terms to indicate some sort of superiority of being and feeling. I'm sure we've all met the self-described 'deeply spiritual person' who has about as much sensitivity to others as a doorknob. There are also those those who would eschew such terms as 'spiritual' and 'sacred' but who are deeply empathic to our world and its struggling, failing denizens, human or otherwise.
Finally I should make some remarks about the apparent theme of these talks - 'beyond the new atheism'. For me, what is beyond the new atheism, a term I reject, is more atheism. Modern atheism has certainly been given a shot in the arm by the anti-scientific, anti-modernist move towards religious primitivism in some parts of the world, and it has found a number of new voices, some rather shrill, some very articulate. However, Roger Scruton's description of it as a fashion strikes me as the most profound mischaracterization I've come across in a long time. Atheism is here to stay, and it's here to make itself heard. Not only are the numbers swelling and the percentages rising in the west, but most of the best and brightest are going or have gone 'secular' - not only our best scientists, but our best philosophers, our best lawyers, our best journalists - take any intellectual profession you like, and you'll find the percentage of non-believers will far exceed the percentage in the general population. We're an increasingly questioning society - a good thing, in my view - and religious belief tends to crumble under rigorous - but fair - interrogation.

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