Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The New Atheism - The Next Step

Julian Baggini has writted a quite interesting article on this subject over on CiF. I mostly agree with it, but it has a bit of a problem. Here's a quick quote from it:
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.

This can't be dismissed as "mere perception". Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

The problem is this: Baggini has two messages, which aren't really compatible. They are as follows:

1. The New Atheists are perceived as being too forthright and certain. Look at me, in contrast. See how I open my article with the words "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." Lets all get better at presenting a "more agreeable", less "contemptuous" face to the world, like moderate religious people and agnostics do.

2. The New Atheists have been too narrow in selecting their targets. They have drawn attention to some fundamentalists with nasty views, but there are still people wandering around with views that are equally bonkers, wouldn't stand up to five minutes solid questioning, and need to be challenged, because they're currently getting away with holding views that are frankly even more ill-thought-through than the religious loonies. The "fluffy brigade" are "flattering the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice."

The first message urges us to stop pissing people off by seeming so sure of ourselves. The second one basically assumes that we're right, and that it's not just the fundies who need arguing with, but the woolly minded ones who think "God is love" is a terribly profound statement, not a load of fatuous guff. I'd agree with the second one, but I don't see how we're going to change anything of the perception of New Atheism by extending criticism to the people in the middle who are currently busy slapping themselves heartily on the back for being so chuffing moderate.

Of course, Baggini calls it a "conversation", not criticism or an argument, but presumably the aim of the exercise is to cure people of their "woolly minded"ness, so I don't quite know how that's going to work. Presumably, these people are all so thick that during these "conversations" they won't notice that we think we're right if we just talk to them very, very softly.

It's worth a try, I suppose.


Will said...

I'd definitely agree with you on this. It is frustrating to me that atheism is self-proclaiming the right to the intellectual high ground when their essential argument is they are nothing more than a complex illusion arising from physical interactions.

It's ironic that some of the most adamant critics of blind dogma believe that being alive is an illusion simply because there's a convincing argument.

Atheism spends a lot of time bashing the diverse exoteric traditions and rarely focuses on the fact that the long-standing exoteric traditions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) have associated esoteric traditions (Sufism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah) which, like Buddhism, Taoism and much of Hinduism, emphasize the limitations of rational comprehension.

I appreciate atheism as a framework for appreciating the world, but I think the average atheist needs to remember the difference, as they put it in Zen, between the reflection and the moon.

Absolute knowledge isn't an options, so I think you kit the nail on the head suggesting that a bit of humility is in order.

Andy said...

Um... I was suggesting the opposite, actually, but never mind. I don't think atheism needs to find more "humility", and I'd agree with Baggini that the woolly centre is as worth taking on as the extremist fringe.

As for the limits of rational comprehension... fine, but nobody has ever explained to me what other sort of comprehension I am supposed to have. This is what I have always come back to in discussions with intelligent religious types: make me a rational case for irrationality, and I'm yours, but in the meantime, I have my own account of where my irrational impulses and associations come from, and it isn't one that suggests to me that I should try to set them up as some untouchable, special area of my head. Rather, I should treat them with skepticism and endeavour to subject them to rational questioning whenever I notice them.