Battle of the Atheists
In looking up again Terry Eagleton’s blast against Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, I came across a vigorous debate between what might be called hard-nosed atheists and soft-nosed atheists on the Club Troppo blog. My nose runs toward the soft-nosed camp, and as I grabbed for my hanky I found this comment by a Richard Phillipps which cleared my nose, leaving it still soft at the core:
What a ripper of an article! As I recall, Eagleton was a Marxist literary and cultural critic, and no doubt under the new syllabus his works will be banned and burned in the main street.
There are, I suspect, three things about religion that no one can really deny.
The first is that even for us unbelievers the Judeo-Christian value set provided a guide to life and to relationships (social, personal, business) that was good in the sense that it emphasized care, humility, honesty, and respect for others. As that value set evaporates, we have little to replace it with.
Second, in a time when some of us wonder about a Grand Unified Theory, about a time before time, about what preceded the big bang and why, there is a whole lot of mystery out there, and it is hard not to have a feeling akin to religiosity about it.
Third, one of the worst developments of the c20 was the removal of mystery from religion. Priests riding motor scooters and playing guitars, the abolition of Latin, the idea that religion was just really a form of smiling, unctuous, rubbery social work, and that religion had to be relevant (why? why on earth should a god’s ideas be “relevant” to us? Are my ideas relevant to the frittata I made yesterday?) all of these have gutted and filleted religion, and have thrown out with the bathwater the essence of standing before a mystery – which is a sense of humility.
btw: I am not to be understood as arguing for, or accepting, Christianity.
But this soft-nosed argument is ripped to shreds later on by a James Farrell in this comment:
I can’t agree with you on this one, Nicholas. Dawkins is a brilliant expositor of science, and his criticisms of religion are spot on. So what if he isn’t an expert on theology? Here’s a challenge: if you read a scathing and hilarious critique of astrology written by an author who wasn’t himself steeped in astrological wisdom, would you really be cross and indignant about all the simplifications and strawman demolitions in the book?
The only people who are going to get upset about this book are ones who have an emotional loyalty to religion and can’t stand seeing it rubbished. This obviously applies to Eagleton, and I can’t for the life me understand why you say ‘it’s not done on behalf of religion’. A bit of googling on Eagleton tells me he is or was religious.
Nor do I agree, being as objective as I can (as an admirer of Dawkins) that it’s a particularly clever or persuasive review – far less with Richard Phillipps conclusion that it’s a ‘ripper’. It’s bad tempered and unreasonable, and quite incoherent in key places where it’s pretending to clinch the argument. What on earth does this mean, for example:
He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.
And this doesn’t seem to make any sense at all:
Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.
Is he really saying that Dawkins’ faith that, say, his wife is not really is biological sister, is on a par with religious faith simply because neither is ‘unimpeachable?’
And where does Eagleton stand, anyway? Does he think that belief in the God of Moses is any more reasonable than in Baal or Zeus? If so, on what grounds? If not, would he take exception to an uninformed attack on any of these beliefs?
And this comment is followed up by a comment from a Gaby:
Emphatically what James said. Beat me to the punch.
First, I haven’t read Dawkins’s book. But Eagleton’s review wouldn’t dissuade me from doing so.
I thought generally a poor review as a book review. One example from his own “molehill” is that he doesn’t tell us what Dawkins’s intentions are. Perhaps it is a piece of agitprop aimed at refuting and ridiculing the more common, in both senses of the word, religious falsities prevalent. The “pinhead” differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may not just be relevant to this task.
Further Eagleton’s positive views don’t really illuminate. Why is belief in God not like belief in the tooth fairy? Asserting God’s “transcendence” doesn’t help nor saying that it is a “condition of possibility” and that it sustains all things “by love”. More or less these are things attributed to the old guy in the sky with the white beard, so I’m happy to lose that image.
El Tel, however, does give a good description of my favored view of Jesus as basically an “A.D.” hippie preachin’ peace’n’love Baby. Was he a vegun as well? Probably not given the “loaves and fishes” supposed prestidigitation.
But still a little later in the discussion a soft-nosed comment by an Ingolf appears:
Gaby, I think Nicholas was alluding to the meaninglessness of being dogmatic when dealing with “ultimate” questions. It’s all very well to flay the more literal religious or spiritual responses that merely paste a poster called “God” over the void, but in doing so one is no nearer to answering the questions for which these various belief systems have through the ages sought to be an answer. The simple truth, at least as I see it, is that not only do we not know the right answers, we don’t even know the right questions and are unlikely to ever do so. As Nicholas says, the very least this realization ought to engender is some sense of humility.
On my reading, the more sophisticated forms of all the major spiritual traditions have throughout the ages been only too aware of the absurdities and dangers lurking in any and all attempts to define God. Indeed, many of them prefer to avoid doing so altogether. The awe we properly feel before the sheer immensity of our ignorance can at times combine with a sense of transcendence, a pull towards the divine that lies at the core of all spirituality. (Both these concepts are of course equally difficult to define but not perhaps always so hard to feel).
Any determined atheist is in my experience at least as much in the grip of a belief system as the most fervent believer. For the scientist who feels no sense of the divine — which is obviously just fine — agnosticism seems to me the only honest stance. It is Dawkins’ fanaticism that many, including me, find so disagreeable, that and the way he arrogates to himself the cloak of reason, not aware, it would seem, of the inherent absurdity of his own position.
Well, needless to say this soft-nosed comment is taken to task later on by the hard-nosed group. If you’ve waded through this far, why not just read the whole thing? There are 52 comments in all and the whole discussion took place and ended in 2006.
Certain products of modern physics that I did not find mentioned at all by these posters are the baffling, one might say a-rational, findings of quantum theory; i.e. the duality of particles and waves, the inability to define a quantum state until it is measured, the phenomena of non-locality, and other such paradoxes. Considering these things, one wonders how we can know anything at all. Yes, the mathematics works, but not the underlying reality. Makes one question what reality is after all. And we haven’t even gotten to questions such as what came before the big bang, and how come we have an Anthropic principle which states that even the slightest deviation in physical constants from their present values would make life as we know it on earth impossible. OK, enough for now. I’m stumped.
Tags: atheists, big bang, club troppo, grand unified theory, humility, james farrell, motor scooters, personal business, phillipps, playing guitars, religiosity, richard dawkins, richard dawkins the god delusion, terry eagleton, vigorous debate