21 July, 2008

Richard Dawkins et al Aren't Really Atheists, Sez Religious Scholar

I've stumbled across an interview in Salon that should keep us all thoroughly entertained for weeks. Super-duper religious scholar James Carse is, according to the article, "out to rescue religion from both religious fundamentalists and atheists." Since he redefines atheism to be something completely nonsensical, I don't know who he thinks he's saving religion from.

You see, according to his rarified definition of atheism, Richard Dawkins doesn't qualify. None of us do. Observe:

Given what's happening in the world right now, do you think there's a lot at stake in how we talk about religion and belief?

Absolutely. In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system.

Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily. [emphasis added]

"Misfire on atheism?" What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Maybe my rough-and-ready street philosophy is inadequate to the task of understanding Mr. Carse's elevated definitions, but what he seems to be saying here is that you can't be an atheist if you have a counter-belief system (i.e., if you can explain most of the mysteries of life by turning to science and reality). You also seem to have to be some sort of religious scholar to qualify. You have to understand "god" to not believe in "god." And you have to define which god it is, exactly, you don't believe in. Otherwise, you're apparently not an atheist.

And here I thought it was so simple. I thought that, to be an atheist, you just don't believe in gods. None of 'em. I thought that blanket unbelief was good enough. Nobody told me going in to this that I'd have to debunk every fucking god individually, and that I can only do that if I have a deep understanding of all of the fuckers.

Are you fucking kidding me?

All right. Let's play ball. Let's have Mr. Carse define religion. Oh, wait, he can't:

What, then, do you mean by religion?

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don't have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?

What he eventually comes up with, after much spewing of the philosophical bunkum, is that religion is simply a belief system that's survived a few thousand years. Got that? If it ain't ancient, it ain't religion.

Now that we've discovered the bugger can't define religion, let us return to his discussion of what an atheist is:

And yet, you've just told me that you yourself don't believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

The difference, though, is that I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them. [emphasis added]

So, in order to be an atheist, it's not enough to not believe in gods. It's not enough to explain the universe not by resorting to the supernatural, but by reaching for the natural. It's not enough to not believe in one single, solitary fucking supernatural thing. We can't even have a sense of wonder about the universe.

You know what? I'm done. This guy had a little kernel of a good idea at the very beginning, when he was discussing belief systems vs. religion. But once you get through those first couple of paragraphs, where it looks like he's going to present sound ideas that have real philosophical merit, he just skews off into this mumbling bullshit. Wait 'till you hit his celebration of "higher ignorance" bit. For all of us who thirst for knowledge, this clown is like a nice, cold mirage: pretty to look at in some respects, utterly fucking useless when it comes right down to it, and definitely not what you need.

He just wants humanity to celebrate a different kind of stupid. I think we've had quite enough ignorance of all stripes.

At least we have an explanation as to why this twit can't recognize an atheist. There is that small consolation.


Atheist Chaplain said...

Its all so clear to me know, I obviously dont know just what God I don't believe in.......
Hallelujah Brothers and sisters.

Actually its quite sad when you have to move the goalposts so you can win an argument.

Andrew Vienne said...

Courtier's Reply, anyone?

RBH said...

From the quotation:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.

I read that as saying you have to know which god you're not believing in, and if you're not believing in the wrong one (Zeus? Ra?) you're not really an atheist because you're not not believing in that other god standing over there by the coffee shop. Or something. Maybe. Or maybe not.

I used to think when I didn't understand a passage like that it was my fault. No more. It's his fault for writing pure bafflegab.

(And yes, the double negative in "you're not not believing" up there is on purpose.)

Glynis said...

He goes o to say: "To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe... "

Isn't this the very reason so many of us love science? I constantly marvel at the world and workings of nature. Unanswered questions drive me to learn more. I just refuse to believe that it was intentionally created by some supreme being guy (or woman, or bowl of spaghetti all things being equal).

Of course, according to the esteemed professor, today's atheists are simply being "trendy". Damn, and I thought all the cool kids were in church on Sunday.

Belief system or history, each is equally flawed.

Btw, love the new blog Dana!

John Pieret said...

much spewing of the philosophical bunkum

And you wanted to be a philosopher! That is the job description.

But maybe he's talking about that 20% of "atheists" who believe in God:


Cujo359 said...

Theology - is it even a subject?

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in.

By that same standard, you can't call yourself a Christian until you understand all the gods you're rejecting, Zeus, Loki, Shiva, whatever. Somehow, this doesn't seem to occur to these fools.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Cujo359, it's not even that easy. You can't be a Christian until you define which apostasy's you reject, which heresy's you exclude from your creed, whether Jesus was corporeal or true god, whether.....

Which Jesus do you accept and which do you reject? According to Dawkins, we can all just go one God further.