• Freethought #FridayReads – Everybody is Wrong About God

    At the prompting of Ryan Bell, Hemant Mehta, and my fellow SINner Caleb Lack, I took some time this week to read Everybody is Wrong About God by James A. Lindsay. It is a fine book, packed with sundry insightful ideas about how to move secular society forward, and I commend it to your reading.

    That is, I commend it with one major caveat: Ask yourself whether now is indeed the right time to go post-theistic. The idea that atheism must be replaced by post-theism is a central theme running throughout the book.

    At the moment I am writing this, the scuttlebutt around the Internet, and increasingly in significant journalistic outlets, keeps asking whether “New Atheism” needs to die. The answer is a rather heavily qualified “yes.” In the West—though not yet elsewhere where it is sorely needed—atheism has done its job; it changed the conversation, or metaphorically, it opened the can. Just as we wouldn’t scoop out the contents of a can of beans with the can opener, opting instead for a more appropriate tool, we need not continue with New Atheism. It has done its work. It is now time to go post-theistic instead.

    The job of New Atheism is emphatically not to open the can and start a conversation about whether any gods are truly guiding humankind. That particular can was pried open by the likes of Voltaire, D’Holbach, and Paine; the can was eventually smashed to bits by the likes of Ingersoll, Knowlton, and Bennett. By the time the “New” Atheists came along, they were reduced to recycling or reinventing arguments against religious faith and hegemony that had been put to paper on countless previous occasions, theism having almost completely failed to come up with any new ways to justify its existence in the intervening centuries. (Of the so-called “Four Horsemen,” only Hitch strikes me as fully cognizant of his freethinking forebears.)

    The proper mission of New Atheism is just the same as that taken up by every previous wave of freethought, that is, to liberate minds from received dogma. We are here to engender “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” whether those mental shackles come in the form of purported theistic revelation or otherwise.

    Lindsay argues that it is time to move to a “fully post-theistic position, one where we consider theism beneath serious consideration” by which we stop “arguing against belief in God” and move on to the next step, were we leave talk about God behind entirely.

    Suppose we were all to take this advice, and immediately cease engaging with those who continue arguing for belief in God. Some few will still manage to free themselves from religious dogma by performing their own proactive literature review, applying the existing tools of epistemology and philosophy of religion to the intellectual scaffolding put in place by theistic apologists. Others will languish in their childhood faith, with none of their peers taking the trouble to challenge their worst ideas. I’m fairly confident that I would have ended up in the latter category myself, but for a scrappy band of atheological counterapologists who took my peculiar theistic delusions seriously enough to show me exactly where I had gone wrong.

    Theism sometimes bothers to be specific enough to shoot at, and the circumstances sometimes warrant it. In those cases, we should sometimes take aim and fire. Note, however, that taking theism seriously enough to shoot it down has to have a shelf life.

    Not at all. So long as at least one person that I care about takes any delusional belief seriously and allows it to guide their actions, I will take that belief seriously as a threat to their health and well-being. This holds true for theistic and secular utopian faiths no less than chiropractic subluxations and homeopathic medicine. Rationalism has no shelf life, so long as at least some people are suffering from their faith-based beliefs.

    There is little reason to argue against something that most of us don’t take seriously.

    Liberating a single human mind from a life of self-harm should be reason enough.

    Category: Friday Reads

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • Steersman

      Thanks for the review – I had seen it touted by various people and had wondered what it’s point or theme was.

      And your review kind of suggests, with some justification, that he’s barking up the wrong tree: as long as some people believe in woo, and as long as that has some deleterious effects on other members of society, so long will there be a call for people to challenge those beliefs.

      However, while I’m more or less supportive of the “atheist movement” – such as it is – I also tend to think that rather too many “new atheists” are rather dogmatic about what can only be construed as another manifestation of belief: there’s no doubt there’s very little if any evidence for any of the Abrahamic gods, but there may well be other concepts that might well fall under the rubric of “god” that have at least some utility if not some substance. For instance, seem to recollect some theologian arguing for “god” as a reasonable simulacrum for “our ultimate concerns”. In which case, that may well underwrite some sort of a synthesis of theism (the thesis) and atheism (the anti-thesis).

      • Gods are the playthings of human imagination, and hence the meanings invested in god talk are as varied and multivalenced as imagination itself. To one believer, god is a loving “Heavenly Father,” to another, god is a distant prime mover who neither hears nor answers prayers. To Lindsay, the term “God” denotes an idea, “an abstract mental construction that people employ to help them meet or ignore various psychological and social needs” and thus his definition isn’t far off from that put forth by whichever of the Sophisticated Theologians™ you seem to recall. This coincidence of meaning is too wonderfully ironic, which makes me wonder if you’re just having me on.

        At any rate, I have no need of atheism, atheology, street epistemology, philosophy of religion, or what-have-you in order to argue against the set of airy god concepts which do not foreseeably result in anti-humanistic moral reasoning. As there are more than enough Bronze Age wrathful gods to be going on with, I can safely ignore all this sophisticated metaphorical guff about ultimate concerns.

      • Steersman

        Not really “having you on” Damion in having recourse to any “Sophisticated Theologians™”. For one thing, while I’ll readily agree with you that some have invested the phrase “ultimate concerns” with some questionable woo – including the apparent coiner of the phrase, Paul Tillich – it does seem to have some utility: some 36,000 Google hits including one to a Wikipedia article on Existential therapy.

        But while I’ll also readily agree with you about the odious beliefs and actions of the devotees of various “Bronze Age wrathful gods”, I would suggest that “you” are more likely to disabuse them of those notions if “you” understand their roots. And if you’re more supportive of efforts of some of those devotees to wean themselves of the more literalist, and problematic, aspects of their faith – as with the Clergy Letter Project. As a Canadian priestess, Gretta Vosper, put it some years ago in her With or Without God:

        Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are those who must [throw] it out before it does any further damage.

        I think it rather important to be supporting those devotees who attempt to do that, not least because there is, maybe arguably, some justification for arguing for the existence of some “baby” of one sort or another, some justification for arguing that some “holy books”, the Bible in particular, manifest some “profound psychology and exquisite logic”. Apropos of which, you might note that Dawkins’ The God Delusion lists some 2 pages (384, 385) of proverbs & parables that might qualify as that. Don’t really think it helps at all to discount that as it tends to preclude developing “common cause” with the more rational believers against the less so.

      • I would suggest that “you” are more likely to disabuse them of those notions if “you” understand their roots.

        Of course. I’d point to Pascal Boyer’s ambitiously titled Religion Explained as an excellent introduction to the problem.

        And if you’re more supportive of efforts of some of those devotees to wean themselves of the more literalist, and problematic, aspects of their faith…

        As much as I would prefer that believers give up mythology altogether, any pruning back of the more regressive elements thereof (e.g. gays and bachelors should remain celibate, women should dress modestly and submit to their husbands) is certainly a form of progress.

        Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are those who must [throw] it out before it does any further damage.

        Having grown up surrounded by Biblical literalists, this analogy feels at least a bit over the top. As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, Christians often feel free to either invoke or marginalize various portions of the text. Basically, the Bible functions as something like a Rottweiler in the tub. Possibly fierce, possibly sweet, depending on how it was treated.

        But maybe I’ve lost the plot on your analogy altogether. What exactly does the baby represent?

      • Steersman

        Sorry for the delay in getting back to you Damion; figured, in part, that a response required a little more time than I had then.

        In any case, thanks for the reference to Boyer – had run across him some time back but wasn’t really in a position to delve into his works in any depth. And I agree that “pruning back of the more regressive elements” is certainly welcome, although my point has sort of been that that is more likely to happen if the more “progressive” elements, the secularists and agnositics and the atheists, make some effort to meet the “regressive” elements more or less halfway, to actually engage with the more rational cohort: sort of a quid pro quo. Which is not to say that “we” should abandon objections to the more implausible or phantasmagorical aspects, but give some consideration to those who are prepared to abandon or temper the more dogmatic and literalist aspects of their faiths – as indicated by that Clergy Letter Project and by Vosper’s work.

        Which brings me to the crux of the matter, encapsulated or suggested by your closing question:

        But maybe I’ve lost the plot on your analogy altogether. What exactly does the baby represent?

        Good question, and one I certainly don’t have any easy or comprehensive answers for. However, I’ve found several articles from the anthropologist John Hartung to have some cogency and relevance, particularly his Prospects for Existence: Morality and Genetic Engineering which apparently had been printed in a 1996 volume of Skeptic magazine. A relevant section where he is referring to “eco-moralists” but his points might well be applied to “new atheists” and company:

        Religion is the opiate of the masses, but taking away their drug will not resolve the angst that drives them to addiction. Without an analogue to heaven, eco-morality [and, by extension, “new atheism”] will suffer the same fate as communism. Ways and means are not the issue. The question remains, ways and means to what?

        And that “to what” suggests one of the many grains of “wheat” – hidden or masked by no shortage of “chaff”, poisonous or otherwise – in the Bible that provides a partial answer to your question of what that “baby” encompasses, as well as providing something in the way of a guide post, i.e., “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Now while I will readily concede that some of what some “new atheists” purport to do – “liberating … human mind(s) from a life of self-harm”, for example – might reasonably qualify as something in the way of a credible and commendable vision, one might also suggest there are some flies in that particular ointment, that “salve-ation”, so to speak. But, for instance, it does seem rather dogmatic and dictatorial and arrogant – authoritarian, in a word – in it’s implication that “new atheists” are intrinsically better qualified in determining what constitutes slavery and where “liberation” is required. While I will readily concede that some manifestations or aspects of the religious vision look rather odious and pathological – singing hosannas with Jesus and deflowering virgins with Muhammad, for examples – I certainly don’t think it a foregone conclusion that all of that vision is totally without value or relevance.

        You have, no doubt, run across the “talking point” in discussing evolution which uses the analogy of the evolution of the eye: 5% of the modern eye was better than 3% and its owners were more likely to pass along those genes which can lead to the future development of 10% of the modern eye – and so on. Likewise with our visions of what our societies could become: while I think the religious one is badly flawed – maybe 1% of perfection – one might suggest that it finds a deeper and more engaging resonance with large portions of the population than atheism or humanism has so far managed. In which case it may well behoove “us” to ask why that is the case, and make some effort to actually elucidate something, some “what”, capable of motivating people to make that vision real, to put their shoulders to the wheel to actualize it. And while the “not here for a long time; here for a good time” rule of thumb, which may arguably typify secularism, may have some utility, I really don’t think it’s going to cut the mustard as it intrinsically looks not much beyond the end of the day. But, somewhat apropos of the alternatives, something again from Hartung’s paper, a quote from Genesis 11:6-7:

        The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

        While the anthropomorphizing is, of course, a bit of a stumbling block, more so for some people than for others as Vosper and others have suggested, I don’t think it takes a lot of thought to discern an important and guiding principle buried in amongst the chaff: with consensus there might well be nothing, or next to nothing, that humanity is incapable of.

    • James Lindsay

      Hi Damion. Thanks for reading! I wrote a response.