Monday, 20 July 2009

Times New Atheist

I've been following the dust-ups on the blogosphere around the various issues to do with 'New Atheists' and accommodationism, and trying to make some sense of it.

Recent 'anti-neo-atheists' include Terry Eagleton, Chris Mooney, Karen Armstrong, Madeleine Bunting and H.E. Baber. These include theists and 'faitheists'.

The targets of/responders to the attacks include Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford.

The anti-neo-atheists seem a little taken aback by some of the responses to their criticism, and think the New Atheists are being a little thin-skinned, a little hypocritical; it's just the rough and tumble of debate - you dish it out, so don't complain when you get some criticism yourself.

This isn't quite the situation as I see it; the New Atheist complaint is not the criticism, per se, it's the *type* of criticism. The New Atheists are attacking accommodationism with various arguments that may or not be correct (I happen to be anti-accommodationist myself, so I agree with them). But the criticisms thrown at the New Atheists aren't about their arguments; they're about the actual act of criticism. Consider Chris Mooney's comments about Jerry Coyne; he's talking about what Barbara Forrest said about science v religion:
Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy.
And he goes on to give three reasons why atheists should not alienate religious moderates (a question-begging assertion itself): Etiquette, diversity and humility. An astonishing claim! In what other area of honest debate would these points be cited? The clarification for 'etiquette' simply places religious belief beyond criticism; 'diversity' argues that moderates shouldn't be argued out of existence as long as there are fundamentalists around, I think; 'humility' exhorts us to acknowledge our inability to disprove god. Well, one does, but does one have to *keep* acknowledging it?

So Mooney apparently agrees with Coyne's argument, but doesn't want him to press it home with moderate theists, in case they are alienated, and, er, what? Become fundamentalists, I guess. I cannot think of any other way to summarise Mooney's blog.

Now consider some quotes from H.E Baber's article in the Guardian:
Most people I know are atheists. But they're atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.
A straight forward snide ad hom, and, of course, New Atheists don't think that anyway. From what I can deduce, they admire Hume, Russell and Mackie.
New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them.
Note the patronising 'in the village'; why can't the arguments be addressed in a grown-up manner? New Atheists *cannot* think that religious belief is *uncontroversially false* otherwise they wouldn't be applying so much time to arguing their case. They think that religious belief has not shown it is reasonable to think it true - at least the religions they are familiar with. It's possible there are true religious beliefs floating around somewhere.
I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief.
So rather than address the anti-accommodationist argument, pretend the New Atheist 'believes in unbelief'. It's a real shame. One of my least favourite tactics - argument dodging.

For me the New Atheists attack on religion is more an attack on the religious way of thinking; their motives are to ensure that public policies are determined with full possession of the facts of each matter. Many religions have survived by privileging their dogma and punishing dissent. The motives of many religious leaders are, and have been, to maintain control over a constituency, and to direct public policies according to their dogma of choice. Now this may not, by chance, be a bad thing - they may have dogma that happens to be good. But if there is bad dogma it's difficult to change it through reason, because of the privileges and punishments which have developed to *protect* the dogma. So the very reason the religions have survived successfully is the reason we must deny them privilege in the public arena.

Anti-accommodationists point out that moderate theists subscribe to this *religious way of thinking* just as fundamentalists do. Thankfully the moderates don't make the errors that the fundamentalists do, and they should be applauded for that. I prefer a moderate to a fundamentalist. I'd encourage fundamentalists to be moderates and moderates to be agnostics, and so on. But too often the anti-neo-atheists cry wolf at atheists pointing out faulty thinking, as if we should not do it when the believer is 'moderate'. That is simply *not good enough*, and indefensible.

Finally, Jerry Coyne has 'coyned' (see what I did there) a new term for atheist-butters - 'faitheist'. More complaints of hypocrisy have flown from faitheists, suggesting that this is pejorative, in the same way as 'New Atheist' has been denounced as pejorative by the New Atheists. There may be an element of truth in this, but I *think* there is a clear difference. The purpose of 'New Atheist' seems to be to differentiate a certain type of modern, vocal atheist from those nice, 'umble atheists of the past, who knew their place - witness Habel's comment above "Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting." There's an agenda, and it is to define the New Atheists as something they're not. 'Faitheist' actually defines the target group accurately; they are atheists who *do* demand respect for faith. Any pejorative in 'New Atheist' is based on a false attribution of what they think. If 'faitheist' becomes pejorative it will simply be because folk come to find atheists who demand respect for faith objectionable. At least, that is how it should be. If things turn out differently, I'll amend my view.

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Saturday, 4 July 2009

Lois Rogers fails to apologise

Richard Dawkins was misrepresented shamefully in this article in The Sunday Times by Lois Rogers. He wrote to them saying:

The Editor
The Sunday Times


The duplicity of Lois Rogers' title, "Dawkins Sets up Kids' Camp to Groom Atheists" (Sunday Times, June 28th), is exceeded only by its Jesuitical opening line, "Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week's summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life." I had nothing to do with the setting up of Camp Quest, and it is not, in any sense whatever, inspired by me, or influenced by me. The British version, run by Samantha Stein with no help from me, follows the admirable American model founded some years ago by Edwin and Helen Kagin, of Kentucky.

Lois Rogers asked me for a quotation, and she thanked me warmly for the following: "Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open-minded, while having fun." Isn't that about as far from Jesuitical grooming as you could imagine? One of my dominant motivations, passionately expressed in The God Delusion, is an abhorrence of childhood indoctrination, of atheism just as much as of religion. It is in this spirit that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made very modest contributions to Camp Quest. Lois Rogers' traducing of both Camp Quest and me is, alas, par for the course for religiously motivated journalists. Fortunately, I am not the litigious type, but an apology would be nice.

Richard Dawkins

They have now published this:

Your article Dawkins Sets Up Kids’ Camp to Groom Atheists(News, last week) begins with the Jesuitical opening line: “Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week’s summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life.” Camp Quest, is not inspired by me or influenced by me. The British version, run by Samantha Stein, follows the American model founded by Edwin and Helen Kagin, of Kentucky.

I gave the following quote to Lois Rogers: “Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open-minded, while having fun.” Isn’t that about as far from Jesuitical grooming as you could imagine? One of my dominant motivations is an abhorrence of childhood indoctrination, of atheism just as much as of religion. It is in this spirit that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made very modest contributions to Camp Quest.

Richard Dawkins

I can't even highlight the redactions; it's been paraphrased and bowdlerised. And there's no apology from Lois Rogers. She is presumably happy with the errors in her report. If this is what passes for good practice in the British press, we are in trouble.

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Thursday, 2 July 2009

How to Find God

Channel 4 screened the first of the series Revelations: How to Find God, which followed some agnostics embarking on the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel's well organised effort to convert the masses.

The excellent Jon Ronson was our guide, a suitably neutral commentary, but his slightly cynical voice tends to give away his sceptical outlook, I feel.

I found the course fascinating in its techniques and personnel. The methods are carefully worked out for the maximum effect; rousing speeches from friendly Tony Bliar style trendy vicars, with follow -up sessions in groups of eight or so, where bonding helps to draw the vulnerable in and break down the barriers of the cynical. It's noticeable how the agnostics quicly grew to feel empathy for their Christian group leaders - almost *protective* of them. And certainly in this case the two group leaders seemed like thoroughly decent types, despite their delusion; what wasn't to like about them?

They were incredibly sensitive about their belief, however, highlighted after the male Christian explained a time when he thought god was talking to him (on a bus, apparently) when one of the group innocently asked how he knew the voice in his head was god and not just a voice in his head. A not unreasonable question. The female Christian leapt to his defence (they were married, I think) and said they were *patronising* him, and that he wasn't stupid - she was quite irate! But they weren't patronising him, or calling him stupid, but asking him a genuine question, that deserves an answer. I've written before how it would be impossible in practice, I think, to differentiate between god speaking to you in your head, and having a brainstorm and *thinking* that god is speaking to you in your head. So, not stupid, just vulnerable, from that point of view.

It seemed to me that everyone involved from Alpha was well-intentioned and hard-working; I would congratulate them on that and would be loathe to assign any nefarious motives to them, certainly at grass-roots level; they honestly believed they were doing people a favour. Even the agnostics who were no nearer god after the course found them admirable people.

This is one of the tragedies for me, because plenty of religions attract these otherwise wonderful members of the community to work for them. But I think they would be wonderful people without their religious convictions, and that the dogma for which they fall just distracts them from benefitting the community even more.

At the end, there seemed to be only one member of the group much closer to god than before, but I guess that's better than nothing, for their purposes. Interestingly, one or two members seemed quite favourable to the Alpha ideas until the 'speaking in tongues' session; maybe this is a step too far for many introverted Brits!

I did watch a Nicky Gumbel video where he laid out the *evidence* for faith in Christianity. It wasn't too good! Here's a summary:

Creation itself; hmmm, can't see anything about that to compel me to Christianity. We don't know exactly how the universe came about yet, possibly never will; And philosophers down the ages have pondered the question long and hard without coming to a consensus.

Fine tuning; again, nothing Christian about that. Did Christ mention it in the Sermon on the Mount? Not that I recall. I've seen good cases made for it being an argument *against* a god. So, not a convincing one.

Humans have a god-shaped vacuum in them! Nice one; might be true, I suppose, since most (all?) societies create their own gods. Nothing Christian about it though. Perhaps this god-shaped hole is telling us something about humans, and nothing about the truth or otherwise of a deity?

Finally he gets onto Christianity and says there is 'massive evidence' for Jesus Christ. That's a little economical with the truth, I think. We have two references in Roman histories, of dubious provenance, and then the NT. It's true that we cannot dismiss the whole of the history of the Christian Church - we need to consider that as *some* evidence. But there are many holy men giving rise to various churches down the years, so what is it about JC that means we must believe in him?

Other evidence (he's beginning to waffle a bit now), transformed lives. I've heard of many transformed lives from non Christian religions, so this can be dismissed out of hand. Nazism transformed a few lives too.

The Church Itself! It's not like there's other churches, is it!

So the Alpha Course has no *good* evidence, after all. Nevertheless, an enjoyable program, and interesting to see how they operate.

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