Monday, February 13, 2012

Comment on Comment: Those Pesky New Atheists

Those who know me, know my position on religion: I'm not a fan. That said, I'd like to think that in my own special way I'm fair to religion, and I certainly don't appreciate any suggestion that I'm particularly ignorant of religion. It's an accusation so easily tossed at 'New Atheists', a term which translates roughly to 'non-academic (or insufficiently academic) atheists who aren't ashamed of being so'. It's also pretty ludicrous: Studies tend to show that self-described atheists know more about religion than self-described believers. It kind of comes with debunking it, I suppose. It is true that the famous 'New Atheists' tend to pay little attention to theology, but probably for that reason they tend to be much more in tune with what the average person in church believes than most theologians.

A bit of a digression, of course, but it leads up for the first link of the day, "Even atheists must recognise the importance of a sociological study of religion" by Philip Ball. Comment is Free seems to love bashing atheists, both new and old, and this is a perfect example:

The research reported last week showing that American Christians adjust their concept of Jesus to match their own sociopolitical persuasion will surprise nobody. Liberals regard Christ primarily as someone who promoted fellowship and caring, say psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University in California and his colleagues, while conservatives see him as a firm moralist. In other words, he's like me, only more so.

Okay. Well, atheists have been saying that pretty much forever, so chalk that up to the atheists, right?

Yes, it's pointing out the blindingly obvious. Yet the work offers a timely reminder of how religious thinking operates that has so far been resolutely resisted by most noisy atheists.

Wait, what?

Yes, apparently atheists doggedly refuse to recognise a correlation between one's politics and one's religion beliefs. I'll admit, that's news to me. It sounds like the kind of thing atheists would be pretty comfortable with, actually. In fact, I'd imagine that religious people would be rather more upset than atheists.

Our author then goes on to explain why atheists resist this conclusion:

For one thing, regarding religion as a social phenomenon would force us to see it as something real, like governments or book groups, and not just a self-propagating delusion. It is so much safer and easier to ridicule a literal belief in miracles, virgin births and other supernatural agencies than to consider religion as (among other things) one of the ways that societies have long chosen to organise their structures of authority and status, for better or worse.

Again, what? What is this distinction between self-propagating delusion and social phenomenon? We don't have any trouble seeing belief in UFOs or horoscopes or homeopathy as both, so why not religion? Actually, I'm confused how you could have a self-propagating delusion which wasn't a social phenomenon!

All of this leads up to the following conclusion:

The Stanford research reinforces the fact that a single holy book can provide the basis both for a permissive, inquiring and pro-scientific outlook (think tea and biscuits with Richard Coles) or for apocalyptic, bigoted ignorance (think Tea Party with Sarah Palin). Might we then, as good scientists, suspect that the real ills of religion originate not in the book itself, but elsewhere?

Ah, a sneaky clever conclusion! Religion is not responsible for the evils done in its name!

Of course, by that logic it's also not responsible for good done in its name, making it utterly neutral in impact. I somehow doubt the author intended that conclusion. But more tellingly, his implications are simply wrong. Religion does, in fact, tend to push people to become more reactionary. Of course it's often co-opted by the cause du jour, but that's done so much more easily when that cause is a reactionary one. Witness the embarassment of St Paul's Cathedral when challenged to support the Occupy Movement; a few brave souls spoke out and the Cathedral was pretty much shamed into doing what you might have hoped would come naturally.

Of course there are examples of religion speaking truth to power, such as liberation theology (although remember which organisation pretty much crushed that movement). Jesus was a radical even if he was also a moralist. Organised religion, on the other hand, tends to manage only one of these.

I only highlight this article as an example of a ludicrous attack on New Atheists on CiF. Don't go thinking that's the worst, though! Just thank your lucky stars that Andrew Brown has been quiet for a while...

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