Thursday, June 19, 2008

Unremunerated Teen Angst

James Wood's discussion of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem contains some high points:

During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility. And this was years before I discovered Samuel Butler’s image for the inutility of prayer in his novel “The Way of All Flesh”—the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses.
Call me a sucker for bee metaphors. But Wood's discussion also contains at least one low point, as when Wood ends his own autobiographical musings and turns to the book under discussion, in which Ehrman dares to notice Christians whose prayers spared them, but not their Christian neighbors a few miles away, from a tornado:
There is something adolescent about such complaint; I can hear it like a boy’s breaking voice in my own prose. For anti-theodicy is permanent rebellion. It is not quite atheism but wounded theism, condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in. Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, “God’s Problem," ... is highly adolescent in tone. Its jabbing subtitle, “How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer,” sounds as if it should be furiously triple-underlined on the dust jacket.
The high-handed sniffing about ceaseless adolescent woundedness would be infinitely more convincing if it came attached to answers to Ehrman's questions. But it doesn't.

It's not enough to say -- as atheists commonly hear -- "you sound so adolescent," as if adolescent were a direct synonym for misguided. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

This anti-atheist trope ("you sound like a whiny teenager") strikes me as a particular instance of the larger pattern of special pleading and double standards that enter into pro-theist arguments, as described recently and cogently by Ophelia Benson here and here.


Laura said...

Yeah, that was an odd moment in the article, which otherwise seems to agree with Ehrman, who, as I understand him, seems to be agnostic rather than atheist.

Here's another awkward sentence: "Ehrman is bluntly commonsensical: 'The reality is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive, outcomes.'” "Bluntly commonsensical" has a negative connotation to it, and yet I find nothing wrong, or adolescent in what Ehrman says there, nor does it conflict with Wood's conclusion: "Why does God not now establish paradise on earth?"

I think Wood is straddling the fence, but it sounds like it won't be for long.

Lirone said...

Actually I feel there's some accuracy in the "adolescent" description.

As a society I feel we are going through an adolescent phase of abandoning childish blind dependence on authority (whether divine or earthly) and setting out on that fascinating journey of defining who we are and how we want to live.

And sometimes that can get messy - sometimes the exhilaration of so much freedom leads us to go to extremes. And have terrible rowas with our parents.

But adolesecence is the only way to become adult, self-reliant and independent.

I'm happy to be called adolescent in this sense - so long as I get to call the theists childish!

Dale said...

Lirone, thanks for the comment. I hope I didn't give the impression that I long to be considered mature. Hardly! I've previously touched on that very thingy:

on maturity

My point was that shrieks of "immature!" make for a piss-poor argument.

Laura, like so much that passes through the New Yorker, Wood's piece can't really be pinned down. It's so gauche to express a definite point of view!

I liked it and I didn't; it had a beat and I could dance to it. So it goes.