Wednesday, March 25, 2009

God, Truth, and Tone

The Julian Baggini piece critical of 'new atheism' -- to which Ophelia Benson has a trio of very good responses -- is not utterly pointless and empty-headed in the way that many such criticisms have been. Baggini:

[T]he real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief.
There are a couple of claims being wrongly elided here. First is the claim that the 'new atheists' are posing a threat to religious belief by excluding faith as a worthwhile means of attaining truth. This claim is true. This is the very heart of the 'new atheist' work of two of the so-called horsemen, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. While the other two horsemen, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, agree with this view, it's not at dead center of the writings that have qualified them as so-called horsemen. But the salient point is that, yes, 'new atheism' is about denying that faith offers anything in the way of finding the truth.

The second claim is that new atheists want to "wipe out all forms of religious belief." This is false. People should stop saying this; this is the tendentious, self-serving alarmism of the opponents of 'new atheism.' New atheism does not seek to "wipe out" religion any more than the denial of the literal Santa Claus entails a plot to "wipe out" Christmas, or that a denial of Egyptian paganism entails a project to bulldoze the pyramids.

Beyond that, it's not immediately clear that atheists should care if this or that rhetorical tactic will tend to attract or repel religious moderates. If the candor of a Harris or a Hitchens "drives" a moderate to throw in with the fundamentalists, it's not a happy thing, but note that it's not a happy thing because of religion's obvious shortcomings. Baggini's criticism only has any force if this is so -- it concedes from the outset that there's something troubling, dangerous, flawed, or in a word, poisonous, about really-existing religious belief.

In any case, the moderate so driven -- if "driven" is even truly the mechanism at play here -- will have been so driven for very poor reasons. Since the questions at hand matter, the quality of the content should matter more than the ambiance in which the questions are presented. To whatever extent people are genuinely undecided between (say) moderate and extremist religion, they need to perk up, hitch up their big-boy and big-girl diapers, and listen carefully enough to assess the arguments and evidence. All of us need to see through and beyond "tone." We need to sort out the best available truth of the matter, not stage daily-tracking plebiscites on which side has the most accommodating, polite, sonorous, avuncular, or least sarcastic spokesmen.

Bluntly -- and this applies to all parties to the dispute -- people truly swayed by tone may not be worth swaying in the first place. Their approach to these matters is wrong-headed from the start: this applies to believers who can't seem to let go of the notion that feel-good Jesus wants them to be happy and wealthy, and it applies equally to non-believers charmed by the snarkily dismissive attractions of South Park's irreverence.

I think Norm Geras was getting at this same thing when adding partial agreement to Baggini's criticism:
To state what should be obvious, religious believers also have reasons; and even atheists, convinced as it's possible to be that the religious at some point in their thinking abandon reason, have to acknowledge the possibility that their own reason may be failing them somewhere.
We atheists definitely need to focus on the quality of the evidence and arguments, and to be prepared to make concessions where warranted. We are right to expect the same of believers. And all sides should, while remaining as civilized as possible about it, privilege candor and truth over atmospherics. We should all leave the construction of thoroughly pleasing viewpoints, characters, and worlds to the makers of fantasy films.

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