Friday, August 28, 2009

Features and Bugs

James Wood has written a very "on the one hand, on the other hand" review of Terry Eagleton's recent mud-toss in the general direction of "new atheism" (previously touched on here, here, here, here, and here), and while on the first hand -- the hand that more or less agrees with Eagleton -- he makes an all too common misstep. Wood:

This God [i.e., the version of god and belief treated by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, et. al.] is not very Judaic, or very philosophical: he is not the bodiless and indescribable entity that Maimonides or Aquinas ceaselessly navigates, or the slightly chilly and unapproachable divinity one finds in the work of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Nor is he the Buddha. Hinduism is mentioned only when it is fundamentalist -- when it approximates monotheistic literalism.
As it happens, Hitchens does mention Buddha and compasses certain forms of Buddhism in his critique of religion, and Harris delves into it as well, but I digress.

Wood has cited a feature, not a bug, of so-called "new atheism," and one that its critics would do well to notice: atheism, whether "new" or other, has little quarrel with the rarefied versions of god cited above, since these forms of god have little or no practical effect in human affairs. They do not try to dumb down science and other learning. They do not censor or proscribe. They do not commandeer and animate radical political programs. They do not underwrite campaigns of prejudice, dehumanization, and brutality. As such, they are roughly as interesting as other bloodless but false philosophical musings, and arouse roughly the same amount and kind of attention.

Hinduism -- and the rest for that matter -- is mentioned "only when it is literalist" because it is destructive, dangerous, and worth criticizing "only when it is literalist," or certainly in proportion to its literalism.

This is a feature, not a bug. Insisting on the literal truth of barbaric texts legitimates barbarity, and the grounds of this insistence deserves to be questioned, shaken, and upturned.

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