Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Our Common Barrel

In reply to David B. Hart's restatement of The Courtier's Reply to the slings and arrows of 'new' atheism, Kevin Drum called bullshit rather more effectively than I did.

Not one to let this sort of twaddle go dishonored, Andrew Sullivan brings fresh fallacies:

Look: human nature being what it is, most religious people will be a dreadful example of the best version of faith you can find. Drum permits what Hitch's book was: a grand guignol of anti-clerical, fish-barrel-shooting. It's easy; it's way fun; mockery of inarticulate believers has made my friend, Bill Maher, lotsa money. But it's largely missing the real intellectual task by fighting a straw man, rather than a real and living and intelligent faith. Part of that is the fault of believers. We've done a lousy job of delineating a living faith for modernity.
I will be kind enough not to focus on the cheap cui bono, its assumption being risible enough on its face, namely, that atheism is selling tickets and books in a degree that belongs in the discussion with the last few thousand years of religious money-making. Could Maher's entire gross from Religulous equal even six months of Rick Warren's pizza budget? When added to Richard Dawkins's income from book sales, could it buy the artwork in the three shabbiest visitor's restrooms in the Vatican?

No, the problem with Sullivan's comment is more fundamental. Sullivan speaks of the mass of believers as though they're getting the 'best version of faith you can find' wrong in approximately the way that a semi-interested generalist like me gets population genetics or quantum mechanics wrong.

Not so. The analogy fails because the mass of believers do not agree with these 'best version of faith' experts. They say different things, and they mean them. In the teeth of the philosophical problems that high-minded academics (and 'new' atheists) have cited, everyday believers insist that their faith is the foremost truth of the cosmos, and that other faiths, and even seemingly close approximations of their faith, are illusory if not directly opposed to the exclusive, singular truth of the cosmos. Such believers are extremely easy to find, e.g., this, this, this, this, and this, to pick only a few from the vast gazoogle annals.

They aren't puzzling over these beliefs in the way that we non-experts might struggle with abstruse topics in math, science, or philosophy: they understand the theology they espouse clearly enough, thank you very much, well enough to devote their lives to it and confidently share it with everyone who will listen.

Whether one can truly be said to believe that which doesn't add up to a coherent, internally-consistent, logical whole is (arguably) an interesting question, but surely one whose implications reach 'unsophisticated' and 'sophisticated' theologies alike, and, for that matter, extend well beyond anything to do with religion.

It cannot be disputed that these 'unsophisticated' beliefs are regularly avowed and vigorously promoted in the world, with very real consequences for the lives of people and the course of history.

If Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Maher, and other 'new' atheists are shooting fish in barrels, it is because the barrel, consisting of the worldwide mass of believers, minus a small minority in liberal-ish denominations and faculty lounges, is full to bursting with them.

2 comments:

Raven said...

Worth also pointing out in Sullivan's comment is that he accuses Drum and Hitchens of "fighting a straw man" for addressing the beliefs of (as Sullivan himself admits) "most religious people" rather than of whatever tiny minority Sullivan feels get things right.

But addressing majority beliefs is not the usual definition of a "straw man" argument. Rather, a "straw man" is a made-up argument, one your opponent isn't actually making, or a belief your opponent doesn't actually hold.

So Sullivan has turned the term 'straw man" on its head.

Dale said...

Raven, good spot and thanks for the comment.