Friday, July 16, 2010

The 'Write An Anti-New-Atheist Screed' iPhone App and Its Users

Ophelia Benson has already covered the extravagant unoriginality of Reza Aslan's recent swipe at 'new atheists,' and she is right, but she appears to miss one novel aspect of Aslan's effort.

To appreciate the mildly original part, you have to begin with this section, which surely emerged verbatim from the 'Write An Anti-New-Atheist Screed' iPhone app:

The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism--and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism--is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute.
From here, the iPhone app is designed to crap out a sneering coda, make a final check for updated hackneyed memes in the data cloud, and finding none, to send the finished article to any of several discount newsweeklies and sclerotic newspapers, where it is published immediately.

This time, instead, Aslan expends a little effort expounding on what the 'new atheists' are failing to understand -- a little effort:
Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence--by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented--and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god.
OK, so it starts out spectacularly badly, with a blast of verbal chaff bearing an immediate self-contradiction -- shorter Aslan: no matter how religion is defined, it is defined thusly -- followed by rank question-begging -- the manifest world is declared to distinct from, and apparently uninteresting to, consciousness. Or something.

It gets a little sharper -- a little sharper -- without, of course, bothering to address the question of god's existence, or ceding the relevance of the question:
One should, for example, be cognizant of how the human experience of transcendence has been expressed in the material world through historically dependent symbols and metaphors.
Here, I agree, or I agree with a better way to put that: one should be cognizant of art, literature, and the humanities. People who are not cognizant of art, literature, and the humanities are missing out on vast amounts of interesting and enlightening material. Aslan means to say religion is the thing to be cognizant of, but religion can either join as one of the humanities or, worse for Aslan and his ilk, enter the fray as a competitor with science.

I would add -- and here I part with Aslan -- that art, literature, and the humanities can and should be understood as reckoning with more than "transcendence" -- sure, it's on the list, but the list stretches on from there. And I see no benefit to warping things like, say, love, honor, excellence, and memory until they seem to be transcendence, or warping transcendence until it is so broad and vague as to cover everything. Why do that? For shorter dictionaries? Well, it would be even shorter if we cut everything out except dude and deep.

Next comes a festival of name- and jargon-dropping:
One should be able to recognize the diverse ways in which the universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae. One should become acquainted with the unmistakable patterns--call them modalities (Rudolph Otto), paradigmatic gestures (Mircea Eliade), spiritual dimensions (Ninian Smart), or archetypes (Carl Jung)--that recur in the myths and rituals of nearly all religious traditions and throughout all of recorded history. Even if one insists on reducing humanity's enduring religious impulse to causal definitions, dismissing the experience of transcendence as nothing more than an anthropological (e.g. Edward Tylor or Max Muller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (ala Sigmund Freud, who attempted to locate the religious impulse deep within the individual psyche, as though it were a mental disorder that could be cured through proper psychoanalysis), one should at the very least have a sense of what the term "God" means. [Emphasis mine]
Note that last part, in which Aslan wags his finger at believers and non-believers alike over what the term "god" means. He knows it means something snagged in all those pretty words and amid all those fancy names (and yet all, on his account, reducible to transcendence); he is exasperated that 'new atheists' are so simple-minded as to understand the term "god" by reading the books and commentaries that billions of believers have, over centuries, so carefully preserved and carried forward. How ridiculous of them!

Those billions of believers participate in the same simple-mindedness, of course, but the iPhone app that writes these diatribes doesn't have a routine for noting, let alone finding fault with that -- Aslan's novelty definitely has its limits. No, the iPhone app is designed to tell the world, over and over, that literalist interpretations of ancient lore became a problem worth observing when Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith six years ago. Neat!

Aslan concludes with self-pity masquerading as humility:
Then again, maybe the patterns of religious phenomenon signify nothing. Maybe they indicate little more than a common desire among all peoples to answer similar questions of "Ultimate Concern," to use the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich's famous phrase. The point is that, like any researcher or critic, like any scientist, I'm open to possibilities.
Not like those filthy 'new atheists'! Zing!


Zorro said...

Does Bart Ehrman ("God's Problem," "Misquoting Jesus"), a former evangelical preacher and Princeton and Chapel Hill Professor of Religion, display an "utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion)?" Christopher Hitchens seems like a pretty smart guy; I think he grasps the finer points of religion perfectly well. I'm quite sure Robert Wright, a former Baptist, gets it right.

Perhaps the real problem is the mental gymnastics one is required to perform to make sense out of much of what religions espouse.

I admit to having an utter lack of literacy on so many things, especially issues of Ultimate Concern. However, I'm open to possibilities.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

All sprout from the single misguided seed - because atheists refuse to take religion seriously it prima-facie follows that they obviously didn't pick up what we were puttin' down.

I have a weltanshauung but I require nor demand anyone understand it. I also require no proof of what I take on faith, in as much as proving something one takes on faith metaphysically speaks loudly about the weakness of the faithful, and is therefore a contradiction in terms.

Note that I can make that point without indicating what - if anything - I believe in.

I might be a Zoroastrian, for all one knows.

All hail Ahura Mazda.

Dale said...

@Zorro, spot on. I've made the same exact point about Bart Ehrman and a few others --- funny how that name wasn't dropped in to Aslan's lazy drivel amid all those other names. Nor was Hector Avalos. It's "funny" but it's also oh-so-typical. The iPhone app doesn't have any listings for Bart Ehrman.

@SJKP, I think I understand your point -- you're more of an apophatic-y and fideist-ickal guy, and where you cash that check (so to speak) is by not going immediately from that to definite claims about the thing/things you believe in and ever-so-desperately need the wide world to read up on if not adopt as their own.

This is an importantly honest thing you're (not) doing there. If you want to avow a something-out-there-that's-beyond-words, the thing to do is what you do: stop talking about it because, dude, you just said it is beyond words.

To be absolutely clear: I am non-sarcastically saying you do this the right way, in a way that hangs together. It certainly -- oh by the way -- doesn't take people in truly bad directions, like say flying planes into skyscrapers or trying to demote fellow citizens to a legal second-class for their sexual thought crimes. That matters a lot. Faith in that sense is not one I share, but it's also one that would never prompt me to complain or worry, or read the complaints or worries of others.