“The Shallow Arguments of School-Yard Atheists”

May 4, 2009

Stanley Fish has an interesting review in the NY Times of Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton. Eagleton takes the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to task for their atheism. He argues that – and this is really nothing new at all – supposed substitutes for religion, such as science, liberalism, capitalism, and a variety of other -isms, all fall short, as they do not accomplish, nor are they designed to accomplish, the same tasks, or play the same essential roles, as religion.

Here’s the gist of it (and I’m quoting Fish’s review here, not the original book):

“…religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its ‘subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.’ And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to ‘a radical transformation of what we say and do.’

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: ‘A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.’

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, ‘Why is there anything in the first place?’, ‘Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?’ and ‘Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?’

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.”

One one level, I find the argument that without religion there can be no truly “radical transformation of what we say and do” ironic, as certainly in this country at least, religion is most frequently associated with conservatism as opposed to radicalism (granted, what passes today for conservatism is often wildly radical).

Most importantly, though (full disclosure: I’m one of the schoolyard atheists in question), I think that the whole argument misses the point. Religion most frequently offers answers to profound questions such as why are we here?’ and ‘what is our purpose?’ by playing loose and fast with logic and facts. The world’s most widely held religions do offer historical claims, many of which – an individual’s resurrection from the dead, a prophet’s communication with a god, a virgin birth, the parting of the sea, etc. – are factual claims. Many of these religions in fact fall on their face if the historical facts don’t hold up. How does Christianity fare if Jesus did not rise from the dead (or even exist in the first place)? How does Judaism fare if the without the Exodus and the Jewish people’s special communications with God? How does Islam fare if Mohammed was not a prophet? Science and logic may not answer why everything exists, but they can offer searing questions about the claims of religions.

Indeed very few religions limit themselves to the questions Eagleton gives them credit for addressing. Which religions answer abstract questions about the meaning of life without making claims about the origins of the universe, the planet, human beings, and the course of our history? How many religions offer rules or proscribe activities (homosexuality, adultery, divorce, eating certain foods, rules on how to treat prisoners, slavery, etc.) based on information directly transmitted from a god? There are ‘debates’ in our society over things like evolution and the age of the earth not because science is trying to address religion but because religion is trying to address everything.

If people like Dawkins and people like Eagleton are talking past one another, it is because people like Dawkins concern themselves with the typical role of religion in society – telling us what to do and why – rather than the academic, head-in-the-clouds, religion-as-philosophy role described by Eagleton that often has no relevance for the broad swath of the masses.

Religion often treats the important why-are-we-here questions as settled. The answers were either given to us already by the gods, or are mysteries we will never know or will know only after we’ve crossed over to the afterlife. Science and philosophy treat these questions as problems to be solved that may or may not have solutions. In science and philosophy, unlike in religion, these questions may not have answers, or may not have answers that are satisfactory to us. What if there is no real purpose to our being here? What if there is no god? These seem to be eminently plausible (I would argue extremely probable) contentions. Yet religion, importantly, dismisses them out of hand. Is this useful? Is it honest? Should we dismiss answers to questions that could be right simply because we hate them and their implications?

Many apologists for religion attempt to redefine religion into any and every attempt to answer the big-ticket questions about human existence. Science explains how the atoms and molecules and DNA and cells and matter and energy and stars and planets whizz about all around us. Science gives us calculations and observations, promotes technology and efficiency. Religion, however, tells us about morality and ethics, the meaning of life, love, human joy, loss, suffering. Science cannot tell us anything about these things. But this is only true insofar as religion tells us anything at all. Religions’ answer about love and life may be more palatable, and it’s provision of answers where science often only has questions may be more satisfying, but palatability and satisfaction are often not the best guides to reality.

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3 Responses to ““The Shallow Arguments of School-Yard Atheists””

  1. Jesse said

    Much like Eagleton’s point, you’re making a straw man out of religion by making it out as some directly prescriptive institution. It is not. Even if some aspects of certain religions may be cited as making such claims, as soon as the argument loses its universality, it collapses altogether. Likewise, most scientists would counter that science is purely instrumental; by its own methods, inherently it cannot lead to absolute truths or anything beyond “particular” facts. That’s not how scientific reduction works, and has not been so for decades, if not longer. And while it may be a convenient argument by religious apologists, it is no less valid that they are the ones using it (instead of more neutral parties). I mean, you can still acknowledge it and choose to be an Atheist, but being an Atheist then becomes a matter of belief (a position established beyond the scope of knowledge).

    A philosopher like Heidegger provides a good, counter-intuitive splitting point. He made the statement that a philosopher cannot be religious because religion (a thing of prior truths) pretends to have answers to the ultimate (metaphysical or ontological) questions of the universe. The problems with the statement are two-fold: only literal sorts of religions truly make these sorts of claims; and on the other side of the debate, the argument does not default to “science” and positivist “logic” as resolving such questions. On the contrary, their scope is purely local and contingent, and Heidegger spends more time rejecting the claims of the analytic philosophers of his day (who were basically the “new” Atheists of a hundred years ago; Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.)

    So Eagleton’s arguments are correct, but you have to take what you can and try to ignore his (or any author’s) personal affiliations, because they aren’t part of the argument. But this whole back-and-forth game between “new” Atheism and “religion” has been a cyclical hallmark of modernity as a whole; so each time it makes its redundant rounds, you have to look less at the arguments at-hand (because they are incredibly dated and repetitive), and more at the circumstances which engender such arguments, as well as at the social or political gains which people (ie, Ditchkins) have to make by asserting them. (Personally, I couldn’t agree more with Fish’s statement that “new” Atheism “reflects and extends” capitalism). And in that regard, whether or not I am an Atheist, I’ve come to agree with Eagleton, and have likewise come to reject most of the claims of “new” Atheist authors. With the exception of Dennett, they are none of them philosophers, and it shows.

  2. moxiepapa said

    I completely deserve to get taken to school on this post. I did indeed offer cliche, glib arguments that reveal a lack of expertise in philosophy and a tendency to post before thinking. Insofar as religion concerns itself with a transcendent reality, a supernatural realm beyond and above the natural world, it operates in a realm immune to scientific (or even logical) analysis and criticism. And since such religious claims cannot be disproved, my rejection of them is just as much a matter of faith as the religious beliefs themselves. I see no reason to believe in any specific supernatural entities or forces, and even question our ability to comprehend or discuss anything that truly transcends our own reality and its logic. But, of course, the religious (or at least those clever enough to make the argument) would counter that my very need for a reason to believe underscores my deification of science and logic. To fully go down this rabbit hole, though, necessarily allows every crazy claim to demand serious consideration.

  3. Jesse said

    “…a lack of expertise in philosophy and a tendency to post before thinking.”

    Don’t sell yourself short—that’s me all over!

    If there is a danger with regard to the cultural accommodation of “school yard Atheist” demagoguery, I don’t at all doubt that there is also a danger that throwing the baby out with the bath water pre-empts and thereby prevents analysis of the deeper philosophical issues being presented, even if these issues are so baldly misrepresented by book-slinging charlatans like “Ditchkins.” For example, the debate within phenomenology between the heterophenomenology of Dennett and, at the other end of the spectrum, the more organic elements of auto/eco-phenomenology: these debates need to occur in a sober fashion, without the parasitical drain of cultural debates about religion, or about whatever other weekly surrogate for cultural ressentiment.

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