Hart and Armstrong: God on high

[BPSDB] One response to the ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins is to retreat up a mountain. There you are surrounded by fluffy, intangible ideas, and a silence where you can experience the ‘Unnameable’ who can never be understood, far from the people like  ‘strident adolescents’ who actually want to try to understand things. (Why is it when people assert their non-belief they are always called ‘aggressive’?)

That’s the mental picture I get from this review by Christopher Hart of what appears to be a pretty missable book by Karen Armstrong.

The trouble is, up in the solitude and rarefied air on the mountain-top, where neither believers nor sceptics can reach you and bring some criticism to bear on your thoughts, you start to imagine things.

You start to imagine that something about which you have written around twenty books can only be appreciated through ‘a graceful acceptance of mystery and “unknowing”’. You create a myth that the root of religion lies beyond ‘beyond human language’, ignoring the fact that its roots lie in attempts to communicate with forces and things (as well as dead real people) that affected everyday life but were conceived of as having consciousness and intentionality.

You rely for your evidence on the abstruse writings of church fathers, who  engaged in what was really an intellectual exercise at one remove from religion as it was practised. Without any sense of irony, you accuse atheists of claiming absolute knowledge and ‘pronounc[ing] with finality on pretty much everything’. This is despite the fact that Dawkins has always emphasised that science, although it gives us real knowledge, always contains tentative areas (why else do scientific research?) and that he for one would be open to discovering that God exists, given evidence.

You leave most believers at the foot of the mountain, because their faith is based (at least for the Abrahamic religions) on texts that emphasise the personality of God, his very human-like qualities ands his interventions in the world. For most believers, it is likely that their understanding of God is even more personal than that of the leaders of their organised religions.

The  top of the mountain seems to be  a realm where everything is made of mirages, appearing upside-down. Perhaps the case has been made that the experience is very enjoyable, but certainly no case seems to be made for anything recognisable as God to someone with their feet on the ground, believer or non-believer.

The Atheist Thirteen

I saw this on jdc325’s blog. I dare say few of the bloggers that are participating will have heard of me, but I thought I’d make my own contribution.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good evidence – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (note that this is different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My positive views on morality are probably best described as ‘humanist’. My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘popperian critical rationalist’ and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I think that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of that experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena. I had a sort of kind of type of vague 60s view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

ID stands for Intellectual Dishonesty (sorry, those are two words). There seem to be no more than maybe one or two dozen people actively promoting ID, and they do this through subverting education and the law and doing PR stunts. They do no science. The aim is just to present to the public the image of a scientific controversy, with the apparent ultimate goal of suppressing the real science. Most of them seem to know this. Behind it most of the people involved really seem to be creationists.

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

I perhaps ought to say ‘chemistry’, as it was the field of my first degree and PhD, but I sometimes wish I’d been a geologist. I think the discovery of earth history is one of the most interesting topics in science. Philosophers of science seem to ignore it and have a distorted view of science through thinking of physics and science as more or less the same thing.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

For a short time I followed some of the groups that called themselves ‘Brights’ but I was very put off by their attitudes to others.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be very surprised. But what he does is his choice.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practice specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation is better than your revelation’. It is at root the most stunningly self-centred attitude.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don’t know.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I have not read most of these. I’ve read most of Dawkins’s God Delusion, but the arguments have not really changed since I read Bertrand Russell on the same things as a youth. Where Dawkins scores is in being (mostly) right and writing it so well. (Dennett is still waiting to be read.)

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, in view of my answer (7) above, I am not sure that is possible – because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’. So, in that case, convincing just one theist, any one, coul be regarded as an improvement in the human condition.

The other three items are to invite other bloggers to do the same. I don’t feel able to do that.