28 January 2009

The Unheard Atheists

In which I argue for the necessity of my discipline, and rediscover my purpose in blogging.

The argument that an atheistic, rationalist worldview is inherently better and more true than a religious one will not be won decisively if we continue to compare the two solely on their ability to create a coherent, compelling, and intelligible reading of the world around us.

Of course we rationalists believe that the materialist cosmos described by modern science is the only one that conforms to the evidence at our disposal -- that it is the most compelling, plausible, and structurally elegant system man has yet discovered. But when you take a religion on its own terms and within the confines of its own language, you will find that it too projects an elegant, internally-justifying, and altogether coherent view of the world. And, moreover, we atheists who refuse to appreciate the internal consistency of the religious worldview are hamstrung by our own cherry-picking attitude, one that pounces on the blatantly contradictory and easily-refutable anachronisms that, for most modern religious people, have been smoothed over by generation upon generation of increasingly sophisticated apologists. For example, I consider myself very well versed in the standard refutations of Christianity as well as the history of the Hebrew scriptures (having studied the religion of the ancient Israelites for the better part of four years before moving on to East Asian religions) -- but when it came to arguing with a very erudite and very fervent Episcopalian friend of mine, I actually found myself hard-pressed to find any chinks in her armor, so well had the broader theological project of her religion caulked the holes inherent to her scriptural foundation. The bottom line - and this is a line that religious apologists have used against us against us time and again to great effect - is that science and religion can, each in their own way and none more correct than the other, describe the world we inhabit in a coherent and sensical way. Of course we know this isn't empirically valid, but the inter-subjective agreement to disagree favored by the more educated theists has an infuriating ability to stymy most of us in debate.

The key to winning the Atheism/Theism debate is to take a step back, to stop trying to compare the two on their ability to describe the world (the origin of life, the necessity of social order, the problem of suffering, the meaning of existence), but instead to assess their ability to account for the other. We can trumpet the descriptive value of empiricism until we're blue in the face, proffering cohesive explanations of the origins of life, the universe, and everything -- but until we also start to explain the entirely human origins of religion itself, the theist will still be able to take refuge in his relativist, agree-to-disagree, two-different-ways-of-interpreting-life position.

You see, most of the greatest and most vocal Atheists of today - Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers immediately jump to mind - are in the natural sciences. Which means that they are entirely qualified to explain why religion is empirically wrong about the nature of the universe, but completely ill-equipped to account for the origin, purpose, and function of religion in human society. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but respect and a great deal of admiration for these men, and the new Atheism would be in dire straits without them. But when they turn their prodigious biological talents to the question of religion, it is obvious that they are out of their discipline. Then the new Atheists dismiss religion with their own ad hoc psychological theories - as a crutch, as an evolutionary holdover, as a tool of coercion, as primitive psychiatry - their dismissals ring hollow. The problem with the new Atheist movement is that it gives all of its attention to scholars with evidence that contradicts religion, but none at all to those scholars whose entire enterprise essentially undermines religion by explaining it in scientific terms.

And it's not like these scholars don't exist. The University of Chicago defines the academic discipline of the History of Religions as one that:
approaches religion as an exclusively human phenomenon, via the methods of the social sciences and the humanities. It is concerned to theorize at a high level of generalization, informed by broadly comparative and empirical research, and to carry out high level empirical research informed by theoretical reflection. ... Irreverent by temperament and sometimes on principle, it insists that [a] the Western monotheisms should not be the only paradigms and/or objects of legitimate study, [b] religion cannot be reduced to belief, but also includes issues of practices, institutions, communities, habits and other factors that often operate below the level of consciousness, and [c] interpretation involves critical probing and systematic interrogation of the idealized self-representations of any religious phenomenon.
What better ally can we have than this field? Why is it that the only vocal atheists out there are biologists? Speaking as a person whose own natal faith - which was left completely unthreatened by my complete acceptance of Darwinian evolution - took only one semester in the History of Religions to be completely overthrown, I want to know how we can afford not to have these scholars at our vanguard?

There are many and complex reasons, of course, not the least of which is political: no religious scholar wants to scare away the people who can most benefit from his classes by developing a reputation as one of the staunch godless - let alone jeopardize his tenure. Moreover, religionists understandably don't tend to be as interested in annihilating the thing that gives them a job. But still, for every hundred of those professors, can't we have our own Dawkins or Meyers?

I certainly don't make myself out to be any such person. Not yet, at any rate. There's still too much to learn. But until then, I'll try and continue to bring this perspective to my own blogging.

Leave the science to Aaron -- I've got to be the religionist.


Sara said...

Steven Pinker's an experimental cognitive psychologist. Not *exactly* a biologist... though... yeah, pretty much. Never mind.

Anonymous said...

A religious person need not feel threatened either by the task of explaining science ("God set it up to look like that or set it in motion") nor by the fact that there have been plenty of religions and they evolve through time and etc. ("people are not infallible and just because people have repeatedly been attracted to religion doesn't mean it's wrong" -- in fact, some may argue that God planted the religious impulse in people, some of whom are sadly confused).

If they can explain the science by "God made it that way" they can explain the religious history by "God made it that way". Sorry.

Ben Cox said...

Fundies aren't going to have any luck pushing their nonsense on atheists either, but they're just going to keep shouting.

Of course there's never going to be a magic bullet in any debate, and people have an amazing ability to maintain untenable positions. Nobody's arguing that.

What I'm arguing is that there are two (well, actually three) ways of arguing against religious belief: the scientific (religion is a poor explanatory model) the philosophical (the idea of your god is logically unsound) and the religio-historical. It's fine to say that "god made," say, the crusades, or the witch trials, or the ridiculous, nitpicky spats over nomenclature in late antiquity for some ineffable reason. But when you consider both a) that one's most cherished orthodoxies are anything but immutable, as a matter of public record and b) that those changes in doctrine and practice follow patterns observable in every other religion on earth, the argument generally is more convincing.

The anonymous commenter is right in that sense: there will always be people who have drunk the kool-aid so deeply that they can shrug off any arguments to the contrary. But that does not mean that we should ignore an entire branch of possible argument - especially since we show no signs of dropping the other two.

I might finally add that the finger-quoted passage explaining the history of religion betrays a subtle misunderstanding of the discipline. But I'll leave that for another time. Perhaps it's time for a grand multi-post on the history of western religion...

Ben Cox said...

Also: Steve Pinker's ok. My anthropology professors weren't very fond of him, but that might just be professional envy. (Or hair envy). One scientist I think does have a good set of arguments is Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained. His argument is that religion is an outgrowth from certain cognitive shortcuts that were beneficial for our survival. But he doesn't get any air time either -- and he also doesn't address the kinds of social things that Durkheim and Evans-Pritchard do. But I digress.

Aaron Golas said...

I think your assessment of outspoken atheists leaves something to be desired. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist. Sam Harris and Dan Dennett are philosophers. Dan Barker is a former preacher. Hector Avalos is a religious historian. Although I agree that religious history has been given short shrift (so to speak), it isn't because biologists do all the talking.

As for the real reason, well, you've got me working on a post of my own...

Reginald Selkirk said...

Sam Harris and ... are philosophers.

While Harris has a bachelor of arts in philosophy, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience.