Friday, August 05, 2011


It is sometimes said that atheism can never become really popular. Well, never say never. And in fact atheism has been popular in some places abroad. Millions of aging Communists in France and Italy were atheists, and so they remain.

In commenting on this subject earlier, I noted that I was an agnostic rather than an atheist. Many cling to the idea that an agnostic is just a closet atheist, someone who is afraid to "come right out" with his/her true beliefs. This is a common misperception. In fact, in its refusal to make any particular affirmation in the God matter, agnosticism finds itself arrayed against both theism and atheism.

My own conviction is that all truth, or just about all, is asymptotic, that is to say a matter of probability. The only exceptions are statements that belong to the realm of purely deductive or a priori assertions, such as 2 plus 2 equaling 4. Even cosmological constants, such as the speed of light, might not be true in a parallel universe.

As regards the god(s) hypothesis, I think it extremely unlikely that there is a God who is a vengeful, arbitrary, dyspeptic old man who holds court somewhere in the sky, surrounded by a gang of enforcers he calls his "angels." But there are other concepts that are less improbable. Some rest on what has been termed the fine-tuned universe, that is, the idea that the conditions that foster life can only occur when certain universal physical constants obtain. These constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of them were only slightly different the universe would be not be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood.

This imperative is not accepted by all scientists. Some of them point out that in alternative universes other constants might prevail, permitting the emergence of forms of life that we cannot imagine. Even so, though, the concordance of life-fostering elements is uncanny, since even one defection from the ensemble would cause the whole mechanism to collapse.

A few creationists and proponents of the Intelligent Design movement have seized on the concept as offering support for their views. It certainly does not. However, fine-tuning might be consistent with some sort of panentheism, that it, the idea that the universe is pervaded by some sort of stabilizing force. Whether this force, if it exists, should be called "God" or not is obviously a judgment call.

I return to the main theme. On the whole, it would seem that there is not a lot to be said about agnosticism, arguably a selling point since it allows plenty of time to reflect on other matters of more pressing concern. However, I learned from "Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction" by Robin Le Poidevin (Oxford, 2010) that there is more to be said about it than many think. Professor Poidevin is a "strong agnostic," which means (among other things) that he holds that the attitude of skepticism evident in agnosticism in the narrow sense should be extended across the board. As I indicated, one way of doing this is to seek to assess truth-value in terms of probability. For most people, though, such principled dedication is too austere. They require Answers, so that they can get on with the rest of their lives. For this reason, I fear that agnosticism is destined to remain confined to fairly narrow circles, figuring chiefly as part of the rarefied tool kit of some highly educated individuals, most of them ensconced in academia. By contrast, atheism (as we noted in a previous post) does command a certain popular appeal, as manifested in summer camps, book-club meetings and other social gatherings, parodic rituals, and so forth.

UPDATE. I reproduce portions of some pertinent remarks by the Muslim scholar Reza Aslan, an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Where I part company is in his suggestion that the similarity of certain concepts, such as the Hindu prana, the Chinese ch'i, the Hebrew ruah, and the Christian Holy Spirit, offers cross-cultural confirmation of some objective significance of religion. They may only represent a universal tendency to superstition, as seen in such beliefs as ghosts and the evil eye. As for Paul Tillich's "Ultimate Concern," that has always struck me as a cop out, a kind of fig leaf for unbelief.

Here is Aslan:

"One cold spring day in London, as I crossed the bustling square at Piccadilly Circus, I looked left instead of right (a typical American tourist) and was nearly run down by a careening double-decker bus with a flash of letters emblazoned along its side:


"The slogan is now ubiquitous and not only in London. When I first saw it I laughed, amused that atheists in the UK were miming propaganda techniques perfected by evangelical groups in the US, whose billboards dot the American landscape ("Having truth decay? Brush up on your Bible!"). I likely would have thought no more of it had not a friend informed me that the driving force behind the London bus ads was none other than the dean of the so-called "new atheists"--Darwin's Rottweiler, himself--Richard Dawkins. . . .

"There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement. The new atheists have their own special interest groups and ad campaigns. They even have their own holiday (International Blasphemy Day). It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism--an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers [and child molesters--WRD]), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore. This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauerm or Nietzsche. . . . Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. . . .

"The principal 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. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) 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. 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. 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 Mueller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (a la 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.

"Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did? What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations--separated by immeasurable time and distance--seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi'i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse? 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.

"The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion's name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics. The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid--the stock response of any absolutist. Some argue that the religious impulse is merely the result of chemicals in the brain, as though understanding the mechanism by which the body experiences transcendence delegitimizes the experience (every experience is the result of chemical reactions). What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect."

WRD: That conclusion, unknowability, yields agnosticism, not theism.



Blogger Burk said...

"Some argue that the religious impulse is merely the result of chemicals in the brain, as though understanding the mechanism by which the body experiences transcendence delegitimizes the experience (every experience is the result of chemical reactions)."

Allow me to take issue with this analysis. The fact is that theists commonly ascribe quite a bit of significance to their mystical experiences, even though similar experiences can be purchased by the dram. Such things as talking to god and understanding the universe are in play here. They also deny that all experiences involve chemicals, but rather that they have an immortal, immaterial soul, which partakes in some measure in the divine. All of this is claptrap. It is fantasy without any decent evidence, and a great deal of counter-evidence of its fantastical, richly archetypal, psychologically-driven character.

You are engaging in a classic case of media "balance", splitting the difference between two sides with, whatever their strength of conviction, vastly differing levels of rationality and evidence. You take the question of god as significant enough to hold in respectful abeyance, when it is so abundantly clear through the history of art and culture that man makes god, not the other way around. One might just as well propound a respectful agnosticism about unicorns or Hogwarts.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous said...

Quite helpful piece of writing, thanks so much for your post.

12:39 PM  

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