Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Poet Bravely Fights the Evil Atheists

Modern poets are something of a dying breed, although I must confess they've always been regarded as peripheral.  If approached in a bar and asked what one does for a living, if one answers, "I'm a poet," the approaching person is going to hear, "I'm unemployed."  Poetry isn't something one does as a primary profession any more than chess or Sudoku.  It's a labor of love which is largely relevant only to the person performing it, even if deep down they believe themselves to be a guiding light to humanity.

Thankfully, publications like Slate are willing to publish poets like Michael Robbins.  Not his poetry, mind you.  Rather, he writes click-baiting atheist bashing articles under the thin veneer of a "book review" wherein he creatively repackages familiar and discredited anti-atheism arguments in obfuscating, poetical language.  I confess, I'm a sucker for deconstructing articles like this, since it hides its own point under flowery language.

Whereas I have not read the book he is reviewing, I will only be discussing the article as it is written.  The Slate headline on the front page gave no indication it was a book review, and the article frankly veers off course fairly early.

This won't take terribly long.  The article is essentially hate speech, employing phrases like, "the vulgar atheist imagination".  I'll just cover the highlights.

Spencer's point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. (Spencer focuses on Europe, whence modern atheism arose, and hence on Judeo-Christianity.) Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. ("You seriously believe in God?" "Well, how do you explain thunder?")

His point is puzzling.  He doesn't seem to acknowledge the existence of creationists who seek to push the teaching of evolution out of schools, or at least the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution.  If explaining natural phenomena is not at least one of the purposes of religion, then why is this a controversy?

Robbins, of course, is a "sophisticated Christian" who believes, essentially, that 99% of Christians give the other 1% a bad name.  But no matter.  We'll travel down this rabbit hole with him.  Why, pray tell, does religion exist?

A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live.

Actually, that's a rough definition of "culture".  But keep going.

Science does not—it isn't designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls "the conduct of life." Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion "is a scientific theory," "a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life." This is—if you'll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.

Actually, if creationists are going to propose that evolution should be scrapped in favor of Genesis, then it's perfectly valid to evaluate creationism on its scientific merit.  And since the entire proposition rests on the assumption of the existence of a creator, then this is something which must be scientifically tested, as well.  Or is he unfamiliar with the Scopes monkey trial?  Science didn't pick this particular fight.

To be sure, several scriptures offer, for instance, their own accounts of creation. But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity.

This is – if you'll forgive my scientific jargon – horseshit.  Perhaps if he said, "some Christians", but to claim that Christians far and wide across the globe recognize – and have always recognized – that the creation myth in Genesis is, in fact, a myth, runs contrary to observable reality.  Seriously, I'll just leave this here.  Moving on.

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description. Indeed, it is what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls their "austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions" that enables the sciences to do their work. So when, for instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and pop-cosmologist Lawrence Krauss dismiss the (metaphysical) problem of how something could emerge from nothing by pointing to the Big Bang or quantum fluctuation, it is difficult to be kind: Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what "nothing" signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.

This is only a problem to the extent one believes that there was ever a "nothing" at some point.  It presumes that time is as linear as we perceive it and foists our limited worldview onto the entire universe, demanding that it explain itself on our terms.  But the universe does not owe us explanations.  We have to earn our knowledge through diligence, not wait for it through revelation.  To say "nothing is nothing" is a simple tautology.  To ask how something could come from nothing assumes very large facts very much not in evidence and the implication here is that either it came from nothing, or it came from God.  This presents a false dilemma based on the presumption of a linear procession of time.  Questions of how and why we exist are what science is attempting to answer.  We don't get to skip to end of this particular mystery as religion would have us do.

Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren't truly atheists. "The knowledge of contraries is one and the same," as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you're not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists' arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism).

Goodness, there are a lot of deviations between the deities presented in "most theistic traditions".  And I don't need to have a conception of dragons similar to your culture's conception of dragons (there's divergence between eastern traditions and western traditions even on that) to disbelieve in the existence of dragons.  I don't need to conceive of ghouls or goblins the way you do to disbelieve in those.  And I don't need to study the Koran to dismiss the Muslim's conception of Allah any more than I need to study Works and Days to disbelieve in Prometheus or Pandora.  Atheism is a null proposition.  One can fill it with science, humanism, or nothing at all.  The last option, it seems, is what Robbins thinks gets left behind when you remove religion, since he goes on to compare modern atheists unfavorably against nihilist philosopher Nietzsche.

Coyne accused me of "atheist-bashing" the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers.

"Really, some of my best friends are atheists!"  The poet doth protest too much, methinks.  At least have the courage to own your bigotry.  You're reviewing a book called, "Atheists: The Origin of Species" and quite enthusiastically refer to atheists as a different species.  I mean, really try hard and imagine applying this to any other minority group and get back to me.

Atheism in the sense of unbelief is probably as old as the gods—although you often had to keep your unbelief under your heretical hat if you wanted your head to remain under it as well.

Those were the days, eh?

He then cites Nietzsche extensively after briefly commenting on the book he's ostensibly reviewing.  He comes around to something resembling a point:

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: "Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it." How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.

The point isn't that morality requires theism, but that atheism has destroyed Christian morality by questioning its foundation.  If Christianity is in shambles because it was founded on a lie, then it deserves to be.  If Robbins had actually read Nietzsche a bit more extensively than what a Google search can reveal, he'd have found that the period of darkness or "nihilism" following the removal of Christianity as our morality through the removal of "God" as its foundation is also an opportunity to replace it with something better and more life-affirming.  Science may not engage in questions of "ought", but looking at the world and ourselves with a more informed outlook than we had millennia ago allows us to develop our morality through a more complicated and even pragmatic prism than "God says so".

His entire argument against atheism is essentially an appeal to consequences.  "What will be the foundation of our morality without religion?"  And this is an important question to ask as we proceed without religion, and it's one which atheists who start out as believers grapple with all the time.  As corny as it may sound, love may actually be a good start for developing a higher moral code.  But that's a discussion we need to have together, not one atheists can settle on their own.

Toward the end of the article, he shares an anecdote about this nice Christian who encountered these terribly rude atheists on this one comments section, which is… adorable.  He then concludes his "book review" by forgetting that he was reviewing a book at all.

This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called "the tune of the time." Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, "Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be."

I would agree, but if Robbins' intent here was to elevate the conversation, he could attempt to do so with a bit less seething contempt for the people he is attempting to address.  Attend to the beam in your own eye before concerning yourself with the speck in ours, brother.