Saturday, April 28, 2007

'Twas ever thus ...

... Framing the Great Atheist Schism. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I think this is an admirably reasonable post, but I was struck by this sentence: "... I would go so far as to say that religions tend to be inherently misogynistic and intolerant, because they reflect the inherently misogynistic and intolerant cultures that produce and maintain them."

I presume this means that atheism, by definition, is neither misogynistic nor intolerant. So atheism has either been produced by some other culture, which is not misogynistic or intolerant, or atheism does not reflect the culture in which it is produced. In the former case, it would be useful to know what culture(s) that is. In the latter, atheism would seem to be a cultural aberration, and would have to demonstrate what makes it necessarily superior to the culture(s) it deviates from. (I happen to think that misogyny and intolerance are bad and do not think my religion encourages either, though I am well aware it has been gulity of both. Moreover, anyone who has read Dawkins or Dennett knows that tolerance at least is not their long suit.)


  1. Atheism, as it has been formulated in Western culture, is unfortunately dominated by the negative argument: the argument-against. most atheism, as it plays out, is merely anti-Christian, in a dominantly Christian culture. The little neo-pagan religions, Buddhism, and all the Native American religions tend to be beneath its notice.

    Of course, Buddhism is at root a non-theistic philosoph to begin with. Elements of theism that have crept back into Buddhism come from its syncretizing with local religions who were previously theistic, even if pantheistic.

    It's very hard for Westerners who have been raised in the Abrahamic traditions to understand that non-theism, atheism, doesn't HAVE to mean you're against religion, or anti-religion. They rarely appreciate that non-theistic religions such as Zen just don't even feel the need to "rebel against" religion, or even address or think about it all that much. An if you want a detailed understanding of the psychology of faith, go talk to the Tibetan Buddhists; they're very insgihtful on that front.

    I used to typeset the monthly newsletter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I learned something very important from that experience. All of the leaders of that group, a group that DOES do good legal work about protecting the Establishment clause of the Constitution, were former born-again evangelists, who became atheists. What I learned was that religious fervor is not limited to the application of religion alone, but can be applied to anything, as Eric Hoffer showed all too well in his book "The True Believer." Lots of atheists are former True Believers who have become Antis, or rather True Believers in the opposite of belief. It's quite adolescent, this rebellion, in spychologcal terms—even when it's necessary.

  2. Thanks, Art, for a characteristically thoughtful and informed comment. Though I'm a practicing Catholic, I have been much influenced by both Taoism and Zen. Actually, I have always had an interest in "mystical theology," and it is interesting to note how similar what Meister Eckhart or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing say is to what the Zen Masters say. I think there is something fundamentally true about religion but it has less to do with doctrines and rituals than is commonly thought. Look at the moon, not the finger pointing at it.

  3. Anonymous2:09 PM

    The atheist does actually have a god, but this God, unlike the kind of absolute consciousness of the superstitious religions, is a rational one. I call this god, or God, the Very Big Bang. People are probably familiar with the Big Bang theory, but where this falls down is the impression it creates in the mind of the human entity. Lots of things are big and while the capital B does do something to raise the relative bigness of this bang to quite an impressive scale, it still doesn't quite impress to the desired level. Therefore I add the very, which as you will have noticed has a capital V in order to further impress.
    So what you need to understand is we do have an nth point of consciousness from which the profundity and enormous beauty and intelligence of life has its First Cause, which is a very big bang, or preferably A Very Big Bang. There might even be a case for calling this a Very Very Big Bang. Again, think of a bang but extremely big. So just to be clear, we had Absolute Nothingness, and then a Very Big Bang. In fact I would change the dictionary definition of Nothing to: that from which very big bangs emerge.

  4. Of course, Warden, it is what brought about the change that puzzles. The atheist would say nothing. Everything just happened all of a sudden and here we are. Making the first thing that happened unlike everything else that has happened since.

  5. Very compelling piece. You know my position Frank...LOL...I'll sit this one out! :-)

  6. Anonymous5:32 AM

    It would seem rationally clear that the bigness of the bang was so unprecedentedly big that it sufficed to bring about its own bang, so to speak. Some of you might also argue that bangs tend to be a little destructive as opposed to infinitely constructive, but the problem here is a failure to understand the quality of this bang. It's not all about quantity, even though as I've stressed, this bang was more than impressive on that scale. As far as bangs go, this was the big one. Where did this bang exist, you might ask since nothing and nowhere existed where this bang could occur? Well, i think I may just have it. You may know controlled demolitions cause vacuums within themselves where the normal laws of gravity are transcended. So what happened here is the bang caused its own vacuum within which it occured.

  7. Anonymous5:37 AM

    I might also add, I do sometimes in times of distress actually pray to the Very Big Bang. And sometimes when feeling less confident, to some of the lesser bangs to intercede on my behalf with the same Very Big Bang.

  8. Sam Harris in effect sums up his basic charge against religion and claim for science, and the charge and claim of Dawkins, et al., thus: "Is a person really free to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence? No. Evidence (whether sensory or logical) is the only thing that suggests that a given belief is really about the world in the first place. "

    William F. Vallicella quotes this and restates it thus: "E2 Belief B is true only if there is evidence for B?" And he comments:

    "Charitably construed, Harris is asserting E2. He is saying that a necessary condition for a belief's being true is that there be evidence for it, whether sensory or logical. But why should we accept this? What is Harris' evidence for it, whether sensory or logical? Clearly, one cannot have sensory evidence for E2. If you think otherwise, tell me which sense provides the evidence. I know by sight that there is a computer in front of me, but I do not know by sight (or by any other external or internal sense) that a belief is true only if there is evidence for it.

    "Nor can one have logical evidence for E2. The proposition in question is not logically true (true in virtue of its logical form), nor is it analytically true (true in virtue of the meanings of its constituent terms). Of course, 'logical evidence' could mean inferential evidence: a proposition has this sort of evidence if it is a logical consequence of a another proposition. But then which proposition is E2 supposed to inherit its evidence from? And what about the evidence of that proposition? Where does it come from?

    "One can see that E2 applies to itself. But we have just seen that there is no sensory or logical evidence for it. Given that these are the only two kinds of evidence, it follows that if E2 is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then of course it is false. Therefore, E2 is necessarily false."

    "So far, then, I see no coherent argument for the thesis that one may (can?) believe only propositions for which there is logical or sensory evidence." "Even if religious beliefs are unsupported by evidence, the same is true of Harris' epistemological beliefs."

    I wonder, Warden, is something like E2 one of the Very Big Bangists' articles of faith? Is it found in their catechism?

  9. I think it also worth noting that the Big Bang theory was formulated by the Rev. Georges LeMaitre, OSB.

  10. Anonymous5:14 PM

    Well, Dave, I hope you'll forgive my somewhat tangential response. "Is a person really free to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence? No. Evidence (whether sensory or logical) is the only thing that suggests that a given belief is really about the world in the first place. "

    Well, your typical mystic will argue that the relevant evidence is in the realm of pure consciousness, but which then extends to perception of the "external" sensory world as divine also. My response is show me the proof. A friend of mine argued that certain works by Van Gogh were attempts to capture this experiecnce of the divine and that my friend in turn experiences something deeply profound when viewing relevant works such as Men Walking by Cypresses Under Starry Night. I told him to prove this profound experience of his. His response was to show me reproductions of supposedly great works which he hoped would in turn lead me to experience this supposedly "profound state of consciousness". I experienced nothing and laughed in his face. This exalted experience obviously a myth he'd fooled himself into believing he was experiencing to make himself feel better bout life.
    He played me then Beethoven's Pastoral symphony which he again claimed led tp his feeling something "profound". I again experienced nothing and laughed in his face. "It's only the vibration of air molecules," I scoffed and left.

  11. Hi, this is definitely an interesting comment thread. It's nice to read people talking about this without the usual "Atheists suck" or "How can you not say religion is stupid, irrational, and the root of all evil, you appeaser?!"

    Since I was mainly writing the post as part of an (attempted) conversation between atheists, I didn't really talk about atheism as being the product of social processes, but my own view is that all beliefs and actions are, in fact, just that. I'm a good, old fashioned (i.e., pre-Habermas) Frankfurt school nerd in that way. I think, in fact, that both science (as it is practiced) and atheists will tend to be misogynists, to some degree, because the culture in which they exist is misogynistic (or patriarchal, or whatever you want to call it).

    That said, I don't think atheism is inherently misogynistic in the same way that religions tend to be, because atheism isn't a social structure or institution with a codified set of beliefs that have a long history of being interpreted within and serving patriarchal cultures. Atheism is pretty amorphous, with the only real commonality being a lack of belief in supernatural beings, which makes it difficult to say that atheism has anything inherent whatsoever. Thus, while all atheists may be misogynistic to some degree, atheism itself is not. That is, one could theoretically be an atheist without being committed to patriarchal ideals, but it would be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, for one to be a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, etc. and not be committed to certain patriarchal ideals, because such ideals are codified in the scriptures/foundational texts of those religions.

  12. Anonymous4:01 AM

    But the atheist isn't simply a rational equation, Chris. He or indeed she(for let us give credit to the female of the species) exists within the same historical cultural ecosystem as the religiously inclined.
    Haven't really time now but I don't think being religious necessarily involves any concern with supernatural beings. All the mystical schools would place the emphasis here on the mind that is concerned with such pure Being, there being no this and that, me & you , etc.

  13. Andrew, I agree, and as I said, atheists will tend to reflect their culture, but atheism isn't really a thing, it's just a loose label applied to a homogenous group of people across cultures (including religious heritages) who often share very, very little in the way of belief or practice.

    As for religion, while there are a few people who can reasonably be said to hold non-theistic religious beliefs, more often than not, even in the non-theistic religions (like certain strands of Buddhism), supernatural beings are part of the modal set of beliefs and practices.

  14. Thanks, Chris, for stopping by - and for the clarification. And you're right - it is nice to have an exchange of views on the subject minus the rancor. An awful lot of ancillary stuff tends to get in the way. I think, for instance, it's useful to distinguish between faith and belief (the former defined best, I think, by Cardinal Newman, as "being capable of bearing doubt"). The rancorous quarrels tend to be over beliefs, the more specific the beliefs the more rancorous the quarrels. The problem, I suspect, arises from a desire to explicate the mystery of being more precisely than is possible.