Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Atheists and Other Straw Men

It's one of the chief reasons I love the internets, but the liberal blogosphere in particular. I can read a piece such as "The atheist delusion" in Salon, get annoyed by John Haught's straw man arguments, and feel the urge to rebut them — but then I'll find someone else, in this case Brian at Incertus, has already done so. It's a really sharp (and quick) dissection. Check it out. As he concludes:

My point here is that while I appreciate Haught's efforts in bringing religious belief more in tune with scientific understanding--he was the only theologian to testify in the 2005 Dover, PA case about ID in the schools--he really needs to lay off of us atheists, especially if he's not going to actually address our stances and opinions.

I'd add that when Haught complains that the "new" atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are "pale imitations of great atheists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre," it strikes me as pretty unfair, like comparing every contemporary playwright to Shakespeare. Those three fellows are giants, but the "new" atheists also have a different focus. They discuss history and philosophy, but they're also examining contemporary figures and politics. It reminded me of the 'dance for me, atheist monkey' sentiment (my characterization) of a piece by Jacques Berlinerblau, and it seems to be a distraction and dodge. I also thought, "Well, Haught, you're no St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas!" Amy (of Incertus) in the comment thread had an intriguing reaction, that Haught was trying to reframe the debate with "new" atheists: "Why can't they be nihilists?! That's so much easier to argue against!!" That's probably the best take.

I'd also say that Haught mischaracterizes Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and existentialism in general, but since it's just an interview, perhaps he's more nuanced and accurate in his book. Very roughly speaking (and I should re-read Myth…), Camus' contention would be that a situation may be objectively hopeless, but we still possess the ability to chose our outlook toward it. That power of choice is extremely powerful, and can be essential. Meanwhile, one of Sartre's key essays remains "Existentialism is a Humanism." Both the "natural law" of Plato and Aristotle and existentialism stress the essential role that choice plays. The difference would be whether one believes there's an inherent morality, order, a god, and so on, or whether we construct such things for ourselves. Personally, I've always been less concerned about the source of a moral system than the system itself, whether it works, where it fails, and how it can be improved. After all, the major Greek philosophers viewed "Ethics" the subject as a practical science, not merely something meant for theoretical fancies. I'd further throw in some thoughts on anthropology and cultural norms, and how the extreme trauma of WWI, physical, cultural, philosophical and psychic, seemed to spur such striking innovations in art and philosophy, from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to aspects of Sartre's existentialism. Hell, from roughly the same era, throw in Formalism as it relates to Eisenstein's theories of cinematic montage, and we could have ourselves a hardcore, super-cool geekfest. But my apologies; I'm leaving town very shortly, and I'm giving some very heavy stuff a cursory, breezy treatment.

The comment thread for the Incertus post has some great stuff, too. On the "tolerance" issue, I'll simply link this older post.

Update: I've since cross-posted this at Blue Herald.


Fran said...

This is a fascinating post. I have to go read the Salon.com piece in more detail, which I can't do at this moment.

This is always very thorny for me. I am an actual living breathing Catholic.

A very progressive, irreverent and open minded and most unlikely one, but I am one.

Due to my inquisitive nature, I am forever reading and studying and have had many discussions with atheists.

For the record, I am completely at peace with atheism. Others may be inclined to shoot me down, but I am very much of the mind that says I do my thing and you do yours.

I don't want anyone putting their religion on me. I also want to know that I can change my mind as I read, grow, study and live. Just as I did when I had a rather unlikely return to the church many years ago.

It was also interesting to read your older post on the matter.

You see- this is where I get caught up - how does the tolerance matter work?

That is largely a rhetorical question, but feel free to answer.

Yes, I am tolerant and many other religious folk are sadly not. And I emailed this post to a friend, who if he comes here, knows that I bristle at not being tolerated by others, be they fundies or atheists or anything in between.

Well this is turning into a non-sensical ramble, so I must STFU.

However, I will be reading further, studying and am always interested in conversation, with the caveat that I am not here to convert anyone. Just always, always curious.

Fran said...

I was kind of hoping someone would say something else! It doesn't even to be nice.


Batocchio said...

Haha. Sorry, FranIAm, I'm in Virginia now with a slow dial-up. I posted this piece quickly, before I flew out here, and thus didn't cross-post it at Blue Herald, which gets more traffic than this blog. The Incertus post also had a lively thread, although they might have moved on by now.

But please don't "STFU." I guess you read the older post on tolerance, so you know my general feelings on the matter. I have some others in the Blog Against Theocracy and Religion categories.

I pretty much fall where you do. I have devout friends and family. I'm less concerned about theological differences, belief and non-belief, than I am with whether someone's a good person or not. I've certainly met plenty of religious phonies, Pharisees or "Tartuffes" or whatever you want to call them. As a general rule, if someone makes a big show of how religious they are (depending on context, location and tone, of course) I think they're full of crap. But I feel the same about any ostentatious claim of supposed virtue. There are atheist blowhards as well, of course, but the number of really militant atheists isn't too large. Most just want to be left alone. Many people of faith do, too, but unfortunately the authoritarian religious right dominate public discourse. What's disappointing about Haught is that he's not part of that crowd, and really should be making more accurate and honest claims.

Fran said...

Pardon the expression, but Amen brother!

Anyway, thanks for a thought provoking post.

Good travels to you!

And Batocchio... be forewarned. No matter what I might say, there is very little chance that I will STFU!!

Batocchio said...

Haha. I think we'd all be poorer off if you did! ;-)

Fran said...

Thank you!

Safe and happy travels and peace unto all!