Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Contrarians' contrarians

I still check in on Butterflies & Wheels now and then. I occasionally find links to articles that I like, although Ophelia plainly means for me not to like them.

Andrew Brown is a science and religion writer. In this post at the Comment Is Free blog at the Guardian, he's piling on Richard Dawkins a bit (fine, but enough about Dawkins already) but I imagine he's also describing his credo for writing about religion.

No: Marx had that aspect right. Religion is the heart of a heartless world, and the heartlessness of the world is a terrible fact that can't just be wished away. No one gets a wonderful life just by choosing it, unless they are very lucky indeed. But then a decent respect for the role of luck in the world might lead one to sympathise with the believers, some of them even fundamentalists, who are trying to clear up their little corners of it.

If theology is, as Dawkins says repeatedly, nonsense about nothing, then anyone who gives a theological explanation for their actions is either mad or lying. In either case, there is no reason for a scientist to take their explanations seriously. But I think people who talk about God are trying often to communicate something about their own experience of the world, or about their place in it.

In that case, it is more useful to try to understand what they are saying, and why, rather than dismiss them as deluded fantasists. At the very least, the atheist is required to admit the existence of widespread patterns of experience which can reasonably and naturally be taken as the experience of supernatural beings. Gods undeniably exist in this world as they do in Terry Pratchett's: wherever people believe in them strongly enough, they're there.

So the question becomes, what do we do about them? This shouldn't be essentially different, to a thoroughgoing atheist, to the question of what we do about money. Money causes quite as much misery in the world as religion does. People will commit terrible crimes to make or save it and view with the utmost indifference the sufferings of strangers who stand in their way. Yet the way to diminish these sufferings is not to abolish money or to pretend that the needs it serves are unworthy of human beings.

That's been tried. It didn't work. We've learnt, instead, how to make the capitalist system work better: to arrange for self-interest to be, so far as possible, enlightened. Similarly, if we want to diminish the suffering caused by religion we need to make superstition, irrationality and social organisation benefit, so far as possible, the human race. This isn't easy, and it may not be possible. But there really is no practical alternative. Even if God is no more than a word for luck, we should say "There, but for the grace of luck, go I"; and not "I thank you, luck, that I am not as other men." If religion is human, then humanists must try to understand it, to sympathise and not to sneer.

Luck. Loss. Fate. Grace?

Timothy Garton Ash, "Islam in Europe" (NYRB)

Having in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism, under the influence of an inspiring schoolteacher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist. In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals, she has gone from one extreme to the other, with an emotional energy perfectly summed up by Shakespeare: "As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive." This is precisely why she is a heroine to many secular European intellectuals, who are themselves Enlightenment fundamentalists. They believe that not just Islam but all religion is insulting to the intelligence and crippling to the human spirit. Most of them believe that a Europe based entirely on secular humanism would be a better Europe. Maybe they are right. (Some of my best friends are Enlightenment fundamentalists.) Maybe they are wrong. But let's not pretend this is anything other than a frontal challenge to Islam. In his crazed diatribe, Mohammed Bouyeri [the jihadist who murdered Theo Van Gogh] was not altogether mistaken to identify as his generic European enemy the "unbelieving fundamentalist."

Friday, September 15, 2006


I'm not going to track it down, but I think I owe another hat tip to Matt Yglesias. (Fanboy? Me?) Tony Judt in the London Review of Books. He's writing to a European audience about the poor state of liberalism in the U.S. He has some pretty sharp things to say about "liberal hawks" and strong-but-wrong moderates who prefer a tough stance to a thoughtful argument.

I have written a couple of approving words here and there about human rights as an organizing principle for foreign policy. So this quote caught my eye:

In the European case this trend is an unfortunate by-product of the intellectual revolution of the 1980s, especially in the former Communist East, when ‘human rights’ displaced conventional political allegiances as the basis for collective action. The gains wrought by this transformation in the rhetoric of oppositional politics were considerable. But a price was paid all the same. A commitment to the abstract universalism of ‘rights’ – and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name – can lead all too readily to the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms. In this light Bush’s War against Terror, Evil and Islamo-fascism appears seductive and even familiar: self-deluding foreigners readily mistake the US president’s myopic rigidity for their own moral rectitude.

(I didn't realize Vaclav Havel had endorsed the invasion of Iraq. Another hero bites the dust.)


I'm leaving myself a bookmark here. Matthew Yglesias linked me to this American Prospect piece by Peter Steinfels, in which he reviews several books about religion and politics in the U.S.

A couple of these authors, notably Kevin Phillips and Michelle Goldberg, throw around the word "theocracy" quite a bit--to the point of hyperbole. Overhyping the threat of American theocracy is a problem, first because it leads progressives to take their eyes off the ball: corporatism and hard-right ideology. Steinfels writes that it's rather silly to argue that the Bush Administration's policies are driven by Christian fervor. Emotional issues like abortion and gay marriage are wielded as campaign causes to fire up religious-right voters, but once in power in Washington, the GOP has addressed these issues "in cautious, halting, inconsistent, or purely token fashion." Furthermore:

Exaggeration and inaccuracy also matter because they decrease any chance of mobilizing the opposition to the country’s current course, as these writers ardently desire. They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.

I love that paragraph. I'd like to be like Peter Steinfels when I grow up.

Somewhat related, there was a bit of a fuss last weekend at Echidne of the Snakes and Pandagon. Someone at EotS posted about atheists who make online comments offensive to religious people, and that for the sake of their political fortunes, those atheists should cut that out. Amanda Marcotte protested. I commend the Steinfels quote above to her. I can't quantify how many votes are at stake here, but I'm pretty damn sure that there are no votes to be had via entertaining one's fellow hipsters by calling God "the Sky Fairy." That pisses me off, frankly. So do bloggers who wonder why astrology doesn't get the same legal and cultural respect as Catholicism or Judaism (Atrios). So do writers who describe faith as a mental illness or a form of child abuse (Richard Dawkins). I'm not asking anyone to "adopt religious language," or adjust their views on issues one inch.* Just don't be gratuitously insulting. You think it's funny, I say it's not, it's an abdication of your principles in public debate, and it harms my trust in you as an ally.

(* I feel I should give credit here: Amanda Marcotte has influenced my views on reproductive rights quite a bit. I used to toy with various triangulations on the abortion issue, but Amanda has helped me to see that controlling your own body is an absolute.)