Monday, November 14, 2011

The Theism vs New Atheism Farce

The current incarnation of the dispute about whether there’s a god is a perfect storm of confusion.

The Players

On one side, there are the New Atheists, those who see themselves as zealous defenders of reason and of liberal values against fundamentalist religion and terrorism. Atheists proclaim that religion is thoroughly irrational and dangerous.

On the opposing side, there are the literalistic monotheists, sometimes called fundamentalists, who see themselves as conserving revealed transcendent truth against the demonic distractions of science and of liberal society. They maintain that faith or intuition accesses deeper truth than does reason, and that the liberal’s so-called defense of liberty is actually an excuse to sin. The literalists are joined by religious moderates who see no conflict between reason and faith, science and revelation, or liberalism and theism.

Then there’s the public’s misunderstanding of this controversy, as caused by the old media that profit by entertaining consumers with stories of sensational, ideally-endless conflicts. Journalists tend to report the social and political battles between atheists and theists, and also the latest scientific finding that has only ambiguous or tangential consequences for religion. Rarely do journalists investigate what’s really at stake in the controversy.

Finally, there are the cloistered professional philosophers who have lost credibility with the anti-philosophic public. Despite frightening signs of civilization’s collapse and despite their being equipped to shed light on issues that concern everyone, these philosophers prefer to practice a pseudoscience that’s equivalent to the counting of angels on a pinhead. They thus cede the floor to ideological partisans, to New Age hangers-on, and to profit-driven, bar-lowering journalists.

The Muddle

The result is a colossal muddle. The New Atheists pretend to be more rational than anyone can be. Only the narrowest, quantified questions can be answered purely with logic or with empirical evidence. The broader questions that people care most about and fight over divide us because of differences in our values, character, life experience, and power.

Religious people who affirm some myth or other in answer to the grand question of whether the whole universe has a purpose, are bound to express their personal biases, commit numerous logical fallacies, and cherry-pick the data. The New Atheist is surely correct to that extent, but is wrong to think he or she is in a different boat, sailed by Star Trek’s Vulcans with no values, character, or other nonrational factors that determine their fundamental beliefs.

Theists personalize the cause of the universe, but New Atheists likewise treat their loved ones as though their mere organic bodies were made precious by some attachment of theirs to an immaterial spirit. Theists don’t exercise cold, calculating reason when they bow their knees and pray to an invisible cosmic parent, but neither do atheists when they make love. We are all of us animals, after all. There's not much of a defense in saying that romantic love is private, since like religious faith, an emotional bond has public consequences.

The Cause

The real problem isn’t just that there’s a clash of cultures; rather, it’s that the cultures at stake, secular liberalism and religious conservatism, are both so decrepit that their adherents forget that a cultural commitment ought to be personal. Only when a culture lives and breathes do its people appreciate the importance of being enchanted by a myth.

Our problem is the postmodern one that there’s no suitable myth to guide us: the Enlightenment myths of progress through reason and democratic capitalism led to the world wars and to a host of current oligarchic injustices, while the anachronistic myths of monotheism can only mislead us to squabble over stale metaphors. When our interaction is driven by those moribund narratives, we defend them like zombies, unaware of what we are, what we’re doing, or why our culture war seems both endless and meaningless.

Were a suitable myth for our time found, an atheist would quit reducing religious and philosophical questions to logical or to empirical ones, while the monotheist would leave behind the old myths that were forced on her as a child and that an adult can support only with techniques of gross mental compartmentalization.

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