Sunday, October 09, 2005

Atheism beyond the villiage

Interesting survey of a bunch of books on atheism. I love this quote, 'cause I love The God Machine:
Watching "This Week in God" on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, we are, it might seem, witnessing the culmination of a historical progression, from Robert Ingersoll, the great nineteenth-century public unbeliever, to Clarence Darrow, who in the 1920s and '30s would debate a rabbi, priest, and minister during a single evening.
I am occasionally against the sort of "villiage atheism" promulgated by people I mostly admire and agree with, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. It seems too simpleminded for me, and also strategically unwise, since religion won't be argued away by any amount of scientific evidence. This article puts the struggles between these scientists and creationists in historical context.

Atheism tries to take the place of faith but it just doesn't work, for most people. And it has some unpleasant characteristics of its own, which I think stem from its unavoidable tendency to assume the shape of a religion, despite its best efforts. Think of atheism as a sort of drug that is trying to block the religion neuroreceptor in the brain. It has to take the shape of a religion without having the effects. This is only partially successful, and atheism despite its efforts tends to assume some of the negative attributes of a religion, namely fundamentalism and zealotry.

Atheism has a complex relationship to optimism:
Classical atheists tended to be optimistic about the world's future, and their imaginations were indeed stirred by science and technology and the potential for human progress. Rejecting religion often coincided with placing hope in reason, education, democracy, and/or socialism, and those who did so were stirred by visions of a more humane, happier world organized according to human needs. Looking expectantly to the secular and social future meant rejecting the religious counsel of pessimism about our lot on earth.

It's safe to say that the future didn't turn out as anyone expected. Scientific and technological progress has been relentless, but its promises of liberation have gone flat. Few still believe that their children's world will be better than theirs. We live after Marxism, after progress, after the Holocaust—and few imaginations are stirred, few hopes raised by our world's long-range tendencies. Indeed, the opposite is happening as terrorism becomes the West's main preoccupation. In countries like the United States, Britain, and France, there has been a turning away from improving societies and toward improving the self.

On this terrain, it is no surprise that belief in God has been revived, ... At stake, then, is far more than a conflict between belief and disbelief, but the kind of world in which a religious or a secular worldview flourishes. Where secular hope is in the ascendancy, as during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it seems as if the belief in human capacity and the here and now will be strong; where fear and pessimism increase, as they have so far in the twenty-first century, humans may increasingly look to God, to their souls, and to a future beyond this life.
It's interesting that the secular materialist optimists have more or less given up on the problems of the world and instead invented their own kind of nerdvana-based religion, in which the singularity will confer godhood on us and/or our machines. A rather literal interpretation of Voltaire's "If God does not exist it would be necessary to invent him". But

Of the books reviewed, the only one I've read is Sam Harris' The End of Faith, of which I had a similar opinion as Aronson:
What is most striking after reading Baggini is Harris's own zealotry. Harris makes no effort to understand believers, be they moderate or fundamentalist; most serious in a book claiming a practical political mission of uniting "us" against "them" is his total lack of interest in any historical understanding.
on the other hand:
Harris, for all his negative energy, provides a potentially rich idea about mysticism, as cultivated in Eastern religions, as a "rational enterprise." In Buddhism, he argues, reaching beyond the self has been carefully and closely described and need not be left to faith but may be empirically studied.
I tend to agree. Buddhism is definitely the religious belief system most compatible with a scientific materialist worldview. But I'm dubious that it will have much market impact on theistic religions, which seem to give the people what they want.

Personally I'm leaning towards Yoism, the first open-source religion, which I learned about 10 minutes ago. Or maybe the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


goatchowder said...

Praise "Bob"!

Hellbound Alleee said...

"It just doesn't work for some people."

But it works for the rest of the people!

(The ones that don't believe in stuff.) That right there should tell you something. If not, that's kind of sad.

Hellbound Alleee