Thursday, November 16, 2006

(A)fairy tales, fundamentalist optimism and historical progress

A.C. Grayling recently did some very fine intellectual (not to say rhetorical) work in his response to the Theos publication with the cringeworthy title 'Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Sphere'. There are many sparkling elements in Grayling's piece, but the most helpful ones usefully provide clear definitions for often misused words such as 'secular' and 'humanist'.
Secularism is the view that church and state (religion and national government) should be kept separate. The first secularists were medieval churchmen who did not wish the temporal power to interfere in church affairs. Temporal government of religious affairs produces emasculated and feeble latitudinarian religious bodies like the Church of England (so this, if any religious body has to exist, is a good thing), whereas religious interference or, worse, control of government has a ready tendency to degenerate into what we might revealingly call Talibanism, as history and current affairs overwhelmingly and tragically attest.

Humanism in the modern sense of the term is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world. This means that it does not, in its thinking about the good and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another, premise putative data from astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind's remote and more ignorant past.
Most importantly, Grayling debunks the ever-recurring argument that a lack of faith is simply, to adapt Clausewitz, a continuation of faith by other means:

"Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views "a-fairyists", hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a "faith" in "the non-existence of X" (where X is "fairies" or "goblins" or "gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. "Faith" - specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief - is a far different thing....

Well put, Dr. Grayling. (And from today, I would like to be counted - just so as to remove any doubt - as a committed believer in afairyism...)

However, where I think Grayling is on less firm ground is his opinion, expressed recently in Prospect, that rather than a resurgence in religious belief we are currently witnessing its 'death throes'.

The idea indeed has a nice counterintuitive quality, and there is evidence which seems to back it up.

On the other hand...I do wonder whether there's more than a touch of wishful secular thinking behind the notion of religious decline. John Gray, in a book review which appeared a few weeks ago (which I mentioned once before) expressed a view he has long - and repeatedly - been making: that secular liberal hopes for an onward march of reason and progress are indeed a 'faith' which is ungrounded in an honest appraisal of current politics, human psychology or history. As Gray puts it:
Religion - especially of the monotheistic variety that demands universal acceptance - is back. If ever politics was secular, it is so no longer. Presidents whose view of the world is formed from apocalyptic myths are in charge in Iran and the US, and seem ready to act on the belief that salvation comes to humankind by way of Armageddon. The social science that assumed religion must eventually yield to science is obsolete. If you want to understand the beliefs that are shaping global politics, read the Book of Revelation.
Maybe. But maybe not.

In any case, Grayling's comments have set off a vigorous discussion. Some of it has been very thought-provoking, some of it less so and Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels has been distributing praise and scorn where appropriate.

One highlight is her response to the somewhat floundering logic in Mark Vernon's view of the current debates around religion and secularism. Vernon says:
Consider the typical skirmish between secular and religious protagonists (AC Grayling provides a good case in point with his blog). They lead, at best, up a cul-de-sac because their arguments only go round and round in circles. They are, at worst, dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they nurture extremes - whether religious or secular. This rides roughshod over the ground that is genuinely fascinating, humanly enriching, and socially essential: the places where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet. The militant atheist and the fundamentalist believer alike try to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science or religion can and should say it all.
To which Ophelia responds:
One, I would say Theo Hobson provides a much better case in point, and that in any case it's hard to see why Grayling provides a good case in point of both protagonists of that skirmish. Two, what places are there where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet? And what's so fascinating and enriching about them? Unless he just means subjects on which everyone's understanding is incomplete so everyone can have a good indeterminate discussion? (But then how do discussions of that kind differ from arguments that 'only go round and round in circles'? Don't they have a good deal in common? But if so, that's not particularly a place where science and religion meet, it's just a place where humans don't know much. You can meet anyone there. Lepidopterists, mountaineers, anyone. And three (loud sigh) very few even militant atheists believe (let alone have 'faith') that science can and should say it all. I've never spoken to or read a single scientist who thinks science can and should say it all - I'd like to challenge all these enemies of militant atheism to cite one who does, with illustrative quotations. Meanwhile I'll think that's a canard, a straw man, a red herring, a magenta halibut. As is (loud sigh) the faith accusation. I wish Gordon Brown would make that illegal, if only on grounds of deep boredom.

In particular, she's right about Theo Hobson's comment being a much more likely candidate for dead-endness.

Hobson starts off asserting that the 'missionary zeal' (ah, such clever - and subtle! - word-play) of assertive secularists such as Grayling reveals a 'faith dimension' in their thinking. I hope he's not saying that being insistent and consistent about something is - in itself - a form of 'faith', since that would be silly and wrong (see, for example, the quotation with which this post will end, below). But, in fact, I do think that's what he means.

He then suddenly changes direction and - accompanied by the wrenching sounds of screeching, overloaded gears and, moreover, ignoring Grayling's definition of atheism - alleges that atheism
entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. (Empahsis added)
Huh? Really? Atheism entails ('to have, impose, or require as a necessary accompaniment or consequence') a certain narrative about historical progress? All atheists have the same view of history without which atheism would be impossible?

Gosh. I'm an atheist. I'm also a historian who - like most of my colleagues - holds to a quite different narrative of history than the 'it's getting better all the time' version which Hobson imagines. Does this make me a logical impossibility? Or, perhaps not a 'true' atheist (on the 'no true Scot' model). Or perhaps I'm not a 'true' historian.

Which would be worrying...if this whole argument weren't so obviously ridiculous.

Not content with making a basic logical error, however, Hobson moves onto his quasi-historical argument that, atheism itself is the product, not as you might expect of the Enlightenment or the development of science, but rather of....protestantism.
The atheist narrative, whether Grayling likes it or not, derives from Christianity, more specifically from Protestantism. The Protestants of the 17th century believed that a new era of history was dawning. The dark age of Roman Catholic superstition was giving way to a new age of truth. This is the origin of the modern belief in historical progress. The atheist enlightenment of the 18th century inherits this historical utopianism. It is an ideology full of bastardized Protestant idealism: it believes that the post-religious truth will set humanity free at last.
Now, it's true that no idea comes from nowhere and, thus, 'derives from' something else; however, there seem to be several major intellectual steps missing between Christianity and 'the atheist narrative' (what, only one?) which Hobson decries. The Reformation was certainly an important precursor to the Enlightenment (and even after that a lot of ostensibly secularist thinking has remain influenced by religious assumptions or frameworks), but Hobson's relentless effort to detach atheism from science and link it with a blind, naive optimism about the human condition is bizarre.

I mean, at one stage in Western culture nearly all intellectual viewpoints were to some extent religious. Since modern thinking 'derives from' that tradition, it could be argued that Hobson is creating a model in which it would be impossible for anyone to have a truly non-theistic thought.
But more importantly, I have yet to actually find any prominent secular thinker who expresses the view that were we simply to get faith out of the way 'a new golden age beckons':
It [atheism] adapts the Judeo-Christian belief in the "eschaton", the glorious climax towards which history has been straining.
'Straining' towards...a 'glorious climax'. Yes. OK, I'll leave that alone...and turn instead to pointing out that Hobson's argument here relies rather heavily, and awkwardly, on the history of Positivism - which did certainly have a startlingly teleological and progressive view of history - which Gray presented in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern.

By casting all secularists into that bizarre mould (which is a mistake which Gray himself - for all his worth as a thinker - all too often makes...while all positivists might have been atheists, the equation doesn't work equally well in the opposite direction), Hobson is confusing two very different things: the scientific, secular worldview and a very specific (though in its time influential) intellectual movement which did, at times, develop certain cult-like trappings.

But where, today, are these wildly optimistic secularists proposing that all that stands between mankind and utopia is religion? Are they the same ones also pointing to looming environmental catastrophe? The same people applying the perspectives of Darwinism to the human race, thereby emphasising its animal basis, ultimate limitations and inherent tendencies toward irrationality? The same people who realise that, even were religion to get out the way (and I don't think that even the most optimistic propose that will happen soon, if ever) fundamental conflicts rooted in economics or ethnicity would remain?

If anything, it is a skeptical, secular and scientific outlook which tends against most kinds of fundamentalist optimism. This is not to say that improvement is impossible - it most certainly is - but so, of course, is historical change in the opposite direction.

Not only is a more clear-eyed look at reality - e.g., one involving neither supernatural beings nor progressive teleologies - rarely something which leads to heartwarming sense of optimism, but such a viewpoint is essential if some kinds of desirable - if incremental and always contingent - change can be won or even contemplated. If you look around, I'd say that most of those with a secular perspective are indeed concerned about religion; but they also tend to be concerned about a lot of other things as well, and I think that most of them have no illusions about the meaning of history.

But just to show how little the accusation about a secular worldview being simply another form of faith has changed, I'll give the final word to Richard Dawkins, who in a 1997 essay 'Is Science a Religion' wrote:
I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them.

But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
Simple enough, wouldn't you say?

So, to religious critics of secularism, I can only say the following: for God's sake, find a new meme.

[UPDATE]: I've just noted another very worthy response to Hobson's commentary here at Fisking Central, who seem like such fine people that I've also added them to my links list.


Baby Washington said...

Many thanks - I'll makes sure we reciprocate next time our links are updated. Great post, btw.

Baby Washington
Fisking Central

Elentar said...

It occurs to me that the death of religion might not mean the disappearance of it so much as a surfeit of garbage religion and superstition.

Consider the loathsome crowd of vultures that now feed on the carcass of the major faiths, the likes of Falwell, Robertson, Bin Laden, and Haggard. There was a time when these faiths had the strength to fend these carrion eaters off. There was a reason why fundamentalist christians were relegated to the backwoods: someone was minding the store. Or consider the lunacy of the Rapture. The noisome little man who first loosed this brain fart was promptly packed off from the Anglican Church to obscurity. Now legions of believers spout this dime store fantasy, and the only voice that can be heard to object comes from secularists.

It now seems that the old religions are so desperate to make their faiths a happenin' thang that they will hold their nose and embrace any mangy beast that appear to have a talent for attracting a crowd. I certainly don't miss the inquisition--the same stick they beat heretics with was also used on atheists--but when they can't even work up a lather against blithering heresies, you can stick a fork in their ass. They're done.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: fundamentalists

Top 10 Signs You're A Christian Fundamentalist