Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A truly absurd distraction

Well, there I was getting ready to write a bilious response to Madeleine Bunting's silly comments in the Guardian yesterday and it seems that AC Grayling and Ophelia Benson have already beaten me to it.

But there are still a few things I would like to add.

The key passages from Bunting's column that triggered intense neuronal activity in that region of my brain devoted to tendentious-twaddle-detection centred on the issue of faith. Bunting is convinced that the following is a Serious Problem:

Faith - of all varieties - has become one of the phenomena against which a demoralised post-socialist centre-left chooses to define itself.

Let's take a closer look at this sentence, shall we?

First, 'demoralised post-socialist centre-left' seems like an oddly restrictive category for those most prominent figures who have in recent times been taking issue with the more pernicious aspects of faith in modern society. Is Richard Dawkins a 'demoralised post-socialist'? Did Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris reach their conclusions about faith in a post-1989 socialist funk? One may call the (definitely) atheist and (possibly) post-socialist Christopher Hitchens many things but 'demoralised' would not be one of them. And for some of the rest of us, Madeline, there is nothing 'post-' about our socialism.

Putting all that to one side, though, the rhetorical trick she is indulging in here is obvious, i.e., her dismissive claim that secularism is based on adolescent sulking rather than sound science.

Second, I would think it's obvious that a significant and vocal segment of the left has not at all turned its guns on faith in recent decades. Quite the contrary: Particularly in academic settings, some varieties of post-modern leftish theorising have led directly to their own kinds of extreme relativism, faith-based reasoning and bizarre attacks on reason and science. Condemning science or reason is one of those things where the pomo-left (which, as Brian Boyd astutely pointed out recently, seems more blissfully self-confident than 'demoralised') and faith-based right (of whichever faith, mind you) can come together.

Third: yes, Madeleine, some varieties of faith are well worth attacking and 'defining oneself against', even if that last phrase itself reeks of a much decayed post-modern fixation with identity and the Other. Most secularist critics of religion today are not clinging to religion as a handy evil against which to define themselves; instead, they are pointing out what is wrong about the assertive faith movements, which -- despite their great differences -- have a common defining factor in opposing not only (or not even) the worst but also the best aspects of modern Western life.

Bunting's commentary descends into something even stranger on this latter point, as it builds up to a vigorous frenzy against...something. To be honest, I'm not so sure what exactly she's against. Maybe you can figure it out.

First, she castigates Grayling's 'comic book history' which asserts the 'enslavement of the European mind by the absurdities of Christianity'. Bunting opines that Grayling's view

wilfully omits how Christianity (and, incidentally, Islam) has fostered learning and science (even arches and domes) in Europe for hundreds of years - as well as providing the foundations for human rights and secularism itself.

This sounded...strangely familiar to me. And, indeed, that was for a very good reason. In November of last year, Theo Hobson (in his own critique of another Grayling article) said something similar, even claiming that atheism is directly 'derived from' protestantism. (I responded at length at the time, and many of the same responses apply here, as Hobson and Bunting are reading more or less from the same script.)

And then...Bunting's argument became even more familiar. Hobson made the following claim (calling it an 'argument' would be too generous):

Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. Once it is removed, a new golden age beckons. It adapts the Judeo-Christian belief in the "eschaton", the glorious climax towards which history has been straining.

Translated into Bunting's rather more voluble language and urgent, pseudo-Freudian need to reduce secularism to some kind of mental breakdown, the same claim goes something like this:

But it is his claim of the west's steady march of progress to the happy lands of a universal ideal of rationality and freedom that strikes so hollow. The more vehemently one hears liberal progressives claim progress, the more one wonders who they are trying to convince.

As I pointed out in my earlier critique of Hobson, there is a very obvious elision here being made between a claim that reason and science have helped to make life better (which is unquestionable) and an accusation that modern secularists are suffering from a kind of naive hyper-Positivism which makes them believe science will lead us to the promised land (which, so far as I've been able to find, none of the serious scientists and atheist commentators I read -- and I do read them quite a lot -- have claimed).

One can, I think, perform the not-all-too-difficult mental gymnastics of seeing that human beings have been capable of remarkable technological and (rather more ambiguously) social improvement over centuries without thinking that such developments have all been inevitable, have proceeded without conflict, have overcome deeply-rooted contradictions, have been evenly distributed or have been (or remain) irreversible. We can make things better, but whether we can actually be better (in the sense of ever fully escaping from the contradictions of our evolved natures) is another matter. (The late German sociologist Norbert Elias expressed something similar, I think, when he remarked Es gibt Fortschritte aber keinen Fortschritt, i.e., There are progressions, but no Progress.)

Besides which: Read Grayling's articles with an unbiased eye. Go ahead, read them. Do you find a relentless march to the 'happy lands' of universal reason? No. I didn't either. Our Madeleine must have somebody else in mind. Or, which is more likely, she's gone and invited our old friend the straw man to the party without warning us.

But then she veers off into something more unsettling:

Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity - that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James's new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west's "good life" - success, fame, wealth - mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Even on a more prosaic level, Jade Goody and Branscombe beach have been such absorbing spectacles because they echo our fear that the "progress" of rationality and freedom has done nothing to enlarge the human spirit.

Er,...is it just me, or is Madeleine Bunting honestly nominating Jade Goody as an exemplar of Enlightenment reasoning? Is that where science and reason lead us, Madeleine? Is it? Come on, tell me honestly. Do you really think that 'Big Brother' sums up the West and 'enlightenment values'? Do Newton, Voltaire and Darwin have a lot to answer for here?

Wouldn't this be a bit like me pointing to any one of many ranting, hate-mongering shopfront preachers (like, say, this guy) and claiming he 'represents' Christian values? (One could also reverse your own query and ask whether the fascination we find in such loathsome nut-cases 'masks the extraordinary thought-killing singleness of purpose, relentless viciousness and comfortable self-satisfaction at the heart of religious belief', but that would be churlish, wouldn't it?)

Nor am I precisely sure what Branscombe beach is supposed to tell us about the Enlightenment and secularism. Is greed a product of the Enlightenment? Or just of atheism more generally? Is it something which exists solely in the soulless 'West'?

More than 30 years ago, John G. Rule wrote an excellent article on 'Wrecking and Coastal Plunder' which appeared in the seminal crime history collection Albion's Fatal Tree (Pantheon Books, 1975). As Rule points out, it was already necessary in the reign of Edward I to pass laws against coastal plundering, and an act of 1713 which sought to reinforce existing legislation against it stated that 'many ships of trade after all their dangers at sea escaped have unfortunately near home, run on shore ... and ... have been barbarously plundered by Her Majesty's subjects'. Rule's article opens with the following words, from the early 19th century:

Wreckers, often smugglers and their connexions, who inhabit those parts of the coast where vessels are most frequently wrecked. These hard-hearted persons, not only men, but women also, consider the stranded vessel as their property as soon as the waves have thrown it on their coast. -- Under this unhallowed impression they plunder all they can, although the owner should survive and protest against their proceedings. (All quotes and references from Rule, p. 167)

Say what you will about the morality of 'Her Majesty's subjects' and the fate of those goods which found their way to shore, but 'finders keepers' is hardly an Enlightenment slogan.

Madeleine, listen: a 'restless, desperate discontent' is a fundamental part of being human, and it hasn't only emerged alongside 24-hour shopping, reality television and navel-piercing. People choose all kinds of ways of dealing with it. For many that has long involved belief in a super-deity or cosmic force with gives them some kind of 'meaning'. For others, it involves the search for 'success, fame and wealth', but, again, your knowledge of history and anthropology must be narrow indeed if you think these are exclusive properties of either the West or the 21st century. People who take advantage of others can be found in all societies -- even (in fact, especially) in the more faith-saturated, God-fearing Britain of earlier centuries that you seem to imagine in such rosy hues. (A time which also had no shortage of talentless, ignorant, racist trollops...but, admittedly, before the development of television it would have been more difficult for them to become national celebrities.)

And Madeleine, your little rant about the horrors of life in the modern West sounds oddly like it's derived from Dinesh D'Souza, who also thinks that radical Islamists may have a point about the 'cultural depravity' of Western nations. While I might agree with you that some of the more vulgar and annoying aspects of modern, industrial societies are...well, vulgar and annoying, your implied claim that the only way to confront one absurdity (Big Brother) is by meeting them with another (The Even Bigger Brother in the Sky) makes no sense.

Furthermore, I have to admit there is something unseemly about very well-off people (and, taking the world's population as a whole, that pretty much includes all of us in wealthier countries) complaining about how 'incomplete' or 'soulless' all that abundance (of goods, information, leisure, etc.) makes them feel. There are very serious problems with modern life, (the fact, for instance, that it is environmentally unsustainable is first among them), but do you really think that 'almost everything around us' challenges the notion that science and reason can improve life? 'Almost everything' Madeleine?

This is not something, I think, that we need to take seriously.

Indeed, it is an 'absurd distraction' all its own.

Anyone looking for a more inspiring and insightful meditation on science and morality should look at Steven Pinker's recent article on that topic in, of all absurd places, Time Magazine.

In closing, though, I do think Grayling made a mistake in posing his 'challenge' to Bunting (to 'name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years') too broadly. A brief glance at the comments section (something which, all on its own, always stands as an effective refutation of overly optimistic notions of progress) shows that the vagueness of Grayling's wording here has allowed many very clever people to name figures who have indeed contributed to science who nevertheless can be linked -- some in more, some in less obscure ways -- to Christianity.

Obviously, in eras when science was far less developed, religious belief was a near-ubiquitous feature of popular and high culture and religious institutions were powerful and dominated education, it's unlikely that we're going to find many strict atheists untainted by any kind of connection to Christianity. I think what Grayling meant was a more specific challenge to point out instances when the religious method of thinking (whether you take this to be based on faith, dogma, revelation, scriptural literalism or some combination thereof) contributed to the advancement of science. Obviously, someone who is driven to understand nature in a religious age will see this as 'revealing the majesty of creation' or 'contemplating the mind of God'. But what is the specific contribution of religion either to their motivation for research or to the discoveries subsequently made?

Mendel, to take a favoured example of some 'Comment is Free' commentators, might have worked in a monastery; however, did he discern the principles of heredity through faith or divine revelation? Can anyone in fairness credit his discoveries to religion rather than to science? It might exemplify the fact that not all religious institutions or contexts have been equally hostile to science. But consider this: Work such as Mendel's has contributed to genetics and evolutionary biology, two cornerstones of the modern scientific/materialist worldview which the main monotheisms are fighting tooth and nail to resist.

Grayling might have put his case too broadly. But the essential point, I think, remains.


KB Player said...

Good fisk. I ponder why Madeleine Bunting manages to be more annoying than any other Guardian columnist - some columnists are ill-informed, and some are lazy, and some draw grand conclusions from very limited data, and some treat trivia and ephemera as being of cosmic importance, and some are wrong-headed, and some are humourless - but she, Madeleine of the keyboard of sponge and fingers of lead, she is all of those things.

J. Carter Wood said...

Many thanks for that. I don't think I can add anything to that perfect (indeed poetic) description. So I won't.