Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 1, 2011

Stephen Asma has written a critique of the new atheists which I want to share. It’s a sociological look at religion, in other words one that places religion it in it’s social context. In particular he argues that animism (the world’s most common religion) makes more sense than a mechanistic world view if one is poor, and that the new atheists completely miss this due to their rich Western lifestyle. He argues they miss the psychological benefits of religion, which are still worthwhile. (He also argues against ‘dangerous’ religion.)

What follows is my distillation of the points that interested me. I recommend reading the whole thing.

“The new atheists, like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have failed to notice that their mechanistic view of nature is in part a product (as well as a cause) of prosperity and stability. Most friends and even enemies of the new atheism have not yet noticed the provincialism of the current debate. If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas.

Having lived in Cambodia and China, and travelled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to factor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality.

spirit house

Boontham Khuenkaew places a food offering at the ‘spirit house’ in his yard in Thailand.

They’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, ethics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is certainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practitioners would even notice.

The zealous attempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Red Guard in China, to root out this “opiate” also rooted out all the good stuff about Buddhism that I’ve labelled “psychological.” The attempt to do away with all gods or religions always throws the baby out with the bath water. There is much good “medicine” in Buddhism (just as there is much good in other religions), but if the Asian Communists found you practicing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of militant atheism should ring a cautionary note: Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.

I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I’m not naïve—I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then grovelling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

The Four Horsemen and other new atheists are members of liberal democracies, and they have not appeared to be interested in the social-engineering agendas of the earlier, Communist atheists. With impressive arts of persuasion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, debate, and exchange ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Harris’s new book may be a subtle turning point toward a more normative social agenda. If public policy is eventually expected to flow from atheism, then its proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.”

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Bad Religion | Atheist Peace

Addendum

Here are a couple of quotes from Asma which support my contention that Buddhism as practiced is much more “religious” than many Westerners think:

Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite belong with the other religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

The mix of animism with Buddhism is so complete in Asia that monks frequently make offerings to these spirits, and Buddhist pagodas actually have spirit shrines built into one corner. The Buddhist religion is built on top of this much older animistic system. Animism was never supplanted by modern beliefs.

Thanks to Tracy for passing this article on to me 🙂

Posted in atheism, Buddhism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Will You Take The Pain I Give To You?

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 4, 2010

Yesterday we looked at pain in Genesis, and discussed the Christian idea of the distortion of the world, the breaking-down which theologians call “the Fall”. Remember, I’m agnostic, but I’m wearing my Christian hat today.

Matthew Fox is one modern heretic who focuses on Original Blessing rather than original sin, as do Jewish theologies, but I see this as the other side of the paradox. Humanity, and all of nature are full of good, as well as broken-ness. We can hold this alongside the belief that pain came into the world very early on.

“Fall” has a nice Autumnal feel about it don’t you think? The leaves are no longer green, they retain their structure but are beginning to die.

Literalists claim there was no death before the fall. Conceptually, it’s rather hard to see how Eden could have been anything like the forests of today without leaves dying and rotting to provide mulch and minerals, to give one small example.

leaves

Can theistic evolution cope with the pain inherent in an evolutionary view?

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

~ Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” published in Scientific American (November, 1995) p. 85, via Iain at Phrenic Philosophy)

Does Dawkins paint his story rather too thickly? My suggestion at this point is to hope that perhaps less “conscious” beings than humans don’t truly “suffer”, in the way that we do? A purely materialist universe, as Dawkins says, is pitiless, indifferent and cruel.

The problem of pain and evil is not an easy one for theists either. It’s something I’ve pondered for many years, even as an agnostic. Philosophy is not a static field and I understand, contrary to popular belief, that the weight of argument is in theists’ favour at present. Check out contributions by Swinburne, Plantinga, contributors to God and the Philosophers and others. Ergo the problem of evil is not a proof against God, it’s at best a probability. More on this another time.

However, when considering the horrors of suffering, the recent floods in Pakistan for example, I always keep in mind two approaches: One can cope with suffering via the intellectual path or the emotional path. (Most likely a mixture of the two.) Even if I present a watertight case defeating the argument from evil, this won’t satisfy someone whose friends have recently died of disease, or remain permanently disabled. Knowing the arguments didn’t satisfy me, after all, when I merely experienced betrayal and a broken heart some years ago. It was this which caused me to walk away from God.

If we know the intellectual reasons I believe this may help, in the big picture. However, when in pain, we don’t want sophistry, we want comfort and strength. On that note I recommend Philip Yancey’s modern classic Where Is God When It Hurts?. It’s a profound book and I rate it highly.

Buddhism takes the reality of suffering as one of its foundational starting points. Alternately, I believe if there is some kind of pure Being there, who knows us intimately, then this g0d somehow shares in our suffering, and the suffering in nature.

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What Do You Think?

How do you think about suffering and spirituality? Does a higher power disgust you, or help you when you think about these things? This is part three of a series, starting with part one.

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Pleasure constricts us
That is the way
Empty perversion
Crippled by fate
(I believe in pain! In disease, cruelty and infidelity.)
Front Line Assembly | Final Impact, Bio-Mechanic

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Biology, Christianity, Emergent, ethics, god, Judaism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

Atheist Spirituality: Real Poetry?

Posted by spritzophrenia on March 5, 2010

A beautiful and moving vid for anyone, like me, with a background in or appreciation of Science. Or just of beauty.

I’m a regular reader of Santi Tafarella’s Prometheus Unbound. It’s relevant to my recent posts on atheist spirituality; I was going to partially quote, but I really can’t do better than

This Is What Atheist Spirituality Looks Like?

I kind of like the above video, but there’s also a part of me that feels the undercurrents of a hijack, not just of religion, but of poetry: scientists unweaving Keats’s rainbow and replacing it with, well, this. And notice the Christmasy church bell feel that starts the video is soon followed by the not so subtle anti-Platonic and anti-Kantian refrain of Richard Dawkins:

“There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”

But if science is the poetry of reality, then what is religion and poetry, well, good for? What are they the poetry of? The refrain would seem to suggest an either-or, not a both-and: you’re either a science-literate person enmeshed in the poetry of the real (material) world, or a muddle-head living in Don Quixote Land.

But is life really this simple and easy to coherently integrate? Is it just the perversity of the theist and poet that makes things seem more complicated than they really are? At one level, of course, science is the poetic map of the material world, revealing the contours of its poetry. But at another level a philosophical question must always linger behind the empirical: why should the material world show itself to have any poetic contours at all? Why, in other words, is the material world a cosmos and not Shakespeare’s sound and fury signifying nothing (that is, a chaos)?

Afterall, the universe signifies or it doesn’t. Which is it? Chance can’t signify. Chance means zip. So where is the space for atheist spirituality and feelings of wonder except in the sublimation of chance and the illusion (delusion?) that the universe answers the questions we put to it with harmony and significations? But the atheist universe is a text without an author, so how can anything that is not an author—or the product of an author—signify?

William Blake called the universe without the human imagination a desert. I agree. But the chance universe, actually devoid of independent significations, births intentional ghosts by the billions who are full of significations (that is, us). Isn’t that interesting? The poetry is not in the blind mechanisms of the stars, but in ourselves, Horatio. And, well, how did we get here? 

Maybe there’s still room for religion and poetry after all.

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Posted in atheism, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Atheist Spirituality

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 11, 2010

Can you be an atheist and be spiritual? I came across philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality in Unity books yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I’d like to. [Edit: I’ve now read more, see this post]

Comte-Sponville is not the only atheist using words that we might expect of a religious devotee. As I wrote previously, Christopher Hitchens uses the word ‘numinous’ about certain experiences. Also see The O Project’s Spirituality for Atheists. I recall the sense of wonder Carl Sagan used to evoke in me as a youngster with his excellent Cosmos television series, and I’ve speculated on the non-theistic spirituality of Avatar.

Author Comte-Sponville has had a number of “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences involving a sense of “infinite happiness”, an “eternal sense of peace”, and the “dazzling presence of the All”. These experiences apparently lasted for only a few seconds but they were the “most beautiful moments of his life”. Is it valid to describe such experiences as “spiritual” or “mystical”? Comte-Sponville also writes about being so absorbed in an activity that we lose all sense of self or ego, and that this is a kind of ecstasy.

An amazon review writes

He considers matters of emotion, like the “oceanic feeling” and our response to the immensity of the Universe. These are often taken to be religious feelings, but Comte-Sponville show how they can be better and more coherently understood, and enjoyed, from an atheist viewpoint. He brings in Western philosophers, like Spinoza and Nietzsche, and Eastern philosophers, like Nagarjuna and Lao-Tzu, to bolster his arguments for an atheist approach to spiritual concepts and feelings like simplicity, unity, silence, eternity, serenity, acceptance, and eternity. He certainly left me feeling more serene, and with a more unified idea of what spirituality might mean for an atheist. His argument that religious spirituality involves a temporality that is not needed in an atheist spirituality is particularly strong, and there are many other arguments that reveal the depth and subtlety of his thinking.

Daylight Atheism commends “its approachable, open tone. Comte-Sponville defends atheism firmly, but gently. At times, as I said, I found him almost too conciliatory; but I think a believer would find this book very non-threatening, and might be led to read it and gain a better understanding of the atheist viewpoint.” Several commenters on other sites praise the book highly, one suggesting it should be read along with current works by Richard Dawkins, David Dennet et al.

I’m not convinced speaking of spirituality is useful in this context. By “spiritual” experience are we merely meaning something that is profoundly moving or perhaps emotional? Is this part of a cunning atheist plot ™ to appropriate spirituality from the religious domain? “Look, not only does your position not hold water, but we can also mimic the experiences you supposedly hold the key to”.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote, “Andre Comte-Sponville has written a truly inspiring essay. Using logic that is thoughtful and profound, he makes it possible to see that human goodness need not be divinely inspired to be beautiful, and that the meaning of life comes from life itself. Many will find comfort in his assertion that love, trust and ethical behavior are possible without belief in the supernatural. This is an uplifting and timely tribute to Godless spirituality.”

I suppose spirituality could refer to anything ‘supernatural’ that doesn’t involve a god. I once knew an atheist who was a fervent believer in astrology, a system that I find rather absurd.

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If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy Mystical Experience in a Godless Universe, Nature Was Sacred and Atheist Spirituality : Real Poetry?

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Are you a spiritual atheist? Is this a completely invalid category? What are your spiritual experiences like? What do they mean to you?

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Posted in agnostic, atheism, Christianity, Sociology, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Is Christopher Hitchens Religious?

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 6, 2010

Philosopher Eric Reitan has written Is God a Delusion? where he explains why he finds the ideas of the Dawkins-Hitchens crowd wanting and why readers—atheist or theist—should read something else. I want to read it.

He’s also just written a column where he describes a recent interview Christopher Hitchens has with a Unitarian minister. According to him, the Vanity Fair columnist seemed to be nibbling at the edges of what can only be described as spirituality, leading Reitan to wonder whether Christopher Hitchens isn’t the best of the New Atheists for his willingness to reject atheistic dogmas. Reitan writes:
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What struck me the most as I read the interview was that Hitchens and the minister even shared an appreciation for “the transcendent” and “the numinous”: terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation.

When asked about “the soul” (inspired by his oft-repeated claim that “literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and soul”) Hitchens responds:

It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.

Were he not so quick to follow up by deriding religion once again, one might take him here for a deeply religious man.

Hitchens’ strategy seems to be this: if it is good, noble, or tends to inspire compassion, then it isn’t “religion.” It is “humanism” or something of the sort. With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. When “religion” is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that “religion poisons everything.”

I highly recommend reading the whole article.

Posted in atheism | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »