Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Asma’

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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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 🙂

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