Tom Freeman at Fisking Central also disputed with Theo Hobson and his rather idiosyncratic account of what atheism is. He points out that Hobson isn’t altogether consistent.
This atheist, believing that religious claims are factually untrue, is naturally likely to prefer others to reject these untruths. It is also possible, though, for an atheist to believe that (some) religion can (in some circumstances) have (some) social or cultural benefits. And Hobson knows this: less than a week ago, he wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who “agrees that dogmatic atheism is unattractive: ‘to think there is nothing to be learned from religion is extremely arrogant,’ he says. And he acknowledges the appeal of religion, even to a hardened atheist.” If Hobson still accepts – as he did a few days ago – that Baggini is an atheist, then this rather undermines his current argument that atheism is a matter of intolerant zealotry.
He wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini? thought I. He did? I was unaware. I was also amused. ‘The atheist philosopher Julian Baggini’ – mmph – that’s no the atheist philosopher, that’s just Julian. No no, no no, I don’t mean it (Julian doesn’t read this, fortunately, so I can tease a little); I know he is the atheist philosopher really; it just sounds funny. It’s the ‘the,’ I suppose.*
So I was inspired to read Hobson’s post. Here’s the bit he quotes from an interview of Julian in a Christian magazine:
For example, there are certain things that I think are quite valuable which the religious mindset finds easier to accommodate. I’d call them ‘religious attitudes’. Thankfulness is one example. I think it’s very good to have a sense of gratitude – for being alive, for being well. I think that the lack of it lies at the root of a lot of modern dissatisfaction. People no longer feel a sense of gratitude, they feel a sense of entitlement, and so they’re always unhappier about what they don’t have than they are thankful for what they do … I think [thankfulness] comes more naturally in a religious mindset. For a start, you have an object of gratitude. There’s nothing for me to feel thankful to. And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.
I agree with most of that, and I’ve been thinking about it lately. I have this idea about a possible connection between irrational or arational belief or faith, and certain qualities like generosity and compassion. I think there may be a sense in which irrationality can be a kind of virtue – because it may be better at selflessness, at not being calculating and cautious, at just going all out for other people. That could be considered a religious attitude. I want to jaw about that some time; meanwhile, I completely agree with the part about ritual, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said that here. I think the ritual problem is really regrettable.
But once we get off Julian and back onto Hobson, things don’t go so well.
Baggini is right to move the discussion away from the tired philosophical argument over the existence of God, and to think about the attitudes that define faith. For faith in God is not a matter of believing certain unlikely propositions about the universe. The question of whether or not he exists is a massive category error. It is the supreme non-question. In practice, to have faith in him is to be involved in a certain way of speaking and feeling. And gratitude is a key aspect of this rhetorical tradition. The believer learns to feel indebted, grateful, dependent. He or she learns to see God as the source of all goodness, all life, and to see him or herself as infinitely lucky.
Uh…how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life? Sorry, but I don’t quite follow.
*Oh honestly. I no sooner type that than I read a comment on my previous post on Hobson, which takes a jokey comment I made on Julian’s comment with deadly seriousness and tells me to hold off on the snark, so I guess I should spell out that that stuff is [loudly] jokey. No doubt it’s all very unbecoming of me to make jokes about atheist philosophers and everything, but dang, it’s just Notes and Comment, it’s not the front page of the Times. I make the odd joke now and then. I mean no disrespect. I deeply respect all philosophers without exception, I promise.