Redefining Atheism

Okay, by way of a vacation from Butler and Derrida and the frenzy of renown – I’ll mutter a word or two about John Gray’s peculiar idea of what atheism is. I thought of doing it yesterday, but the review is so very full of strange assertions and idiosnycratic definitions that I felt slightly overwhelmed, so I put it off. It would take pages and pages to do it justice; I’ll just mention one or two points.

Generations of secular thinkers believed that as science advanced, religion would fade away. In fact, the opposite has happened. Religious faith is thriving, and the secular faiths of the Enlightenment everywhere are in retreat.

Everywhere? Everywhere? No they’re not. (And besides, what’s that ‘secular faiths‘ nonsense? Never mind; we’ll get to that. But it’s interesting that he just shoves that in there as if it were beyond dispute.)

Socrates couldn’t have been an atheist for he lacked the very idea of God. He belonged in a polytheistic culture, and the concept of a single, all-powerful deity later propagated by Christianity was unknown to him.

What? Hey – I’m an atheist, and I tell you what, I not only don’t believe in one god, I also don’t believe in two gods, and three, and many, and many many. In fact, there are many one gods I don’t believe in. In fact again, there is an infinite number of gods I don’t believe in. Monotheistic, polytheistic, all-powerful deity, weak silly deity – I don’t care, I’m impartial, I don’t subscribe to any of them. I think that probably applies to most atheists. Probably pretty much all of them. In fact some wag (Bertrand Russell? Mencken? Twain? I don’t know – some joker) pointed out that Christians are atheists about all gods except their own, and that atheists just add one more to the list.

As we know it today, atheism is a by-product of Christianity. It is not a world-view in its own right but rather a negative version of Western monotheism, and can have little interest for anyone whose horizons extend beyond that tradition.

Nonsense. Who’s ‘we,’ for a start? The ‘we’ who know atheism today is any atheist in the world, not just the ones who live within shouting distance of John Gray. What is he talking about? Does he think there are no atheists in other parts of the world? Surely he can’t think anything so bizarre. At any rate, atheism ‘as we know it today’ is not a by-product of Christianity, it’s just the absence of theism. Now, maybe what he means to say is that ‘the way the word is often used in the West’ or something similar – in which case there would be something to it, although not much beyond the obvious. Sure, atheism in places where the majority religion is or was until quite recently Christian will naturally have taken root where it took root, and thus it will often refer to that religion rather than others. But not always, and certainly not necessarily. And then there’s that stuff about its not being a world-view in its own right. Who said it was? Who said it needs to be? The name itself explicitly abjures that idea – it’s not-theism. Obviously not-theism is not by itself a world-view; it’s a more or less polite refusal of one. When theism shuts up and leaves it alone, atheism is quite content to shrivel and become as vestigial as the appendix. Atheists don’t particularly expect atheism to have ‘interest’ for people with wider horizons; it’s not about being interesting; it’s just about not being a theist. People will insist on adding all sorts of connotations to the word, but that’s their addition, it’s not the word itself. It’s surprising to see John Gray doing that.

In his view of science, however, Dawkins is simple-minded in the extreme. Like Karl Popper, he sees scientific inquiry in highly Romantic terms as the disinterested pursuit of truth. In reality – as has been shown by work in the philosophy and sociology of science over the past 30 years – it is an immensely powerful social institution in which authority is as important as critical discussion, if not more so. As the ultimate arbiter of our beliefs about the world, contemporary science has more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday. This may not bother Dawkins, but it plants a sizeable question mark over his view of scientific inquiry as the ultimate embodiment of rationality.

Oy veh. Yes, science is an immensely powerful social institution; Dawkins knows that perfectly well, and says as much. And yes, authority is important in science (though whether it’s ‘as important as critical discussion’ is undecidable, because the phrase is meaningless – how would Gray know? Has he counted?), as is also well-known, because scientific knowledge is so immense and ramifying, it’s not possible to test everything, so any given scientist will know some things via authority rather than investigation. But it’s not the same kind of authority as that of the Church. It’s not based on revelation, it doesn’t have holy books, no one is declared infallible, and everything is always subject to investigation, testing, peer review, checking and re-checking. So that ‘more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday’ remark is just sheer – well, crap, frankly. And Gray thinks Dawkins’ view of science is simple-minded while his is – what – sophisticated, nuanced, clever? Oy.

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