Evans and Wolpert Chat About Atheism

So did you listen to Dylan Evans and Lewis Wolpert argue on ‘Today’ this morning? It was quite entertaining at first, but then they got off onto a not very rewarding tangent about religious art, and ran out of time, so the more interesting issues were left unexplored. Pity.

But there were some interesting things said before the tangent.

DE: I think many atheists behave in a rather adolescent manner, and I think that while emancipating themselves from the older religious culture that surrounds them, they insist on rather sort of showy gestures of aggression towards religion; I think it’s just time the atheists moved on and gave a more balanced view of the older religious culture that surrounds them; you know, there’s a time when we come to look at our parents with more compassion and we see them as human beings like us…

Why adolescent? That’s a trope we’ve heard before. Why? Why is criticism (or ‘showy gestures of aggression,’ which is a highly tendentious way of putting the matter) adolescent? Why isn’t it just reasoned criticism and dissent?

And as for moving on – well I’ll tell you what: I will if they will. And not otherwise. I mean, dang, is it not obvious why we don’t ‘move on’? We don’t ‘move on’ because unfortunately religion is not merely a matter of pretty pictures and pretty music, is it. As Lewis Wolpert pointed out:

But to value religion for its beauty, and to ignore the damage that it does to our society, just take all the stuff about contraception, and AIDS, and stem cells, and things like that, and all the holy wars, and [inaudible] see beauty in it is bizarre beyond words.

And why the parental comparison? Is that to shore up the untenable ‘adolescent’ epithet? Religion isn’t my parent, and I’m not ‘rebelling’ against it like an angry teenager. I don’t want it to loan me the car or wash my clothes or quit nagging me about my hair. Or is it there to stand in for religious people whom we’re supposed to look at with more compassion? But then why not just say that, why bring up parents with their inevitable whiff of Oedipal struggle and general babyishness? I’m all grown up, thanks, and my atheism has nothing whatever to do with adolescent rebellion. That’s a belittling, trivializing, patronizing comparison, as is the bit about showy gestures and adolescent manner. Well – if atheists deserve all this trivialization and belittling, what do theists deserve? Eh?

…so many of my fellow atheists – we can’t seem to get them to move on from the tired old religion-bashing and articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe, and I think that’s important, I think it’s something that atheists are just not living up to really – a positive account of their own view of life…There’s a failure to try and see things from the other person’s point of view, and not even for a minute to try and adopt their perspective even for a second so that one could see what it actually seems like for the religious person, I think that it’s incumbent upon atheists who proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance and – to actually give an example to other people of the kind of tolerance they preach.

Tired old religion-bashing. Well, there again, religion-bashing is not nearly as tired – not within shouting distance of as tired – as religion itself is, not to mention atheism-bashing. And then – why are atheists obliged to ‘articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe’? Why is that our job? Why is anything our job? Why are we supposed to give an account of ourselves? As if – what – theism is the default position, so anyone who isn’t a theist has some explaining to do? As in the Guardian article, Evans is arguing as if atheism is a system, an ideology, a worked-out established wide-ranging doctrine, when in fact it is merely the absence of one. And by the same token – atheists don’t ‘proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance.’ I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, myself. Much less would I ‘preach’ the stuff.

Evans’ whole case seems to rely on a mischaracterization of atheism as simply an inversion of religion, as like religion but turned inside out, but that’s nonsense. I won’t call it adolescent nonsense though. I’m far too polite and tolerant for that.

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