Theism, Dogmatism, Puritanism

A long review-article on books on atheism by Ronald Aronson. It starts with Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism.

Just like the postmodernist claim that modernity is over, the retrospective stance implied by terms like twilight is the book’s main idea and does double duty as a weapon in the battle against atheism. The “rise and fall” metaphors are tools of a brilliantly clever religious writer against the movement he seeks to undermine…But for the most part he argues broadly that the rational argument between religion and atheism can never be resolved, comments on the rise of interest in spirituality and the growth of Pentecostalism, and brings out as uncontested fact the postmodern verdict on modernity, grafting it onto his case against atheism…A more self-conscious theology professor might have explored the paradox of a proclaimed “reinvented” Christianity in league with postmodernism, at least to consider the potential conflicts between the two worldviews on issues of authority and truth.

We’ve seen this ploy so many times – postmodernism used to argue against rationality and for traditional authority-based ‘revealed’ truth or for irrational and anti-rational leaps of faith and the will to believe. It’s as Simon Blackburn said –

Today’s relativists, persuading themselves that all opinions enjoy the same standing in the light of reason, take it as a green light to believe what they like with as much conviction and force as they like. So while ancient scepticism was the sworn opponent of dogmatism, today dogmatisms feed and flourish on the desecrated corpse of reason.

Relativists of that stripe often wrap themselves in the flag of postmodernism to do it.

Aronson finds Sam Harris’ book far too dogmatic, and much prefers Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by some guy named Julian Baggini.

Baggini’s excellent little book is intended not as an attack on religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism…In a highly accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine) covers what have become familiar themes…His final chapter is a masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come, the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the willingness to be proven wrong.

Then Aronson discusses Erik J. Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and Daniel Harbour’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism. Jerry S reviewed Daniel Harbour’s book for the New Humanist a few years ago – I’d link to the review but it’s not online.

Wielenberg’s carefully developed main argument is that a moral framework totally dependent on God’s will “is not a moral framework at all.” Plato’s Euthyphro provides the key question: Does God endorse acts that are already moral or do these become moral because God commands them? Even among Christians, he points out, morality turns out to be objective and independent—it is “part of the furniture of the universe” and does not require God to make it right.

We’ve discussed that idea here a few times.

Harbour’s recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question “Does God exist?” but rather “the whole worldview to which we subscribe.”…The first worldview he considers, based on the scientific paradigm of rational inquiry, operates by constant “reexamination, reevaluation and rejection” of its assumptions and results, which continually must prove themselves, while the second introduces starting points that are elaborate and are not subject to question or testing. Religion falls under the second category because “all attempts to explain observations about the nature of the world must be consistent with, or subservient to, the unrevisable starting assumptions.”

That’s one reason it’s hard for people like me to be as undogmatic and tolerant as Aronson thinks we should be. It’s because of the unrevisable starting assumptions and the resulting chronic imbalance in arguments between (dogmatic) theists and atheists. The claims to know what they can’t know, the special pleading, the shifting back and forth between claims that God is supernatural and ineffable so shut up and claims that they know all about this God so shut up – the having it both ways, the heads I win tails you lose, the certainty, the cheating. There are undogmatic theists…but they seem to be getting scarcer and scarcer.

The Vicar of Putney thinks Salman Rushdie is too dogmatic.

But more important still, the novel has the rare capacity to nudge us out of our ideological trenches into a more sympathetic engagement with the moral universe of those we consider the enemy.

Maybe so. But sympathetic engagement is one thing, and agreement is another. The overall import of the vicar’s article seems to be disagreement with Rushdie’s opinion itself. Well, he’s a vicar and Rushdie is an atheist. Rushdie could write a novel engaging with his moral universe, but that doesn’t require him to agree with its unrevisable starting assumptions, and nor does it require him to be a novelist and nothing else. He can be a novelist and a polemicist, or essayist, or pamphleteer, or campaigner, or all those. He can do both – lots of people do. The vicar talks as if Rushdie is betraying the novel or his work as a novelist by doing both.

The tragedy is that Rushdie the novelist has increasingly been overtaken by his public crusading. The vocation of the novelist is to pluralism. That’s why the novel is sacred. Unfortunately, it’s a sanctity in which Rushdie now seems to have lost his faith.

Well, maybe that’s the problem right there. Being a vicar, he thinks in terms of sacred and sanctity. That’s a narrowing, limiting, simplifying way to think. If the novel is ‘sacred’ then it mustn’t be polluted by profane things like articles – then the novelist must be pure, and unadulterated, and one thing only. Puritanism, in short. People who think in terms of purity and pollution can be very dangerous, and even at the best they are simple-minded.

Norm talks about the vick here and here, where he cites that Simon Blackburn quotation.

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