Make a List of Howard Stern

Rhetoric in play in this review of Breaking the Spell.

Thus we read: “If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were still on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone ‘on their side,’ theists typically decline to do this.” Perhaps so, but then is Dennett prepared to perform a comparable triage for the favorite topics of his fellow atheists? Where do “we atheists” stand, for example, with regard to fellow atheist Howard Stern? We theists would like to know, if Dennett would be so kind, though we fear that out of a mixture of caution, loyalty and unwillingness to offend, he may pass over America’s most influential single atheist in silence.

But that’s a bad analogy, because atheists don’t posit anything qua atheists. There is no atheist equivalent of a concept of God. We can’t make a list of our concepts of non-belief in God (much less of our concepts of noGod, because we don’t believe in noGod, we just don’t believe in God, which is quite different) because there’s nothing to list. I don’t play squash; I can’t round up a lot of (or all?) non-squashplayers and compile a list of the ways we don’t play squash, can I. It would take too long, and wouldn’t tell us anything. Furthermore, Miles has done a very brazen slide there, from theists’ views of concepts of God to atheists’ opinions of – Howard Stern? In what way is that a ‘comparable triage’? It isn’t, obviously; it’s ludicrous. That ridiculous suggestion would be ‘comparable triage’ to asking theists where they stand, for example, with regard to James Dobson or Pat Robertson. That, as I am sure you will appreciate, is a quite different thing from asking theists to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash. There ought to be a journalistic law against sloppy non-analogous analogies. There ought to be a strict rule, enforceable by a trip to northern Manitoba, against using the word ‘comparable’ to refer to something very different. Journalists ought to be accurate and careful; they have a responsibility and a duty to be those things; that includes book reviewers.

[T]hough Dennett pays lip service to the need for Darwinian theorists of religion to acquaint themselves with actual religion as patiently as Darwin acquainted himself with actual animal breeding, in practice he rarely does so. He defines religion, for example, in a parochially Western way as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” A religion without gods, he adds, is “like a vertebrate without a backbone.” But this is a definition that does not begin to cope with Buddhism…

That’s a mistake (or piece of rhetoric) we see a lot, and it’s pretty irritating. A ‘parochially Western way’? That definition (obviously) includes Islam, which is hardly exclusively ‘Western’, in fact is often used (mistakenly) as an antonym of ‘Western’. That’s stupid, for a lot of reasons (mixing of kinds; ‘Western’ influence on Islam; presence of Islam in the West; etc), but pretending Dennett’s definition is purely ‘Western’ is equally stupid, especially since it includes Hinduism and other ‘Eastern’ religions as well as Islam, so the fact that it doesn’t deal with Buddhism is hardly enough to make it ‘parochially Western’.

Miles may have valid points, but those two items are enough to make me suspect everything he says.

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