No fundamentalist optimists here

An excellent look at the Theo Hobson-Mark Vernon school of argument from Obscene Desserts.

He then suddenly changes direction and – accompanied by the wrenching sounds of screeching, overloaded gears and, moreover, ignoring Grayling’s definition of atheism – alleges that atheism

>>entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. (Empahsis added)

Huh? Really? Atheism entails (‘to have, impose, or require as a necessary accompaniment or consequence’) a certain narrative about historical progress? All atheists have the same view of history without which atheism would be impossible? Gosh. I’m an atheist. I’m also a historian who – like most of my colleagues – holds to a quite different narrative of history than the ‘it’s getting better all the time’ version which Hobson imagines. Does this make me a logical impossibility? Or, perhaps not a ‘true’ atheist (on the ‘no true Scot’ model). Or perhaps I’m not a ‘true’ historian. Which would be worrying…if this whole argument weren’t so obviously ridiculous.

Indeed. Ridiculous and yet all too familiar – the ever-popular ‘define atheism as any old thing you feel like and then triumphantly explain why that atheism is all wrong and silly and besides it’s a “faith” itself so ha’ trick. It’s one of those things that is so drearily familiar, so endlessly recycled however often it is shown to be wrong and self-serving and tendentious, that it should have its own ‘foul’ flag that we could just wave whenever it turns up. ‘Foul!’ Ten years of silence while you contemplate your sins.

J Carter Wood then goes on to Hobson’s (also familiar) claim that ‘atheism itself is the product, not as you might expect of the Enlightenment or the development of science, but rather of….protestantism.’

Now, it’s true that no idea comes from nowhere and, thus, ‘derives from’ something else; however, there seem to be several major intellectual steps missing between Christianity and ‘the atheist narrative’ (what, only one?) which Hobson decries. The Reformation was certainly an important precursor to the Enlightenment (and even after that a lot of ostensibly secularist thinking has remain influenced by religious assumptions or frameworks), but Hobson’s relentless effort to detach atheism from science and link it with a blind, naive optimism about the human condition is bizarre…Hobson’s argument here relies rather heavily, and awkwardly, on the history of Positivism – which did certainly have a startlingly teleological and progressive view of history – which Gray presented in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern. By casting all secularists into that bizarre mould (which is a mistake which Gray himself – for all his worth as a thinker – all too often makes…while all positivists might have been atheists, the equation doesn’t work equally well in the opposite direction), Hobson is confusing two very different things: the scientific, secular worldview and a very specific (though in its time influential) intellectual movement which did, at times, develop certain cult-like trappings…If anything, it is a skeptical, secular and scientific outlook which tends against most kinds of fundamentalist optimism.

Read the whole thing.

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