Yes Yes and Black is White and Gray is Red

John Gray is naughty. He’s not Leon Wieseltier, he’s not Steve Fuller, but he’s doing the same strawmannish kind of arguing. Why do people do that? It’s odd. Why do they attack things people don’t claim? If the claims haven’t been made, what is the point of attacking them? I mean, what do they get out of it? What is their aim? Wouldn’t you think the point would be to say what is wrong with what the person did actually say, so as to alert readers to that and persuade them of what’s wrong with it? What’s the point of saying what is wrong with things the person didn’t say? It just seems like a waste of time and effort.

Typically, philosophers take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, and condemn them for failing to meet standards of proof that are applied in other areas of human life, above all in science.

That’s just wrong, and crudely wrong. It’s not a matter of ‘standards of proof,’ it’s a matter of evidence. Gray must know that; it’s very basic. So why does he get it wrong? What’s the point? And philosophers don’t typically take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, they typically point out that that is what they are, giving evidence (not proof, evidence) to show that that is true. So right from the start we have Gray misdescribing two central issues. That doesn’t bode well.

One cannot make a sharp distinction between natural processes and supernatural agents unless one presupposes a view of the world something like that presented in the biblical creation story, and the distinction is not found in most of the world’s religions. For example, in animism – which must rank as the oldest and most universal religion – spirits are seen as part of the natural world.

Huh? Why can’t one presuppose a view of the world not at all like that presented in the biblical creation story, and not see ‘spirits’ as part of the natural world because there is no evidence for them?

More fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that belief is the core of religion. This may seem self-evident to many philosophers, but in fact belief is not very important in most religions…For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief. In fixating on the belief-content of religion, Dennett emulates Christianity at its most rationalistic and dogmatic.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t ‘believe’ that. I can believe that religion has always been about practice as well as belief, but not rather than. Not around these here monotheistic parts, anyway – and monotheism does take in a fair bit of the planet. Godbotherers do have beliefs about that god. Gray should ask some one of these days.

Wolpert interprets religion as a type of adaptive behaviour in which our beliefs are shaped by our practical needs. Like Dennett, he seems ignorant of the vast range of religious traditions in which belief is peripheral. Again, he thinks of religion as having to do with supernatural phenomena, writing naively: “Religion is concerned with the supernatural, and this involves forces and causes beyond our normal experience of nature.”

Naïvely. What planet does Gray live on? I’d be quite happy to live there too, it sounds much safer than this one, but I have no idea where it is. (Naïve of me, no doubt.)

[I]t is not supernatural belief that is hard-wired in humans: it is the need for myth, and it fuels secular belief as much as traditional religion…Myths are not primitive scientific theories that belong in the infancy of the species. They are symbolic narratives that give meaning to the lives of those who accept them. The chief difference between religious and secular believers is that, while the former have long known their myths to be extremely questionable, the latter imagine their own to be literally true.

Oh, come on. The Iliad is a symbolic narrative that gives meaning, so is Hamlet, so is Wuthering Heights. Religion is something else, and the people who ‘accept’ religion – and there are a good few of them around – do not in the least know their myths to be extremely questionable, which is why they’re always whanging the rest of us over the head with them. This whole silly trope ‘religion is myth is narrative is questionable and tentative and not believed and it is atheism or ‘secular belief’ that is the real religion and that is truly certain and dogmatic and believed without question’ – is false, and endlessly triumphantly smugly recycled as if it were both true and original. How irritating it is. I said Gray isn’t Wieseltier or Fuller, but he does border on arguing in their style here. Very tiresome.

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