Militant tendency

Not everyone who reads this page reads comments, so I’ll comment a little on Mark Vernon’s reply to He doubted doubt out here.

Did I ever say that atheists per se can’t do doubt? It’s the militant sort that apparently find uncertainty so offensive in relation to religion – hence, for example, the argument that a liberal faith is a cover for religious terrorism. But since, obviously, you won’t believe me, try Julian Baggini’s Very Short Introduction for a reference on why this matters to the state of atheism, let alone anything else.

I have tried Julian’s book (and have said good things about it here), and I’ve known him to use the modifier ‘militant’ of atheists in other places as well – but I think he shouldn’t: I think that’s a misleading and unfair word to use of atheists who merely make particular arguments (as opposed to setting off bombs or making threats). I told him that when we were in Amherst in July, and he saw my point, I think; he suggested a less pejorative term, but I forget what it was. That addresses the word rather than the larger argument, but I think the word poisons the well. In any case I don’t agree that argumentative atheists (let us call them) do find uncertainty ‘offensive’; I think that’s more misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Similarly, the point about Cornwell having doubted his doubt is that it makes him wholly unlike the Pope et al who too apparently feel that certainty on matters theological is best.

But not all that wholly unlike the pope now, since he’s gone back to being a Catholic, yet Vernon seemed to be making it a virtue that Cornwell ‘doubted doubt.’ That looked to me like classic eating cake and having it. Cornwell is a double-doubter and he has ‘faith’ again. Impressive.

On your previous post: as above, don’t take it from me that Dawkins believes science will one day ask all questions worth asking and provide the best answers…

But that’s not what Vernon said Dawkins said; what he said was ‘Rather than grappling with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light, Dawkins marches blindly behind a banner calling blithely for more and more scientific, atheistic light,’ which is different; it’s more obscurantist and more presumptuous. Are there ‘areas of experience’ on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light? Perhaps that’s just an inflated way of claiming that there are areas of experience that science can’t fully or satisfactorily describe, just a way of saying that we need novels and memoirs and conversation as well as science if we want a rich understanding of experience. But the trouble with that of course is that Dawkins would never disagree with it, so it had to be reworded for the sake of picking a fight.

…take it from him: apart from much in The God Delusion itself, take a look at just one quick reference, the last paragraph of his essay in Is Nothing Sacred? edited by Ben Rogers.

I find that a little annoying. Of course, Vernon is under no obligation to provide quotations, but since he is replying, it seems evasive just to say ‘much in The God Delusion’ without any specific references and then offer a book that I’m not especially likely to have and in fact don’t have. So I’m going to go on thinking that Dawkins doesn’t think what Vernon says he thinks – because I think Vernon has a strong tendency to misrepresent what people say by paraphrasing and rewording it.

And he’s still calling us ‘militant.’

He cuts through militant atheism like a wire through cheese: faith is not deluded it’s human (in the same sense that art and literature is) with the corrolary that calling faith deluded leaves you open to the charge of being inhuman yourself.

It’s morally dubious to call people ‘militant’ when it must be obvious that they’re no such thing. Figurative language is all very well, but calling people murderous or terrorist or militant goes beyond mere metaphor. And his claim there is as obviously absurd as so many of his claims on this subject. Faith is not human ‘in the same sense that art and literature is’ precisely because art and literature do not involve ‘faith’ that invented characters really do exist, while faith in God does. ‘Faith’ and literature are both human, of course, but they’re not human ‘in the same sense’ (not that it’s clear what that means, but it is fairly clear that Vernon intends it to leave the impression that they are the same kind of thinking or belief or suspension of disbelief – and that’s not true).

Even militant agnostics should argue both fairly and reasonably.

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