Oh if only we could learn to doubt

More dopy mindless generalization about “New Atheism” at Comment is Free Belief, this batch courtesy of Ed Halliwell.

Almost two weeks on from the After New Atheism event at the RSA and the trail seems to have gone cold. It sounded so promising – the setup from a humanist writer professing his boredom with the stagnancy of debate…And yet it didn’t quite happen. As Mark Vernon reported, the evening itself was a bit of a damp squib, and normal service has been resumed on comment threads, with Caspar Melville – the aforementioned humanist – understandably crying foul at the pummelling he received for daring to call for more listening and less braying.

Yes, but as we know, Caspar Melville did more than just cry foul; he also invited me to write a dissenting article in reply to his profession of boredom, and then didn’t wait for the next issue of the New Humanist but posted the article online. He’s far from firmly in the “Let’s everybody hate New Atheists” camp, in fact he’s not really in that camp at all.

Now for the mindless generalizations.

[A] way through has been hinted at, including at the event itself. Marilynne Robinson pointed to it when she said that “New Atheism doesn’t acknowledge the centrality of consciousness“…

Oh really? All of “New Atheism” doesn’t do that? Including Dan Dennett? Including Sam Harris? And of course all other vocal atheists? And Marilynne Robinson knows that how, exactly?

Whether it’s fixation on belief in God or fixation on the absence of evidence for God, whenever we project our crystallised concepts onto the world and call them real, we are falling into a kind of theism – creating gods out of our own ideas and making ourselves “right”. We all do it, of course, and it usually ends in the kind of unproductive fight that has characterised the New Atheist debate in recent years.

Whereas…what – the old theist non-debate is quite productive and sensible and good? It’s unproductive for atheists to tell theists “you don’t know what you claim to know” but it’s productive for theists to go on forever claiming to know what they don’t know? In short, why single out “the New Atheist debate” as an example of projecting crystallized concepts onto the world?

So wouldn’t it be more interesting to reframe all this as a psychological rather than scientific or religious inquiry and practise becoming familiar with how our minds work before we try to work out what, if anything, created them? There is a cost – we’d have to let go of being “right”, and instead embrace a deep kind of doubt, one that accepts that the conceptual and perceptual tools we use to explore the world are limited and may be faulty.

But what the fuck makes this beezer think explicit atheists don’t do that? What else is all this about? Atheists are the ones who know we don’t have a special magic faculty that feeds us reliable knowledge about supernatural beings, so what’s he telling us to embrace doubt for?

And by encouraging humility through recognition of our fallibility, we could perhaps move beyond the theism of New Atheism in a way that allows us to be a bit kinder to those with whom we disagree. How about it?

How about what? How about agreeing with the unexamined assumption that “New Atheism” is especially unkind to those it disagrees with? How about blaming explicit atheists for everything while letting theists off any possible hook? No thanks.

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