Thursday, 23 September 2010

Humanist heresy - why I've been called a prat, an accomodationist and Caspar Milquetoast

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So we had a debate on Tuesday with the title 'Beyond New Atheism: where next for the God debate?'. I introduced this with a piece in which I said that I was bored with New Atheism, which I felt could be crude and simplistic and caricatured religion. That piece was published by the Guardian website, and subsequently on Richard Dawkins' website - with predictable results (I'll get to that later).

First the event itself. Yes, it was in some ways a piece of provocation, especially to atheists and humanists (those who read New Humanist will know that we believe provocation begins at home), but it was also a genuine attempt to see if we could have a different tone for discussion about belief, non-belief, human nature and God. It was also an attempt to grab Marilynne Robinson while she was in London promoting her book Absence of Mind, which is very scathing about New Atheism, and to interrogate her arguments. To this panel I added Roger Scruton, not only a conservative but a religious believer (who I have said before I disagree with on almost everything but who is also interesting and challenging), and the atheist philosopher Jonathan Rée. What they have in common is their shared critique of the kind of arguments made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and their followers, so I thought it would be fun to hear what they had to say, and have them lightly grilled by atheist Laurie Taylor, chairman of the Rationalist Association, and an interested audience.

So what did we learn? I broadly agree with Mark Vernon, who wrote the event up for the Guardian, that though there was plenty about what was wrong with New Atheism, "not a lot was said about where next". This may have been because I didn't really brief the panellists very well, but more so I think because though they shared common ground in terms of the kind of debate they didn't like, they are actually interested in very different types of discussion. But I think Mark underplays what we did learn, which I personally found fascinating, even if it doesn't provide a roadmap for a new God debate or anything grand like that. Listen to the entire event. (Video will be up in a day or two). 

Here's what sticks in my mind:

Marilynne Robinson made what I think is a very subtle critique of scientism, the tendency that argues that science is the only way to access truth. What I think she was saying was this: if science criticises religious belief because it makes claims about unprovable things for which there is no evidence, like the existence of God, then how do you account for arguments like M-Theory (multiverses etc) put forward in Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design, that are themselves, as Hawking acknowledges, beyond testing or proof. For her this was not a criticism of science or Hawking – she said she loved science and welcomed wonderful ideas like parallel universes. She in fact felt that contemporary science, especially quantum physics, challenged the kind of 19th century positivism that underpins the New Atheist notion of science as an antidote to religion (incidentally her criticism echoes that of many scientists, though they regret Hawking's retreat from provability). She didn't talk that much about God – though she seemed to equate the idea of a deity with the unknowable but central importance of the human mind – but she did say that the belonged to a very fringe Calvinist Church.

Roger Scruton played what I couldn't help thinking was a mischievous role in proceedings. In his visit to the lectern he delivered a pretty straight-forward homily to the benefits of religion, not so much as a belief system but as an important structure of rituals and social glue. So far so Sunday vicarish. Later on he said several interesting things, in particular seeming to concede at one point that if it was true, as Laurie Taylor put to him, that Dawkins' message was liberating some people from religious belief, then it was only possible, as de Tocquville said, to liberate someone from something that was dying. Ergo (though he didn't say this) religion, at least Christianity, is dying (an interesting admission from a believer).. He then intervened on the question of science. In response to an audience member who spoke up for the scientific method, he agreed on the importance of science, and then said: "Religion is more dangerous than I think this panel have recognised. The big difference between religion and science is that science posits theories based on evidence and then does everything it can to try and disprove them, whereas religion posits theories – presented as truths – not based on evidence and then does everything it can to protect them from being questioned or disproved." A brilliant point well put. The sense one gets from Scruton, who really is an arch conservative, is that he thinks 'his' church, the Protestant Anglican church, may have conceded too much ground to science and materialism and is therefore dying (though he feels safe there because it can accommodate sophisticates like him) whereas other kinds of faith, the kind that reject science, are growing and are to be feared, especially, though he didn't spell it out, Islam. After all he has been a visiting scholar at the neoconservative AEI for the past 7 years.

Then to Jonathan Rée. He's written many brilliant things for us over the years, and though he is an atheist and humanist he is disturbed by the tone of some atheist arguments and thinks we should bring a whole lot more specificity, history and analytical sophistication to our understanding of religion and belief. He started off by telling us that he had been pious as a ten year old, a piety that was burned away by embarrassment when he contemplated the wooden crucifix he had made to help him pray for the souls of his impious family. This framed his contribution around the issue of the psycho-dynamics of belief. He recommended a novel, Robert Elsmere by Mrs Humphrey Ward, about the existential crisis of a vicar who loses his faith – making the point that faith is not just a matter of being so stupid as to fall for something that is not real, but a genuine internal and emotional drama, worthy of study irrespective of whether you think there is a God. He brought up the American philosopher William James (also mentioned by Marilynne Robinson) and raised the very suggestive idea that just as James was attuned to the "Varieties of Religious Experience",  and there are many,  so we should not overlook the "Varieties of Irreligious Experience" – there are many ways of not believing in God. (He also, amusingly, suggested a third category - the "Varieties of Religious Inexperience".)

It is true that there was no New Atheist on the panel to defend the arguments, but Laurie did a good job of pressing the panellists on the claims made by Dawkins and others for the importance of not allowing an exaggerated sense of respect stop you from making a strong atheist case, and the audience too were quite critical. Given the frequency with which science came up, all three professed a love for science but felt that some misused it, I was sorry we didn't have a scientist on the panel.

Finally, as promised, something on the reaction to my Guardian piece and the debate which seems to be continuing – there have been more than 500 responses so far on the Guardian and Richard Dawkins sites. I have been called "arrogant", a "prat", a "twat" and "Caspar Milquetoast" (which I really liked – that's him on the right, he's excruciatingly timid and indecisive - so unlike me... or maybe not ). I've been accused of being an "accomodationist", and an "atheist but-head". Several prominent atheists have expressed disappointment that I have let the side down. Richard Dawkins himself even responded in the forums, though to be fair all he said was that he was glad that a lot of people disagreed with me – which they did – and that he hoped I was being sarcastic when I called the title of Alister McGrath's book The Dawkins Delusion 'witty' (I was). I don't want to get into a whole defensive battle about this so just a few quick points.

I don't believe in God - I didn't before I read The God Delusion, though that helped to clarify the implausibility of religious arguments, and I didn't afterwards. But I don't think that makes me better than someone who does believe in God, necessarily.

As editor of New Humanist I am privileged to have published many people who I would consider to be "New Atheists", or arguments of this kind - like Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Mano Singham. I've also published appreciative reviews of new Atheist texts, and criticisms as well. I've also published vicars, theologians and Communists and Tory party grandees. I think that the New Humanist reader is interested in debate, and that arguments are only strengthened by being challenged.

I'm not sure what is meant by the accusation that I am an "accomodationist", feels a bit like being denounced as a collaborator. I suppose it means that I am prepared to debate with people who have views that are different from mine, including those who have religious belief and those who liked the film Amelie. If this is what it means, then I am, and proud of it. This doesn't mean I accept what they have to say or agree with them or, in some cases, don't think their ideas are dangerous or disgusting (I agree with Les Back on this: "Our political debates do not suffer from too much doubt but from too much certainty. The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance. Name-calling is not thinking. The temptation to dismiss the view of one’s opponents as “drivel” or “rubbish” is strong but misguided")

Last, I said that some New Atheism is crude and simplistic. This is what I think, and the reaction from many people, especially on the Dawkins website, I think bears this out. I'm thinking particularly of the term "Atheist But-Head", which Richard coined (he told me that himself) and is flung at me by quite a few commenters. I think what it means is the kind of atheist who says "I don't believe in God BUT..." then qualifies it with all kinds of concessions to religion and faith and comes over all "PC" and "accommodationist", when what they should really do, it is implied, is stand up loud and proud and follow through on the logic of their non-belief by stating that religion is a social ill and anyone who believes in it is the victim of a delusion.

To me branding people you disagree with a term like "but-head" (clever pun though it is) is a pretty crude, simplistic and impolite way to carry on. As for being accused of letting the side down, you'd think I'd contravened the articles of (non)faith by holding an opinion. I suppose if you think that this really is some kind battle – between religious believers (all in one camp) and atheists (all in another) you could believe that, but I don't (in fact I think this is very dangerous view).

My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation – all of which I am and will continue to be – does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.

When I debated the theologian Alister McGrath on the radio on Tuesday he said – "I feel that I have found the Truth, the Truth of God that makes the world clear to me. I’m sure you think you have found your truth too." I answered that this was not how I felt. I haven’t reached the point at which I can say I know the Truth, I'm full of doubts, and I am still looking for answers. This is what keeps me interested in reading books and debating. I'm suspicious of arguments that sound like they have discovered the Truth. They always sound too much like dogma for my taste, and if the non-believing gang is against anything, surely it's dogmatism?
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