Expressed Atheism

The numbers of people identifying themselves as atheists in surveys have been a small fraction of the population, and atheist organisations have had relatively little impact on the wider cultural landscape. But this could be changing. The high public profile (and sales) of recent books by Dawkins, Richard Dennett, AC Grayling, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens suggests growing numbers of people may be being drawn to identifying themselves in opposition to religion. Dawkins’s declared interest in making atheism more publicly acceptable - exemplified by the sale of ‘A for atheism’ T-shirts on his website - demonstrates that this phenomenon is not simply about philosophical debates concerning the existence of God. The sheer ferocity of many of the atheist critiques of religion also suggests that we are not in the territory of reasoned debate, but witnessing the birth pangs of a new, anti-religious cultural identity. We are now seeing a concerted effort being made to validate an atheist cultural identity through media and consumer products, just as evangelicals have already used these resources to consolidate their form of Christian identity in the modern world.
~ Gordon Lynch in “Richard Dawkins, TV evangelist

Describing atheistic responses as “sheer ferocity” sounds rather hysterical! Dawkins is currently vilified as some sort of antichrist figurehead.

Hitherto, we atheists/Atheists have probably been more polite about our nonacceptance of the religious dogma with which society is inundated. We either do not believe in God (small a) or are certain that no deity exists (capital A), yet we do not usually set out to attack religion.

Professionl Religionists, as distinct from mild-mannered believers, have previously enjoyed tax-protected status for their promotion of arrogant claims of knowing the “Truth” and for their assumption of the high moral ground. I suspect that much of the anti-religious backlash also reflects antagonism aroused by illogical attacks on scientific knowledge perpetrated in attempts to preserve the illusion of creationism.

I have recently been engaged in debate with an anti-Dawkins, pro-ID, religious apologist who peppers his (perhaps her, though I doubt it) arguments with selected quotes from writers and philosophers. Interesting though the discussion has been, I am utterly unconvinced by any line of argument that relies upon selected quotes of previously (sometimes 2000+ years earlier) expressed ideas. One can use an idea to clarify an idea, but it is not good intellectual practice to attempt to justify concepts solely on the basis of other conceptualizations — an infinite regress of ideas that effectively clarifies nothing. It strikes me that this form of fuzzy, emotional thinking is typical of religionists.

People having had, and continuing to have, a variety of passionately expressed opinions counts for nothing in comparison to the actual import of those ideas. It strikes me that this is the chief difference between philosophers and scientists. Philosophy is not without value, nor does it offer nothing to our understanding of the world, but it is inherently self-limited in so far as philosophy manipulates language about language about language and so risks becoming divorced from reality. Navel gazing, in practice and effect.

Modern philosophers of science acknowledge that science has supplanted the old metaphysical formulations about the world, yet the pro-ID debater seems blissfully unaware of this and insists on quoting medieval philosophers on metaphysics. Modern philosophers of religion admit that attempts to prove the existence of God have all failed, yet creationists persist in illogical attempts to discredit science.

Science — which those of philosophical bent like to diminish in import with labels such as Logical Positivism – formulates concepts about the physical world on the basis of physical realities. It is extraordinary that thousands of years of human attempts to understand the physical world neglected the obvious — that we can only understand the physical by examining the physical. Darwin is the usual target of anti-evolution bandwagons despite the fact that modern evolutionary biology has moved far beyond his theory of natural selection. Anti-Darwinian propaganda may be motivated by the fact that Darwin gave the religious community a real scare. However, this focus is more likely explained by the fact that Darwinian concepts are simple enough that the religiously motivated can explain them to other creationists and that they provide an opportunity for straw man attacks on evolutionary theory. Further, natural selection is so well established as a mechanism for biological evolution that this concept is taught in high school biology and few creationists seem to have more knowledge of science.

Creationists seem not to understand not only the content of science, but also the actual nature of science. Creationists fear science because at some level that they will not admit they know that science supplants God as they understand “Him”. As a result they either deny scientific facts, invent pseudoscience, or attack scientists.

Finally, does any of this matter? To those of us who identify with liberal and progressive cultural movements, whether religious or humanist, there are potentially worrying trends here. The intensity with which new atheist identities are being forged through a hatred of imagined religious others is matched by the hatred felt by some conservative religious groups towards those they perceive as godless.
"new atheist identities . . . forged through a hatred of imagined religious others” . . . strong language to describe a long overdue reaction to the concerted misinformation campaigns that religious fundamentalists have employed against knowledge.

Lynch attempts to explain the upsurge of atheist expression as being, “in part, as a reaction to the perceived threat of Islam.”

If the upsurge of atheism were partly or mostly a reaction to Islamic threats, reaction would surely take the form of pro-Christian, anti-Islamic statements and would not focus on promoting evolutionary theories or decrying the rigid dogmatism of Christian fundamentalism (now called evangelicism) or lamenting past Christian atrocities directed against any difference of opinion.

No, Mr. Lynch, the upsurge of expressed atheism is really pitted against moralistic ignorance and is pro-truth. The upsurge of expressed atheism is a reaction to the attempt to further undermine education by forcing religion into science classrooms. The upsurge of expressed atheism is a reaction to the funding and propaganda poured into promoting whatever variant of religionist dogma.

No comments: