The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, July 26, 2007

21st Century Atheism

I went out walking
With a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one

- U2, 'The Wanderer'

In comments below, Renegade Eye asks why I haven't said anything about the new atheists. I've read the new atheist books by Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Onfray. I haven't read Hitchens' book yet but I've read and listened to enough of Hitchens on religion to have some idea where he's coming from. I've also read David Mills' Atheist Universe, the first (self-published) edition of which preceded them all as a surprise success. I don't really have much to say about them, so instead I'm going to give lots and lots of links.

But first, I should mention that I clean forgot a third atheist paperback, and one I'd written about elsewhere at that: Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity, (1970, translated 1971.)

The first 21st century atheist books were popularizations of atheist arguments that had developed within philosophy. (A few humanist philosophers in Britain had become Guardian columnists: Julian Baggini, Simon Blackburn, A. C. Grayling. In the US it was a bit different: atheist columnists felt isolated. (Via.)) Daniel Harbour's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism (2001, paperback 2003) and Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (2003) were both well-written and, in their differing ways, original. But the only way they prefigured what was about to break was that were each published as part of a series of brief guides to large subjects. Baggini explicitly counselled against atheist militancy: "Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard."

On September 15 2001 the voice of reason, or at any rate of Richard Dawkins, made itself heard in a very different tone. Dawkins followed this up within days with a call to stop being polite about religion, repeated here and here, and reprinted in his essay collection A Devil's Chaplain (from which I quoted it after Beslan, which was my moment of having had enough of being polite - though what actually got me to rejoin the National Secular Society was this (PDF).)

OK, on to the links.

Michael Fitzpatrick puts forward materialist arguments against, as he puts it, baiting the devout. Ronald Aronson has a more sympathetic radical take. Terry Eagleton wrote a hilariously pretentious review of The God Delusion, which called forth P.Z. Myers' memorable Courtier's Reply, as well as some patient and puzzled commentary by my fellow SF writer Adam Roberts.

The charge that Dawkins et al are 'atheist fundamentalists' led to the formulation of Stacey's Law. Stacey is not the only one bored with the anti-Dawkins backlash.

The prominence of the new atheists has led to more atheists coming out. One reporter who worked the religion beat for years explains how he lost faith. (Both via.) Dawkins himself has a very civilised conversation with one of his Christian critics, the eminent scientist Francis Collins.

Another scientist, David Sloan Wilson, criticises Dawkins' speculations on the evolutionary origins of religion, to which Dawkins gives a spirited reply; their disagreement is discussed here. There's further intelligent commentary on the cognitive and behavioural roots of religion by Abbas Raza, Pascal Boyer, and Paul Bloom (these two via an earlier good piece by Raza.

Former fundamentalist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is interviewed on the documents. Taner Edis, a physicist from Turkey and harsh critic of Islam's relation to science, warns secular humanists against their own simplistic interpretations of the Muslim world and Islam, particularly the egregious tripe peddled by Sam Harris.

If you make through all these, you may be relieved to hear from John Emerson: I’m surprised that people are still talking about “God” any more. I disproved his existence a couple of weeks ago. Despite this amazing feat of logic, the discussion will, no doubt, go on.
35 comments | Permanent link to this post

The New Weird

Kathryn Cramer is hosting the New Weird archive. This is a legendary online discussion of the New Weird involving all the participants, and then some. It's to the New Weird what a decade's worth of pamphlets, manifestos, pub conversations, opium dreams and police-spy reports would be to the Romantic movement or the Shelley circle or the Dadaists. Someday people will get doctorates on it.
1 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, July 16, 2007


Every time I think I've banged on enough about Iran, Arthur Silber shames me by urging us all to bang on about it some more. In a just world this eloquent and erudite libertarian blogger would be paid by some vast conspiracy. In this one he has trouble paying the rent. Read him, link to him, and drop some money in the jar.

That other indefatigable drum-beater, Justin Raimondo, is banging on too:
At this point, unless the American people wake up in time – which I very much doubt – war with Iran seems all but inevitable.
. Today's Guardian reports
The balance in the internal White House debate over Iran has shifted back in favour of military action before President George Bush leaves office in 18 months, the Guardian has learned.
The shift follows an internal review involving the White House, the Pentagon and the state department over the last month. Although the Bush administration is in deep trouble over Iraq, it remains focused on Iran. A well-placed source in Washington said: "Bush is not going to leave office with Iran still in limbo."

Yes, limbo isn't what comes to mind. There's no need for panic, however. The report continues:
Almost half of the US's 277 warships are stationed close to Iran, including two aircraft carrier groups. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise left Virginia last week for the Gulf. A Pentagon spokesman said it was to replace the USS Nimitz and there would be no overlap that would mean three carriers in Gulf at the same time.
No decision on military action is expected until next year. In the meantime, the state department will continue to pursue the diplomatic route.

Elsewhere, and in no particular order: Russia has suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. The US is sending a squadron of flying killer robots (the new Reaper drones) to Iraq. Iran's Jews aren't leaving. Yesterday's Sunday Herald, in an article not online, reports from Bucharest that US soldiers, sailors and aircrew are 'pouring in' to bases in Bulgaria and Romania. Again, there's no need for panic: it's only an exercise.

Meanwhile, another power in the Middle East has been making open threats against Iran. Yes, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has threatened to attack Iran within two months if Iran doesn't stop supporting Shia militias. Like Abu Sarhan's comments (see below) this seems to be a bit of public diplomacy. 'We're all on the same page here, people! Do we have to draw you a picture?'
12 comments | Permanent link to this post

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hearts and minds

Iraqi resistance leader Abu Sarhan recently expressed 'a more restrained view' of the United States than might be expected from a veteran of the insurgency.

"I personally don't have a hatred of the American people, and I respect American civilization," he said. "They have participated in the progress of all the nations of the world. They invented computers. Such people should be respected. But people who are crying over someone who died 1,400 years ago" -- referring to Shiites and their veneration of a leader killed in the 7th century -- "these should be eliminated, to clear the society of them, because they are simply trash."

I wish this was another squib, but it isn't.

"The real enemy for the resistance is Iran and those working for Iran," he went on. "Because Iran has a feud which goes back thousands of years with the people of Iraq and the government of Iraq."
5 comments | Permanent link to this post

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ursine defecatory habits indicate arboreal locational preference, studies show

The Pope's recent shock announcement of his continuing Catholicism has brought a rare confluence of condemnation from otherwise divided denominations.

'It is, frankly, a little disappointing that His Holiness should hark back to such a twentieth-century view,' said Bishop Stella Artois, leading Anglican theologian. 'The Church of England has always regarded itself as holy, apostolic and catholic. It just draws the line at papistry.'

'We're well aware that the Pope doesn't regard us as a church,' said the Rev. Jack Black, Moderator of the Presbyterian Reformed Church of the United Kingdom (Continuing). 'And we're more than willing to return the compliment. According to Reformed tradition, the so-called Church of Rome is a synagogue of Satan, the Whore of Babylon, the Scarlet Woman that sitteth on the seven hills; furthermore, the Papacy is Antichrist and the Pope is the son of perdition. We say this sorrowfully, in the spirit of charity.'

Brother Theodosius, of the Orthodox monastery on Athos, was marginally more temperate. 'Rome is indeed a church, but unfortunately that doesn't get Catholics off the hook. They're going straight to hell, along with Jews, apostates, Muslims, Freemasons, homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers and Protestants.'


3 comments | Permanent link to this post

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Under an Atomic Sky

I went into a church house
where the citizens like to sit.
They say they want the kingdom
but they don't want God in it.

- U2, 'The Wanderer'

Between 1970 and 2000 there were, to my knowledge, exactly two new atheist books that found mass-market paperback publication in English: The Misery of Christianity by Joachim Kahl (Hamburg, 1968; English translation Pelican, 1971) and God is Not Yet Dead by Vítězslav Gardavsky (Pelican, 1973; originally published in German in 1968 following serial publication in Prague, 1966-1967). Kahl, like Gardavsky, was a Marxist, but there they parted. The significance of Gardavsky's book is exhausted by its dates; by the tenure of its author: Professor of Philosophy at the Brno Military Academy (retired 1968, aged 45); and by the Christian-Communist dialogue over whose brusque interruption the book's provenance placed a cross. Kahl's work, on the other hand, is an underground classic: the most caustic, contentrated critique of Christianity written in the 20th century (and most others, for reasons all too obvious from Kahl's tally of the Church's resort to the rack). One mainstream book, Michael Arnheim's Is Christianity True? (Duckworth, 1984) gives the eponomous question its Jewish answer. (No.) Muir Weissinger's The Failure of Faith (1984) was sceptical, eccentric, and fell dead-born from the presses. Richard Robinson's donnish but plain-spoken An Atheist's Values (Oxford, 1964) was reissued as a Blackwell paperback in 1975.

And that, more or less, was it. The freethought publishers - the Rationalist Press Association in England, Prometheus Books in the US - kept plugging away. Hume, Nietzsche, Russell remained in print. Academic presses published philosophical critiques: Michael Martin, J. L. Mackie, Anthony Flew. Three lively translations of Lucretius came out in paperback. But most of my six-foot shelf of godless books, three decades in the filling, consists of small hardbacks from the RPA's Thinker's Library, long out of print, and two or three 60s Pelicans on humanism, all picked up in second-hand bookshops.

The uptick of interest in humanism was part of the 60s ferment around religion. I sometimes think the best mood-capture of that ferment is the second appendix to Frank Herbert's SF epic Dune (1965): new Bible translations, novel theologies, ecumenical congresses, the shock of space travel ... it's all there. Everyone (so it seemed) had heard of Bishop J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God, which popularised the radical theologies of Bultmann and Tillich. The publication of the complete New English Bible was splashed in Sunday colour supplements. Questionings of Christian orthodoxy, from the loopy (Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods) through the bizarre (John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross) to the far-fetched (Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot) saw major extracts published in British popular newspapers. In the words of one of Herbert's fictitious scholars: 'Those were times of deep paradox.'

In retrospect, one of the deepest paradoxes was that the Christians and the atheists were singing from the same hymn-sheet. All of them took as given what science and scholarship had established in the nineteenth century: that the Bible, whatever else it might be, was not history, and not science. The quarrel was over what message it still spoke. Darwin and the Higher Critics had done their worst. The Thinker's Library had spread the word. Kahl's scathing contempt - and Gardavsky's wary respect - were for the most radical modern readings of the scriptures. 'The final conclusion,' said Kahl, 'can only be this - the modern theology based on interpreting the Bible existentially and symbolically is not modern and is completely worn out. What really arouses my anger and scandalizes me deeply is that so much of university theology has tried to justify its existence for more than two hundred years by means of apologetic tricks of this kind.'

Beneath the polar radar of the superpowers in this cold war lay a contraflow of dissent. One deep current was the silent withdrawal of belief. The other was the rise of fundamentalism. In 1975 I mentioned to one of my professors - a palaeontologist and a Christian whose faith was as sound as his science - the creationist critiques of evolution. 'Nobody,' he said, 'takes these people seriously!'

In 2001 the iceberg struck.

I haven't found out what happened to Gardavsky, but I can guess. Kahl's still going strong, an independent philosopher, still an atheist, and no longer a Marxist. I don't know why he repudiated Marxism, but I can guess. A recent re-reading of his book reminded me of some of his points against Christianity: the complete emptiness of the signifier, covering total disagreement in belief and ethics; the endless splintering of its sects; their sanguinary mutual persecutions; the apologetic and academic 'manipulation of authoritative texts so that they can still be put to use today'; above all, its complete failure 'measured by the yardstick of its own claims'. 'Immanent criticism', as he says, 'lays bare the ideological limitations of the conceptual structure of theology'. The problem with the universal acid, as the old joke goes, is to find a container.
17 comments | Permanent link to this post

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The doctors' plot

The perpetrators of three failed terrorist attacks were not, it now seems, alienated teenagers misled by hook-handed clerics (etc etc) but NHS medical personnel. This is disturbing. It means it's possible to qualify in and to practice medicine with almost no knowledge of physics and chemistry. A British bomb-disposal expert gives them a severe dressing-down here. 'The jihadi threat has seemingly sunk to animal-lib levels.' Oh, the shame.

As any science undergraduate will tell you, medical students tend to be well-meaning and intelligent, but only slightly better-informed and better-behaved than students of divinity. When it comes to fundamentalism the people you have to keep a watchful eye on are engineers, who are predisposed to fall for design arguments and to follow literal interpretations of The Book.
19 comments | Permanent link to this post