Friday, 6 March 2015

Atheists: autistic and afraid?

The autism comment comes from this: "a recent paper from a lab at the University of British Columbia reported that the better study participants were at reading others, the more strongly they believed in God, the paranormal, and the notion that life has a purpose. Meanwhile, one of the few true avenues to atheism may be autism. The same lab found that the more autistic traits a person had, the less likely he or she was to believe in God". It's an article about 'magical thinking', so I take it not from a strongly pro-theist position.

Afraid? That comes from this piece by John Gray. As ever, he is entertaining and highly readable. However, I found with this article, as with much of what he writes, that I am carried along and persuaded as I read it, and then immediately afterwards what it is that I was persuaded of is entirely unclear to me. So, in defence of atheists, I thought I would try to work out what he is saying. I've tried below, with little success. Try reading Gray first before my comments below.

The headline to Gray's piece is "What scares the New Atheists". So, let's see who these New Atheists are. Sam Harris is the only one mentioned by name, but we are told about "evangelical atheists [who adhere to] the liberal values to which western societies subscribe today – while looking with contempt upon “backward” cultures that have not abandoned religion". "Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin," we are told, and "for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure". That's probably enough to identify who we are talking about. Christopher Hitchens before he died, maybe, or a sort of unthinking version of Richard Dawkins.

So: what scares Richard Dawkins?

I think there are two points Gray is making. First, New Atheists believe that as societies rely more on science then they will rely less on religion. However, illiberal religions persist and, in some case, advance their hold on the world (see 9/11). I can see that that is irritating for New Atheists, but I wouldn't say any more scary for them than for, say, religious Jews.

Second, New Atheists believe that once you take away the oppression of religion from societies then modern secular Western values will take their place. Gray's point here is that the facts don't seem to support this view of history. Although atheists liberals used to know that they were unusual (Stuart Hampshire said "I think I ought to expect to be hated, and to be found superficial and contemptible, by a large part of mankind" for being a liberal), "Today this a forbidden thought. How could all of humankind not want to be as we imagine ourselves to be? To suggest that large numbers hate and despise values such as toleration and personal autonomy is, for many people nowadays, an intolerable slur on the species. This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning."

So I suppose the moral panic that Gray sees driving the atheists is that the continuing persistence of illiberal religion gives the lie to their belief that people are deep down, once the opium of religion is taken from them, Guardian-reading LibDem voters. 

I don't see that that is a good point. If you are a New Atheist then 9/11 (and all the rest of it) is not a real threat to your world view. The atheist says: "religion is a bad thing" and then some religious maniacs prove he's right. He's not happy about it, of course, but at least he's right and his ideological world view is still intact. The problem here is instead for the modern Western liberal religious person: doesn't 9/11 and so on cause you to wonder whether religion really is a good thing? 

Let me put it this way: so long as religion carries on going, New Atheists can happily maintain their belief that once religion goes away then people will all vote LibDem.

I can see that the persistence of religion in the face of science would give New Atheists a reason to worry, but when we are talking about Islamic extremists and Putin's Russia, we are not talking about the cutting edge of scientific research. I can't see any reason for them to revise their worldviews on that score.

I can see the worry (for New Atheists) if it were shown that once you strip away religion you are still left with illiberal unpleasantnesses, or even that religion is itself the foundation for all that nice LibDem-votingness that they like. That's presumably why we get a mention of Nietzsche, who "was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values."

But that strikes me as a worry for another age. God is dead! and therefore all is permitted and all is meaningless. It's a worry, but it's a 19th or 20th century worry, not something that keeps New Atheists awake at night. "The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism," Gray writes. "The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth." Perhaps, but I think New Atheists are happy enough to argue on that terrain. They can say that theism got it a bit right on that front, but for the wrong reasons.

Gray also points out that religion is a widespread human activity and must have a Darwinian justification. "What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?" Again, I can't see that line of argument making Richard Dawkins afraid. You can say the same about being scared of spiders: it's still worth persuading people not to be scared of them.

So we get to his conclusion, "Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief. Evangelical atheists at the present time are missionaries for their own values. If an earlier generation promoted the racial prejudices of their time as scientific truths, ours aims to give the illusions of contemporary liberalism a similar basis in science. ... More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind. What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them."

I still don't quite see what it is that is giving Richard Dawkins cold sweats and stopping him from sleeping. People disagree with him? Well, yes - they are blinded by oppressive religion. More and more people are disagreeing with him all the time? That just shows how bad and oppressive religion is.

See for yourself. Autistic maybe; afraid probably not.

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