Sunday, October 29, 2006

A.C. Grayling Again

I'm trying to get away from this sort of topic, which I find to be rather dull and not particularly conducive to my attempts to maintain the Code of Amiability; but I keep coming across egregious offenders, and it's hard not to point out the obvious. A. C. Grayling asks the question, "Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?", saying:

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?

Well, I imagine that a 'non-fundamentalist atheist' would be someone who doesn't rely on fundamentalist interpretations of texts to make his arguments, and doesn't assume that everything said about fundamentalist versions of a given religious tradition apply to everyone in their tradition. In other words, atheists who don't understand religion qua fundamentalist. Perhaps sometimes it is used simply for atheists who see the world in black and white and are unwilling to make reasonable distinctions between different kinds of religious beliefs, lumping them all together in the way we tend to attribute to fundamentalists. (Sort of along the lines of everything else that Grayling goes on to say.) And a look at how people actually use the term 'fundamentalist atheist' and similar phrases shows -- surprise! -- that something like these two ways account for many of the ways people use it. Of course it's a figure of speech (a metonymy in the first case and a metaphor in the second); it requires no great acumen to penetrate to the fact that an atheist isn't going to be deserving of the term 'fundamentalist' in exactly the same sense that a fundamentalist is unless we are using the term in a non-religious sense of 'irrationally dogmatic' (which sense it certainly does occasionally have) -- in which case it will apply to anyone who is irrationally dogmatic, regardless of what they believe. Grayling should be quick enough to figure this out.

Grayling's target appears not to be this so much as the claim that atheism is in its own way a sort of religion (a claim that is certainly made and shows how vague and useless-if-it-weren't-somehow-so-difficult-to-avoid the term 'religion' is for serious reasoning). Which is fair enough; but the essay is a very muddled argument for this sort of claim. Much better, I would imagine, to attack the claim directly without all this mock-innocent beginning in which we pretend that we don't have the ability to understand basic figures of speech.

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