Thursday, October 26, 2006

A View from the Bleachers

One of the fun things about Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins's The God Delusion is seeing all the pro-Dawkins atheists of the blogosphere assume immediately that Eagleton must be a rabid theist. I bet no other Marxist has ever been accused of believing in God so often as Eagleton has in the past few days.

While I've pointed to some of the interesting comments on the book, I haven't said anything myself, and don't really expect that I ever will. This is because the serious controversy with regard to The God Delusion has nothing to do with theism and everything to do with atheism. The real battles that it sparks -- and you can already see them heating up -- are between atheist and atheist, not between atheist and theist. People forget that one of the reasons at least some atheists tend to be quiet about their atheism is the fact that atheisms are very different; an atheist who advocates his version of atheism vociferously, at least at any length, is as likely to offend other atheists of different stripes as he is to offend theists. And this is not at all surprising; atheism is not a monolothic tradition, but a conclusion you can come to from many different starting-points. And atheists do come to their atheism from many different starting points. Some start with Marx or something like him; some start with a strong version of rationalism bordering on the Platonic or Cartesian; some start with design arguments and the problem of evil; some start with moral arguments; some start with some particular experience or other; some start in other places entirely; and not all of them consider the other starting-points to be equally valid, or important, or progressive. Not all of them can, with any consistency. There is a lot of odium atheologicum under the surface, not vented because it rarely needs to be. And that's not surprising, either; it's a matter of human nature.

In recent years, however, there has been a strand of atheism, or a group of strands of atheism, associated (although not exclusively) with Dennett and Dawkins, that has -- and very explicitly -- made a bid for dominance. Another non-surprising thing is that some of the most scathing reviews of Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Dawkins's The God Delusion have been by atheists. The reviewers in such cases are atheists of different stripes who see the surge of this group of atheists as a very bad thing for atheists generally. And if any interesting dogfights come about from these books, they will all be fights among atheists. Theists really don't have much of a place in this fight. The objections, after all, are rarely new. We're in the bleachers, and have the luxury of discussing abstractly whether we think this or that argument of this or that group of atheist is more likely to give an advantage. We can, so to speak, make bets on the winner, collect the stats, and cheer for our favorite teams; but the actual tournament is between competing forms of atheism. Get the good seats while they're still available.

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