Saturday, November 11, 2006

Grayling on Atheism

Wow; A.C. Grayling manages to churn out yet more gobbledy-gook on the subject of religion. It starts in the very first paragraph, where he claims that the Archbishop of Westminster "officially thinks the former is damned (it is official Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church)". Since it is official Roman Catholic doctrine that no one knows who is damned except God, and since it is official Catholic doctrine that Christians are joined to the Church by baptism, this is a rather inauspicious beginning.

He does make some valid and worthwhile points on the meanings of 'secularism' and 'humanism', although he conveniently glosses over details like how the Council for Secular Humanism, or the International Humanist and Ethical Union mysteriously fail to understand the "simple lesson in semantics" that he thinks religious people fail to grasp because due to their religious faith they "live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly." Apparently the lesson in semantics is not so simple.

Then he says:

"Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views "a-fairyists", hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.

Well, there would be good reason for not calling oneself an 'a-fairyist', namely, that it's an ugly barbarism as terms go. 'Atheism', it should perhaps be pointed out, and which Grayling somehow mysteriously fails to recall, is a term also used by nonreligious people to refer to those who do not have a belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies; as noted, for instance, by Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, and the like, a quirk they share with virtually all those who speak the English language, which seems to trip Grayling up a lot. Further, it's clear that there are atheists out there who think of God that there is "something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time"; at least, there are more than a few atheists who spend a lot of time discussing it. Perhaps Grayling is right that atheists should, if they accept the label 'atheist', also accept the labels 'afairyist, aghostist, agoblinist' or at least some less crude neologisms for that which the labels are supposed to suggest; but as we don't have labels like 'fairyist, ghostist, and goblinist' it doesn't seem that atheists are being at all unreasonable if they don't think it to be entirely a high priority. He then makes the smashing point that since Christians don't believe in Vishnu, or Loki, or Ares, or many others, that they are 'atheists' about vast numbers of gods. Which is true if we are using the term 'atheist' figuratively to mean 'someone who does not believe in some particular given god' rather than its more common meaning, 'someone who does not believe that there are gods'; but what exactly the point of this is, we are left to puzzle out on their own.

He then goes on to suggest that there are volcanoes in the Middle East, does us the favor of reiterating Frazer without letting us know that Frazer actually has an argument, and insists that Jesus' crucifixion is of no significance because lots of people are tortured, especially pregnant women in labor. I'm being a bit facetious, but Grayling is not quite so far off from this as one might expect.

What I found particularly funny was this:

Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality.

I see; so epistemology teaches us that the dispute between theists and atheists is about rationality and not about whether what is believed is true or false, although exactly how it teaches us this, or what epistemological theory he has in mind, or how it relates to the problem of evil, is all left a bit mysterious. So that must close the book on the matter; here we were, getting all bothered about the question, when really all we had to do was listen to the teachings of epistemology.

Nonetheless, I can't completely criticize Grayling's essay; I like his last paragraph. And much as I tease, my dominant response to the article is compassion for any atheist who might be associated in people's minds with those like Grayling who seem to think that the rational way to dismiss religion and encourage tolerance consists in lecturing people, not quite accurately, about the meanings of terms. If atheism is Hundred Acre Wood, some atheists are Eeyores, some are Poohs, some are Piglets, some are Kangas, and some are Owls; and Grayling is someone who is trying to be an Owl but can't manage to copy the Owls in anything but an Owlish sense of language, which is, of course, simultaneously pedantic and confused. Perhaps this is fortunate for everyone; atheists everywhere can breath a sigh of relief, and, if ever confronted with an attack on Grayling, can shrug it off by truthfully saying that the man sometimes doesn't even seem to know what 'atheist' means.

I wouldn't be so hard on his argument if Grayling weren't a professor of philosophy. I don't mind Frazer-like freethinkers, for instance; I enjoy reading their works, and always have, and they make some interesting points. I don't mind people who are worried about the label 'atheist'; they may also have a point. I don't even so much mind when people like Dawkins mangle philosophical arguments, because they sometimes have a point worth considering, too -- although I'll occasionally step in and point out the mangling. But I would expect someone with a background in philosophy to take the trouble to express these points less absurdly.

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