I think this might be true, perhaps, ya know?
Scientism, whether Rosenberg’s today or E. O. Wilson’s a generation ago, is impatient with history (“The Atheist’s Guide” declares it to be “bunk”), with social science generally and with the arts and literature. These benighted investigations cannot generate first-class knowledge, for they provide no predictive laws for human behavior. Yet the success of science in delivering powerful generalizations need not diminish accomplishments that help with decisions great and small. History and ethnography, poetry and fiction all modify the ways in which people see themselves and others, creating intricate webs of associations that pervade our judgments. It may be hyperbolic to declare that Shakespeare teaches us more about being human than all the natural scientists combined, but a real insight underlies the assertion. Similarly, the first sentence of Thomas Kuhn’s masterpiece, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (now half a century old), instantiates a more general piece of wisdom: History can change the images by which we are possessed.
Philip Kitcher, John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University in Seeing Is Unbelieving a New York Times piece discussing why Alex Rosenberg’s THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions was selected by the New Republic as the worst book of 2011.
I recently finished reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by influential Oxford historian Niall Ferguson. It details the six ‘killer apps’ that have allowed the West to flourish while other civilizations stagnated or retreated. He cites Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption, and Work as being integral to the West’s success. In his chapter on Work (as in other chapters) Ferguson chronicles how important Christianity is to the work ethic of the West – and he reports the fact that some in China have come to appreciate this fact:
After much hesitation, at least some of China’s communist leaders now appear to recognize Christianity as one of the West’s greatest sources of strength. According to one scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences:
“We were asked to look into what accounted for the…pre-eminence of the West all over the world…At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of the social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Another academic, Zhuo Xinping, has identified the ‘Christian understanding of transcendence’ as having played ‘a very decisive role in people’s acceptance of pluralism in society and politics in the contemporary West’:
“Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.”
Though I don’t find this assessment of the West’s success the least bit surprising (I have frequently made such claims myself) I found it quite surprising to see that China, which has been officially atheistic for over sixty years, would make the same assessment. Maybe it takes experiencing the emptiness of atheism to appreciate the way Christianity propels human flourishing.
I have to say up until now my reaction to the ‘Reason Rally’ (other than, “Did it happen yet?”) is one of mild bemusement. This reaction comes in part from my years of interacting with atheists on and off the internet and being told repeatedly as one someone did recently in my combox that, “atheism entails nothing. It’s the rejection of a particular belief because there is insufficient evidence to affirm it.”
The regular definition of atheism as the simple lack of a belief in a God or gods is a useful meme because it doesn’t require one to actually defend atheism. In addition one can claim the theist has the burden of proof when arguing that God exists. Of course if it were really a “Rally For Unbelief” as the Huffington Post recently put it, then there wouldn’t be anything to rally for. Given the purpose of a ‘rally’ is to organize people to accomplish something, unbelief alone obviously isn’t in and of itself sufficient for this cause. So it’s obvious that for the purposes of this event atheists will be putting aside their minimal definition for the day.
Thus it’s called the ‘Reason Rally‘. This is better than the name of the previous gathering of atheists in D.C. in 2002 which was called, “The Godless March on Washington“. No seriously, that is what it was called. It attracted about 2000 people, or roughly the population of homeless people on the National Mall. But these folks are no dummies so it took them just ten years to come up with a new name. No Godlessness this time, now they will be championing the worthy cause of Reason. Everyone loves reason – as Dawkins recently asked, “Who would rally against reason?” I agree, no one would, sign me up! Of course no one really believes that is the purpose of the rally. If it were there would be lectures and studies and maybe debates on issues of concern instead of bad rock bands, bad comedians and politicians. An event centered on reason would totally alienate the Occupy crowds, who have been looking for a place to hang out since they were evicted from their camps. Who would pad the crowd numbers then?
So if it isn’t about ‘Reason’, then what is it about? We know based on the participation of folks like Dawkins and PZ Myers, it will be a ‘Religion is Deluded, Stupid and Evil‘ rally. Of course, they won’t be attacking all religions this way – the New Atheists are generally indifferent to the existence of Buddhism and Hinduism in large segments of the world. And it won’t be an anti-Muslim rally because that would be dangerous. It also won’t be anti-Jewish because that would be politically incorrect – though in all fairness, this may be changing. So it will mostly be an anti-Christian rally.
And the atheists that will be welcome there represent a particularly narrow segment of the secular population. As detailed recently in a New Statesman article, The God Wars, all atheists are equal, but some are more equal than others. You won’t see ‘accommodationist‘ atheists speaking there. People like John Gray and Alain de Botton, Penn Jillette and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who despite being atheists don’t seem to see religions as perniciously evil. As de Botton experienced, it only took him suggesting that not everything about religion is bad to become the object of the ire of the ‘Reason Rally’ crowd:
There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”
Like any Christian who has discussions on the internet I am of course rather used to that sort of thing from New Atheists, but it is interesting to see it applies to atheists who don’t fall in line with the approved dogma as well.
This isn’t to say no one will be there – as John Stewart showed us last year if you throw together some music, comedy and food on the National Mall a few thousand people will come and ‘rally’ for anything. I am simply pointing out this all has nothing to do with ‘reason’, but rather it is an attempt by a small and cultishly dogmatic group of people to paint those who don’t agree with them as insane, irrational and evil. Of course if this group was more organized and efficient, they wouldn’t need a whole day to do this, they could do it in two minutes:
Can we make this kid Secretary of Education already?
This is my first actual post in sometime for a number of reasons. Partly it is the result of the fact that I have been partaking of one of my first loves, which is spending long periods of time voraciously gobbling up long books on serious subjects. One of those books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, his compendium on the causes of human violence and the reasons why it’s decreasing. And not only reading it, but writing copious notes on it because it is my intent to write about some of the issues he brings up. Another book I recently completed is historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, which I also noted as I read it. It was instructive to read these books back-to-back as they both chronicle the beliefs and choices that impacted the development of Western civilization.
Reading books this way isn’t my normal mode; typically I breeze through texts at brake-neck speeds and once done move onto the next book in my cue. I don’t know that I have the time nor the patience to read this way typically, but it was a good exercise.
Beyond that real life has simply made a lot of demands. In addition to being a husband and raising three teens, I have been serving on a school board on top of my ‘day job’. Add to that a long vacation in Florida where I committed myself to avoid staring at electronic screens and it all adds up to a bit of a break from blogging.
But I still have many things to say, and no shortage of material to cover, so hopefully I can play catch up over the next week or so. I appreciate everyone’s patience.
I know this might be stereotyping Zombies, but I couldn’t resist.
So these things are great for really tall grass, but sort of a bummer when they decapitate the neighbors.