Tuesday, February 14, 2012

de Botton on Religion

I'm rather baffled by the strong atheism espoused by Dawkins and Hitchens, for reasons well put by English writer Alain de Botton:

Instead, he connects his father's militant atheism to the affliction that he reckons made Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so caustic in their bestselling attacks on religion. "I've got a generational theory about this. Particularly if you're a man over 55 or so, perhaps something bad happened to you at the hands of religion – you came across a corrupt priest, you were bored at school, your parents forced it down your throat. Few of the younger generation feel that way. By the time I came around – I'm 42 – religion was a joke.

My parents never really took religion seriously, and neither did many of my friends did growing up. So, I just don't get all worked up about how oppressive religion is in the West because it has always been too easy to opt out. Nonetheless, Hitchens gave a last interview to Dawkins and said to be more strident, and get his collagues to close ranks. Dawkins, meanwhile, was conspiring with Stephen Jay Gould before his death to not debate critics of evolution. It's a defensiveness I simply can't empathize with.


Anonymous said...

As a European, religion is completely irrelevant to me. It's more something you have to "opt in" to rather than "opt out" of, and it has little to no presence in the public sphere.

But as an outsider looking in, it seems like religion is a big thing in the U.S., with very serious repercussions on education and politics... You and de Botton are wealthy and educated, which puts you in a rather unique group when it comes to religious attitudes in the U.S. Don't you think that if your situation were different, religion would have a much larger (and possibly deleterious) role in your life whether you liked it or not?

I'm not sure if that justifies the "militant atheism" of Dawkins (and as a theological noncognitivist I think his position is unsound), but I can sort of see where he and his cohort are coming from. I think their goals stem more from their humanitarianism than their atheism.

vonjd said...

I am also European and I too think that religion as such is nothing but a joke (sometimes a good, sometimes a bad one).

I am personally not affected that much but what worries me is that this kind of irrationality is gaining ground again, not least in the US.

We should never forget that most of the good things we achieved during the last 300 hundred years was because we left irrationality behind us!

Eric Falkenstein said...

The Left, which includes the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC, like to paint the Right as 1) controlling much of America and 2) being an extension of evangelical Christianity. It is true the Republican politicians are disproportionately church-going, and I think that has to do with the nature of what kind of person believes in both limited government and wants to work full time for government. Yet I still think your average person feels no religious oppression, for say swearing, having an abortion, etc. I think the media's Left-wing overstates the effect of Christianity on culture, often directly comparing such church leaders to the imam in Iran, which is absurd.

Anonymous said...

To Anon @ 12:34 and vonjd @ 4:15,

Do you speak European? Are there really no significant differences in the understanding and experience of religion among the English, Poles, Italians, Finns, etc.? (Honest question -- I don't know, although you would have the argue that the past is truly past, that historically formative differences are irrelevant relics.) Or is religion seen as threat because it gets tangled up with nationalism?

Mercury said...

Despite a lifelong reverence for Marx and the wide spread between his words and deeds along these lines Hitchens has much to recommend him as an essayist, polemicist and contrarian. His arguments are well substantiated and his instant and near-total recall of everything he’s ever read (despite putting away more booze per day than most imbibers manage in a month) is(was) truly impressive (hyper-nesia?). However, I have always thought his aggressive anti-religious “crusade” (ha-ha) was so much pissing into the wind.

As far as I can tell most humans are hard-wired for religion and that’s just part of human nature. “Showing them the math” in an effort to convince them otherwise has it’s limits, one of which is: that which is squeezed here just comes out over there. We used to worship God, now we worship government and the weather – hardly progress in my estimation. Western Civ. (the real target of Liberal animosity) has long ago shaved away most of religion’s rough edges and found an appropriate niche for it in the public sphere.

Whereas almost all public figures and intellectuals refuse to criticize Islam under any circumstances (why?), Hitchens was openly critical and he should at least be commended for applying his standards universally and not selectively. Also, there’s lots of crap that gets pushed in grade school these days at the expense of math, science and reading but “Intelligent Design” is hardly the most pernicious. Being skeptical or even dismissive of evolution while otherwise having a firm grasp on math and science basics probably won’t hold you back very much in life. It’s not quite as inconsequential in every day life as refusing to believe that Pluto isn’t a planet, but it’s close. Notice how the loudest proselytizers of evolution are also the ones who otherwise maintain the fiction that human evolution stopped dead in it’s tracks ~50,000 years ago.

Whatever his faults, Hitchens was, unlike many of his tribe, always eager to have the debate.

brendan said...

The prototypical left and right political wings consist of bundles of beliefs. Many of the right's beliefs stemming from religion are super-easy to critique and make fun of. So even though the beliefs have little in the way of policy implications (abortion is here to stay), they're an easy club to beat republicans over the head with.

If you like big government, it's easier to point out that the creationists like small government than to argue about technical issues like regulation and taxes.

Anonymous #5 said...

America is threatened by theocrats in the same way that is threatened by radical un-American Marxists who want to raise the top marginal income tax rate by 3 percentage points. The bogeymen on the other side are terrifying, the idiots on your side aren't really a big deal.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

Anon#5, can you name any theocrats who penetrated the US government the way 'radical un-American Marxists' such as Harry Dexter White or Lauchlin Currie (to name only two famous economists) did?

Ludus said...

"Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity... the grave will supply plenty of time for silence." -Christopher Hitchens

Anonymous said...

From Finland here. I'd say you really have to opt-in to religion. Most are church members, but only go there for weddings and funerals. And do not know even basic Christian concepts. I suppose it's not an exaggeration to say that you get funny looks if people notice you're religious - a bit like if you had a really weird and unpopular hobby. Especially among younger generations.

Anonymous said...

Eric, I would love to read a comment reconciling the contents of this post with the popularity of Santorum and his extreme Religious attitudes.