“Since love first made the breast an instrument Of fierce lamenting, by its flame my heart Was molten to a mirror, like a rose I pluck my breast apart, that I may hang This mirror in your sight.” – Muhammad Iqbal
HAT one day soon you’d look and find no word
from me. Or you’d say we must ‘stay in touch’, since friends
can love each other just as much or more
than incongruous lovers. So, love ends.
It ends because the half-unconscious heart
that skipped whole measures when I said, “Your eyes
AFTER an exhaustive study of approximately five days I’ve concluded that there is ample evidence to prove that William Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian.
According to Wikipedia, the standard of excellence for studies like this, “Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian.” He has been termed a Christian mystic by some sources, including the fusty old Encyclopedia Britannica online version and the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), which starts its article with the description that he was a “Swedish scientist and mystic.” Swedenborg termed himself “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” in True Christian Religion, one of his published works. Perhaps he thought he was St Paul. It annoys some people that he lived smack in the middle of the Enlightenment. But there you go.
Anyway, he was an extremely accomplished guy and had many radical ideas, such as the idea that the last judgement had already happened (or was happening) and that the Bible should be used as a repository of spiritual truths. Likewise, Shakespeare according to some scholars (though none come to mind except F R Leavis and he didn’t say this) was very radical and used the Bible as a repository of quotations he could skim for his plays. The first act of Macbeth, for example is full of biblical references and stuffed with mystical beliefs. As my full length study, Shakespeare and Swedenborg: A Spiritually Dynamic Duo, will show, these similarities cannot be explained as mere accident.
In his book Life on Other Planets, Swedenborg stated that he conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the moon. He did not report conversing with spirits from Uranus and Neptune, however, which had not been discovered in his day. This crucial piece of information lends veracity to his claim since an unscrupulous scholar might say he had conversed with spirits from undiscovered planets.
Significantly, Shakespeare’s references to planets are also well known. So is his belief in astrology, as we can see in All’s Well That Ends Well (I.i)
HELENA. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.PAROLLES. Under Mars, I.
HELENA. I especially think, under Mars.
PAROLLES. Why under Mars?
HELENA. The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.
PAROLLES. When he was predominant.
HELENA. When he was retrograde, I think, rather.
PAROLLES. Why think you so?
HELENA. You go so much backward when you fight.
And, of course, references to the moon (“the inconstant moon”) abound.
No wonder Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, was an avid follower of Swedenborg, whose more scientific observations must have had their appeal in an earlier century.
Swedenborg's flying machine; cf. A Midsummer Night's Dream,' Act V. Scene I
OT only this, but Shakespeare also enjoyed writing about human beings conversing with spirits and ghosts. If the ghost of Hamlet’s father weren’t enough proof, there’s also Banquo, Julius Caesar, probably a dozen in Richard III, and the mother of Posthumus in Cymbeline, which no one has ever read, and several in Antony and Cleopatra, which seven people have.
Geographical evidence for the “Emmanu-Will connection” is not lacking. Not coincidentally, Swedenborg lived in London for four years from 1709 until 1713, almost exactly one hundred years after the first performance of Shakespeare’s blockbuster hit, The Four Noble Kinsmen. Circumstantially but crucially in my opinion: Shakespeare was also born in England. One of his most famous plays is about a Scandinavian prince; and Swedenborg, as his name suggests, was also a Scandinavian.
Swedenborg’s scientific accomplishments have often been overlooked, especially his work in metallurgy. He was a pioneer in the study of the smelting of lead and copper. We find a similar interest in Act 2 scene 7 of Merchant of Venice, where a drawn curtain reveals three small caskets made of lead, silver and gold. In this scene Shakespeare shows his acquaintance with Swedenborg’s work in the quotation, “All that glisters is not gold” but there are equally decisive references to metals that range beyond a mere casual interest in the topic in both Macbeth and Hamlet.
After his retirement from the Board of Mines, Swedenborg was best remembered as a biblical interpreter. Usually abbreviated as Arcana Cœlestia and under the Latin variant Arcana Caelestia (translated as Heavenly Arcana, Heavenly Mysteries, or Secrets of Heaven depending on modern English-language editions) his writings on scripture swelled to eight volumes of impenetrable prose.
In a nutshell he thought thought the last judgement had begun in 1757 because the Christian church had lost faith and charity. This is the scenario Shakespeare uses in Macbeth 1.2, when Banquo says to the hags, “If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me” (1.3.60). There are all kinds of references to the supernatural in Shakespeare’s plays, but after five days I have only been able to track down a few. One thing is sure, however: both men believed in heaven, hell, and the devil. To wit, the Comedy of Errors (Iv.iii)
Ant. S. Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not! Dro. S. Master, is this mistress Satan? Ant. S. It is the devil. Dro. S. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, God damn me;’ that’s as much to say, ‘God make me a light wench.’ It is written, they appear to men like angels of light.”
This is just one example of Shakespeare talking about spirits and demons. There are lots of others that point directly to his mystical infatuation with the idea of conversing with the dead.
Finally, Swedenborg wrote that “eating meat, regarded in itself, is something profane,” and was not practiced in the early days of the human race. Swedenborg’s landlord in London, a Mr. Shearsmith, said he ate no meat but his maid, who served Swedenborg, said that he would occasionally indulge in eating eels and pigeon pie. Similarly, Shakespeare’s vegetarianism, derived from Swedenborg”s, is evident in the Witch’s Brew of Macbeth, Act I: According to many scholars, the “ghastly preparation” qualifies for a vegetarian repast because it avoids the flesh of newt and frogs. This cannot be pure coincidence. According to the same calculation, Falstaff, especially in Henry V, can be seen as an allegory of the price of a strict carnivorism. Nor is it merely “interesting” that both Swedenborg and Shakespeare wrote a lot about marriage and conjugal love, though both seemed to have lived as bachelors for most of their lives.
T SHOULD not surprise us that we can confidently add the name of Shakespeare to the long list of famous men who have been attracted by Swedenborg’s ideas. Kant, William Blake, Balzac, Henry James, Emerson, Karl Jung and Jorge Luis Borges, to name only the most turgid, have all been admirers and disciples. Women, not so much.
Skeptics may contend that Shakespeare cannot have been influenced by Swedenborg because the bard lived in a previous century. That, in my view, is the sort of discriminatory, limited, and shallow thinking that has kept history the poor sister of the sciences for a long time.
By what right do we proclaim that influence only moves from antecedent to subsequent events? In the case of Shakespeare and Swedenborg, the evidence is overwhelming that history moves in all sorts of interesting directions, unlimited, like the cosmos itself, by conventional ideas of cause and effect.
The occasion was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Choosing Frost, then in his eighties, to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic it can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it. Even Presbyterian schoolteachers in Raleigh loved his poetry.
Frost, reverting to "The Gift Outright"
Yes, the new guy was Catholic, the thinking went, but he was also a product of New England’s finest Yankee institutions, Choate and Harvard. Some of that must have had a civilizing effect, though few south of Maryland or west of Pennsylvania had heard of Choate and what they knew of Harvard they didn’t like much. They still don’t.
In that era, when there was still a “Catholic vote,” there was also little disagreement between Catholics and protestants over issues like abortion (illegal), contraception (risky, no pill), and divorce (heinous for Catholics but not recommended for others with political designs, either).
The fear of protestants was not that Catholics would impose a socially conservative agenda on the country but that America would become a colony of Rome and that the pope would rule in absentia. Kennedy put a hole in that senseless idea in a famous speech in 1960 when he said,
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
How things have changed. The Catholic church is now as loud and politically obtrusive as Kennedy required it not to be to win an election. Though Catholics and protestants come out nearly even in surveys concerning prevalence of “pre-marital” sex (I know: it sounds quaint, doesn’t it?), birth control and even the incidence of abortion in cases of unintended pregnancy (Protestants account for 37.4% of all abortions in the U.S.; Catholic women for 31.3%, Jewish women for 1.3%, and women with no religious affiliation, 23,7%), the Catholic church has decided to make abortion its cause celebre in its battle for social and moral relevance.
HE Gospel of Life -obsession of the official Church is largely based on traditional Catholic moral teaching as expounded by the bewildering and now blessed John Paul II. Along with its pre-modern understanding of human sexuality, it carries with its sanctity- of -life prescription a European- friendly condemnation of capital punishment and anti-war bias, as well as a totally incoherent ban on contraception as a way of reducing the instances of unwanted pregnancy. –Call it the Mother Theresa Ultimatum.
The contraception phobia, which dates back to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (and the birth-control hysteria of the 1960’s) had nothing to do with a consistent sexual “moral theory” but with a theory of human nature formulated by St Augustine in the fifth century, based on the notion that pleasure was never intended by God as a part of human good. The equation between pleasure and sin is so firmly entrenched in Catholic psychology that it has to be seen as programmatic orthodox Catholic moral theology: a celibate priesthood, the veiling of women religious (nuns), a virgin birth, an immaculate conception, and a sexless apostolic community are just the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh.
Curiously, alongside this partially disguised abhorrence of fleshly fulfillment the Catholic church still retains its admiration for the productivity of marriage and opposition to divorce. But when you consider that Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Andrew Cuomo, to name only prominent political figures, are forbidden (and with variable consistency have accepted that they are forbidden) to receive the Church’s most revered sacrament, while ghoulish mock-Catholics like Rick Santorum and parody-Catholic, spouse-abandoning, thrice married Newt Gingrich get the Church’s seal of approval for their extreme “pro-life” commitments, it is high time for The Catholic Church to declare itself a colony of the Tea Party.
As if this isn’t bad enough, Santorum has decided to break ranks with the Kennedy legacy by repudiating JFK’s robust appeal to the First Amendment as the guaranty that religion plays no role in the affairs of state. Calling the 1960 speech by Kennedy a “great mistake,” and a “radical statement that did much damage,” he said in a recent speech in Newton, Massachusetts:
We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process. Jefferson is spinning in his grave.
Which of course is true. At the ignorance of Rick Santorum. Rob Boston says mildly and to the point,
Look, it’s bad enough that you run around talking trash about Kennedy, but adding Jefferson to your Festival of Ignorance is just too much. Leave the man out of it. You apparently know nothing about him. Jefferson spent his entire life opposing government-mandated religion and fought every member of the clergy who supported that foul idea. Here’s a famous example: During the election of 1800, presidential candidate Jefferson knew that many New England preachers were yearning to win favoritism for their faith from the federal government. He also knew that they hated him because they realized he would never let that happen. That’s why they spread wild tales about Jefferson being a libertine who, if elected, would burn Bibles.
The social and moral “conservatism” of the Republican field is primarily an appeal to the ignorance of the American people. It’s the ugliest kind of alliance between the Church’s need to remain relevant by appealing to uteral issues and the political need of soulless office-grubbers to appear moral. Both are appeals to ignorance, to the Faithful, on the one side, who are often willing to refer moral responsibility to higher authorities and to “The American People” (often described virtuously as “the basic goodness and decency” of the American people) on the other, who can usually be counted upon to follow their gut and are often shocked slack-jawed when their gut takes them in the wrong direction as it did in the 2010 congressional runnings. It’s a little hard to swallow the opinion-polls of a nation who votes ignoramuses into office and then loses all respect for them once they get to their desk, isn’t it?
HAT is even more depressing is that the ignorance of a Rick Santorum is probably real rather than Machiavellian. He is as dumb about the history of his Church as he is about the history of his nation. And the machinations of the Catholic church–his church–while Machiavellian, are tragically self-centered and manifestly wicked.
Ever since the Jewish priestly class invented the story of cloddish Adam and compliant Eve, the hierarchy has known how to use an idiot to make a point: Do what you’re told. Don’t ask too many questions. Believe us: you don’t want the responsibility of knowing the big picture. Given those marching orders, it doesn’t matter what Jefferson really said or thought. It’s enough that there is an interpretation of him as a believing Christian who would spout, basically, the same things the Tea Party is saying if he were around today. There is no difference between history and delusion in Rick Santorum’s world.
Kennedy ended the speech that Santorum calls a big mistake with the following:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
In a scant fifty years, how have we come so far from regarding this kind of rhetoric as fundamental, rational and wise to seeing it as radically mistaken? And how much guilt does the Church bear for encouraging this treason against the first principles of American democracy by egging on the clods?
ELL, what did you think it was? Let me guess. You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief. And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.
Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.
The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.
So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions. Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.
Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff. This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”
Rosenau says that
What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.
Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.
Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!
Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine. When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs. When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing. There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.
I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping. Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus? Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim. But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.
Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own? Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.
More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.
“Our century is probably more religious than any other. How could it fail to be, with such problems to be solved? The only trouble is that it has not yet found a God it can adore.” Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1959)
“The reach of naturalistic inquiry may be quite limited (Chomsky 1994)
“We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (Chomsky 1988)
THOUGHTFUL response from a reader asked me why I had stopped commenting on the excesses of “religion” and turned my attention to damning the excesses of atheism.
I haven’t. But it’s a good question. I replied that it would be like asking Luther why he stopped momentarily condemning the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and turned his attention to the marauding protestants. For everything nasty Luther had to say about the pope being the anti-Christ and Rome the whore of Babylon, he had equally vicious things to say about the religious militants in a treatise eirenically titled “Against the Thieving and Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Who were these “hordes”?
They were Luther’s supporters in the protestant cause, disillusioned that he haden’t taken his revolution far enough. So others, like Thomas Müntzer, took it for him. Similar (harder to prove) theories have suggested the same dynamic at work in the transition between Jesus and his followers, and a definite comparison can be made in the transition from earliest Christianity to the studious nastiness of some of the Church fathers, the founders of “orthodoxy.”
Polemic–rhetorical sling-shotting–wasn’t born yesterday, or even the day before. It just spreads more quickly now.
I am not anti-atheist. I am anti-excess, and everything about the Dawkins revolution has spelled excess. No matter who tries to persuade me that I am making this excess up in my head, it’s excess. Fueled by the repeated assertion of its promoters that it is (secularly) providential, righteous and true (just as all zealotry convinces itself), it is excess.
Sometimes, as Caspar Melville (editor of the New Humanist) mildy suggested in a Guardian article in 2010, it’s useful to hit the right targets–namely, an aggressive religious fundamentalism–hard, and in that regard “irascible, rhetorically florid, sweeping, intellectually arrogant New Atheism certainly has its place – some arguments are just asking for it.” (Funny, those adjectives remind me of a few things said recently about yours truly: how can it be?).
But I know Caspar to be a smart guy, someone who still sees the humanities in the word humanist, so in reponse to the famous Dawkins dictum (spoken to Laurie Taylor way back in 2007)–that there is no more reason to pay attention to theology than to fairyology– I wasn’t surprised to find Caspar saying this:
Entertainment value aside it is surely false, as well as politically unwise and, well, pretty impolite, to say that “all theology” is irrelevant (some of it is moral reasoning, isn’t it?), still worse to say that “religion poisons everything”, or that without religion there would be no war, or that bringing a child up within a faith is tantamount to child abuse, or that moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists because they prepare the ground for extremism, or that “all” religion is this, or that, or “all” faith is misguided, or to suggest that those who believe in God are basically stupid, or that science, and only science, can answer our questions….The picture of religion that emerges from New Atheism is a caricature and both misrepresents and underestimates its real character.
ET me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.
No one with a semblance of a brain would ever suggest that science can’t do a lot, hasn’t done a lot, and that the world science has explained for us doesn’t leave a lot of room for traditional religious beliefs, stories, and explanations of physical reality. It is a leap into nowhere, however, to say that accepting this as a fair description of the current state of knowledge requires someone to say, “Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all,” as Dawkins does to Taylor.
First of course, we need to find out what the speaker means by “theology.” Then we need to know what he thinks qualifies as “subject matter.” Presumably English literature qualifies because it exists. But so do the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Pali texts, the movements those texts have produced and the cultures and ideologies they have influenced. –Not to mention alphabets that were developed largely for the preservation of sacred writings.
What aspects of those topics, given the facile dismissal of theology, can be recognized as subject matter? Have the revolutionaries acquitted them of all responsibility to subject matter in the denial of the existence of God? Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist? If so, life is simple and the mortgage is paid.
But, if so, equally–if the texts and traditions of the world’s religions are really no different from stories about fairy tales and leprechauns–then attacking and ridiculing them is just as pointless as systematic exploration of their meaning–which is one of the things theology does. Is the ridicule justified because while nobody believes in the story of the Frog King or Thumbelina (does anyone even know those stories any more?) a few do believe that Jonah was swallowed by a ravenous fish and (a few more) that Jesus walked on the sea of Galilee? I’d rather buy Plantinga’s argument for epistemic defeaters than that rationale for why ridicule is justified but explanation isn’t.
Or does “subject matter” mean a certain kind of theology?Or does it mean (I think it often does in new atheist harangues) apologetics–which is unknown in many religious traditions? The analogy to fairies and leprechauns makes it difficult to know. If you say the analogies are all wrong, remember: I didn’t make them.
Predictably, I am going to say that the best theologians–those who still mistakenly think they have a “subject matter”–are aware of the sovereignty of science over theology in terms of explaining everything from the cosmos to human origins and nature. And they have seen it this way for a long time. Even many not very good theologians see things this way but pretend it’s none of their business.
The history of religion in the last two hundred years has been a history of religion redefining itself–a bit like Britain when it went from imperially great to little England. Yet religion has done a pretty good job of doing just that: the “war between science and religion” is treated in history-of-culture classes as a topic in nineteenth century studies, especially in the work of Cornell’s first hard-headed, science-first president, Andrew Dickson White. But if you look at the section headings of White’s famous book on the subject, you’ll see that he had a broad and humanistic definition of culture in which science played a magisterial, not an imperial role. He was as impressed with the results of the higher biblical criticism as he was with development in chemistry and medicine.
Andrew Dickson White, Yale ’53
Too many vaguely religious people aren’t aware of the “magisterium issue,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s linguistic stab at declaring a truce. Religion and science are compatible (to the extent it even occurs to ordinary people to wonder) because they don’t know much about either, and because they are encouraged in this superstition by dumb priests and ministers, the self-interest and reflexes of many churches, and the at-best tepid curiosity that characterizes their day to day life–whether in relation to politics, religion, world affairs, or national education policy. (And don’t mention vote-grubbing politicians who try to out-right-to-life their way into office by appealing to the worst instincts of NASCAR America. This may be the year that foetuses are declared citizens of the United States at seven months.)
What is the effect of this dumbness, this complacency? Loud, that’s what. Getting attention for your “message” by forcing people to pay attention to hate ads, grotesquery, libelous caricatures of ideas, and repeated falsehoods–all of it communicated in a kind of pidgin that can only be described as Dumbglish: these aren’t tactics that diminish and cheapen the American spirit. This is the language that American culture seems to require to wake it up. It flows like poison soup in the veins of the internet. This is where the American spirit is.
After some thought, I have to concede that maybe the shouting is necessary. Most people don’t pay attention to much of anything–not what politicians say, or what bishops teach, or what Atheists.org billboards shout at them along the highways.
The failure of the culture to inspire has led to the failure of people to be curious and a general acceptance of the status quo in most things–especially religion. Why should people want to know more about anything when they have a thousand bucks in the bank, an iPhone, and a new MacDonalds opening up down the street? Starbucks is for people with jobs.
American culture is not hardwired to evoke curiosity about science, religion, or anything else. It’s designed to breed complacency. If Theodore Roethke had lived today, he would write about the inexorable sadness of shopping malls and gated communities and universities where nothing happens and a society where conscience dies daily in the onslaught of the latest economic data.
AN indirect proof of that is an unbroken succession of wars, thousands of American dead, a broken Middle East, an Arab spring that looks like winter, and nary a protest movement to remind us that man is a moral animal [sic, or lol] who ought to oppose such things. Bishops made noises and a few liberal protestants and Jews occasionally marched. Atheists, as usual, weren’t quite sure what to do because while many hated George W. Bush they hated Islam more and so–like Christopher Hitchens–they backed the wars. They were, in a phrase, paralyzed and morally invisible. No William Sloane Coffin emerged, no John Howard Yoder, no Elie Wiesel. Complacency.
Rather than say Europe isn’t far behind in this, I’m going to say Europe is far ahead. Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.
The Christianity that Kierkegaard tried to resuscitate in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1843) became the Denmark where only 31% of the population believe in God but 82.1% are members of the Evangelical Lutheran (the State) Church.
How can this be? It can be, according to Richard Norman, because religion ”is a human creation … a mirror which humanity holds up to itself and in which it sees itself reflected….Human beings attribute to their gods all their own human qualities – cruelty revenge and hatred, but also love and compassion and mercy. That’s why you can find a justification for anything, good or bad, in religion.”
It follows as the night the day that Danish religion is not American religion. British religion is not American religion, and I’m loath to say British atheism is therefore not American atheism. This cultural specularity has always been true, as when long ago German Christianity was not Roman Christianity.
HE opposite of complacency is not excess. It is moderation, and if the argument against moderation is that it has nothing to show for itself, the counter- argument is that excess has much, much less.
The classical aphorism, σπεῦδε βραδέως, “make haste slowly” is a good motto for what needs to be done in the conversation between science and religion. It was the motto of the Emperor Augustus who as a military commander deplored rashness. Suetonius says that he would often tell the generals, “Better a safe commander than a bold,” and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”
In the final tally, as long as rashness rules and shouting scores, the atheists worry me at least as much as people who believe in souls. Realizing that he is now a template for what I consider atheist rash, as in red and irritating, consider this of P Z Myers reviewing the conservative philosopher Alvin Plangtinga
I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing.
After a scissors and paste attack on the philosopher punctuated by non sequiturs and hooplah that makes no sense, Myers says simply that it is all “muddled lunacy.” As a matter of fact, I don’t like Plantinga much either. The summary Myers attacks (fortunately for him) appeared as a piece in a religious periodical. But Plantinga deserves much better, even if only because once upon a time academics who despised each other didn’t mistake emotionalism for argument. A vestige of this is that not once in his summary does Plantinga call the proponents of naturalism “stupid.” The legacy of the Dawkins revolution will be to make this completely emotional, unquantifiable term and all of its sisters and cousins and aunts permissible discourse in the defense of science. I know, I know: I have had my lapses in calling screed-writers screed-writers in screeds of my own.
SO let me revert to someone else. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his famous 1997 Natural History article a couple of paragraphs which would have caused his immediate expulsion from the atheist camp as an accommodationist or worse if he had written it in 2007. He died in 2002. With him at the Vatican meeting on NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) in 1984 was Carl Sagan, who had organized the event.
…I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in the occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held such secular power during so much of Western history. When my folks held similar power more briefly in Old Testament times, they committed just as many atrocities with many of the same rationales.)
Stephen Jay Gould
I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.
I stop what will be described as a tangent, a screed, a hateful assault, another outburst close to tears at Gould’s words. The year he wrote this article (1997) was also the year of Carl Sagan’s death. Sagan perhaps did more to make science magical than any other scientist of the twentieth century, though his primary celebrity was where it belonged and was most needed: in the United States. Gould commenting on Sagan’s death had this to say: “Carl shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship.”
He defends his fellow atheist headlights and several sidelights by calling Eric MacDonald “Venerable” (which I thought was a title only a pope could bestow on a saint-in-waiting) and to Jason Rosenhouse as a promising young atheist blogger. He has more trouble finding a name for Greta Christina so he just asks, “Has he read her?” Yes, he has.
Since Jerry seems to have the power to hand out titles (who knew?) I will take him at his word that the chums he defends are everything he says they are. And more. He even seems to have access to my insanely jealous private thoughts (“Why not me… Dear God, why not pay attention to me.”) This maddening envy should have been obvious to me, but wasn’t until Jerry pointed it out.
I thought I was attacking the newbies because they are turning atheism into a private joke, or blague privée as we pompoustuans prefer to call it.
But there is no petulance here. –Nor in Jerry’s comments, where he reminds me that he has written two books. One of which, Speciation, “has become the standard text on modern views about the origin of species.” Damn, I wish I’d written that.
He also quotes the Venerable Eric’s humble and charitable response to a note I left on the Venerable’s blog:
“I feel so embarrassed for you, and for the pitiful criticisms you try to make. It won’t do simply to snipe at us. You must respond to what we say, and if you do not have the time to do that, then you should just get out of our way, because your criticisms invariably miss their mark and we have places yet to go.”
It is not everyday you see largess like this in action. And don’t think twice about it: I will be glad to get out of your way–if you just let me know which way you are marching. So far it isn’t clear. (Btw, loved the Robert Frostiness of that last line.)
I know zombies can sometimes also be unpredictable in their clamber for human flesh. What are new atheists after? Where are you heading? A Christian would say to hell, but based on Jerry’s–not to forget the others’ posts–I tend to think nowhere. And that’s pretty clever. It keeps people off guard when you do the God-snatch at the end.
I’m sorry if this seems pompous and incoherent. Accommodationists are a little like theologians that way, I guess. I sometimes find it hard to finish my thoughts in a jealous rage.
I will try to do better in 2012. I plan to study the blog sites of all the headlights and sidelights and use them as models of how it’s done. Whatever it is.
UPDATE: Apologies are due to Greta Christina who was in fact ranked by an atheist website as one of the top ten popular atheist bloggers. rjh
Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
The Missouri boy in Connecticut
WHO remembers their Huckleberry Finn? In chapter 19, Huck, Tom and Jim, afloat on the Mississippi River, meet up with two grifters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who claim to be exiled European royalty.
Their scam is going from town to town performing makeshift “scenes” from Shakespeare’s plays, then escaping with their lives when the rube public hear declamations like this:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
After spending a few hours with the scoundrels, Huck reflects,
It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble.
But (in one of the great mysteries of the book) Huck continues to aid and abet, pastes their playbills on buildings in towns along the river, enjoys swapping tales with them on the raft, and even saves their skin when they have a close shave.
The Duke and the Dauphin are Mark Twain’s contribution to a a literary stereotype that goes back to plays like Our American Cousin (an English drama of 1858) that pit a pampered and brainless British aristocracy against the dull, stammering but basically honest Yankee (Lord Dundreary and Asa Trenchard, respectively, in the play): Americans are naive, optimistic, uncultured, energetic and gullible; the British are cunning, cynical, indolent and intellectually dissipated. America is a good place to make a buck by selling wares that His Majesty’s subjects either can’t afford or simply don’t have much use for.
Things like atheism. I recently cited the statistics for religion in Britain. If you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is not an encouraging thing to note that only about 36% of Britons claim to be religious and a higher number claim not to believe in God.
Compare these to statistics for atheism in America. The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found that 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion (“nones”), of which only 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%). If you are an atheist-front organization, also not an encouraging picture, no matter how you fiddle the stats to make “No religious preference” or “Sorry, really in a hurry” survey-takers into atheists. Nones further have to be adjusted for mothers whose safety clasp just failed on their child-seat doing a drive-by after school pickup, and shoppers standing in line at the exchange counter on December 26th.
If I were an atheist strategy specialist there is at least one biblical story I would need to believe was literally true: the saga of David and Goliath. I’d want to know how a very little movement can bring down a cultural behemoth like American religion by throwing a few stones.
This led me to reflect on how the new atheism arrived in America and who is in charge of pasting the playbills on the storefronts.
OT to deny the contribution of several authors to the “movement”–Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens–I think it’s safe to say that the style of the new atheism extrudes from the work of Richard Dawkins. The paradigmatic shift from detente to full scale assault against religion as an undifferentiated mass of human error and superstitious thinking belongs to him: Why should we live with ideas that we find absurd and repugnant, or indulge people who fantasize the truth of their beliefs into norms that other people ought to follow? Gloves off, me hearties: Error should be resisted, countered, argued against, corrected, defeated–not coddled.
And what is the truth? Science is the truth.
The God Delusion (2006) and the wave of comment it created is now yesterday’s news. To remind myself of how I felt in 2006 while reading it, I talked myself (under the influence of several spirituous incentives) into re-reading it, and, much to my surprise, I liked it better the second time around–as a book rather than a best selling icon. It was a better book than Daniel Dennett’s really very sloppy Breaking the Spell, which I reviewed soon after it appeared in 2007. But then I forced myself to re-read a few of the reviews I had archived over the past several years, and this one by Murrough O’Brien from The Independent flagged itself. Just after pointing out Dawkins’s abuse of Bertrand Russell’s famous “Teapot Argument,” O’Brien notes.
Some of [Dawkins’s] arguments are old atheistic chestnuts, and how merrily they crack in the roasting pan. The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. Dawkins squirts this sachet of puerile pap (most of us had outgrown it before hitting double figures) over the whole book, to inadvertently comic effect. He writes: “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” The short response to that is a simple “Why?” The long one goes something like this: the question “Who made God?”only makes sense if one assumes that the Divine nature is subject to a kind of inverted evolutionary process by which the complex is preceded by the still more complex, but why on earth should we assume this? Why should God be subject to any version of a biological theorem? Why not the laws of physics, or of chemistry?
But then the real punch, trilitorally speaking, of The God Delusion was panache. Dawkins was an extrovert and spellbinder compared to Dennett, with his Darwinesque looks, and the singularly incoherent Harris, whose work Scott Atran, a serious researcher and cognitivist, called playacting at science and politically pernicious while also getting basic anthropological theories backwards, like his famous wowser concerning the work of Franz Boas.
The real success story of the new atheism is that it was bought and sold after being intellectually panned by almost all the cognoscenti who weren’t atheist activists. In fact, as the circle closed around a tightly knit cadre of God-opposers, opposing God became virtually the sole criterion for what, in their parochial view, counted for anthropology, archaeology, sociology and the study of religion–about which all of the four (check the footnotes) were blissfully ignorant.
And I mean that in the most damning sense. Virtually all of the credible reviews alleged it of Dawkins, and the others didn’t fare much better outside the atheist camp. The reflexive answer was to accuse anyone who opposed the unscientific, malformed, and totally ignorant premises of these books of being “faitheists” and to say that dispute would be treated as treason against the higher purposes for which the books had been written.
If that didn’t stick, sane voices were denounced as jealous voices, as though reputable scholars wished they had written historical and philosophical travesty under their own names.
The repetitive accusation against Dawkins–that he was attacking a straw man, a sort of tertia res religiosa that did not exist–became the new framing device for every critique of new atheist tactics: its critics (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) were attacking a form of atheism that did not exist. Sensible, if complex views like those of John Gray on the origin of humanitarian impulses, were conveniently set aside in favour of a new recipe for a scientific-evolutionary morality that floats above historical causality: Wrote Atran,
There is an irony of history that completely escapes Harris and other new atheists in their evangelical quest for a global morality rooted in scientific truth. As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place….Harris’s own messianic moral absolutism, based on devotion to “truth,” leads to some rather nutty proposals that defy common sense and are justified by made-up history that is patently untrue.
So much for Harris’s pop-psychology, or rather MRI-enhanced pop-psychology. Dawkins and Dennett were serious academics working out-of-field but who seem honestly to have believed that the methodologies developed in other disciplines were easily mastered and just as easily dismissed–a cavalier attitude toward critique that bordered on Dominican hubris at best and anti-intellectualism at the deep end.
Always guided by the nature of the game, Hitchens, the only true intellectual and by far the best-read of the group, was in it for the ride. All four looked as though they had powered their way through their task by reading the Cliff’s Notes to Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, and in some cases not even those carefully enough.
From any objective reading of the serious reviews, their mission to God’s kingdom was an epic fail in terms of what they brought home from the journey. It was all finished, critically speaking, in 2006 when Terry Eagleton said,
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
Dawkins’s precedence in ignoring the opposition by denying they constituted serious opposition became a trademark of the movement he put into place. But despite the discounted value of the books as credible intellectual proposals, there were plenty of people prepared to spread the mission stateside, where Dawkins’s accent, his unabashed science-thumping and his wares were more valuable than in Blighty, where people had been giving up on God (in droves) for decades without his help.
What hath anti-God wrought: The new atheism, which was really an American phenomenon, like Spam.
One can’t simply blame Richard Dawkins for creating the kind of poster-pasters his leadership had produced in Gotchaland. He didn’t ordain them, exactly. That would be like blaming Jesus for founding the church. Is a rock star guilty of the excesses of his fans? Of course not.
But it is undeniable that new atheism would never have congealed, to the extent it ever congealed, if American neo-Darwinist soldiers and a few strays hadn’t taken on the fight. Dawkins, as Garry Wolff commented in 2006, was very old news in England when he decided to try plowing the fundamentalist pastures of America. And soldiers there were, just waiting for the right fight and marching orders. And a good thing too: Dawkins himself came off relatively unsullied by these battles, while his American promoters didn’t mind a little mud.
Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a biology professor at Chicago. His only book, Why Evolution is True (2009), is his contribution to the anti-intelligent design debate and carries endorsements from Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker and others in the atheist-neo-Darwinist klatch. Dawkins reviewed the book for Atheist News in 2009. Hardly anyone would fault Coyne for his attempts to combat the anti-evolution fever that grips the establishment that is failed American science education. I for one think Jerry Coyne has struck a blow for rationality and common sense by writing this lucid book. It’s a shame therefore that Coyne buys into the Dawkins incompatibility model that makes religion the sworn enemy of science and science the salvation of the race. It is frankly embarassing, after two hundred years of the scientific study of religion, to hear a scientist saying things like this:
In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.
Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did. Why does the perfectly reasonable opposition to religious craziness have to descend to this caricaturing of the history of religion? And some information: the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most venerable in the nation–after which the Chicago School of Religionswissenschaft got its name (and turned Europeans green with envy at its methods)–one notably lacking in Irish elves–is located at 1025 E. 58th Street. Any number of evolution-accepting scholars–including Martin Riesebrodt would be happy to have a chat and set you straight. Of course, if you really believe that a degree in biology trumps every other discipline, then why bother?
P Z Myers. Winner of the 2009 “Humanist of the Year Award,” a lapse of judgement for which the American Humanist Association will burn like cotton floss in a non-existent hell for their abuse of the word humanist,
P Z Myers is cut from the same neo-Darwinist fabric as Dr Coyne, but without the credentials. That means he is anti-intelligent design, pro-evolution, and happy to be known as the Don Rickles of the Dawkins theatre troupe. He’s the purveyor of the award-winning science blog Pharyngula where he specializes in calling people who don’t agree with him stupid and moronic.
To his credit, Myers has published no book of popular or scientific merit though if his rep holds up as the sun goes down on new atheism he does have a collection of his favourite anecdotes and outrages coming out in 2012. But this does not stop him from being the voice to which most of the young neo-atheists pay heed. I was reminded last year, after being told by P Z that I needed to be more respectful to the cause, that he deserves to be called Dr Myers. I had asked why someone who teaches in a university could not distinguish between free speech and inciteful behaviour–like that associated with Koran-burning Florida yahoo Terry Jones.
Myers, who describes himself as a moral nihilist, writes like this:
There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion. Webster Cook smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it. This isn’t the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. …. It is just a cracker! So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls.
So, God love him, P Z Myers got the chance to kick the pope in the balls by spearing a consecrated host (eucharist is the name of the sacrament you fucking ex-Lutheran moron–whoops, just resorting to idiom) and a few other factotums. For this he is famous. And humanist of the year.
But let me just say this about the evolutionary, neo-Darwinist, religion sucks, anti-intelligent design phalanx of new atheism: If ever atheism got dumber and less impressive, it is in the work of this dissolute insult- monger. If there were ever an occasion for a serious scholar like Dawkins to say, this is over the top, P Z Myers is that opportunity. So far–nothing. The clowns are now the whole circus.
Greta Christina. I’m not sure whether Greta is a headlight, because there can only be two and she will see any reference to three as some sort of weird sexual joke. That’s the problem. She sees everything as a weird sexual joke. Ranked as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, Christina exemplifies in her work the increasing influence of LGBTQ trend toward identifying atheism and humanism with victimization and social marginalization. She can be amusing, but needs to take on some serious issues, such as why radical feminism and lesbianism are often perceived to be anti science when new atheism is purely devoted to an evolutionary model that, frankly, is not friendly to special pleading for biological exceptionalism based on sex. Didn’t understand that sentence? You need to.
Mark Twain just needed Huck and Tom to paste the handbills to the walls. Dawkins has a small retinue of Americans who will do him favours and not ask for money.
Ophelia Benson, host of Butterflies and Wheels, has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen. I still regard her as a fair-broker who needs to rise above the temptation to turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to the grousers who loiter around her kitchen table. I mean campfire.
The ex-Revd Eric MacDonald touts his website as being devoted to death with dignity. I’m for it; a close colleague and collaborator of mine, Gerald Larue, was one of the founders of the Hemlock Society. Unfortunately MacDonald has become just another horn in the bagpipe blown by Coyne and Myers. His constant theme is that theology is not worth the trouble. That’s an odd enough thesis for an atheist. More troubling is the fact that MacDonald doesn’t seem to know bloody anything about the academic study of religion and pretends that there is no difference between what he read as a young priest (mainly liberal post-Tillichian pap) and what’s being taught to PhD candidates in Religion at Harvard. It’s all ignorant bravado, but unfortunately some people read him, people like…
Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician qua neo-Darwinian atheist who teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. Rosenhouse [sic] essentially does book reviews of things that cross his path and passes judgment on what he doesn’t like, usually anything that rises an inch beyond cultural Judaism. Of Rabbi Alan Lurie’s recent HuffPo piece on religion, Rosenhouse opined,
We’re really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I’m not sure what he means by ‘the histories,’ but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world’s various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world’s ‘mystical teachings’ should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces.
To which I say…Go on. Suggest already. KFCs, meth clinics, museums, failing public libraries, Starbuck’s. You choose. America, as we know, is awash in sacred spaces so the fewer of these antiquities the better. Let’s use the real estate for what we really hold sacred. I sometimes wonder why people whose only contribution to blogdom consists of sentences like “Most religious rituals leave me beyond cold,” find themselves titillating? Can’t he do this on Facebook and get a thousand likes to boot?
S0 many other poster-pasters, but time is up and I hope my case is made.
The new atheism was as American as apple pie, which was invented in fourteenth century England. Just try finding apple pie in twenty-first century England.
HERE is a final question. Why does this matter? Why, more specifically, does it matter to me–why does someone who considers himself an unbeliever care about this subject at all? –So what if the ranters are ranters, that they pay no attention to serious religious studies scholarship, ignore the realities of two hundred years of academic inquiry into the foundations of religious thought and dismiss tons of modern scientific investigation into the nature of religious belief as worthless?
Jason Rosenhouse says, presumably with a straight face and clear conscience, he doesn’t know what “scientism” is. Naturally his question, in the ringaround-the-rosey style of this support group, is enthusiastically echoed by Coyne.
Let me offer my assistance. Scientism is a form of nominalism (q.v.) that collapses important methodological differences and qualities into a single term (“science”) as though the term had an existence apart from the methods that comprise it. Scientism is the belief that “science” is a supervening mode of knowing that can be imposed willy nilly on other disciplines whose methods have had a different organic evolution, yet methods normally just as true to their subject matter as biology or physics, for example, have been to their own. Most of the concrete results in historical studies biblical studies, the history of religion, textual studies (paleography), linguistics and assorted disciplines have been based on methods specific to their objects.
To deny the authority and validity of specific methods without knowing them is just as heinous an offense against reason as a fundamentalist’s rejection of a theory–like evolution–that he doesn’t fully understand. That is what scientism is and what it means and why it must be rejected. As Wittgenstein was finally forced to conclude, the belief that science is the final arbiter of what constitutes truth (or true propositions) is as “glaringly metaphysical” as the premises of traditional philosophy.
The willful ignorance of the new atheists matters because it makes almost impossible the work of serious religion scholars who have no commitment to belief, but who happen to feel that the study of religion belongs to and is inestimably important to the study of history and culture.
In the long run, real science acknowledges failed experiments and the humbling contribution of being wrong as a way of moving toward the right answers. It can’t rest like a medieval pope on its teaching authority. The “scientism” of the new atheists consists in a failed experiment in the misapplication of method. Richard Dawkins has been fond of saying that religion is the trivialization of complexities, a default position favoured by “dims” who just don’t get science. The scientistic worldview favoured by his promoters has relied heavily on the trivialization of appropriate methods for understanding religion. Given the starting point of his argument, there can be no other outcome.
The way forward in any useful critique of religion does not depend on activism disguised as judgement, opinion hiding behind tangential scholarly pursuits, or defenses of science and reason that are inherently unreasonable in themselves.