Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Secular Humanism and The New Atheists

I've listened to all Ryan Bell's podcasts so far, and this one I've listened to 3 or 4 times. Philip Kitcher is a philosopher with an interesting theological story of his own, and as he says, "is probably further left than Bernie Sanders". By that he means that he thinks every human being is worthy of being given a chance to find out what their talents are and to pursue them. I will address that in a separate entry. Before they get to discussing that, Ryan and Philip discuss the "New Atheists".

That discussion starts around 20 minutes. Ryan applauds Philip for going to great lengths in his book to NOT create a straw man of religious thinkers. His book speaks to "refined" believers. I think that's great and I hope to find some time to read his book. I have no problem with the idea of a "refined" believer.

What I didn't care for, was that Philip had to expand that to putting down people who speak to "unrefined" believers. As he says, "Some of the religious believers I know are completely different from the way the religious believers are portrayed in the books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, even my good friend Dan Dennet who I think of as the best of the so-called New Atheists." He goes on to describe a couple of these believers that he thinks well of, but he does not describe what Dawkins or Hitchens are addressing. Of believers, he says he "will not caricature them." He seems to have no trouble caricaturing New Atheists.

He does not mention, and maybe he doesn't know, that those authors and others have, on regular occasions addressed this criticism and pointed out that they are referring to specific behaviors of people. Behaviors that are real and commonly observed. Pointing out behaviors that are common is different than making caricatures. They are addressing those particular behaviors of those particular people, because they are dangerous behaviors. I can't imagine Richard Dawkins having a problem with someone running a soup kitchen or being a good Godmother (one of Philip's examples).

Christopher Hitchens famously had a problem with Mother Teresa, but he never complains about her helping people. On the contrary, he complains that she generated a significant amount of income for the church and used very little of it to help people.

Ryan goes on to talk about a universal human attitude of wonder that is seen in mathematicians or authors as well as religious people. To me, Dawkins is actually an excellent example of someone who does the very thing Ryan says he should do. You can pick on him for not knowing about Paul Tillich or the details of Augustine's writings, but those are not his central themes. He came to his anti-religious evangelism by way of biology. His discussions about evolution brought fundamentalists to him, he did not seek them out. Once they discovered him, his response was to do what he had been doing all his life, to educate people about what he knows about how the world works.

Perhaps Ryan and Philip have a problem with that part of the education that includes telling people that what they are currently think is wrong. Unfortunately, they did not mention anything specifically that anyone said or wrote, so I can't evaluate exactly what they have a problem with.

So that's what Phillip and Ryan DON'T do. They do spend 10 minutes trying to explain what can be salvaged from religion. They do quite a bit of qualifying of their remarks; Ryan says believing in supernatural agents is not intellectually responsible, but he sees value in the impulse behind the search for meaning. Phillip states the transcendent doesn't exist, but some people believe it does and can express those feelings with poetry and allegory that can inspire all of us. He doesn't agree with using religion to get there, but he respects it.

They seem to be describing these things with the implication that atheists in general and the authors they mention specifically, don't see this stuff. Phillip begins this segment with a particularly off-the-mark statement, saying there are some believers that see their traditions as important although they aren't attached to any particular detail, but they see that it, "points in the direction of a part of reality that atheists just dismiss completely."

I don't know how he can make that generalization about what anyone dismisses. He certainly has no data to back it up. Atheists I know and atheist material I read and view is very interested in what lies beyond our limited human understanding. Science is the pursuit of the unknown, by definition. Neither Ryan or Philip explain what is wrong with wanting evidence before adding something to the known. Nor do they describe how someone could dismiss the unknown, but be interested in learning. Neither one explains what this "part of reality" is that is being pointed to.

After I left religion, I found I was much more open to thinking about how the mind works, or how our ancient ancestors came to cooperate instead of fight, or what forces must there be that cause a tiny root to make a nearly microscopic decision to grow in this or that direction and that supports a huge tree. I find myself freer to explore those parts of reality because I'm not thinking about an alien intelligence from 14 billion years ago or one currently hiding in the clouds and wondering how or if they are affecting my life. I'm not trying to find an alternative method to discover truth, when the existing ones are working quite well.

I don't think religion is going away soon, but if it does, the world isn't going to miss the poetry and the allegory of religion because it is going to be replaced by a much more beautiful compendium that does not require knowing what it means to "wash your hands of" something, or what a "cross to bear" is. Instead the beauty that is actually seen everyday will inspire us to be stewards of that very beauty. We won't have an abstract notion of "neighbor" that we then re-translate into meaning our cousins across the oceans, we will instead understand that "we are all related" is a truth about biology and we are much more closely related than any religious tradition ever imagined. We won't wonder why we are here, we will accept that we are and we will make a purpose for our existence.