May 14, 2007

Problems with neo-atheism.

I am an atheist. I believe that the universe and life on earth were formed by natural physical, chemical and biological actions, that man evolved by natural selection over billions of years, that there is no intelligent being who created the universe and possibly is monitoring the events in it.

This much is clear. Where the indecision arises is when I try to analyze religion and its ill effects.

There is a renewed attack on religion afoot. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and now Christopher Hitchens are the star performers. Among these I have read only Dawkins. His book was exhilarating. It taught me a lot, and it fed into my hostility to religion. But after a while I started becoming uncomfortable with Dawkins, the neo-atheist.

God Delusion mounted a comprehensive attack on religion. It titillated me. Its vitriol paradoxically sweetened my world. It momentarily dulled my suspicion of his extensive charges. This was its problem. In his attempt to surround the enemy from all sides, Dawkins spread his army too thin and left room for a counter attack.

In passionate discussions with friends I tried valiantly to back Dawkins; I recounted his and Harris's list of religion's crimes; I tried to paint a picture of a peaceful world without religion. But I wasn't convinced by my own arguments. I was simply carried away by the eloquence of Dawkins.

Many of these thoughts of mine are articulated in this review of Hitchens's book by Anthony Gottlieb in New Yorker. Apart from recounting the obvious problems with neo-atheism, Gottlieb rises two key points.

First, there is a more considered and nuanced way to attack religion. One of the famous examples of this David Hume who, more than 200 years before Dawkins, brings up many of his ideas.
In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.

Second, perhaps too much is made of religion's dominance in today's world.
After making allowances for countries that have, or recently have had, an officially imposed atheist ideology, in which there might be some social pressure to deny belief in God, one can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be.


At 4:05 PM, May 22, 2007, Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for posting that link. Hume was a great intellect, and from what I read, an exceedingly jovial one at that. I think I agree with what he is saying....but I have a few thoughts. One simple question is, how many people of faith did Hume's discourses actually "convert" (no pun)?
As far as Dawkins et al. are concerned, I think one of the reasons they penned such aggressive sounding books was to shake up the atheists among us, who were probably living in a self-imposed exile. I personally believe that the attempts to teach creationism and the insight obtained into fundamentalist Islam were the two biggest driving forces for them to write their books; I firmly believe that most scientists would not give a damn about what they say in the churches, if they were not trying to bring it into the scientific classroom under the guise of respectable science. That's a real threat, and scientists are rightly forced to rally against it.
Also, I suspect that Dawkins et al. have probably tried to be gentle in trying to convince people of the folly of their faith, and have probably not succeeded. And in general I completely agree with one of their premises; why should we handle only religion with kid gloves, when we are quite blatant and direct about criticising politics and other aspects of society?
Hitchens probably goes overboard a little, and I do agree that sensitive people who are on the fence are not going to find his or similar writing very charming and persuasive. But if these books are going to bring more atheists out in the open in general (as I personally believe they will), then I believe that their utility would have easily compensated for their drawbacks.

At 1:46 AM, May 24, 2007, Blogger Krishna said...

I agree with you that the new aggressiveness may be a result of some recent crazy trends. Also, these methods might prove to be as (or more) effective as the older and gentler methods.

However I am a little concerned with the tendency to see lot of evil solely through the lens of religion (e.g. your latest article on Sam Harris and Chomsky). It is true that religion provides excellent rationale for the fanatics, but I doubt if it is the root of their fanaticism. As the writer of the article says, if religion is evil then it is only because man has such tendencies. And if there is no religion there would be something else. The point is that there is evil, and religion happens to be a prominent vehicle for it. I am not convinced that if religion were to be wiped out man would cease to have evil thoughts.


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