Saturday, February 20, 2010

Karen Armstrong vs. the Dawkinsistas


"""So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.

These writers are wrong -- not only about religion, but also about politics -- because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner."""

Armstrong may not pay sufficient attention to the type of hysteria which some neo-atheists rightly object to, yet she raises an important point re the neo-atheist's cold, reductionist view of human nature. A Dawkins reduces religion merely to a search for proof. We can't see an ancient, bearded gent in the skies, or in our telescopes, or microscopes; therefore, He doesn't bloody exist, claim the Dawkinistas.

A rational agnostic should protest most of Dawkins' naive empiricist tactics. A religious Being, or realm might not be an object, as say a person, or planet is an object. Is our concept of Justice identifiable via a microscope? Yet many if not most humans would agree they have such a concept. We imagine a Stalin, Hitler, or Idi Amin stuffed in hell, along with small-town perps and panderers, or corrupt judges, politicians, or newspaper editors who fabricate a person's guilt to appeal to some yokels (yokels are multicultural these days). Modern science routinely operates on the assumption that objects (like subatomic particles) exist which cannot be detected by human sight, but merely inferred. At least, the question is not strictly inductive, as in we can't verify God (as in point to him, like one might point to a black swan), but whether religious inferences might be allowed, or plausible in a sense.

That's not to say that one should assume that religion equals traditional monotheism, i.e. an Abrahamic religion--, though the Bible itself remains a source of wisdom, at least when read by rational people. (thankfully, Dawkins, unlike the wackier Harris, does not approve of the mystical occult BS characteristic of many of the neo-atheist gang)--however most eastern religions do uphold some form of mystical/supernatural beliefs (ie, reincarnation, or the various deities of hinduism). Dawkins' insistence on empirical confirmation applies to Hinduism, as much as it would to baptists.

Armstrong's point regarding humans' quest for meaning also should be considered. An afterlife, however implausible to a bottlewasher, makes sense to some people, not only the usual sort of biblethumping WASP. A catholic mother who prays for her sons and daughters serving in the military in a distant country engages in an significant act; she's not merely reiterating some superstitious ritual (tho' admittedly some believers rely too heavily on prayer--and alleged miracles). The Dawkins-esque bottlewasher waves his hand or scoffs, but a mother's prayer means something in a religious realm--a heartfelt prayer has significance (that doesn't mean that one necessarily blesses the priests or preachers who require it...). A prayer of any sort means little or nothing in a naturalist, Darwinist world.


Unknown said...

"The Dawkins-esque bottlewasher waves his hand or scoffs, but a mother's prayer means something in a religious realm--a heartfelt prayer has significance"

Wait, did somebody steal your blog again? This rubbish can't be from you can it?

I was sure you were setting up Ms. Armstrong for the deliciously brutal takedown she well deserves. What a horrific disappointment.

And remind me of why exactly Harris is "whacky"?

J said...

Armstrong, hardly some biblethumping baptist (she's irish, and a former nun), rightly objects to the Dawkins or Harris-like frat-boy reductionism. Not all believers are Jerry Falwells, or jihadists, or conservatives. The last two popes have both criticized US actions in iraq and middle east--more than say Harris or Hitchens did.

Keep in mind most read Dawkins, and certainly Harris (pro-IWE, and actually supporter of torture--google around) as conservatives. The early Darwinists were conservatives as well, at times eugenicists. I don't deny Dawkins has some decent arguments--but most are rehashed from Hume, Bertrand Russell, Sagan, etc. Russell himself was not always supportive of the Darwinist cause....Dawkins is no Russell...

You didn't read my post closely enough. Like most neo-darwinists you mistake humans for mere primates. Even Marx does not make that mistake. Humans think. Apes don't. When does a baboon in one of Dawkins' labs write an Iliad?

There are also ....philosophical issues which Dawkins tends to ignore, if not scientific issues (ie the point on naturalism. the naturalists/darwinists assume Mind is identical with brain (ie and mental functions, ala language, mathematics, musick). But they don't prove it.

J said...

re Sam Harris and Torture (a fairly well known essay, that is, to anyone who actually bothers to read the neo-atheist neo-cons).

And really one could argue that Harris's sort of primitive utilitarian justification of torture (which flows quite naturally from his atheism) could be used by any and all (and, actually Harris does sort of suggest that)--the argument about equal to saying since our enemies take hostages, we should too (and thereby ignoring the actual body count of the iraqi war itself...).

Unknown said...

Fascinating. Despite the title (In Defense of Torture) the piece is equally effective as an argument against bombing, and, essentially, war itself. I am not such an absolutist to categorically eliminate the possibility of the ticking time bomb scenario and the necessity to use extreme means in such a case. But I do have a couple of big problems with the use of torture. One is the hypocrisy of the "enhanced interrogation" semantic sleight of hand. If it was torture for the Khmer Rouge and China to do it it was torture for us and should be admitted as such. Second is the reality that torture is rarely if ever the most effective method of getting information from somebody- including in the ticking time bomb scenario- and it tends to instead be a prime invitation to the most sadistic impulses imaginable in the torturer. Third is that it's really bad PR that's likely to achieve significant blowback. More terror attacks, less cooperation in fighting international crime, etc. More likely I'll be mugged while visiting some foreign country just because I'm one of those immoral, torturing Americans. Essentially, it should be American policy never to torture, as it should to never bomb where civilians could be hurt or killed. Just because it's official policy doesn't mean you never have to do it, but doing it has to be defensible, and the defenders of such should stand for what they believe without playing semantic games. I applaud Sam Harris for using the word torture and not some mealy-mouthed gobbledygook. He doesn't hold back from what he really thinks. Thanks for the link. Makes me want to read more of this guy.

J said...

I suspect many saw HuffPo a few years ago and thought Harris liberal, when the article is as rightwing as anything Pat Buchanan ever wrote, if not to a Buchanan's right.

Had this article been published in say Slate, or some rightwing site, Harris would have been denounced and ridiculed. But framing it in HuffPo, he gets away with it.

Most reasonable people would have "big problems" with Harris's pseudo-argument. Yes, in some extreme circumstance--the ticking bomb case--torture might work. But it's notoriously unreliable, especially when dealing with fanatics. There's no way to confirm extorted information, etc. So Harris merely describes a hostage situation, and no different than what khymer rouge, or extreme jihadists engage in, and yes it would likely inflame and enrage everyone.

Taken to its extreme (ie the utilitarian aspects), Harris's thinking can be seen to be completely anti-democratic, and opposed to human rights in any normal sense--ie, what if no foreign hostage is available (or say he hasn't been proven guilty), couldn't the Harris-like torturer justify sacrificing an innocent citizen{s] to possibly prevent greater damage/deaths? yo, stop the jihad, or we kill the kid....Harris seems to suggest as much (though if you're an atheist, who cares? Strike while the iron's hot being the de-facto rightwing Darwinist code...river chimps vs. jungle chimps...) .

Unknown said...

I didn't see the article as being left or right, but just intellectually honest. I found it a good read and my considerable respect for Sam Harris is undiminished. It was a bold analysis, and well articulated.

J said...

Honesty is not itself always good--Mein Kampf's honest as well. It's rightist, or center-right at least. As was Harris's support of Bush and the neo-cons. You're just defending Harris because he's hip, a HuffPo reg, or Steinford academic, etc.

He's not exceptionally articulate. Read the neo-atheists real mentor, Hume--a superb prose writer. Or Bentham , Mill. Harris's utilitarian position (greatest good for greatest #, to be very brief) was argued more forcefully and with more detail by Bentham and Mill. As many have pointed out (including Karlo Marx) the utilitarians' notion of something like an aggregate good often would be opposed to rational humans' sense of right or entitlement--the popular vote itself raises that issue.

J said...

Even some HuffPo regulars take issue with HarrisSpeak:

Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris in saying "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," and states "[t]his sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition."[37] Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, "[c]ould there be a more dangerous proposition than that?" and argues that the "anti-tolerance" it represents would "dismantle" the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.

Yeah. Actually the phony aka S-harbor on yr site sounds Harris-eque at times (Belle-Ronius a bit too irrational, er schtooopid for Harris level hackeries): the supposed virtuous, liberal non-believer who then turns around, and often sounds just like some vindictive conservative moralist.

First off, you and yr cronies don't quite realize what is at stake with taking up atheist materialism--Cheney's not to your taste, but you, as atheist and denier of any type of ethical accounting, really have no basis for criticizing him, apart from taste. For one,why be moral, except to not get caught? Even Harris level hacks realize that. No God, and no real obligations to be moral, then torture (and many other crimes) could be useful in some circumstances--the code of like Meyer Lansky and the Five points gang

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