Monday, July 21, 2008

Is this really the best they can do?

Salon has an interview up with James Carse, discussing religion as poetry, its continuing hold on human imagination, etc. But as for the basic question of why should one believe, he gets a little vague. His take on atheism is one of the most succinct expressions of the Courtier's Reply I've ever come across:

Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is....To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.

Translation: there are entire colleges dedicated to studying the Emperor's boots, and shelves full of doctoral dissertations on the fineness of the plumage in the Emperor's hats! To therefore blandly say that the Emperor has no clothes reveals vast ignorance of all of this fine scholarship!

Apparently Carse is unfamiliar with universal quantifiers, as in, I don't necessarily believe any of it. Having complete floor plans and blueprints for castles in the sky doesn't mean those castles actually exist.

What makes it particularly silly is that Carse had just finished explaining that defining what it is you believe in, that is, defining God, is ultimately impossible. So, it's impossible, but atheists have to do it before they can say what it is they don't believe in.

And this line is particularly laughable:

To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe.

I've stood staring up at the night sky on clear July nights when the nearest streetlight was five miles away. I've gasped in awe at the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Rockies, and gazed into the eyes of my week-old niece and, years later, my great-niece. I've been stunned by the vistas of astronomy and marveled at the intricate precision of mathematics and biology. "Stunned by the mystery of things" and "in wonder about the universe" would both apply.

And yet, I don't feel the need to invoke any supernatural beings to legitimize any of that. Do I therefore, according to Carse, not exist? Once again, the old canard that we can have no sense of wonder without a magic sky-fairy, and that athiests are blinkered, gloomy souls. I can't help wondering if it's projection.

Addendum/Update: It looks like some of the letter-writers are noticing the same logical problems...

Really, I'd expected better from Carse. His Finite and Infinite Games was rather good.

P.P.S.: A letter-writer to Andrew Sullivan nails this as well.

No comments: