Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitchins your wagon to a star

A lot has been made of the death of the professional curmudgeon Christopher Hitchins.  He was one of the recent spate of public intellectuals who are also strident atheists.  For some reason, the public idolizes these guys as if they were rock or sports stars.  If it were all about entertainment, then one could respond according to his/her views about how much of that such stars deserve in any society with measured values.  Perhaps they bring pleasure, and that's worth more than so much else  in life that is rewarded less plentifully.

The strident atheists get ink and airtime because they are glib and claim that science proves their atheism, and they make a 'story' by using hyperbole to ridicule believers in standard religions.  Among other arguments, they point out how much damage has been done in the name of such religions, though perhaps without realizing the similar nature of their relentless anti-religion.  I have been reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, his classic WWII Russian-novel that's an analog of Tolstoy's  War and Peace.  Tolstoy was a communist of sorts, in the best share-the-wealth sense of the term, but his book was more about the rather mechanical forces that control human history than the Great Men to whom historians typically give all the credit.

Grossman's book is about the mechanical grind of evil and human cruelty, often perpetrated in the name of ideology, be it organized religion or its analogs in atheistic communism or fascism (or, we'd add, in sciences like Darwinian-based eugenics).  In a very angry and poignant chapter that I wish I could download and post to MT readers copyright free, Grossman argues that as soon as organized religion gains power it almost inevitably brings on evil, in the form of 'We are better than you!' which leads to 'We have to kill you in the name of Truth or Goodness!'  Secular ideologies, like Grossman's communist Soviet state, do exactly the same thing as Christianity and other major religions.

Grossman argues that goodness exists only when it has no power, in the lone or even anonymous individual acts of kindness, sometimes under the most horrendous of circumstances.  It's person to person, not organized and not implemented by states or churches.  It works because it has no power except kindness on its own, for its own sake, in the name of nothing higher or more grand than just a quiet helping hand.  Grossman has a point.

People  want certainty and to gang together with others who share the same certainty.  Scientists are no different in this respect (and, to the extent we develop weapons or create discriminatory ideologies, no better, either).  We want simple answers,  not complexity, even if complexity is Nature's reality.  The strident atheists reflect this:  in their own simplistic way they are surely right in pointing out the evils perpetrated in the name of theological religion, and the utter lack of any actual evidence for the organized theological belief systems.  It's hard to argue coherently with that, as Hitchins' debate opponents found out.  But the lack of evidence for religious truths doesn't mean that science can disprove religious assertions, nor certainly that they have any moral high ground from which to give their sermons.

The most scientists can do is to point out the rather empirically absurd aspects of so many beliefs. Given the vast coldness of the universe, our puny protoplasmic nature, and the mortal or worse evils perpetrated by those claiming to believe in versions of the Good, it is simply very difficult to be a serious scientist and hold to religions based on personal, loving Gods who care about our daily burps.  Or to think that there is any rational reason to believe that a system would be set up for us to suffer here for decades (or less) and then be transported forever to some wonderful peaceful place.  Nor how this Goodness could deliver a multiple whammy such as has just befallen some friends of ours, good people not deserving of such hits (Thanks, God, and Merry Christmas to you, too!).

It makes no actual sense but worse, tragically, too many believers have been, and are, willing to commit horrors on others in the name of their Goodness, whatever its particular brand, and not withstanding the actual good that many of the same people and organizations do. 

The world holds together logically with the kinds of explanations that science offers, no matter that we have gaps in our understanding.  It's frightening and depressing, perhaps, to think that science has shown us the nature of our frigid landscape.  But the coldness of harsh realities need not lead either to illusions or to harshness on our part.

Can we do better?  Can we hitch our wagons to some better star, of actual rather than imagined knowledge?  The star will take us so far, but no farther, than what human knowledge can deliver.  But we can accept the harshness of life and death, without using that to justify harshness or cruelty.  We know clearly, as we've tried to argue here on MT and in our book of the same name, that cooperation is pervasive in all  aspects of life, much moreso than competition.

We can take a different path, and argue that if all we have is here and now, and we're in it together, we should  share a wagon hitched to a brighter star than what's offered by strident atheists.  We may not be able to find scientific justification for such kinder behavior, but we need not search for it in the stars but in our own, individual, local instincts and feelings.

Even in a Darwinian world, the existence, after so many evolutionary millennia, of sparks of local kindness show that it is possible to act cooperatively rather than competitively, warmly rather than coldly.  If we can do this on a local level, why not on a more organized level as well?  Is that impossible, or is it just that, in societies usually organized around ideology, we haven't learned to do it yet?

We should be able to do this a-theistically, that is, without having to justify it by invoking a God or received sacred book as a justification--even if somehow they could be true.  But this is not the same as justifying any behavior on the grounds of the lack of evidence for such received truths, or on a belief instructed by atheism (or any other 'ism').  It is part of our individual nature, whether or not it can ever be at the core of our collective nature.


SteveC said...

I read your blog quite regularly and have learned from it and enjoy it. I have read the Tale also and thought it excellent.

I have not read Grossman's book but to what other secular ideologies are you referring? The communistic purges that killed so many people were the result of leadership paranoia, not any regularized secular ideologic principles.

As to the rest of your post, I am a bit confused. Your statement "Among other arguments, they point out how much damage has been done in the name of such religions, though perhaps without realizing the similar nature of their relentless anti-religion." Do you actually believe that atheism's anti religion stance has killed millions of people as religious beliefs have? I'm hoping this must have been hyperbole on your part.

"But the lack of evidence for religious truths doesn't mean that science can disprove religious assertions.." Adam and Eve? Noah's Flood? Resurrection? Are these not religious assertions disproved by science?

I seem to get the sense that you have an a-theistic viewpoint but I don't really get the point of the whole post. Are you trying to say that the "strident atheists" are wrong because they are strident or because they are atheists?

This is the first post I have read on the blog that relates to religion and atheism. Maybe I have missed others. Have you actually read any books or articles by Hitchens or any of the other "strident atheists"?
I am dissapointed in this blog post today.

Ken Weiss said...

Sorry you found this post confusing and disappointing. We have generally avoided the subject of science and religion because we did not want to get embroiled in such rant-entangled debates and blogs. We have rarely, if ever, mentioned it in the past, I think. Maybe it was a mistake to deal with the subject in this instance.

The post was triggered by my reading of Life and Fate and last week's relentless hagiographies of Hitchins.

The strident atheists we referred include him and others who seem so self-confidently to assert that science somehow specifically supports their anti-religious stance. The fact that science provides no specific evidence for the established religions' doctrines may convince many of us that the religious claims just aren't true, but that's not the same as implying that the science specifically shows that.

The same scientists are often comparably unyielding selectionists, a view we also think is simplistic and at odds with much that we know about nature. The view is also in a sense a non sequitur, because selection is not the only explanation for life's diversity.

Finally, the strident atheists confront religions with the (true) horrors that have been committed in their name. But the impression that they leave, despite disclaimers, is that religion is somehow particularly guilty.

I would argue with you about whether Stalin's or Hitler's purges were related to ideology and any less than comparable religious scourges. A materialistic ('marxist'?) viewpoint would say that ideology rationalizes power plays, so that ideology is only the vehicle. Stalin and Hitler (I mention them not because they were worse than, say Inquisitions or Crusades or Roman conquests, but because they were Grossman's topic) used ideology to justify their actions. That it was politically expedient for them is clear, but ideologies are used.

Yes, science certainly shows the erroneousness of Noah's flood etc. but I was (carelessly perhaps) referring to the underlying assertions about the existence of God and God's characteristics and whether God communicates with people. I think science can't directly address such things and biologists shouldn't suggest implicitly or otherwise that they can--even if the same data are rather convincing of that view.

Anyway, Grossman's other point we felt was important, that kindness does exist despite ideologically driven horrors, but that once even a Good-seeking ideology gets power, it typically becomes harmful.

But this has perhaps taught us to heed our own instincts...and stay out of this area of debate!

John Burns said...


I would be disappointed in Mermaid's Tale if Ken Weiss were to ever stop being the consummate teacher that of risk taker.

Jason Antrosio said...

Thank you for an interesting discussion.

Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know Mermaid's Tale is included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.

Ken Weiss said...

Unfortunately, our field routinely does, and perhaps must, come into 'engagement' with the anti-evolution crowd. But we've seen this, and been participants occasionally, for over 30 years and nobody changes positions. Everyone's convinced they're right. So there really isn't any debate (and, I think, that was the case with Hitchins' debates, too).

I have written a couple of my columns in Evolutionary Anthropology (that I call Crotchets & Quiddities because it allows me the liberty of saying what I think or even becoming cranky) on related topics.

One tries to show what really happened in the Scopes trial (showing how this same 'debate' is now nearly a century old. And another called Grandma's Eyes, about how we try to explain religious experience within our usual framework. This can be downloaded from my web site for any reader who wishes.

But these are my views, not anyone else's, and you needn't like them!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Unfortunately if you don't couch your words just perfectly while you're *gasp* critiquing the four-horsemen et al., you can be seen as a heathen. (which is an exaggeration of what I think is going on with the first poster who is unsure of Ken's religious position). This are-you-in-or-out perspective is exactly one of the issues, I think, that Ken's trying to highlight. Strident atheism has become the dogma that it presumes to fight against. I was always entertained by Hitchens, both his extemporaneous speaking and his writing and for many reasons, just one being that he broke so many taboos. To me, it's fine to have celebrities like that, as long as the rest of us don't emulate them. In real life, away from the tv camera or the pulpit, you can't treat believers like idiots and get anywhere with them if educations's your goal. Besides you shouldn't treat people as idiots because that's just good human behavior. And what's more the vast majority of humans are not stupid (which runs counter to much of the atheist dogma). That they are religious too is not because they are stupid. It feels ridiculous to even write that. I absolutely enjoy much of the goings-on of the four horsemen but I cringe at and avoid their websites where the public comment threads are full of judgment, dogma, holier-than-thou, hatred of perfectly NORMAL people because of their perfectly normal religious beliefs. I was one of those once. I was brought up to believe in God and I shed those beliefs slowly as I developed more and more confident doubt and more and more confidence in myself that I could get away with living outside such a poweful and pervasive cultural system. That last part has nothing to do with my intellect. It has to do with my parents and other people in my life along the way. I wouldn't change the experience I had, in doubting, reflecting and eventually letting go of the supernatural for anything. It's one of the most exciting adventures I've been on. And that's just another reason why I don't think that shoving atheism down people's throats is an acceptable strategy: we should be patient while they make the gratifying journey themselves. That's the only way to do it without (hopefully) succumbing to just another dangerous dogma. Without trading over to just another team against everyone else.

Here's something lovely:

Ken Weiss said...

Typically thoughtful comments, Holly. When anyone writes or speaks in some measured way about this issue, those holding polar positions want to know what your real position is--are you a member of the right tribe? That's a major reason the discussion goes nowhere.

Of course, there is also the issue that when one party says they want dialogue with the other, or that education is an important part of the dialog, what they really mean is that they want to convince the other side to come over to their side. That means the debate is more about persuasion and propaganda than it is about enlightenment.

The holiday-for-nonbelievers website is nice.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Well of course I'd like more people to be convinced to drop the supernatural ... then I'd have more friends like you and Anne! Merry Christmas!

Anne Buchanan said...

Beautifully said, Holly. I would only add that there's a danger to requiring people to toe the line in science, particularly with respect to evolutionary theory, and that is that it too can become dogma. To the extent that scientists aren't allowed to question it, or veer from the party line. We had this experience when our MT book was going through review. One reviewer for the press said that by questioning the primacy of natural selection, we were in danger of providing harbor for creationists, and the press's name could not be associated with that. When it gets to the point that we must simply accept scientific theory without question, that's dogma. Too many atheists accept a party line with respect to evolution, and that's bad science.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, there's certainly nothing wrong with thinking (and hoping) that one understands the realities of life, and wanting others to see that as well. Even then, when recognizing what the realities seem to suggest, one can be empathetic with others who either can't really digest those facts, or happen to believe there are other facts that are not being brought to bear in the discussion (such as, for some, the convincing aspect of personal experiences that they say they have).

Trying to have mutual understanding isn't the same as being asked to give up one's beliefs, but the issue is that in 'tribal' conflicts like this, it is rare for the dialog to be measured.

Of course, when one lucks out and meets people like you, Holly, then all of the rest of this stuff loses importance!

Naturally, we hope you have a great holiday and an even better 2012!

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm reminded of a scene in "Stranger Than Fiction" (a great movie) where a man is shocked that a woman is part of an organized club of anarchists. It's how I see the atheist "movement" or any other organized, labeled "atheist" behavior. Do these people really "want an equal voice"? Or are they just proselytizing and recruiting and driving a wedge between themselves and others just like all the others?

Anne Buchanan said...

And a joyous holiday to you, Holly! Here's to another year of MT together!

Ken Weiss said...

And as to Anne's comment about Harvard Press, if we are cowed from saying what we see lest 'they' will cite us, then they have had their victory. That is essentially what the HUP syndic person advocated. Plus, reflecting his/her own dogma, the comment reflected an archeopteryx when it came to any sort of questioning of current evolutionary dogma.

Harvard Press did approximately zero to help promote our book, which is a self-interested reason, among others, that we started this eponymous blog (not for sales, which were never going to make us wealthy, but because we think there are ideas and exchanges that are important to have in the open air)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Now getting together with a bunch of like-minded people for a little festive cheer... that's different :)

Holly Dunsworth said...

We should just be on Skype... we're talking right past eachother simultaneously! :)

Anne Buchanan said...

And spot-on, Holly, re the atheist "movement".

Anne Buchanan said...

And festive cheer, and being on Skype! :)