There’s a very good Staggers article by Brian Appleyard reviewing A. C. Grayling’s recent book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the review, but there are several nice points, one of which I want to look at further.
Continuing the on-going theme of this blog as an exercise in reflexivity, I should note here that I may be an atheist, but that it’s very hard to tell. I subscribe to a neoPagan religious tradition, which places no requirement on the traveller to believe in deities; it can function as a theologically neutral life philosophy, along the lines of Daoism, or as a fully featured animist religion. My current position on theism is that for me personally, it’s too early to tell. I am not, however, agnostic; the language of neuroscience provides some pretty good models for how ecstatic spiritual experiences happen and mechanisms which can produce them, but from the point of view of the user they are still gnostic in the Neo-Platonist sense. That’s why Burning Man and LSD remain so popular in a secular society.
Appleyard identifies this book as Grayling’s application to join the “Four Horsemen of the Secular Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens Minor). He also finds a number of things to take issue with, following this summary of the work overall:
This is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. […] the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.
Having accepted what the book does well, he then starts to pick up on the problems:
The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.
When discussing the extraordinary political experiment which is the Union of American States, one simply cannot proceed without engaging with slavery, and with the genocide against the Native Americans. These great, gnawing cancers ate the heart and soul out of America’s idealism for two hundred and more years, and both live on in scars and wounds today. Equally, when discussing theism in English, what one is primarily actually talking about is the JCI religious triad; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the impact those religions have had on our civilisation and the world. One cannot consider the beauty of the Hagia Sophia or the power of Tallis’ glorious polyphony without also considering the Crusades and the Inquisition: violence against women, eugenics, colonialism, the doctrine of eminent domain, and the War on Terror. Inevitably, the Five Horsemen attack one side of that equation, and the argument made by Appleyard presents the other.
What is much more interesting is this:
There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” […] The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.
This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail.
Appleyard is right in paragraph two; Neal Stephenson addressed the same ground in Snow Crash when he has a character describe the Western canard that atheism is a sign of intelligence, nothing more. But in the first paragraph Appleyard comes very close to something rather more important. Grayling’s stamp-collecting metaphor is a good one, as it provides a way to think about the Horsemen and their philosophical ancestors from a new direction.
In this metaphor, a theist is a stamp-collector; an atheist is someone who collects no stamps. What do we call someone who wants stamp-collecting banned?
When I first framed this problem, I saw it as a difference between a-theism and anti-theism. The first is a non-stamp collector; “I do not believe in stamps.” The second would stamp out collecting; “You should not believe in stamps!” I really enjoyed the Humanist Bus campaign in London; based on reductionist evidence, gods probably don’t exist, and I am a passionate believer in free speech. My problem with Dawkins has always been that he uses a-theism, a very easily defendable position, to provide him with political cover for a completely different campaign, which is anti-theism. This is misdirection, political sleight-of-mind, and I don’t honestly see why he needs it.
Based on this review, Grayling is indeed riding out: Appleyard describes that same rhetorical sophistry at several points. I have no problem with the existance of anti-theists; the intellectual agora of the Internet era gets more robust with every added voice and viewpoint. I do have a problem with arrant intellectual dishonesty. If you are against gods, or (I suspect, in most cases) against a particular God, admit it. When you vote ‘No’, don’t tell the press you abstained. Dawkins and Hitchens Minor are quite openly anti-theist as well as atheist, and they should defend that; they both carry intellects of high calibre and have plenty of ammunition.