Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Contemporary atheism watch.
The current issue of Bookforum riffs on the famous 1966 Time magazine cover — "Is God Dead?" — with the eminently contemporary question: "Is God Still Dead?"
Stephen Colbert's "This Week in God" leaves Jon Stewart's audience in stitches, but, Ronald Aronson writes, "it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is on the defensive today."
Aronson reviews a bunch of recent titles about atheism, including firebrand Sam Harris's The End of Faith, theologian Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism, and sociologist Alan Wolfe's The Transformation of American Religion. But after dissecting Harris and McGrath, he praises four other books that don't depend — as older arguments for atheism often did — on the assumption that technological progress would simply usher in an age of moral progress and enlightened secularity. (Oops!)
Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction sounds like the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians especially should read: a positive presentation of atheism that doesn't radiate hostility for religion. (My own approach is to try to understand the appeal of nonreligious worldviews so that religious communities might engage them more honestly, which makes me a postmodern modernist, I suppose.) Aronson describes Baggini's basic approach to atheism:
It is rather a kind of growing up, a turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world." In a highly accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine) covers what have become familiar themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned from the history of both religion and atheism.
Baggini asks whether atheism is necessarily against religion. The concluding picture he gives is of a secure and positive outlook, without hostility, combating harmful consequences of religion to be sure but no less critical of militant atheism. His final chapter is a masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come, the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the willingness to be proven wrong.
The conclusion of Aronson's long and engaging review is worth the attention of religious humanists as well as their secular humanist cousins:
Taken collectively, the writing of the new atheists offers a set of promising ideas. Harris, for all his negative energy, provides a potentially rich idea about mysticism, as cultivated in Eastern religions, as a "rational enterprise." In Buddhism, he argues, reaching beyond the self has been carefully and closely described and need not be left to faith but may be empirically studied. Baggini's rejection of dogma and militancy on all sides is not only refreshing but intellectually important; Wielenberg talks about the possible contribution of neuroscience to a future secular ethics. But by far the most important idea contained in these books is Harbour's effort to cast the discussion as a matter of worldviews.
As Alan Wolfe points out, the newly revitalized religions have made next to no changes on the doctrinal level. But they have modified their practices, appeals, and attitudes in a more accepting and nurturing direction, creating a new sense of community. This is more than a matter of marketing; it involves living one's faith and meeting people's needs. Atheists have much to learn from this. If the appeal of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life. As McGrath points out, classical atheists were able to provide this, but no more. A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today. The new atheists have made a beginning, but much remains to be done.
("Faith No More?," Ronald Aronson, Bookforum Oct/Nov 2005: 16-19)
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 11 October 2005 at 8:12 AM