Tuesday, June 19, 2007

God Save Me From This Fellow Atheist

A.C.Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College. A good selection of his books can be found on the ever-shrinking Philosophy shelves at Waterstones and Borders. Unfortunately, a recent book of his entitled "Against All Gods"(Oberon Books, 2007, £8.99) is a setback for atheism.

Lacking Both Quantity And Quality

The book is only some 10,000 words long; which is only the length of my last nine blogs. Yet it could be a pleasing (if still expensive) short read, if it wasn't equally short on quality.

Apart from its introduction, it consists of six self-proclaimed polemics against religion and a more positive six page essay which he grandly tells us is on "non-religious ethics".

These brief snippets "began life as journalist contributions". We aren't told where they were cut and pasted from and some repeat points taken from Karl Popper and from Grayling's earlier works.

My Polemic Against Polemics

He has two strange arguments for presenting us with these "brief and blunt" polemics. First; if we would like more detailed (and reasoned?) expositions of what he is saying, then he tells us we can consult three of his longer books. It was a pity I did not know that before I purchased the book under review - although I find that I have picked one of these books up recently as publisher's surplus.

Secondly, he feels that a "combative" tone is appropriate as there can be no "temporising" with religion over the matters he covers. This indicates that he is keen to take on the propaganda of religious zealots, rather than to face up to theology at its strongest and then cap it with reasoned arguments.

He is a most unphilosophical philosopher.

I will now respond to three of his polemics. If I tackled more, there would be a danger that my review would end up being longer than Grayling's book. I use his own chapter titles

1. Does Religion Deserve Respect?

He feels that religious people overwhelmingly expect and receive far too much respect for the views they hold. Whilst there are, of course, many cases where this happens, there are two important considerations which Grayling gives no thought to.

First, some religious people are aware that there are strong counter-arguments to their particular religious stance. Some have felt the need to try to overcome such "doubts". If we argue with them without rancour, then they (and any third party involved ) will benefit from the friendly dialectics of such discussions. I had hoped that a Professor involved with Adult Education would have held such a perception.

Secondly, whilst I believe that all religious belief in the existence of God is mistaken, I recognise that some people have come to the viewpoint I reject - yet they link it in with many of the "humanitarian" values which Grayling and I share. In challenging someone's belief in God, we should not do this in ways which will also dent such related value systems.

2. Can An Atheist Be A Fundamentalist?

Grayling finds the use of the term "atheist" to be a strange one, as it attempts to describe a non-belief or a nothing. More than once in his book he repeats his past argument that we don't feel a need to refer to people as "a-fairyists" because they don't believe in fairies. So he sees no scope for an atheist to be described as being a fundamentalist or otherwise. Atheism is just a non-acceptance of other people's claims about God.

But what if a person's non-belief in the existence of God is part of a wider-belief system in, say, historical materialism or evolution? Surely, we can have fundamentalists and extremists in such camps, who wish to ram their views down our throats in ways that refuse to grapple with any counter-claims. The strength of Darwin's position is that it has stood up to rigorous debate.

To me, atheism (along with any other belief and non-belief system it is part of) can be pushed by some in extremist and fundamentalist ways. I hope that it is an approach I normally avoid.

3. The Death Throes Of Religion

Grayling claims that religion is on its way out. The rise of extreme versions of Islam, faith schools and creationism are merely its death throes.

He claims that this is what happened in the Victorian Era and after the Counter Reformation. This is an interesting theory, but where is Grayling's proof that this seems to be happening now?

In fact, the above argument is the exact counter to the one presented by Alister McGrath in his book "The Twilight of Atheism" (Rider, 2005, £7.99). For McGrath, Atheism took off from the time of the French Revolution and has started to move into free fall with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As with Grayling, he offers no evidence for his claim - although it takes him 279 pages to develop his case, compared to 5 pages by Grayling.

I find it worrying that Grayling should adopted a similar non-methodology to that pursued by McGrath as a Christian Crusader.


A further problem with Grayling's book is that whilst his polemics sometimes repeat points, at other times they contradict each other. So that whilst in the above polemic he sees the coming triumph of atheism, in another he worries about a survey which shows that 30% of University Students believe in creationism and intelligent design. He then reads like a Daily Telegraph editorial as he attacks what he sees as the lowering of educational standards by the opening up of University access.

I have now had a go at two atheists who have "God" in the title of their books - Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. I will, however, correct the balance in the future for there are some fine atheist writings for which I don't need God's protection.


calgacus said...

I've not read Grayling but i have read Dawkins and your criticims of their extreme version of atheism seem bang on to me.

I'm an agnostic as I don't believe its possible to know whether there's a God of some kind or not (and even if i had proof there was one it wouldn't necessarily mean i thought it should be obeyed - unless it proved to be a very enlightened God and i managed to achieve enlightenment ;-) )

(the hardline atheists may accuse me of being afraid of offending / being criticised by the religious here - but there's no real stigma attached to being agnostic or atheist in the UK)

To say for instance, as some atheist scientists do that 'the Big Bang disproves the theory of Creation' is nonsense. It disproves the very silly literal interpretations of the Bible and the theory that the Earth is only as old as that book (4,000 years).

It does not explain where the energy or matter for the Big Bang came from.

Now religion doesn't help much here either as if you answer the question 'What created the Earth/the universe/multi-verse?' and answer it 'God did' you then have to ask 'Where did God come from ? /Who created them?'

So Harry I agree with you that atheists determined to prove to everyone that there is no God are as extreme and unreasonable in their views as crusading/jihading religious fundamentalists with literal interpretations of old texts.

Religions also at least deal with questions like 'What is morally right/wrong?' . 'How should we live?' , 'What is the meaning of life?'. Some religious people are far too dogmatic about the answers but life would be empty if we tried to restrict it entirely to the scientific approach in all fields - or pretend that humans can really be perfectly objective and see the 'one truth' through science. That's as dogmatic as the fundamentalist wing of any religion.

Harry Barnes said...

I do not believe that God exists, so I am an atheist. However, I agree that we can't prove whether or not God exists and that the only intellectually sound position is therefore that of the agnostic.

There is, however, a strong argument on the atheist's side in that it isn't reasonable to ask us to prove a negative. The onus of proof is on the side of those who claim that God exists. I know of no arguments that give us a reason for believing in the existence of God. So to me a well argued religious person's belief is less reasonable then that of well argued atheism.

But I agree that if the Big Bang theory is correct, this does not end the argument as God could always have set that going. We are then into the problem of whether God was a first cause. A matter which is so confusing that some theologians put God outside of time to resolve it (whatever being "outside of time" might mean).

I would also argue that it is possible to give meaning (or meanings) to life and to have moral standards without having these things shaped for us by a God. Indeed the notion of God only complicates things. Are meaning and morality so because God commands them or because they have a inner-logic of there own which God (better than anyone) knows he has to pursue?

In "What Is It All About? : Philosophy and the Meaning of Life", by Julian Baggini (Granta Books, 2004/5, paperback £7.99) tackles a part of the problem well and from an atheist's position. Far better then Dawkins and Grayling with their dogmatic arguments against dogmatic forms of religion. Baggini merely has a habit of illustrating his point with stories from films - few of which I have seen.

I suspect that the differences in our two positions are more matters of taste than logic - as on Iraq?

calgacus said...

Could well be Harry.I don't think i disagree with a word you've said here.

I tend to say i 'dont know' rather than that i 'don't believe' - but i agree its just as reasonable (maybe more reasonable) to say there's no reason to believe without proof.

I think that while morally on lots of issues in politics and life generally not choosing to be for or against something is copping out (certainly not accusing you of that) there should usually be an element of doubt about most things even when you've chosen (so new evidence can still change your opinion).

Absolute certainty tends to lead to seeing only what you want to see (much as with Blair, Bush and Iraqi WMDs).

Since i'm rambling i might as well add some quotes from Aldous Huxley who (i think?) invented the word agnosticism :

"They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble....

follow your reason as far as it will take you.... And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. ...

That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism."

On agnosticism vs Christianity
"The real difference is this: the Christian says that he has knowledge; the Agnostic admits that he has none; and yet the Christian accuses the Agnostic of arrogance, and asks him how he has the impudence to admit the limitations of his mind. To the Agnostic every fact is a torch, and by this light, and this light only, he walks."

calgacus said...

I (and these web sites) may have him confused with Thomas Huxley - not sure

calgacus said...

yes - should be Thomas Huxley - that's what happens when i try and use half-read 2 minute googlings to try and look more knowledgeable

Harry Barnes said...

There were Huxleys all over the place on these matters. In addition to the writer Aldous Huxley and TH (Thomas)Huxley (who first used the term "agnostic") there was Julian Huxley who was amongst those (like HG Wells) who extended Darwinism into eugenics. But later Julian went on to condemn fascists for further extending this into racialism. Links to some of the rest of the family are also given here -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Huxley

Hughes Views said...

Did you see any of Jonathon Millar's TV programmes about Atheism? He managed to present a far more measured approach to the subject (even though one of his interviewees was the rather sinister (imho) Dawkins)...

Harry Barnes said...

hughes views,
I missed most of the TV series, but will look out for repeats. Antony Flew was a philosopher of atheism and then he changed his mind. Perhaps I should find out his fresh reasoning.

Hughes Views said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to Antony Flew - his seems to be a rather late and muddled 'conversion' to a view of a strange sort of God. Back to the ancient concept of 'God in the gaps' perhaps, i.e. being a shorthand for the things that are currently beyond our comprehension. Of course if some intelligence did design our universe (as Mr Flew seems now to think is possible) the question of who or what designed the intelligence remains...

Harry Barnes said...

hughes views,
And that intelligence might, of course, no longer still exist.