Here we have a 30-minute talk given on April 24 by British philosopher Julian Baggini at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn. You can find it on their site, but you’d have to pay to see the whole thing.
Fortunately, Baggini has posted it on his own site, and you can see the whole talk by clicking on the screenshot below. It was billed to me as a discussion of the question “has New Atheism gone too far?”. Though there’s precious little discussion of that (if you want to see repeated “yeses,” go to Pharyngula), but Baggini does give a qualified “yes” toward the end of the talk.
While I disagree with Baggini’s view that there can be a general coalition of the “reasonable” that includes both believers and atheists working together to find truth, Baggini is generally sensible and measured in his views, as he was in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a good introduction to the ins and outs of atheism, and to the widespread but mistaken consequences to most people of embracing it (i.e., atheism leaves us no grounds for morality). Below are the introductory notes from both sites.
The first decade of the 21st century saw an extraordinary rise in confident atheism. Now the whirlwind has settled, what does the future of belief look like? In this talk philosopher and author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini explores the new landscape of atheism.
Julian Baggini is a British philosopher, journalist and author of over 20 philosophical books. Since graduating with a PhD from University College London in 1997, he has co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and been a regular contributor to both national and international newspapers.
Click below to go to the vieo.
Baggini begins with a very short history of Western atheism, mentioning three prominent exponents: Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a Catholic priest whom Baggini considers the first “modern” western atheist (his Catholicism was not really his own belief, but his framework for helping others), David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.
The common strand of all three men is that they were atheists in the sense of being “rational skeptics.” That is, they maintained that there was no reason to believe that God existed, and therefore the probability was strongly against it. Some people call those “agnostics”, but I prefer Baggini’s definition: “a -theists”: those who dont embrace theism.
Like all who are empiricists, I adhere to a form of Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability,” which scores in a Bayesian way one’s degree of certainty that there’s a God. Dawkins constructed a seven-point scale of increasing atheism, with “1” denoting the view “Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung: ‘I do not believe, I know,'” and with 7 denoting the view “Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one’.”
Richard ultimately put himself at 6.9 on that scale, but I’d probably be even closer to 7 given the total absence of evidence for God. After all, where would you rest on a “spectrum of leprechaun probability”?
And indeed, that’s the true scientific attitude towards something. One can never say with absolute certainty that something does not exist, but you can come damn close to certainty. In my book Faith Versus Fact, I draw out one scenario that would make me believe in the Christian God, but even that scenario would confer on me only provisional belief.
At any rate, I’m happy with Baggini’s definition of atheism as “one who does not accept the existence of God” and will leave it to others to argue about the slippery term “agnostic”.
Baggini adds that there is an add-on to this definition of atheism (not, thank Ceiling Cat, the necessity for promoting “progressive” social justice), but the view that this form of atheism, being empirical, also entails “naturalism”: the notion that “the natural world is the only world there is, a world described in physical terms at its most fundamental level” by the natural sciences. To Baggini—and again I agree—everything else, like emotions and consciousness, are emergent phenomena of natural processes. There is no evidence for the “supernatural”. Although people are put off by the “dogmatism” of atheists, when you embrace it as a provisional position that can be quantified on a scale, it doesn’t look so dogmatic.
The good part starts when Baggini tackles New Atheism (NA), whose onset he attributes to Dawkins’s 2006 The God Delusion, though Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I take as the real beginning, was published two years earlier. (It all, says Baggini, was formented by the 9/11 attacks.) Clearly Dawkins’s book did the most to popularize NA, but Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris (and, says Baggini, to a lesser extent Dennett) were the main promulgators of NA.
Baggini then ticks off what he sees as the distinctive claims of NA, which he says in the main created a “problematic view of atheism”. (I disagree.) The claims (not direct quotes) are indented; my comments are flush left.
a. Religion was about offering a quasiscientific view of origin of the world. It was explanatory, the way that science was, and this created a false clash between science and religion. In reality, as Baggini says later , there were theologians like Karen Armstrong who argued that religion was more about practice than fact: “ways of understanding the world that would give us a moral framework.”
Yes, there are apophatic and Sophisticated Theologians®, but Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins explicitly addressed religion as it is practiced and taught by regular folks, not tendentious pseudointellectuals like Armstrong. And as I argue in my book, without some empirical assertions about the world (i.e., Christ was the son of God, was crucified, resurrected, and can bring us eternal salvation), no Abrahamic religion, nor most religions, have credibility and would have no believers. Even cargo cults depend on assertions about the existence of John Frum, for crying out loud!
b. Religion was harmful in various ways, valorizing faith and dogma, discouraging people not to think for themselves, and making people enemies of reason (a quality said to be monopolized by the atheists).
To me this claim is largely true and I have nothing much to say about it. Of course most believers behave rationally at most times, but they abandon that the moment they walk through the door of the church, synagogue, or mosque. Nobody thinks that all religionists are automatons or zombies who never think for themselves.
c. Religion was a source of evil by promoting absolutist world views, tribalism, extremes, and division.
There’s no way to determine whether, over history, religion has been a net good or bad in the world. I’d argue for the “bad” side, but at least one can make a good case that it’s outmoded today based on the a-reglious countries of northern Europe which seem, if anything, morally better than religious countries like the U. S. And then we have the annoying issue of “is it good to make people believe something for which there is no evidence?”
d. Religion’s respect by society was undeserved; this taboo had to be broken.
Again, this is palpably true. How many charlatans have gotten respected (and rich) by becoming pastors? As Christopher Hitchens said of Jerry Falwell soon after the Reverend’s death, “”The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called ‘reverend’.”
e. Religion is a monolith; New Atheists ignored nondogmatic and intelligent religious people.
I see this as untrue, and know that several times the NA’s have discussed this problem. What they did not do was assert that because some believers are smart and nondogmatic, that this somehow gives extra credibility to their religious beliefs.
Given that these assertions of NA supposedly caused unnecessary division in the West—and especially the U.S.—what does Baggini recommend? What he calls for is a “coalition of the reasonable”, an alliance in which people, “no matter what their fundamental convictions about God or not God are, are committed to a way of thinking reasonably and rationally about the world.”
Well, we already have that, and it’s called humanism. Insofar as religious people start thinking rationally about the world in arms with their atheist comrades, they are abandoning their religious belief, which is perforce irrational.
Now I’m not exactly sure how this coalition is supposed to work (Baggini slips it in at the end), or how one can get to get many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or Southern Baptists to sign on to an adherence to reason. (Baggini mentions one Muslim of the past who believed that empirical truth trumped the dictates of the Qur’an, but that was ages ago.)
This all sounds good, but I don’t see it happening. A world of rationality has no room for religion, nor for any sort of harmful superstition.
Have a listen and see what you think.
h/t Ginger K