Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The New Atheists
The philosopher's God | HE Baber | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
I wrote this piece for The Guardian, which got the predictable comments there and then enjoyed something of an afterlife on Butterflies and Wheels with more predictable comments.
I suppose I can understand some of the hostility to religion. There are still a few people around who were raised as fundamentalists and got beat up by it or who live in backwaters where conservative evangelical Christianity is the religion du jour, religious participation is de facto mandatory and non-participants get flak. And there are many more who don't have much contact with religion of any kind but who have picked up the rhetoric of these embittered ex-fundamentalists because it's an intellectual status symbol or because it's bad and therefore cool. Ho-hum.
What I don't understand is the virtually universal tone-deafness to religion--the utter failure to understand its appeal. But maybe I just have an anomalous understanding of what religion is.
Religion as I understand it is metaphysics + cult.
Metaphysics isn't empirical. The metaphysical commitments of religion don't have anything to do with the way in which material world operates. Science tells the whole story about that. They are solely concerned with out-of-this-world matters: the existence and nature of God and the possibility of postmortem survival. The metaphysics of religion commit one to belief in the supernatural, to out-of-this-world states of affairs--not to any claims about the supernatural influencing the natural order or breaking into it by way of miracles.
Cult consists in liturgy and, by extension, the infrastructure that houses it and facilitates it: church buildings, religious art, silverware and costume. It includes also all literature, music and art that has religious themes.
That's it in its essence. For historical reasons all sorts of other stuff has been tacked on, much of which has been, over the centuries sloughed off. Religions once provided cosmologies: now we know better and have abandoned creation myths for scientific accounts of the origin of the universe. Religions, Abrahamic religions in particular, told an historical story: we now know better, read the Bible critically and recognize that most of the history it includes is at best fanciful.
Most religious believers still seem to imagine that religion provides ethical guidance. It's time to dump that too: ethics is a purely secular discipline. As far as the Big Questions about the Meaning of Life and such, these aren't even intelligible. Faux-religions that dispense with the metaphysics but insist that they have something to offer when it comes to ethics and questions about Meaning or The Human Condition are completely worthless. Secular ethics, a philosophical specialty, deals with ethics and the empirical social sciences tell us everything there is to know about the "human condition."
So what is left is metaphysics and cult. That's religion in its essence. So what's the problem with that? Interesting metaphysics, that doesn't in any way undermine a completely scientific understanding of the natural world, ceremonies, customs and wonderful art and, if we're lucky, religious experience.