Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Church of the Divine Slacker
The Church of the Slacker God | Machines Like Us
[W]e should really think of 'accommodationists' as 'worshippers in The Church of the Slacker God.' But this raises the question of why intellectuals like Wright and Baber so desperately want to belong to such a church, which frankly does not seem to offer much to its parishioners. After all, it rules out answers to prayers, miracles, heaven, and all the other goodies that entice believers to join the more mainstream churches, even though those goodies never actually materialize. How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests...Why do religious intellectuals like Baber and Wright feel the need to find reasons to believe in the existence of such a slacker god?...Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.
The New Atheists are an irritating lot for at least 3 reasons:
(1) First, while there is nothing to say about atheism, the New Atheists just keep talking...and blogging, and commenting, and writing books, and talking and talking and talking.
There's nothing to say about atheism for the same reason that there's nothing to say about non-stamp-collecting: it's simply the denial of a thesis and non-participation in a practice. There is plenty to say about stamp collecting, none of which interests me, and even more to say about religious belief and practice: one can discuss theology, church history, liturgy, ecclesiastical politics, and so on ad nauseum. But there's nothing of interest to say about atheism: all one can say is that atheists don't believe the theological claims and don't engage in religious practice, which is pretty obvious and thoroughly uninteresting.
Consequently, the only thing atheists qua atheists have to talk about is why they aren't theists: why theological claims are implausible and why the practice of religion is silly, superstitious, pointless or positively dangerous. But we've heard it all. Hume said it, and said it well. Russell said it and popularizers like Mencken and Sinclair Lewis packaged it for mass consumption. The New Atheist project of saying it over and over again seems distinctly pointless--and thoroughly boring.
I'm not suggesting that the New Atheists' criticism of religious belief and practice is impolite or strident or disparaging of religion, which ought to be respected. I'm fine with rudeness and stridency, in which I often engage myself, and see no reason why religion should be respected. I just don't see why atheists should engage in the critique of religious belief and practice--any more than non-stamp collectors should spend their time and energy going on about how boring and pointless stamp collecting is. Certainly, when religious belief is under consideration, in philosophy of religion classes or public debates, that critique needs to be considered--and represented in it's most powerful and compelling form. I just don't see any reason why, apart from this, atheists should endlessly rehearse anti-theistic arguments, or affiliate with atheist organizations or send their kids to atheist summer camps any more than non-stamp-collectors should make a fuss about the folly of stamp collecting, or join non-stamp-collector organizations or send their kids to non-stamp-collector camps.
(2) New Atheist bloggers and commentators are, for the most part (though not universally) just bloody awful.
Not everybody of course. There are interesting blogs and intelligent commentators. But enter this arena and in most cases it is impossible to get anywhere because of the defensiveness and clubbiness, informal fallacies and meta-talk. Enter into a discussion with a comment about the New Atheists and immediately you will be challenged for calling them "the New Atheists"--there is apparently a back story, which I don't know, and the phrase is taken to be derogatory. Before cutting to the chase you have to explain that you don't mean "New Atheists" in any derogatory sense and explain what you do mean. By the time the discussion of nomenclature is finished you are too tired and frustrated to go on and have forgotten the original point.
The defensiveness and hostility are incomprehensible. I've known a few people who were brought up in oppressive, conservative religious homes--chiefly embittered ex-Catholics--who are still angry, resentful, hostile to religion, and defensive. I get it. And I can see how secular people living in strongly religious, social conservative cultures might be equally hostile and defensive. But very few people now are in these circumstances.
I eavesdrop on the discussions and hear people who have not had the old time religion banged into them as kids and who live in subcultures where secularism is the norm expressing or, as I believe, feigning the same defensiveness and hostility. I don't get it. One way or the other though, it is frustrating and, I'm beginning to believe, pointless to engage in discussion.
I got into one of these frustrating discussions on one blog at which a commentator referred to the virtual space of the discussion as "our atheist living room." OK, I get it: there are lots of ostensibly public spaces devoted to discussion and debate on the internet that are in fact semi-private clubs. I've blundered into these places quite often, entered into the discussion, and eventually finally given up (or been kicked out) when I realized that the purpose was "community" and mutual support rather than discussion or debate. As far as I can see most New Atheist blogs are de facto atheist living rooms and there are simply few venues for serious discussion.
(3) New Atheists don't get religion, don't get that they don't get religion, and are unwilling to entertain the possibility that there is anything to get.
How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests
This is like asking how much mileage you can get out of great sex. How could the Greeks and Trojans have fought that epic war over Helen? Or like asking how much mileage you can get out of love of country or the desire to create a better, fairer society or relieve suffering or achieve fame and fortune or make significant advances in the sciences or save the ecosystem or any of the other things which various people regard as of ultimate importance. I myself don't get the importance of great sex, love of country, the desire to create a better society or relieve suffering, the desire for achievement or a whole host of other goals that others regard as important. But I get that they regard these things as important, and I'm even curious what it would feel like to regard these things as important. I don't think that they can't possibly really have these interests and goals, or believe that when they say they have these aims they must be disingenuous or self-deceiving and really be after something else.
Most atheists, new and old, and most religious believers don't get that there is something to get about the desire for religious experience and seem to think that the motive for religious belief and practice must really be something else.
Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.
I can only speak for myself, but I have no interest in the potential of God to "do something" or in some sort of "comfort." I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, believe that science explains all there is to explain about how the material world works and that technology is all we need to solve all our practical problems. I am not looking for "comfort."
For me, aesthetics is the whole enchilada and religious experience is the limit of aesthetic experience. The very phrase, "mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory'" is bizarre: what could be more important or less "mere"? This is like saying "mere fame," "mere money," "mere achievement" or "mere orgasm." Give us some credit. I can't empathize in my gut with people who want to "make a difference" to the world or help people. I just haven't got that in me. But there are clearly lots of people who do. We have lots of kids at my place who enter the "Teach for America" program: they want to "make a difference" and to help. This is opaque to me, but I can recognize that impulse, applaud it, and see that it isn't "really" something else even though it's not something that I myself can feel.
My "ultimate concern" is ecstasy--that slam-bang aesthetic experience in this world and the next: as I understand it, the vision of God. And I'm fascinated by the stuff of religion, not only because it provides the props that facilitate religious/aesthetic experience but because I find it fascinating in and of itself. I just plain like religion for its own sake. Most people don't understand my taste for religion any more than I understand the urge to collect stamps. I do however recognize that some people really like to collect stamps and that their interest in stamp collecting isn't "really" an interest in something else. I dearly wish that others would recognize that my interest in religion and the interest of others who share my tastes, is not "really" something else.
Religion is a minority taste. There's no more reason why most people should be interested in religion than there is reason for people to be interested in stamp collecting. Of course I'd like it personally if more people were interested in religion so that I would be in a comfortable majority rather than a beleagured minority and, more importantly, so that there would be more resources to maintain the religious infrastructure--the church buildings and services--I need to crank up religious experience. But if there is one thing I do NOT believe is that the slacker God in which I do believe cares whether we believe in him or not.