October 07, 2007

Religion as Binky

From the Current Events page of Forbes magazine today, we have one of the most mewling and pathetic editorials I've seen in a long, long time. A dour-looking old British fellow named Paul Johnson whines about "militant atheism." Whenever I see that phrase, bells go off. When used in this context, "militant" is a strange word, indeed. In other contexts, "militant" refers to those willing to use violence to impose a point of view. I am unaware of atheists who have used, or advocate using, violent means, unless merely stating one's opinions and engaging in educational dialog is so scary to people like Johnson such things appear violent in their own minds. Could it be that such a point of view comes precisely from a lack of spine, a great weakness, a mewling infantilism that craves comfort in the warm, if imaginary, embrace of a substitute parent? I believe it's best to let Johnson speak for himself, but I will reproduce only some telling excerpts from his column here.

...Waves of atheism have swept the West before. One was in the mid-18th century, when the devastating Lisbon earthquake, killing some 60,000 people, shook the belief of many in the benevolence of God. Another was in the mid-19th century, when advances in geology destroyed the traditional chronology of the Old Testament, proving that Earth was much older than the 6,000-odd years the Bible allowed. A third spasm followed the First World War, when the combination of Freud's writings and Einstein's theories of relativity upset established views of the human psyche and the universe. We now seem to be in the midst of a fourth. It is prompted partly by the academic deification of Darwin and his particular theory of evolution, and partly by the revulsion against Islamic fundamentalism and its violent expression, which for some has discredited all forms of belief in God.
So, in a historical context, Johnson's complaint is that whenever there is empirical evidence that contradicts the existence of his vision of what others should believe, they stop believing in it. Amazing, that... one would think that the rational thing to do in such a situation would be to remain stubbornly attached to the contradicted belief. After all, that's what Johnson has done, and clearly he knows better than the rest of the world. As far as his theory that revulsion about militant Islam has engendered an increase in atheism, I would love to see some support of the assertion. I see people becoming more extreme in other religious beliefs as a reaction, but I'm unaware of anyone who has stopped being a Christian or Jew because they are aware of Islamic militancy. I can't think of a single one, in fact. Can anyone? Doubtful, and I include Johnson in that "anyone." In short, this sounds like nonsense and scapegoating. If there has been an uptick in the numbers of those who have declared themselves atheists, it is because of a consideration of their own former beliefs, or at least those most prevalent in their own culture. Englishmen aren't becoming atheists because of a resurgent Taliban.
...My old university, Oxford, which was founded by monks, friars and theologians nine centuries ago, was until recently regarded as a bastion of old-fashioned Christianity and, as such, was called "the house of lost causes." Today a publicly expressed belief in Christianity is likely to lower your chance of landing a job at Oxford.
Really? So I suppose Oxford has done away with its Theology Department then. Let's see... nope, still there. What bearing would the fact that the university was founded by monks almost a millennium ago have to do with anything in the first place? Nine centuries ago, everything was founded by people involved with the church, because the church controlled everything, owned great tracts of property, and made or broke monarchies. Is Johnson bemoaning the decline of Feudalism here? This all stinks of red herring to me. All that notwithstanding, Oxford still has a theology department, and I assume that it's largely devoted to Christian theology, not the radical Islam that Johnson blames for the rise of atheism.
.... And in all the sciences, young men and women with religious backgrounds are advised to jettison their Christian, Jewish or other religious baggage if they want to pursue careers in physics, chemistry or biology...
They're advised to not bring religion into the laboratory and advised that it has no explanatory power for natural phenomena, certainly. I doubt that anyone cares about it otherwise. Johnson is now bemoaning the fact that religion doesn't have a place in scientific research, like all good Creationists do these days. Too bad; it doesn't work. Then again, Johnson himself is not a scientist and, from the sound of things, probably doesn't know a thing about how science works. Big surprise, there — a Creationist expressing opinions about subject matter of which he knows so little.
...My parents were profoundly religious Catholics, who brought me up to share their beliefs. I was educated first by nuns, then by the Jesuits. I have always attended church regularly and said my prayers daily...
Our first telling statement; Johnson was a good boy who did what his parents told him as a child, and he's still doing it as an adult. His faith is reflexive and not a valid topic for rational inquiry for the same reason that any parental command is not to be questioned by the child receiving it. Hold onto that thought for the moment; it will be coming back shortly.
...it is hard to see that the human race has made, or is making, any moral progress at all. As a historian who has studied and written about all periods, from the first millennium B.C. to the present, I am perhaps more aware of this than most people.

I see no diminution in the cruelty and violence we inflict on one another, at both a personal and a state level. More people were killed by totalitarian states (all atheistic) in the 20th century than in all previous periods of history...
Yes, the bad children who didn't do as Johnson's parents ordered are responsible for our "not making moral progress." Of course, Johnson is being rather selective in his view of history here. For example, he hasn't a clue how many people were killed in all of history due to theistic considerations, only the numbers whose deaths have been recorded, and record keeping of such things wasn't very good before the 20th century on much of anything, let alone on the slaying of infidels. Nor does Johnson have numbers to tell him how many people were slaughtered by theistic states outside of Europe and, perhaps, some parts of Asia. For instance, can he give us a number of victims put to death by the priest-kings of the Aztec and Maya? How many were executed by the Dogon or Inuit, maybe? Of course not. Moreover, are we talking about absolute numbers here or are we talking about proportions of populations? Johnson is being blatantly deceptive in these assertions; he has no idea whether "atheistic" or "theistic" rulers have been responsible for more cruelty, he only knows what his opinion is, and that's all this is, despite his credentials as a historian and his claim to know more about it than most people. He doesn't know these things because, in fact, nobody knows them, and we have no way of knowing them... but it's alright, he's lying for DA LAWD.
It's hard for most of us to face such a fearful world without some kind of faith to sustain us, without a traditional formula through which to express our longings for peace and safety...
Translation: "I want my mommy!" Who is the numinous "us" to which Johnson refers? It certainly can't be the increasing number of atheists he began his piece bleating over, since they are clearly people who don't need faith to sustain them in these troubled times. In fact, if it is so hard to get by without believing in vengeful sky-spirits and the rules imposed by mom and dad, then where is Johnson's problem in the first place? In fact, it isn't hard to get by without belief like Johnson's at all. The militants that are causing all the trouble these days are the ones who have embraced an extreme form of religion, not atheism. They probably have more in common with Johnson than they do with rationalists, and they have turned to religion precisely because of a sense of hopelessness in the rest of their existence in most cases; life sucks, so be a martyr and after death you'll exist forever in utopia. Isn't that the promise made by the Radical Islamists that Johnson starts off blaming for the increase in atheist ranks? For those of us who don't put their faith in some transformative power of belief in things unseen, hope lies in the idea that reason will ultimately triumph, and spreading reason is something in which we all can engage. We don't have to hold our collective breath until some deity over whom we have no control decides to wipe the earth clean of those of who chosen a belief with which we disagree; we can do something about the state of the world. That idea sustains us quite well through all sorts of difficulties. Having to wait for mommy and daddy to come home from work to clean our bottoms for us does not. If it works for Johnson, fine, that's his decision. His argument, however, is ridiculously incoherent, and we shouldn't give a care as to what his academic credentials are. Appeal to authority need crumble when the argument itself is a bad one, and Johnson's is absolutely awful.
I could not find content in a landscape whose horizon held no churches or in a civilization whose literature was purged of any reference to a divine being; whose art had blotted out the nativities, crucifixions, saints and angels; and whose music contained no intimations of immortality. And I believe the vast majority of people share such a view...
And this is a concern why, exactly? Again, I don't know of anyone who wants such things banned by force. I have enjoyed a few very pleasant afternoons looking at Renaissance-era religious art in museums and the thought never has occurred to me that it should be ripped from the walls and chucked onto a bonfire. I would certainly oppose anyone who advocated such a thing, and I'm sure even Richard Dawkins, that most frightful of atheistic bogeymen, has never suggested that anyone who wishes to attend a church be prevented from doing so. Even if there were to come a time when western culture became 100% religion-free, we would still preserve things of historic and cultural significance, even those which were created in a religious milieu. But even were these things to somehow vanish, it is rather pathetic that one could find no comfort because a certain sort of building no longer dotted the landscape. This smacks of an infantile fear of the world, frankly. Could Johnson find no comfort in other human beings, in finding love or in the beauty of a sunset or in the constancy (at least as measured in human timescales) of the stars? In the coming of spring, in the migrations of birds, in births and deaths and the wonder that is our own existence and that of this whole marvelous universe? How pathetic, how weak, how mewling, to find joy only in books and buildings. I think Johnson has told us far more about himself than he has about humanity, society, or even religion, and he seems to me to be a pitiful creature, indeed.
As for doing something about the militant atheism that threatens our happiness and well-being, it is in the interests of all people that those of us who enjoy religious faith should examine carefully what it has done, is doing and will do to sustain and comfort us in this harsh and difficult world. We should add up all its benefits--and then proclaim the results to the world. There will be plenty who will listen.
It is up to all we infants to tells the other children about how good it feels to follow our parents' mandates without question, to surrender all responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves, to have our bottoms wiped for us and imagine that the teat will be presented over the railing of our little crib whenever we cry for it. Just because something makes us feel good doesn't mean it is the best thing for us, and what should be examined carefully isn't what faith has done — and I'm sure that Johnson is speaking of one particular faith, since he starts off railing about Radical Islam, which is just as much a faith as is his own Catholicism — but the faith itself. A good place to start with this, at least for those who have the courage and fortitude to do so, is by examining whether that faith may be sapping us of our reason, the primary tool by which humanity has transformed the world and the very force which has elevated us from fearful hominid to environmental engineers capable of creating the marvels that now sustain us in the face of the terrific harshness that nature contains. Shall we let go of that most potent of levers that has allowed us to move mountains for the sake of something that just makes us feel better about our limitations and mistakes? Shall we give up our maturity so that we can once again "become as little children" and wait for mommy and daddy to make it all better? I am unwilling to do so, and if that makes me a "militant" anything in the eyes of someone as pathetic, as weak, as Paul Johnson, so be it.
'I want my mommy!'

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