Friday, June 03, 2011


An anonymous commenter asks,

Larry, let me ask you something. Take the His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman. I don't know if you read children's books, but never mind. The point is that Pullman as an artist can be quite a profound fellow, but Pullman as an atheist often says things that strike me as vulgar and shallow. This in spite of the fact that his little masterpiece takes a pretty dim view of belief. Pullman says, for example, that he can separate Blake's poetry from Blake's religion, and revile -- revile! sneer at, laugh at, etc. -- the latter, and do no disservice to Blake. That feels like bullshit to me though I could be wrong. This idea that faith, any example of faith, is automatically contemptible, a piece of sheer silliness, an incomprehensible lapse (no exceptions!) on the part of fellows who are geniuses in every other sense--this seems so, so damn vulgar. It seems (seems) nowadays that your mainstream atheist is as closed and self-congratulatory as your fringe fundamentalist--but also hip, unlike the latter. So you have this unbearably smug, narrow culture -- one more of those in a crowded world. It's awful.

First, about Pullman (and yes, I've read His Dark Materials books, and I do read books for children and young adults). He says things that strike you as vulgar and shallow. What of it? Even if I were to agree with your opinion, Pullman is just a person; everyone says stupid shit from time to time. Regarding Pullman's opinion on Blake, I can't form an opinion without the actual quotation in context.

That atheists find "any example of faith ... automatically contemptible" is an egregious overstatement. You have to be careful with "any"; all English words have a wide variety of denotative and connotative meanings. Just as Dawkins goes to some lengths in The God Delusion to exempt certain uses of "religion" and "God", such as Einstein's, from his criticism shows that our condemnation is not so blanket. Likewise too "automatically" suggests that the contempt occurs without reflection or substantive analysis, which is simply not the case, as even a cursory reading of atheist literature at every level will show. A general condemnation of a pervasive concept implies neither that the condemnation is universal nor that it is unthinking.

The use of "vulgar" is also curious. It's a very middle-class concept, denoting an offense against propriety. Atheists are often not interested in propriety, especially as it is a central theme in New Atheist criticism that the religious avoid critical scrutiny behind a shield of propriety. I'm not particularly interested in vulgarity and propriety, especially as an intellectual: if the truth is vulgar, I will choose the truth over vulgarity any time. I'm interested only if someone wants to argue that I'm wrong (and does so with at least minimal competence).

Of course, the idea that it is in any sense wrong or vulgar to criticize an idea held by "geniuses" is completely nonsensical. An idea held by otherwise intelligent people does deserves to be taken seriously and examined closely. But atheists have done so: we have held up scores of concepts of god, religion and faith to critical scrutiny, and found them sadly lacking.

Finally, I object to your characterization of the atheist community as "closed and self-congratulatory." This position is one that needs considerable support. Without support, I cannot exclude simple sour grapes.

Just because you yourself have not yet read much of the underlying literature does not mean it's lacking. One good place to start is the Secular Web Library. Please don't mistake a well-supported position that is more-or-less taken for granted for an unsupported position which is taken "automatically". I don't want to suggest the Courtier's Reply. If you have questions about the support underlying any specific atheist, naturalist, or scientific concept, position or argument, I'd be happy to address them.

But at the end of the day, just that you yourself are offended or displeased is not particularly interesting. You can't please everyone, and taking a definite position on a controversial topic will inevitably offend many who take the opposite position, especially when the latter has broad social sanction. We can live with charges of vulgarity, impropriety, "smugness" and the like. We're interested in the truth.

Our commenter continues:
Thanks Larry, here's one more example, and thanks for hearing me out. I read another little atheistic article recently, just a little response to that Deepak Chopra piece -- & what a piece! -- on Christopher Hitchens. I can't link to it now, I don't remember where it is. But it's a decent response to Chopra -- it creams him -- but then the author says a similar thing to the Pullman thing, but references Cardinal Newman; says, "Oh, I can admire Newman's scientific work and deride his religiousness for the childish garbage that it is." Now I'm not a churchgoer & I don't pray. I was raised in a very conservative environment but got out. I had some bad experiences, I tend to deride orthodoxy in knee-jerk fashion. But still, Larry, the lives of Newman, Blake, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard -- Wittgenstein -- I find them profoundly moving and instructive, and profoundly important for an understanding of the novels, poetry, philosophical works, etc., and I know -- speaking for myself -- that to sneer at the beating heart of the personalities of these men, no matter what my own views, would severely limit me, would shrink me, and would certainly shrink & gut my relationship to them. I can understand knee-jerk reactions as I say, and probably most of these reactions (I hope) have to do with taking so much shit from so many fundamentalists for so long, well, fuck them. But it seems one has to get past it eventually or become a fundamentalist, a dirty fundamentalist oneself. Thanks again.

First of all, neither of the comments you've referred to (and remember, without citations, we have no idea about the context of the comments) "sneer at the beating hearts" of any of these people. They (assuming you are paraphrasing and quoting accurately) "sneer" at a particular component of their ideology. And only your paraphrase of Pullman's comments on Blake sneer at anyone who might be considered a genius; Cardinal Newman does not appear in that class; to mention Newman in a list with Blake, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein is ludicrous.

Furthermore, You are committing the fallacy of similarity: because Newman has some general component of his personality in common with actual geniuses (and you have presented no argument that the substantive content of Newman's faith is even similar, much less identical, to those of Blake et al.) they are identical: anything said about one is said about all the rest. If the uncited author believe's that Newman's "religiousness is childish garbage", the only relevant inquiry is whether Newman', and only Newman's, religiousness really is childish garbage.

Again, you are not making a substantive objection, you're making an objection of impropriety. I will say again: I have not found any of the New Atheists particularly interested in propriety.

I infer from the general tenor of your remarks that you believe atheism to be shallow and unconsidered, and that atheists have not, on the whole, deeply considered the underlying philosophical issues with the attention that they do indeed deserve. Doubtless there are some atheists who are so shallow, just as there are billions of people who will blithely assert that things fall when you drop them without having deeply considered issues of physics, General Relativity and the problems reconciling General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. I dispute this opinion: having personally investigated the philosophical issues deeply, I have concluded that the case for God and religion — as traditionally understood by billions of people, including at least Cardinal Newman (I have not investigated the faith of William Blake specifically) — to be intellectually bankrupt. I have no more objection to "shallow" atheism than I do to "shallow" physics.

If you have something substantive to contribute, if you think atheism is actually mistaken, then I'm interested in hearing about it. But I'm not really interested if you're merely offended that your cherished heroes are subjected to scrutiny and found lacking in one or another respect, and you are unwilling to investigate and explore the basis of that scrutiny.

That's life in the big city, kiddo: do your research and contribute to the substantive discussion, or pout in the corner: it's all the same to me.


  1. Larry -- I don't believe "atheism to be shallow and unconsidered, [nor] that atheists have not, on the whole, deeply considered the underlying philosophical issues with the attention that they do indeed deserve." Far from it, and I am too little of a philosopher myself to even dream of making such a claim. My experience of creedal atheism is limited to internet articles, blogs, the occasional popular book (Dawkins, Hitchens). Perhaps it is somewhat jarring to see so many otherwise cultured people "not interested in propriety," as you say, and I have nothing more substantive to contribute than a sort of naive call for humility. I don't know. (I wasn't implying that these big personalities should get a pass, but I wonder if "intellectually bankrupt" is really the subtlest of readings.) Right now it is nothing more than an impression of overconfidence.

  2. I will repeat myself: your naive impressions are not really that interesting. It's too bad you have a poor impression, but you can't please everyone.

    I don't know on what basis you've formed your impressions. Without a substantive critique, I'm not going to change my own opinions, attitudes or approaches — much less ask others to do so — merely to satisfy you.

  3. What is this "kiddo" and "pout in the corner" business, by the way. Where is the evidence of my puny sulks. The condescension mars an otherwise interesting, thoughtful and substantive reply.

  4. What is this "kiddo" and "pout in the corner" business, by the way. Where is the evidence of my puny sulks. The condescension mars an otherwise interesting, thoughtful and substantive reply.

    Do you want a little cheese with your whine?

  5. Alright. Let me see if I understand. The watery essence of my comments is that I once read where Philip Pullman seemed too dismissive of William Blake's religious beliefs, and another time I read where this other guy seemed too dismissive of John Henry Newman's religious beliefs. I can't quote either Pullman or the other guy. In this crucible of study and experience I forged my argument -- atheists are too dismissive of people's religious beliefs. They are dicks. But, I said, even some great geniuses were religious. Sir, you do the math.

    A nice blend of sentimentality and rudeness. It would be interesting to discuss Pullman's debts to Milton, Blake, and the Bible, and whether his genius for Christian imagery hurts or helps his ambition to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Also, is he too hard on C.S. Lewis.

  6. Broadly speaking, they are two types of theists : 1) the apologists and 2) the mystics/aesthetics.

    Apologists borrow from philosophy in an attempt to demonstrate theism is quite rational and that atheism is irrational and unreasonable. In general, the apologists tend to argue for deism, that is God must exist, and jump for that conclusion to their specific faith. I am not aware of any specific argument for Christianity other than 'the bible is true', which is why most faiths and new age woo woo airheads use the same generic set of arguments. Frankly, these sort of debates are tedious because the arguments are centuries old and people just rehash same old nonsense because theists have not proposed anything new.

    2) Then you have the aesthetics and the mystics. This group like to state things like 'oh, god cannot be classified as a member of any set, not even as the set of things which cannot be classified' or 'God is beyond human understanding'. The aesthetic likes to point out the limitations of science and toss around statement's like 'poetry, art, music, although not strictly rational, are better guides to the human condition than science'. Another favorite is : 'The attempt to prove the existence of God is a form of atheism which has arisen from the scientific revolution'. Christianity to this group is about beauty, wonder, awe, humility, the image of the broken and tortured Christ nailed upon a cross, a profound image representing the love God for our fallen and sinful species. The aesthetics claim atheists who do not respect these believes is half-educated and unsophisticated, tackling instead a caricature of religious faith while ignoring the true beauty and the 'deep spirituality' of religion.

    Atheists and the aesthetic christians are usually completely confused by each other. The aesthetic Christian thinks the atheist is 'aspect blind', that they completely miss the point of Christianity because they are limited and blinded by 19th century rationalism and science. The atheist considers this view point vacuous nonsense and completely irrelevant.

    But what atheists do care about is politics. We believe a society built upon religious grounds is intellectually, socially and sexually repressive as it privileges a handful of religious clerics who claim to derive their moral authority from a divine being. An Atheist believes that is unreasonable and inherently dangerous. So in order to drag the religious away from their undeserved lofty privileged position, atheists need to grapple the clerics and the apologists and drag them into the mud and dirt away from abstract beauty and wonder but into actual reality where religious political decisions cause misery and suffering.

    Sometimes outright contempt and derision is called for and I don't see why religious people should be allowed to set the tone for a debate. Bullshit is bullshit and if you find the word offensive, why should I give a fuck? What I find offensive is religious people attempting to regulate my entire existence from when I can have sex to when I am allowed to die. There's a lot of freedoms I am now lucky to enjoy and religious institutions have opposed each and every one of them. So call me vulgar and unsophisticated if it makes you feel better but I don't give a flying toss about the influence of Christianity on the arts when Christianity will happily oppress me and everyone I care about.

  7. Good comment. May I repost it?

  8. "So call me vulgar and unsophisticated if it makes you feel better ..."

    It doesn't. That was ignorance talking. I like your distinction between mystics and apologists. I agree that at times outright contempt and derision is called for, and I'd be interested to hear from you or Larry whether you feel there are times when it isn't. Specifically as regards literature, whether you feel it's possible to sort of imaginatively step out of your intellectual framework and into Blake's or Samuel Johnson's. My feeling with Pullman is that there is a little tension between his private artistic self and his public intellectual self, not that he is never not an atheist, but that he is capable imaginatively of deep sympathy with Blake but politically the war rages on and his interviews are essentially political forums.

    Does giving a flying toss about the influence of Christianity on the arts preclude an absolute commitment to opposing Christianity's political influence


  9. theObserver

    & liberal Christians? I'm friends/family with believers with whom you'd probably find much if not all in common politically, who attend church and pray over meals. Probably the communal and ritualistic aspects of faith supersede in importance any dogma, but they read the Bible, esp. the NT. They find much good in their tradition and would rather reform than raze. Prof. of Humanities types, wouldn't happily oppress anybody. But that they'd defend their position to some extent, say to you, would make them Christian apologists of a sort. To your mind is Christianity politically enough of a menace that even this milder type of spokesperson should be knocked into the mud. & I'm curious, Larry -- sans politics, if that's possible to imagine, would faith etc. be something to fight. Or imagine a fairly powerful church with a liberal majority, whose influence is left of center. Is their credulity quite so reprehensible as right-wing credulity.


  10. Sorry for the delay in approving the comments; I was delayed by an internet outage and other demands on my time.

  11. The influence of Christianity on art and culture is undeniable. But from both a philosophical and political perspective, I don't think it's that interesting. I'm happy to leave the artistic and cultural influences to the anthropologists, sociologists, and critics.

    As a philosopher, I'm interested in what is true; as a political economist, I'm interested in how we can best organize the daily business of our social lives. Yes, William Blake created some terrific poetry (so I'm reliably informed; literature is not one of my strong interests), and perhaps he was inspired or motivated by Christianity. But that inspiration or motivation tells me little or nothing about whether or not Christianity is true. Similarly, Blakes poetry tells us nothing about whether religious philosophy or institutions have any value to modern society. Art transcends truth; beauty can be as inspired by falsity as by truth.

    (Of course, the historical influence of Christianity on our present society and culture argues for a certain degree of tolerance, at least to the extent that no atheist with any significant reputation advocates using the power of the government to suppress religious belief. We merely argue that it should no longer be privileged.)

    In any event, my blog is a poor venue to discuss the influence of religion on the poetry of William Blake if for no other reason than that I'm not particularly interested or well-educated in poetry and literature. I am, after all, an economist.

  12. It would be helpful also, Ed, if you could pick one theme and stick to it. I see three or four distinct themes in your comments so far:

    1: To what extent was Blake's poetry influenced by Christianity? This topic would seem to appeal primarily to a literary critic rather than a philosopher or political economist.

    2: Stipulating that Blake's poetry was indeed influenced by Christianity, what does that tell us about Christianity? This topic would seem to appeal to an historian or anthropologist; philosophically, there doesn't seem to be any correlation between artistic value and philosophical truth or political economics.

    3: To what extent are critics (such as Pullman) of Blake unjustified a priori in denigrating Blake's influences and aspects of his personality? Again, not that interesting a topic to a philosopher; an a priori exemption from criticism is a non-starter.

    3: To what extent are critics (such as Pullman) mistaken about their criticism of Blake? That topic is impossible to discuss without cited details of Pullman's remarks, which you have not yet supplied.

  13. Larry - repost away.

    Ed - "I agree that at times outright contempt and derision is called for, and I'd be interested to hear from you or Larry whether you feel there are times when it isn't."

    I think politeness is an important discipline to have when two people are trying to have a honest and open conversation. But it's hard to maintain that discipline when one party suspects the other of attempting to repeatably bullshit them. I'm told AC Grayling and the Bishop of Canterbury sat down in front of an audience recently and had a respectful conversation. The video is on YouTube but I haven't seen it myself.

    Regarding liberal Christians, I'm not sure what to say except in my experience the classic 'live and let live' liberal ideal is not something liberal Christians sign up to during a political debate/election. Why should they ? If their church teaches homosexuality is morally wrong, why would they vote to decriminalize it? If they are taught contraception is both morally wrong and harmful to society in general, why vote to legalize it? If they believe divorce is morally wrong and harmful to society, why vote to legalize it? They might be liberal regarding individuals but politics usually concerns society in general and it's not hard for religious groups to frame the debate in terms of social cohesion/social justice/the greater good by labeling individual freedoms as 'selfish' and self-centered. Calls for freedom of conscious are usually only heard when the christian side is losing.

    I suspect liberal christians can only emerge from a society where the established faiths are already politically defeated and were forced to adopt more 'friendly' liberal policies within a broadly secular state that no longer privileges their faith. Perhaps I'm being unfair but I'm Irish and there was nothing liberal about how the roman church ran the country pre-1995. I find the true conservative element is always lurking under the surface waiting for a return to political power. Recently I read a blog by an Irish roman catholic priest who argued that the church needs to 'once again stare sinners in the eye and teach them the errors of their ways. 'A doctor does not stop cutting just because the patient is screaming' '. The quote I think is from Augustines Confessions and I find it unpleasant, to say the least.

    As for faith sans politics, meh. I've investigated most of the various belief systems and I disagree with most of them. But live and let live :)

  14. Keep in mind too that even liberal Christians who really are aligned politically at the pragmatic level still constitute "the enemy of my enemy", which doesn't necessarily make them my friends.

    Here's the issue: is there a natural, rational* basis for (to pick a random example) gay people to have equal civil rights? Or should gay people have equal civil rights because God says so?

    *I mean natural and rational in a broad sense, to include persuasion, negotiation, and compromise.

    Although these are equivalent at the pragmatic level (both say gay people should have equal civil rights) they are very different at the epistemic level. It is extremely important to recognize that for the Gnu Atheists, how we make social decisions is as important or more important than the specific social decisions we actually make.

    If one person says, "God wants gay people to have equal civil rights," and another says, "God wants us to oppress gay people in the same sense that we oppress murderers, rapists and thieves," how do I know who is right? (See Atheism Is the True Embrace of Reality.) Whether you agree or disagree with me, as a citizen of a democracy, I can negotiate with you only on the basis of what you yourself want, not what you think God wants.

    Of course, what everyone believes about God is just a layer of indirection around what they themselves believe, but that layer of indirection is itself pernicious, especially when there is a pervasive social construction that exempts beliefs indirected to religion from ordinary social and political discourse. We are expected to "respect" religious beliefs in a way we are not expected to "respect" personal preferences even though they are substantively identical. The Gnu Atheists decisively reject the social construction that deprecates or denigrates this social privilege granted to religion, and we find it as important or more important to directly attack the social privilege even when the religious beliefs in question happen to pragmatically coincinde with our own natural humanistic standards.

  15. The Gnu Atheists decisively reject the social construction that deprecates or denigrates criticism of specifically religious belief.

  16. This is very well done, Larry—starting from the dismissal of the silly "vulgar"/propriety issue; I don't think your interlocutor has grasped that hegemonic majorities such as his own *invent* standards of propriety for the very purpose of marginalizing and silencing objections to their hegemony. It should not be surprising that some atheists have no interest in following rules that are designed to keep us in our disempowered place.

    And then the "God wants gay people to have equal civil rights" issue: I've often made the same point you are with much the same example. Taking the mantra of Fred Phelps and his infamous Westboro Baptist Church—"God Hates Fags"—the question arises how one should rebut it. A fundamental problem with "liberal" religion is that its offered rebuttal—"No God Doesn't"—concedes the issues on which the WBC is actually vulnerable, and it reduces a matter of serious moral concern to a quibble about the thought processes of an invisible and ineffable deity. That's the sole debate that conservative believers can and do win.

    The more relevant rebuttals to "God Hates Fags" are (1) "There Is No God" (or, if one insists, "You Have No Basis to Believe There's a God") and (2) "So What If He Did?" The (1) existence and (2) moral authority of a deity are entirely unestablished premises, and *that* is the most basic problem with the WBC credo. Liberal believers, by necessity, concede both questions to Phelps—and that's cause to wonder whether their approach is a good one for gay rights (or any of the myriad other political issues that work much the same way) at all.

    Anyway, you said all of this. My explanation is a little more bumper-stickery, though, so there's that.

  17. theObserver

    It is true that my liberal friends & acquaintances have no influence in their congregations whatsoever except as gadflys. They usually from what I hear manage to at least tremblingly inhale before the silverbacks bomb them with shit.

    Larry, thank you for the tidy breakdown of my comments. I had a go at them myself & I broke down. They were non sequiturs in any case. I'm glad I dropped in though, you're a gifted expositor.

    "We are expected to 'respect' religious beliefs in a way we are not expected to 'respect' personal preferences even though they are substantively identical."

    The two things worthy of unquestioning respect are religion and the old -- venerability as the state of not being dead in defiance of reason.


  18. The two things worthy of unquestioning respect are religion and the old -- venerability as the state of not being dead in defiance of reason.

    You're speaking with your tongue firmly in cheek, n'est-ce pas?


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