Friday, January 10, 2014

More "undergraduate atheism"

tl;dr: Fundamentalists are bad, therefore atheists are stupid.

I will first repeat my complaint that the term "undergraduate atheism" is essentially bigotry against undergraduates. I not only am an undergraduate myself, but I know many other undergraduates who are as smart, sophisticated and nuanced as any Ph.D. (And, frankly, I know some Ph.D.s who are as stupid and unsophisticated as the worst sort of undergrad, and who wouldn't recognize nuance if it nibbled gently on their ear.) The term is, frankly, as offensive and demeaning as "retard atheists" would be.

But I can set aside my offense at the term, and look at the merits, or lack thereof, of particilar arguments against so-called "undergraduate atheists." Sadly, Michael Robbins' latest missive in the discussion, More on the "Undergraduate Atheists", (mentioned apparently favorably on the usually good 3quarksdaily) fails even to offer an argument.

Robbins begins his article (a review of Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason, which apparently traces the conflict between Christian fundamentalism and modernity) with what amounts to the oft-heard complaint that 99% of theists give the other 1% a bad name. One reason Robbins, like most apologists for "sophisticated" theology ignores the fundamental atheist critique of religion: yes, we know that "sophisticated" theology does not have the same objectionable features that a lot of fundamentalists have; the point is that the sophisticated critique of the fundies is secular, not theological. The fundies say God hates fags; the sophisticated crowd says God loves all people, including LGBTQ folk, but how does anyone know what God likes or hates? Why should what God likes or hates have anything to do with anything. Furthermore, if we look at the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the Koran, it sure looks like the fundies have the simpler, more natural, less convoluted interpretation. On the other hand, if the sophisticated theologians argue that we have to interpret the Bible (or Koran) in light of modern, secular morality, why bother? Just endorse secular morality directly. In what sense is the Bible "sacred" if it has to change to accommodate us?

Robbins declares that "One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety." Above the article is a more explicit sentiment: "The worst thing about conservative evangelicals is that they encourage clowns like Richard Dawkins." I don't know, however, if this is the author's or the editor's statement.)

Really. Really!? Dawkins is worse than letting children die of treatable illnesses, worse than the oppression of women, worse than acid thrown in women's faces, worse than the erosion of abortion and contraception rights, worse the murder of abortion doctors, worse than the oppression of LGBTQ people, worst than the murder and assault of gay people, worse than the horrific bullying of gay children, worse than the erosion of science teaching in our schools, worse than those who, as Robbins quotes Marilynne Robinson, "have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor." No, the real failure of fundamentalism is that it has created "know-nothing" atheists. Worse than sectarian violence. Gotcha, Mike.

Robbins does not actually argue that atheists actually have anything wrong. He indulges in some name-calling ("know-nothing," "undergraduate," "ignorant," "inept," and perhaps "clowns"), drops a few names, "The 'undergraduate atheists,' as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by [David Bentley] Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others." Have we now? I guess we'll have to take Robbins' word for it, and ignore all the atheists who have challenged Hart, Eagleton, Robinson, and Johnston's works.

Although Robbins does not actually give us a clue as to why we're wrong, he does tell us (a little) what we're wrong about:
Such unbelievers seem to me to have missed something quite fundamental about the nature of being, as it appears to the human animal, something that the major theistic traditions attempt to address with rather more nuance and generosity than contemporary updates to logical positivism can muster. You don’t, obviously, have to believe in God to feel humbled and bewildered before what Heidegger called “the question of the meaning of Being.” (Indeed, I often think the notion of “belief” is more trouble than it’s worth.) But you do have to acknowledge that there is a question, “the major question that revolves around you,” as John Ashbery puts it: “your being here.” And you have to recognize that it concerns something outside the scope of the natural sciences.
Seriously? The question of the meaning of Being? Forget murder, rape, oppression, violence, terrorism, imperialism, because of course religion has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that (except, of course, for the majority of religious believers who do think religion has a lot to do with that: they are wrong wrong wrong! about what religion really is, and atheists are just as wrong wrong wrong about believing that just because the majority of religious believers think it does), we have the fundamental question of the meaning of Being!

The "meaning of Being" is philosophical twaddle. It is "fundamental" only to over-educated middle-class white people. Perhaps "undergraduate" atheism is a correct title: you have to have years of graduate school indoctrination to get your head sufficiently far up your ass to take such twaddle seriously.

To a certain extent, Robbins is correct: we atheists, "seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist." 'Tis true: intelligent, educated believers are few and far between, and many of those hide or minimize their faith. We know they exist: what we have trouble believing is that intelligent, educated people could take such vacuous twaddle as "the meaning of Being" to be an interesting question, much less the most important question there is, a question where getting it wrong is the worst possible thing. Yes, I've met intelligent, educated believers (many of whom are my friends); I don't discuss religion with them because the minute they say anything other than, "that's just what I believe because I want it to be true," they start sounding like idiots.

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