Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Theo Hobson - pretentious and cowardly?

Reminding me why I don't really intend to submit more pieces to the Guardian's Comment is Free, along comes Theo Hobson with his: Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

A few choice quotes (as if the title wasn't enough):

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness?
For someone who thinks that atheism misunderstands what a belief in god entails, Theo seems to miserably miss the point about what atheism entails. The ultimate objection to religion, for most if not all proclaimed atheists, is that we don't believe in a God or gods. After that comes the point when we notice the harmfulness of religion (and atheists and heretics have often felt that first hand in the dim and distant days of history).

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion". This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.
Well, the last sentence is true, applied to Hobson's text itself. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God(s), or the belief in a lack of God(s). While many atheists may wish that everybody else believed the same as they do, what most of us really only want is for the religious to stick to their own affairs and stop telling us what to do, based on their own beliefs. We don't want to 'impose' atheism on people, or even necessarily 'liberate' them from religion, we just don't agree with Christians and the other theists who believe in a variety of gods, some of whom seem to have determined that people who don't worship them in a particular way are doomed to Hell, and should be repressed here on earth in the meantime.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.
Quibble? No, it's plain wrong. Atheism has no moral basis, it has a logical one. 'Humanism' has a moral basis, but that's not what Hobson is attacking. As for the word 'militant'? My goodness! While we are talking about R Dawkins, C Hitchens and AC Grayling, all they do is write and talk. Real militants use violence. That's what 'militant' means - warlike, aggressive.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It's a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.
Well, if a theologian doesn't know what religion is, then who does? I despair...

In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion". For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class "religious"?
What a load of piffle! A political rally as a religious experience? I suppose that makes the Communists and any other political movement you care to mention religious then? If a sporting event leads to violence, is it religiously motivated? The communal ecstasy of a rave may well be due to very real ecstasy, the drug MDMD, rather than some religious feeling.

What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens' own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, "religion" cannot really be separated from "culture".
Yes, it can. For example, street culture is rarely about religion.

The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation.
'sloppy generalisation'? Of course Hobson doesn't dare do that, not even in the same sentence as criticising the fictional 'militant athiest' of it. Oh, he does.

I consider the atheist's desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad.
Nope. If anything, it's 'atheism correct, theism incorrect'. But there is not really a moral imperative there. For Christians, it certainly is 'Christianity good, everything else bad', for Muslims it's 'Islam good, everything else bad'.

Is it intellectual cowardice to accept that we do not go to an afterlife, that this is all we have, the life we see? I think not. When you think about it, it's a scary thought. The less brave prefer to cosset themselves in myths and dream of an infinite life of happiness, and the religious creeds promise such a life - if you just follow our rules...

There's more - such as ad hominem attacks on Christopher Hitchens (at least one of which didn't get into print as an editor snipped it out). But essentially Theo Hobson accuses the atheist (not always being careful to distinguish between the 'militant' variety and the general common-or-garden unbeliever) of pretentiousness while waffling on about how all culture is essentially religious, because some of the feelings in a big group of people are like the same feelings as we get in a church. He accuses them of intellectual cowardice when he hasn't even got the courage to tell us what religion actually is. He attacks generalisations while concocting a picture of rampaging atheists in jackboots, stomping all over the poor fluffy religions and tarring all who choose not to believe in a God with the same brush.

Unsurprisingly, the comments below the article are heated and reactionary.


Tom Freeman said...

I've rarely read anything more badly argued than this hypocritical blather. (Him, not you - yours is a sound demolition job!)

Thanks for the links BTW.

Danivon said...

No probs.

anticant said...

There's no chance of the religious "minding their own business", and leaving the rest of us alone - because their "business" is precisely to spread the sacred word of their preferred faith to the benighted rest of us, and to impose their beliefs by incessant nagging, bullying, and sometimes violence. They are an inescapable nuisance, like a swarm of blowflies and, sometimes, hornets.

Danivon said...

Well, that's definitely true of the 'evangelising' religions (Xtianity, Islam, etc).

If we could only convince them to become closed religions, or just more introspective...

IAN IRVINE said...

I think the best advice Alistair Campbell ever gave Tony Blair was 'we don't do god, tony'.
The case for existence of god or gods falls apart after a couple of minutes thought, but if people want to believe then that's their right.
But I don't think that religious belief should be any part of public policy making. That should be based on fact, logic and reasoned argument.
It seems more and more people are seeking election to public office, driven by the notion that being, for example, a councillor, is an extension of their religious activity. Unfortunately, some appear to be successful in getting elected, nowhere more so than in Crawley, and this will become more apparent as time goes on.
It would be appalling if the religious right started to get a grip as they seem to have done in the USA, taking us back to the Dark Ages before the rise of rationalism. As for a religious Left, well, is there one? All the religious institutions are pretty authoritarian and seem to inflict a particular set of 'values' on their followers.
Many Councils actually have prayers said before Council meetings, let's hope (but not pray) that this doesn't happen in Crawley.