Tag Archives: Atheism

Eagleton, “Culture and the Death of God”

Next month, Yale University Press will publish Culture and the Death of 9780300203998God, by Terry Eagleton (University of Lancaster). This book should spark thoughtful and intriguing dialogue. The publisher’s description follows.

How to live in a supposedly faithless world threatened by religious fundamentalism? Terry Eagleton, formidable thinker and renowned cultural critic, investigates in this thought-provoking book the contradictions, difficulties, and significance of the modern search for a replacement for God. Engaging with a phenomenally wide range of ideas, issues, and thinkers from the Enlightenment to today, Eagleton discusses the state of religion before and after 9/11, the ironies surrounding Western capitalism’s part in spawning not only secularism but also fundamentalism, and the unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era.

The author reflects on the unique capacities of religion, the possibilities of culture and art as modern paths to salvation, the so-called war on terror’s impact on atheism, and a host of other topics of concern to those who envision a future in which just and compassionate communities thrive. Lucid, stylish, and entertaining in his usual manner, Eagleton presents a brilliant survey of modern thought that also serves as a timely, urgently needed intervention into our perilous political present.

Why Would Anyone Think He Doesn’t Take This Seriously?

Photo from the Huffington Post

A “Pastafarian” has taken the oath of office for the town council in Pomfret, New York, wearing a colander on his head. From the Huffington Post:

The newly-elected council member’s bizarre choice of millinery was due to his membership of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an atheist group founded in 2005 and named after Richard Dawkins’ now-famous ‘Dead Gods’ criticism of religion.

Schaeffer told the local Observer newspaper: “It’s just a statement about religious freedom… It’s a religion without any dogma.”

The Town of Pomfret is in Chautauqua County in upstate New York. According to Wikipedia, the population is 14,965. Not counting clowns.

“The Oxford Handbook of Atheism” (Bullivant & Ruse, eds.)

Next month, Oxford will release The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, edited by Stephen Bullivant (St. Mary’s University College) and Michael Ruse (Florida State University). The publisher’s description follows:

Recent books by, among others, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have thrust atheism firmly into the popular, media, and academic spotlight. This so-called New Atheism is arguably the most striking development in western socio-religious culture of the past decade or more. As such, it has spurred fertile (and often heated) discussions both within, and between, a diverse range of disciplines. Yet atheism, and the New Atheism, are by no means co-extensive. Interesting though it indeed is, the New Atheism is a single, historically and culturally specific manifestation of positive atheism (the that there is/are no God/s), which is itself but one form of a far deeper, broader, and more significant global phenomenon.

The Oxford Handbook of Atheism is a pioneering edited volume, exploring atheism – understood in the broad sense of “an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods” – in all the richness and diversity of its historical and contemporary expressions. Bringing together an international team of established and emerging scholars, it probes the varied manifestations and implications of unbelief from an array of disciplinary perspectives (philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, demography, psychology, natural sciences, gender and sexuality studies, literary criticism, film studies, musicology) and in a range of global contexts (Western Europe, North America, post-communist Europe, the Islamic world, Japan, India). Both surveying and synthesizing previous work, and presenting the major fruits of innovative recent research, the handbook is set to be a landmark text for the study of atheism.

“The Original Atheists” (S.T. Joshi, ed.)

Next month, Random House publishes The Original Atheists, an anthology of 18th-century writings edited by S.T. Joshi. (Did atheism really originate in the 18th Century?). The publisher’s description follows:

This is the first anthology ever published to feature the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers on the subjects of atheism, religion, freethought, and secularism.

Editor S. T. Joshi has compiled notable essays by writers from Germany, France, England, and early America. The contributors include Denis Diderot (a principal author of the multivolume French Encyclopédie), Baron d’Holbach (System of Nature, 1770), Voltaire (Philosophical Dictionary), David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and other lesser-known thinkers.

With a comprehensive introduction providing the intellectual and cultural context of the essays, this outstanding compilation will be of interest to students of philosophy, religious studies, and eighteenth-century intellectual history.

Pope Francis’s Remarks on “Social Dialogue in a Context of Religious Freedom”

Pope Francis has issued an Apostolic Exhortation–Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”)–which ranges over many subjects, emphasizing in particular and in many places the obligations of Catholics toward the poor and toward realizing just social, political, and economic arrangements.

In a substantial portion of the Exhortation (beginning at paragraph 182), the Pope discusses the social teaching of the Church and he focuses on two issues: the alleviation of poverty and the Church’s special concern for the poor; and “The Common Good and Peace in Society.” As to the latter, and because they involve issues of religion and public life that we consider here at the Center, here are the Pope’s remarks (footnotes omitted) about the importance of “social dialogue in a context of religious freedom,” which conclude his reflections on the social dimension of the Gospel:

255. The Synod Fathers spoke of the importance of respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right. This includes “the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public” A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace.

256. When considering the effect of religion on public life, one must distinguish the different ways in which it is practiced. Intellectuals and serious journalists frequently descend to crude and superficial generalizations in speaking of the shortcomings of religion, and often prove incapable of realizing that not all believers – or religious leaders – are the same. Some politicians take advantage of this confusion to justify acts of discrimination. At other times, contempt is shown for writings which reflect religious convictions, overlooking the fact that religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart. This contempt is due to the myopia of a certain rationalism. Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in a context of religious belief? These writings include principles which are profoundly humanistic and, albeit tinged with religious symbols and teachings, they have a certain value for reason.

257. As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation. A special place of encounter is offered by new Areopagi such as the Court of the Gentiles, where “believers and non-believers are able to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence”. This too is a path to peace in our troubled world.

Religion without God

Religion without God is the late Ronald Dworkin’s last work, published posthumously in September. It’s a short book; a publisher’s note explains that Dworkin planned to expand the work greatly before he fell ill. Still, the book is important. Not that it says anything especially new. As far as I can tell, in fact, the book repeats familiar, even ancient, objections to the idea of a personal God and proposes a legal definition of religion that is decades old. Religion without God is important, rather, because it reflects the worldview of  a celebrated liberal philosopher sympathetic to religion but unable to believe in God, and because it reflects an increasingly important strategy in the Left’s battle to minimize protection for traditional religion.

Religion without God has two main points, one about the nature of religion and the other about religious freedom. In the first part of the book, Dworkin argues that religion, properly understood, does not require a belief in God. Religion requires only a belief in objective meaning and a sense of wonder at the sublime quality of the universe. Many atheists believe in objective meaning and view the universe with a sense of wonder, Dworkin writes, and are thus, in their way, “religious.” Dworkin hopes this insight will dampen the conflict between atheists and believers in contemporary Western culture. Both sides agree on the essential things, he argues; disagreement on the existence of God is only a minor detail.

Take objective moral values, for instance. Many theists believe moral values depend on the existence of a personal God. If God had not told us, or implanted the knowledge in us, we would not know what is right and what is wrong. This is logically incorrect, Dworkin says. Objective values must exist independently of God’s will. Otherwise, God could make conduct ethical simply by commanding it, and that would be entirely arbitrary. What if God ordered you to murder your family members? Would that make the murders right? No, the murders would be wrong, whatever God told you. So God is superfluous to moral reasoning–no more than a possibly helpful guide. Once they recognize this, Dworkin argues, believers will see that their differences with atheists–at least with “religious atheists”–are insignificant.   

This argument tracks the famous Euthyphro dilemma, to which Dworkin alludes at the very end of his book. Christianity–I don’t know about other traditions–has an answer to this dilemma, though Dworkin dismisses it rather summarily. The Christian answer is this: the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that God is a being like any other in the universe, subject to the same logical disconnect between fact and value. But God, in Christian understanding, is not like that. Unlike human beings, God is not born into a preexisting universe. He is eternal. As Peter Leithart writes, no gap exists between God and objective reality, including objective moral reality. In the Christian conception, God is objective moral reality.

This is all pretty complicated. But one doesn’t have to follow the entire argument to recognize that theists are unlikely to be persuaded that a belief in God is optional–and that atheists are unlikely to be persuaded that their disagreement with theists is only minor. Dworkin himself recognizes that his irenic project is likely to fail, which gives Religion without God a melancholy tone. He apparently believed it important to try to narrow the conceptual gap between theism and atheism, however, in order to advance a legal project: expanding the legal definition of religion to include non-theistic, ethical convictions.

Here’s the argument. If religion is “deeper” than conventional theism, as Dworkin insists, protection for religious exercise must, in fairness, extend to non-theistic belief systems as well. In fact, protection should extend to any passionately held ethical conviction. This observation isn’t new. In the Draft Act cases decades ago, the Supreme Court indicated that religion could include deeply-held, non-theistic beliefs. But extending “religion” in this way creates a serious practical problem. In our legal system, religion enjoys a specially-protected status. In many instances, government accommodates citizens’ religious beliefs by granting exemptions from otherwise applicable legal requirements. If religion means all deeply-held ethical convictions, how can the state possibly accommodate it? Chaos would result.

Here Dworkin makes his final move. Because of the practical impossibility of accommodating religion, the state should not bother to try. We should abandon “the idea of a special right to religious freedom with its high hurdle of protection,” he writes, in favor of a more general right to “ethical independence.” The payoff? “If we deny a special right to free exercise of religious practice, and rely only on the general right to ethical independence, then religions may be forced to restrict their practices so as to obey rational, nondiscriminatory laws that do not display less than equal concern for them.” Religion, in other words, will take a back seat to progressive politics. A general right of ethical independence, he writes, would restrict public religious displays, unless the displays were genuinely drained of all religious meaning, and would mandate “the liberal position” on same-sex marriage, abortion, and gender equality in marriage.

Dworkin’s definition of religion thus seems tendentious, a way to dilute religion so as to minimize the potential for conflict with the progressive state. This is not surprising. Traditional religion opposes many of the Left’s priorities; for the Left to succeed, it must continue to marginalize traditional religion. And Dworkin’s argument that religion as such does not merit special protection is very much in the air today. Prominent law professors like Brian Leiter and Micah Schwartzman make versions of this argument, for example. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Administration maintained that religious freedom, as such, had nothing to do with a church’s decision to fire its minister.

So far, courts appear to be rejecting the religion-isn’t-special argument (though, it must be said, the Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, gives the argument rather more traction than it should possess). In Hosanna-Tabor, for example, the Supreme Court rejected the Obama Administration’s argument by a vote of 9-0. You never know how future courts will see things, though. Dworkin’s last book suggests that the fight over the special status of religion in American law is only beginning.

Jacoby, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought”

Here’s a celebration of Robert Ingersoll, the silver-tongued anti-IngersollCatholic, ardent supporter of James G. Blaine and his notions of separation of church and state, and one-time member of the late nineteenth-century progressive “National Liberal League”: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press 2012), by the popular polemicist Susan Jacoby.  Ingersoll once wrote that America would “tear the bloody hands of the Church from the white throat of science,” and such rhetoric stood him in very good stead in the Republican party of the 1870s and 1880s.  The publisher’s description follows.

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America’s enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as “the Great Agnostic.” The nation’s most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of  Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America’s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of  “new atheists.” Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America’s often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women’s rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll’s time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging  to the religious and nonreligious alike.

Niose, “Nonbeliever Nation”

Here’s a new entry in the increasingly popular bellicose secularist genre: Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) by David Niose.  The publisher’s description follows.

Today, nearly one in five Americans are nonbelievers – a rapidly growing group at a time when traditional Christian churches are dwindling in numbers – and they are flexing their muscles like never before. Yet we still see almost none of them openly serving in elected office, while Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and many others continue to loudly proclaim the myth of America as a Christian nation.

In Nonbeliever Nation, leading secular advocate David Niose explores what this new force in politics means for the unchallenged dominance of the Religious Right. Hitting on all the hot-button issues that divide the country – from gay marriage to education policy to contentious church-state battles – he shows how this movement is gaining traction, and fighting for its rights. Now, Secular Americans—a group comprised not just of atheists and agnostics, but lapsed Catholics, secular Jews, and millions of others who have walked away from religion—are mobilizing and forming groups all over the country (even atheist clubs in Bible-belt high schools) to challenge the exaltation of religion in American politics and public life.

This is a timely and important look at how growing numbers of nonbelievers, disenchanted at how far America has wandered from its secular roots, are emerging to fight for equality and rational public policy.

Lobby Day and Rally for Reason

Lots of religion-related politicking this weekend. In addition to the Stand Up Coalition‘s Rally for Religious Freedom, today, a group called the Secular Coalition for America (“Representing Secular Americans in Our Nation’s Capital”) will hold a “Lobby Day for Reason.” Lobby Day is designed “to allow atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secular Americans to directly lobby their members of Congress on the issues that matter to us.” I imagine one of those issues is the unfortunate tendency of religious organizations to lobby members of Congress. Tomorrow, the group will host a day-long “Reason Rally” on the National Mall, featuring Richard Dawkins and Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island high school student who appeared as plaintiff in this case.

The Secular Value of Supporting Churches

A very interesting perspective by John Gray here on the proposal for the creation of atheist temples (discussed here).  What struck me about the piece was its recommendation to atheists to support existing churches and religious structures exactly for some of the reasons that Botton describes.  The point might be expanded to apply more generally to secular support for religious institutions — not a reason from autonomy or separation or one of the other usual liberal reasons, but one more merits-oriented, as it were.  From the conclusion of Gray’s piece:

[Auguste] Comte wanted his new religion to be based on science, so the temples of humanity pointed only as far as science could reach. That is why his new church failed. The very idea of a science-based religion is an absurdity. The value of religion is that it points beyond anything that can be known by the methods of science, showing us that a mystery would remain even if everything could be finally explained. The heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. London is full of sites – churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – that are evocative of something beyond the human world. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.