Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Philosophy and Atheists

Another cold day in Geneseo. Ah well, it makes one feel very alive. Unless you're exposed too long, naturally.

Today was the induction ceremony for members of the Philosophy Honor Society, Phi Sigma Tau (Greek: Philou Sophôn Timê), which was rather nice. Of course, they're silly philosophy majors, and everyone knows we historians are much more trustworthy... The interesting part of this ceremony was the paper given afterwards by one of the professors. He's evidently the closest thing the department has to a theist, terming himself a conceptual skeptic. He's a very nice and decent fellow, and certainly gives the theistic point of view as good a treatment as he is able. The topic of the paper concerns the popular oeuvre of Dawkins and Harris, and how they are barking up the wrong tree. (This was his wording, not mine. I find the metaphor interesting, as obviously the analogy to hounds loosed on a chase incites the question: Who is their master?, a topic I believe worthy of serious investigation)

As he presented them, the most glaring shortcomings in these works included the frequent use of the genetic fallacy to "debunk" the origins of religion and indeed morality. Also noted was their lack of philosophical sophistication in dismissing the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments out of hand without first presenting them, analyzing them, and seeing where they fall short. Rather humorously, Dawkins simply asserts that he has no patience for this sort of twaddle, and so naturally they must not carry any weight. This is about as legitimate as jumping into a lake and raising a stink about being wet.

What I thought could have been better addressed are the assertions about religious extremism. Certainly, fanaticism is a bad thing. And much has been done wrong in the name of religion. There is always a moralistic bent to arguments such as these, which is odd coming from a pair whose personal convictions tend towards relativism informed by that old evolutionary genetic fallacy. What they pass over, however, is the problem of human nature. They play the connection between religion and extremism as if religion simply produced extremism by itself. This makes a strikingly naive assumption about human nature, and one which history shoots down quite effectively. If a thing should be shunned because it brings about extremist attitudes and actions, then let us consider some other things which never ought to have been allowed to exist:
-socialism and communism- what was the death toll on that score again? Certainly greater than anything the Crusades ever wrought.
-the concept of the nation-state- this has quite demonstrably been one of the most destructive endeavors in human history. How many people died in the wars which brought about French supremacy in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries? Or in the wars which established Prussia as the major continental power under Bismarck? The great expressions of ultra-nationalism in the First and Second World War?
-the acquisition and expansion of wealth and property- I realize that I may sound slightly Marxist in listing this here, but that is not my intent. I will come to an explanation for this shortly. But a few examples should suffice: Japan's wars of expansion and modernization from Meiji onwards. And just about any minor squabble in history has these tenets as at least proximate causes.

What I hoped to have shown in this is that extremism is by no means, in any way, shape, or form the province solely of religion. Extremism is the product of disordered humanity. And as such, it can be found in any human endeavor, no matter how noble the original purpose may have been. I hope, in bringing up the concepts of the nation-state and the acquisition of wealth and property, that I have also shown that otherwise legitimate pursuits, against which I doubt Dawkins and Harris would try to argue, can become the bases for brutal violence and destruction. In sound-byte form, if it's a body count that excites atheist outrage, then we might as well get rid of democracy.

Ultimately, though, Harris and Dawkins represent an elite whose eyes have grown far bigger than their stomachs. They have latched onto concepts with which they are not sufficiently familiar, and so provide a suspect analysis. They have conflated scientific truth with objective truth, and made the ironically dogmatic assertion that only scientific inquiry can make any statement which could be considered true. The upsetting part is that the militant atheist crowd who laps these two hacks up like mother's milk do not hold them to their own standard and ask what scientific basis their criterion of sola scientia has.

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