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The New Atheism and the Ever-shrinking Circle of Explanatory Power

Reza Aslan concludes a recent article for The Washington Post with is critique:

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science.

Aslan’s brief article, titled “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?”, focuses on what he sees as a fundamental (pun not intended) weakness in the new atheism: it’s proponents don’t understand religion as an idea “occupied with transcendence.” Aslan views modern atheists as ill-informed and well outside their area of expertise. Their inordinate focus on scientific explanation has made them ill-equipped to treat matters of religion. For Aslan, religion is not about the manifest world but about how a “universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae.” And religion is about “modalities,” pardigmatic gestures,” “spiritual dimensions,” and “archetypes.” The New Atheists, he says, don’t understand this (neither, I’m fairly certain, do too many religious people but that’s another matter).

He also criticizes the new atheism, as a movement, of being too close minded, too absolutist, too  proselytical  -- in a word, too fundamentalist. Yet in reading his polemic, particularly when he accuses the movement of being under-informed and populist, I found Aslan himself to be too narrow in how he is defining the new atheism. If scoped merely to the four authors in the article’s title, then certainly the criticism holds. But anyone aware of the movement knows that Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris (and we might throw in Dan Brown for good measure), widely known in the movement as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—a name they wear proudly—is just the marketing arm of a much larger phenomenon. The new atheism (no caps) is a broad shift in the way many are thinking about religion. The New Atheists (limiting that term to The Four Horsemen) are a small, but vocal and largely populist exemplification of that shift. Restricting the movement to those four men would be similar to saying Dinesh D’Souza, Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, and Glen Beck constitute the whole of modern Christian thought.

This failure to recognize the scope of and breadth of the shift away from traditional theistic belief is in no small part contributing to the breakdowns we’re seeing in certain pockets of Western Christianity (I wrote briefly about this breakdown here). There have been some powerful and important treatments and analysis of religious belief that take the material written at the popular level to great depths. Books like J.L. Schellenberg’s Cornell trilogy (see information on the books Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion ), Robert McKim’s excellent and necessary Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity, Robert Wright’s, The Evolution of God, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. I’m not making any claims about whether these books do or do not make their respective cases. I’m simply observing that anyone engaging what should broadly be called the new atheism, should content with the ideas presented in these and a substantive number of other books and articles. It’s unclear whether Aslan is aware of this growing body of fine literature and the impact this literature is having. 

On the other side, Aslan doesn’t seem to account for many of the excellent books being written by analytical philosophers and theologians which attempt to defend the rationality of belief in God without buying fully into Aslan’s “non-overlapping magisteria” sentiment. The quote with which I began this article seemed to me on a first read to be an admission of defeat: the God hypothesis can’t hold explanatory water to a scientific analysis so it’s best to separate theism from science and relegate God and his actions to an unknowable metaphysical realm. I’ll plainly acknowledge that I haven’t read any of Aslan’s book-length treatments of the topics he sketches in the short Washington Post piece. But if his books essentially are an extrapolation of this article in which he seems to espouse what I see as a growing acknowledgement that theism has little explanatory power left, I’m confident this sentiment will continue to marginalize religion and further aid in the removal of it’s seat from the cultural adult table.

Religion and Polite Conversation

Should topics of religion be avoided in casual conversation? No, says Rick Pimentel in the latest article for Table Talk. Religion is a topic of “ultimate concern” as Paul Tillich argued and such topics should be discussed and debated. Many of us may avoid topics of religion is polite conversation because the topic consists of ideas we may know little about or believe can never be settled. But the focus of religion concerns ideas that many of us care deeply about. What does it all mean? Is there an afterlife? Are we alone in the universe? These concerns are profound and, while we may seek to avoid them, we cannot escape them. Rick writes,

Religion’s importance lies in the fact that it deals with ultimate issues; matters that are fundamental to human life such as the existence of God, death, morality, meaning of life and human behavior. These issues are a fundamental concern and understanding them appear to be necessary for flourishing in this life. . . . Religion can be hotly disputed and sometimes this can be discouraging or even repulsive to some but the fact that it is hotly disputed should not excuse us from pursuing an understanding of religion and how it fundamentally affects our lives.

Read the full article here.

Helen Brown Talks to Slavoj Žižek for the Telegraph

“Spluttering, lisping and pawing frantically at his face, he can spin you from Heidegger to Hershey bars (by way of Hitchcock and Hizbollah) in synapse-shortcircuiting seconds. He is, by turns, a brilliant and buffoonish critic of global capitalism. Once he winds himself into an intellectual whirlwind you just have to sit back and wait while he sucks up and spits out 21st century culture.”


The God Debate: From Bumper Stickers to Smartphone Apps

For years if you drove along just about any freeway for any length of time you’d most likely see a car with a “Jesus fish” (a named coined by the sitcom Seinfeld as far as I know). These stickers are small, fish-shaped emblems that signify that the driver of the vehicle is a Christian. But atheists have struck back. Since the late 90s, “Darwin fish” have become popular. These are modified Jesus fish that sport four small legs. Not to be outdone, manufacturers of Christian paraphernalia  (“holy hardware” as we used to call it as teenagers) came out with Jesus fish with the words “TRUTH” in the body and eating a Darwin fish. And on it goes (incidentally, an author appears to have noticed the same phenomenon and based a book around it).

Now, apparently this battle has gone digital. Programmers, students, and publishers are coming out with religious and atheist software for smartphones that keep important “truths” right at one's fingertips. Apparently sound logic and rock-solid argumentation is a key driver for many of these apps:

In a dozen new phone applications, whether faith-based or faith-bashing, the prospective debater is given a primer on the basic rules of engagement — how to parry the circular argument, the false dichotomy, the ad hominem attack, the straw man — and then coached on all the likely flashpoints of contention.

A Christian publisher apparently concerned with the way believers are addressing the resurging atheism even claims that these types of apps are a way to "deal with" Christians “who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions.” From a purely capitalist perspective, if these things are selling, why not. Philosophically, whipping out a smartphone to pull up a retort to an argument doesn’t strike me as dealing with dogmatism. It strikes me more as a guaranteed way to foster it.

Philosophers Help Doctors with Ethical Questions

Medical professionals are calling on philosophers in the UK to help answer questions involving personal autonomy and mental health. Some of these questions are being raised by a supposed conflict between the Medical Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act. According to the Guardian:

The Mental Health Act says intervention is required where a mentally-ill individual is a danger to themselves (or to the public). But the Mental Capacity Act (2007) is organised around a very different legal principle: it says that if someone passes a legal test of their capacity to make a decision, then they cannot be treated without their consent – even if they suffer from a major mental disorder.

See the full article here.

St. Olaf Focuses on Kierkegaard

From their website:

More than 160 scholars, pastors, and those who are simply fans of the 19th-century Danish philosopher flocked to campus for the largest meeting of Kierkegaard scholars in history. The Sixth International Kierkegaard Conference drew attendees from all over the globe to examine "Why Kierkegaard Still Matters" and discuss issues of morality, religion, and philosophy.

See the full report here.

The Philosophy of Porn

If the word ‘philosophy’ in the title didn’t get your attention, most likely the word ‘porn’ did. Like a bad accident, porn is one of those things at which we shouldn’t stare but just can’t help it. Analyzing porn philosophical almost strikes me as activity that in and of itself misses the point. But philosophers are delving into the subject not merely as voyeurs (or so they can “read the articles” in Playboy) but apparently as serious research.

Tom Morris, for the Huffington Post recently interviewed Jacob Held on his philosophy class on porn which he teaches at The University of Central Arkansas. In the interview he relates many of the challenges he encountered in setting up and then teaching a philosophy class on pornography. The most notable issue was that porn is treated very differently from other cultural taboos like violence.

I had to interview all potential students and get them to sign a waiver before they could be admitted to the course. I had several meetings about content, books, and so forth. And the interesting thing is, it was all because of the sexual nature of the content. I've taught on torture and war, but no question was ever raised about student exposure to violence.

The course examine the subject from a variety of angles including free speech as well as “civil rights, sexual violence, exploitation, women in media, [and] gender.”

For New York Times’ The Stone column, philosopher Nancy Bauer (Tufts) who is completing a book entitled How to Do Things With Pornography, wrote an article on Lady Gaga and what she represents. Actually the article is only tangentially on Lady Gaga and more about the shifting sexual norms of our society and an emerging feminism.

Jean-Paul Sartre, taking a cue from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, proposed in “Being and Nothingness” that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams.  Like everything else in the world, we have a nature:  we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgments.

Apparently, some took issue with the article and saw it as another demonstration of the irrelevancy (or at least trivialization) of philosophy. See Bauer’s response here.

6/30/2010 NDPR-Latest Reviews

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The ‘Plato’ Code?

An historian and philosopher of science at the University of Manchester, after a five-year study, has apparently uncovered some hidden symbolism in Plato. The essence of the message, according to Gawker, is that Plato believed that the universe was essentially mathematical. But Gawker demurs:

But millions of people have "cracked the code" of Plato, already, by reading Plato and thinking about what the words might mean. It isn't that hard, and you don't need some kind of absurd pretend "secret" message to have an opinion about Plato or his ideas. . . . All this does is warp everyone's sense of how to engage with philosophy, or literature, or art, and produce shoddy Dan Brown ripoffs.


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