December 08, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: A few further notes on the militant atheists

A friend of mine of many years duration (from first grade on - I am fortunate to have several such friends) and I have engaged in a running conversation, on different forums, about the question of whether life has a "meaning."  My friend seems troubled by my conclusion that life doesn't really "mean" anything beyond what we perceive with our senses. If you enjoy being alive, that's what life means; a little tautologous, but life is essentially an opportunity to be alive and to perceive reality, an opportunity we share with artichokes and banana slugs.

As with any attempt at communication, it's good to define terms at the outset.  What I'm talking about is the concept of a narrative "frame" for existence: a sense of purpose in life, or "destiny" that gives life a kind of extrinsic importance (as opposed simply to its intrinsic enjoyment).  My friend finds such purpose in Christianity, with its teleological focus on this life being a sort of audition for a supposed Afterlife, as described in the Bible.

It was for this reason that Friedrich Nietzsche, the German descendant of a line of Lutheran ministers, called Christianity the greatest "calamity in the history of mankind."  His argument that seeing this life as only a prelude to the Real Thing to Come placed our mental "center of gravity" outside of our terrestrial existence, which in turn led to all kinds of irrational outbursts and atrocities in world history (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Tea Party). 

I actually find the more heated arguments of the "militant atheists" (Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens) a little misplaced and gratuitous.  I can see the point about the role of religion, based as it is on irrational thinking, leading to persecution, theocratic tyrannies, and the like.  But their arguments are actually circular, in my opinion.  If religion is simply a construct of the human mind (and what else could it be?) then there is no "objective correlative," as the militant atheists appear not to comprehend, brilliant as they are.  Religion does not impose irrational thinking on the human mind from without; religion is the product of irrational human thinking.  This is not really a distinction without a difference.  Although worship takes place in buildings, and religious clerics wear costumes and whatnot, religion, per se, doesn't really exist except as an abstract construct.  It begins and ends with the delusional state of mind of people engaging in a highly elaborate form of ritualized superstition.  By the same token, as Sam Harris has cleverly demonstrated, atheism similarly has no content.  It is not a "belief system."  It's simply what is left after the delusions are cleared up.

Thus, the eradication of religions is not really the salient point.  Intellectual persecution of religions produces an undesirable backlash. The assault on religion, a notional nonthing, sets up an unnecessary conflict, since by their very nature irrational belief systems are not susceptible to rational persuasion (I've had quite a bit of exposure to this problem).  Militant atheism is more of a commercial project than a serious intellectual endeavor, a way to sell books and demonstrate one's iconoclastic credentials, without having much effect. This is why non-scientists such as Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher have been able to pile on and probably sell more books (or tickets to movies) than Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, or Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.  The approach of Hitchens and Maher has been simply to display their logical erudition and lucidity, unlike the "childish" believers.

Nevertheless, atheism continues to progress in human societies (especially in the more intellectually advanced countries in Europe and in Russia) because of scientific progress.  Religions were founded on superstitions about the unknown and the uncertainties of human existence (vulnerability to the weather, abundance of game and other food, human and other animal predators).  The Earth was assumed to be at the center of a small universe, and it made sense, in our solipsistic way, to arrive through intellectual projection at the conclusion that It Was All About Us. 

Mankind has gradually become disillusioned on this point, but not because of the frontal assault on belief systems by the militant atheists.  Rather it comes about through education that is gradually and systematically acquired.  Richard Feynman described it as a process of learning how utterly insignificant human life is in the context of the cosmos as a whole.  In my opinion, this is why Europe and Russia are far less religious than America.  Their educational systems are significantly better than ours, and miles ahead in math and science.  They don't "teach" atheism; it comes about through the process of learning.  Becoming comfortable with "meaninglessness" is a gradual process, as with other mental disciplines, like solving quadratic equations or learning to construct piano chords.  I'm sure that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris occasionally jar loose a thought process in a true believer that sets in motion a disillusionment with religion.  But the overwhelming majority of atheists in the National Academy of Sciences, for example, demonstrates the more likely way that atheism becomes one's belief non-system.

I think we're probably in the last throes of organized religion, that is, if modern civilization can hold itself together (if we revert to primitivism, then we'll be back to rain dancing soon enough). In my opinion, that will be a very good thing, for the reasons Sigmund Freud described in the closing passages of The Future of An Illusion, his meditation on the deleterious effects of religion on the psyche.  The usual argument against the eradication of organized superstition is that there will be a collapse in morality, yet it's always seemed to me (along the lines outlined above) that it was mankind who wrote the systems of ethics found in the holy books in the first place; thus, we're clearly capable of deriving a codified morality to govern civilized life.  And a secular, more comprehensive basis for morality would have the advantage of avoiding sectarian prejudices which give rise to Muslims killing Jews, and Christians killing Muslims, and probably were behind antipathies such as the Italians hating Yugoslavs, South Africans hating Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much.

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