Thursday, November 12, 2009

Will the real scepticism please stand up? Why religion is failing.

Peter Williams, Christian philosopher - keep smiling while you can, Pete, we ain't finished with you yet

Canto: Well Jacinta today I was out and about and I bought a copy of Philosophy Now, the July/August issue, a bit out of date, and I immediately started looking for fodder on religion and its enemies - I wonder why that might be?
Jacinta: It seems we're both hooked, mate, we're addicted to getting infuriated by this subject.
Canto: Yes, it is thrilling in a blood-boiling sort of way. While there's no greater liar than an indignant soul, a bit of indignation does get the analytic juices flowing.
Jacinta: It's a paradox, but I must say I find the whole new atheism stuff quite exciting to witness and be part of. Where will it all end?
Canto: Funny you should say that, because of course many believers of the combative sort are actually trying to play it up as a great big yawn - tired old arguments, crass polemics. ignorance, smugness, shallowness and so forth. Of course they usually tell rather than show us how misguided and limited these soi-disant new atheists are, but I've been reading this Philosophy Now mag, and it has a review of a new book by Peter Williams - a professional philosopher and Christian apparently - called A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism.
Jacinta: Don't tell me - more playing fast and loose with the treasured concept of scepticism.
Canto: Afraid so, but we'll still proudly proclaim ourselves as sceptics. Anyway I found this review deliciously infuriating because it was totally uncritical. Remember the reviewer's name, Luke Pollard, described as a writer interested in ethics and philosophy of religion. He might be worth hunting down.
Jacinta: Yes, another for the trophy cabinet...
Canto: Well this Williams fellow comes up with much of the same old junk - that the new atheists have nothing new to say, that they're an intellectually unimpressive bunch, and that atheism isn't actually rising but falling. He also seems to think that, in the more logical debates, the theists have the best arguments, but we don't get a chance to see that in this review.
Jacinta: Yeah, well, if he could show that, he'd really be achieving something. I've read all the traditional arguments for the existence of gods, and they've all been shot down in flames many times over.
Canto: Well Jacinta, we'll fire a few more bullets into those corpses before this blog is through, but Luke Pollard says that Williams' presentation of the philosophical arguments constitutes the best part of the book.
Jacinta: Are you saying we're going to have to buy this book to refute his arguments?
Canto: Perish the thought. None of the arguments are new, and they can all be found online somewhere, as solidly presented as they can be - you know how clogged cyberspace is with believers.
Jacinta: Did you say he found atheism to be declining?
Canto: Apparently he 'sourced a variety of polls' and found that 'lack of belief in a God may be declining world-wide, but is growing in parts of the West'.
Jacinta: Ha! What a weasel word. It may be declining, but then again it may not! That's meaningless. But then he's definite about it growing in the west.
Canto: Especially in the Vatican, no doubt.
Jacinta: That whole 'analysis' is meaningless, surely. I could 'source a variety of polls' in the next half an hour, to come up with any finding that suited me. Also, outside the West, it seems to me, everyone is a believer in some form of religion - 100%, more or less. There's no lack of belief. So how can the number decline from zero?
Canto: Yes, it's very doubtful. I think there's firm evidence of belief's decline in Australia at any rate. And can you guess the reason Williams gives for this decline of belief in the West?
Jacinta: Let me see. Television? State-controlled secular education? Sex and drugs and rock n roll? Affluenza?
Canto: Visionate more loftilywise, Jacinta. The cause is logical positivism.
Jacinta: Oh dear, methinks this guy has been drinking too much philosophy.
Canto: No, it's all positively logical Jass. The logical positivists, he claims, had this naively empiricist bent which apparently infected the rest of us, claiming that what couldn't be empirically verified through the senses was meaningless. Therefore God was meaningless. And people like Dawkins have bought into this uncritically.
Jacinta: An intriguing piece of bullshit. The rise of atheism in the west, to me, has been a gradual, complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. I think education has had much to do with it, and the promotion of diversity, individualism, critical thinking. and in respect of Christianity, a growing scepticism about 'sacred' texts, a greater understanding of how they come to be written, a recognition of the variety of religions and their competing claims, and a growing scientific understanding, which leaves little room for a personal god, and which has progressively refuted religious truth claims [about human specialness, our planet's centrality in the universe and so forth]. I further think that, as more is known about religious and 'spiritual' beliefs as psychological phenomena, the more common scepticism - I mean real scepticism, not the scepticism implied in this book's title - will become.
Canto: Amen to that.


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