Friday, May 15, 2009

Contra Atheos

Bill Maher made it personal
I'm a fan of Bill Maher (and my wife is an even bigger one). I always think it's hilarious when he explains why he could never run for political office: "Because I'm for drugs and against religion!" If Maher ever gets around to doing a movie about how great drugs are, I'm there. But when Beth and I finally got around to watching Religulous I found it at best underwhelming, and that is being extremely charitable.

Like many comedians Maher is a social critic, but when it comes to the question of religion he fails to take that job seriously. A social critic must study and come to some understanding of the social ills that are to be critiqued. There is certainly a problem in modern society with religious fundamentalism and religiously inspired (or rationalized) bigotry. Closely related to this problem (and possibly identical with it) is the political influence exerted by evil and corrupt people and groups who use the emotional power of religious (or at least religious sounding) demagogy to rally the masses in support of things like invading Iraq, opposing gay rights, etc. But in response to these serious problems Maher only offers us a deluge of ridicule directed at people he disagrees with, and he does so in a way that really undermines any intention he might have to get people to take issues like religious intolerance seriously (or to take him seriously, for that matter).

Now, I am all in favor of mocking and ridiculing people who have stupid and evil ideas and who promote and do evil and stupid things. I mean, who isn't? But doing this in a way that does not, itself, become an insult to the intelligence and conscience requires at least something of a fine touch, or else it just descends into verbal thuggery, and also not to mention that it requires having a freaking clue about what you are talking about, you know, in order to not make yourself look more ignorant and unprincipled than your intended targets.

Probably the most intellectually dishonest part of the movie (although there was lots of stiff competition in that particular race) was the carefully snipped and clipped fragments of an interview that Maher had with Francis Colins (one of the world's leading geneticists). Now, any hack can rearrange the words that come out of someone else's mouth, but the thing that Maher apparently doesn't realize is that propaganda isn't supposed to look like propaganda. What Maher does with his interview of Collins makes Rush Limbaugh look like Woodward and Bernstein. Collins himself is on the record as saying that Maher "misused" him in the movie, but he also dryly observed that there was really no harm done because no one would ever mistakenly believe that Maher's movie "was an attempt to find the real truth." In fact it even turns out that Maher intentionally lied in writing to Collins in order to set the interview up in the first place.

But I watched the whole thing, and I'm glad I did. Because at the very end of the movie, Bill Maher took a direct swipe at me personally. Well, almost. At any rate, I took it personally. With the credits nearly ready to roll, Maher manages to position himself for a nice panoramic shot with the famous "Cerne Abbas Giant" of Dorset England, also known as "The Rude Man" because of his gigantic erect phallus (or at least I assume that's what the name refers to) looming impressively in the background. Maher then makes some snide remarks that proudly display his juvenility when it comes to any kind of open (let alone proud) display of human (let alone divine) sexuality. I took this particular incident personally because the Giant is also considered by many to be a representation of the ancient Dagda, who also happens to be the patron God of the Wiccan Coven that I belong to!

Sam Harris:
"Liberal" Shill for the War on Terror

The horrific terrorist attack of 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to Sam Harris. He turned the angst (or what Harris called "the grief and stupefaction") that naturally descended upon Americans in the wake of those attacks into a best-selling screed of a book that made no apologies for playing on peoples all too justifiable fears of fanatical religious terrorists out to kill us all. History will judge him to have played a vital role in keeping alive the flagging liberal support for the "War on Terror", and making a few bucks and a name for himself while he did it. After all there was only so much Christopher Hitchens could do all by himself! There is nothing new in making a killing off of war. War is good for business, and publishing is business - Big Business.

On September 10, 2001, Sam Harris was ... what? It's hard to say, and Harris himself is very tight-lipped about his own personal history. He studied philosophy at Stanford (although it took him over a decade to complete his BA), experimented with psychedelic drugs (which gave him insights into psychology and spirituality, he has reported), practiced Buddhist meditation ("with several different masters"). So far, so good, as far as I'm concerned. Like most people Harris had a deeply emotional, visceral response to the grand scale of evil that we all witnessed on 9/11, but unlike most (but not all) people, he made a career out of milking that response. More than anything else, it was the phenomenon of Harris' meteoric rise to fame that crystalized the concept of the "New Atheists" in the public imagination.

How did this happen? Atheists are supposed to be communists, or at least socialists, or at least peaceniks, aren't they? Well, of course that's not ever really been true, no matter how much the Republican party and the Christian right have tried to make us believe it. But it is true that "Atheism" has always had a subversive ring to it. In fact, that was one of the reasons why T.H. Huxley decided to coin the term "agnostic", because he was actually a man with a decidedly conventional, even conservative outlook, that is except for the fact that he had no use for religion! That's an oversimplification, because Huxley was an extremely thoughtful philosopher, although as a philosopher he was also self-taught, and he had real, philosophically well-founded, reservations about the certainty behind the label "atheist". Nevertheless it is also true that the Atheists of his time did tend to be, or at least were thought of as, subversives with whom he did not wish to be associated.

This is really key to understanding the "New" Atheism, as opposed to the "Old", and the New Atheists are actually quite up front about this: they want to go mainstream. This was already well underway long before 9/11. Although the term "New Atheist" wouldn't be coined for decades, a major turning point came in 1976 when the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and Other Phenomena was founded by Paul Kurtz, Marcello Truzzi and others. Truzzi quickly left the organization (which has since changed it's name twice and is now just called The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).

CSICOP/CSI has always first and foremost been a propaganda outfit of the bellicosely crusading variety. They are primarily focussed on influencing the media and also on creating a Stalinesque culture of ideological purity in the scientific community. But whether it's in spite of or because of their questionable aims and tactics their impact has been significant and even pervasive, especially in the media. A fascinating study of CSICOP during it's heyday (published in 1992 by George P. Hanson in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research) notes several things about the budding movement that would help to launch the New Atheists:

1. It is overwhelmingly male.
2. Although the group has no stated position on religion, many of it's members and especially it's leaders are Atheists.
3. It's rhetoric relies heavily on "villification", "ridicule", and "decrying the dangers" of ideas they labeled as irrational.
4. CSICOP actually has an official policy against conducting any research!
5. The activities of CSICOP "display more parallels with political campaigns than with scientific endeavors."

By the mid 1990's CSICOP had definitely peaked or at least plateaued, but a solid foundation had been laid. In particular a critical mass of self-congratulating "secular humanists" had begun to establish a social network in which a culture based on blind opposition to all religious ideas could grow and thrive, or at least perpetuate itself in a borg-like way. And when 9/11 came along they were ready to go to the next level in their effort to build a mainstream "New Atheist" movement that would have favorable media coverage and find ever greater social acceptability, in a way never imagined by the Atheists of old.

Outline of a Pagan response to the New Atheists
1. Modern, western Pagans have a unique contribution to make to the critique of the New Atheists. We can point out both (a) where they are right, which is usually when they stick to the well-worn critiques of Christianity that go back to the enlightenment and even back to classical antiquity, and (b) where they go wrong, which is pretty much any time they venture off that well-worn path. Nevertheless, in their blind hatred of everything religious, they often go overboard even in their critique of Christianity

2. Modern western Pagans have an obligation to defend those religions which have in the past been the targets of European conquerors, colonizers, and missionaries, especially those traditions which still face the onslaught of aggressive Christian missionaries who are usually based in and funded from wealthy, western countries. The critiques of Christianity which have become a vital part of the western intellectual tradition cannot be sweepingly generalized to "all religions", and the uncritical assumption, implicit in the "New" Atheism, that such generalizations must automatically be valid is myopically eurocentric. Pagans must also defend the ancient religious traditions of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, including the classical Pagan religions of Greece and Rome, which were violently supplanted by the process of coercive Christianization.

3. Reason, logic, science (including experimental science), and critical thinking were well known to Pagans over 2000 years ago. There is no inherent conflict between religion and reason, and the idea of any such conflict is foreign to Paganism. The lack of conflict between reason and religion is seen not only in the ancient pre-Christian world, but in the pioneers of the so-called scientific revolution itself, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who were profoundly influenced and guided by Pythagoreanism, Hermeticism, Epicureanism, etc. This is also another area in which the New Atheists reveal themselves to be deeply ethnocentric, in that they assert that "reason" was somehow invented out of thin air by western Europeans, and this only very recently - and that all of the non-European peoples of the world can only be blessed with the gifts of reason if they abandon their traditional cultures and bow down to the God of western science.

4. Modern Pagans should take second place to no one when it comes to the critique of Christianity. Our critique of Christianity should incorporate (a) what remains, after having been consigned to the flames by the Church, of the writings of Julian, Porphyry, Celsus and other ancient Pagans, (b) the more recent writings of thinkers like Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine, and (c) historical, archeological, and other well-founded scholarly evidence documenting Christianity's long history of violent intolerance.

5. It is vitally important for Pagans to resist the narrative according to which people must choose between Christianity and Atheism, both of which categorically reject our Goddesses and Gods, whose worship is the essence of Paganism. In fact, to the ancient Pagans there was very little that separated Christians from Atheists. Since the Christians rejected all Goddesses whatsoever and all Gods but one, they were from the beginning only one tiny step away from Atheism. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Atheism flourishes especially in the west, where Christianity has well prepared the way for it.