Andrew Brown defining humourless atheism


I should just say that there aren’t any TBTMs at the moment because a) I’m struggling with a nasty flu-bug type of thing, and b) my visiting mother-in-law has taken on the dog-walking duties, so I’m not on the beach myself!


UPDATE: I wanted to engage with James’ comments in a new post, but they’d sit better as the flesh on the bones of this one…

James: Interesting, but not persuasive of anything further than the old “New Atheists are just atheists with potty mouths” argument. Brown doesn’t seem to have read most of the folks he pillories. Worse, though, is the quality of his arguments. I am, first and foremost, not at all sympathetic to the idea that philosophy is, when it comes to its basic (and many of its more advanced) questions, some sort of specialized discipline requiring the “authority” of formal education in its subject matters to discuss. This is even more true of theism, deism, and atheism than most subjects.

Sam: I’m pretty sure that Brown HAS read the various people concerned (I’m sure he’s read more than me for example) but I think you miss his point by talking about philosophy exclusively – part of Brown’s point is to try to widen out the discussion beyond the narrow confines of 20th century analytical philosophy.

J: Brown’s definition of the “New Atheists” definition of faith is, well, unsatisfactory. This is no real fault of his own, as I think this is one of those words where “you know it when you see it,” much like the ongoing struggles to define “truth.”

S: Well, he documents the source (Dawkins’ Selfish Gene) and it’s a common trope.

J: Brown’s proposition of a rigorous adherence only to science as the route to all knowledge is likewise more straw than man. As I read many of the fellows Brown lambasts, science is, in their view, the route to certain knowledge. That is to say, anything that science cannot attest to is, at heart, conjecture. Some of them might apply this to all things god, but not all; this route is used to attack some of the pillars of Abrahamic monotheism, and so I think it is natural for Brown and other Judeo-Christians (and Westerners in general) to believe that if one has no god, one must have science as their sine qua non.

S: the issue is whether there is legitimate knowledge (or insight, or wisdom) which doesn’t come via the scientific process; more broadly, whether scientific knowledge is the best form of knowledge possible for a human being to attain. The ones Brown is criticising tend to more or less explicitly hold to a scientistic/ reductionistic/ materialistic outlook which presupposes that scientific knowledge is precisely that – either the only legitimate form of knowledge available, or, the best sort of knowledge available. I reject this, and I see a rejection of this as one of the litmus tests distinguishing between humourless and sophisticated atheisms (or, more provocatively, whether an atheist is brain-dead or not). I see this as the most important (and intellectually interesting) area of discussion.

J: Many atheists do use “reason” as an attack on religion. I don’t think this is fair, or accurate: reason describes a thought process, which the religious do use. Where the “New Atheists” score is that the reason and logic used by the religious starts with premises that presuppose the conclusion; to put it in scientific terms, no room is made for the null-hypothesis.

S: Agree with the first bit 🙂 I know lots of religious people who explore the ‘null-hypothesis’, we tend to call it apophaticism.

J: Brown makes a mistake he accuses the “New Atheists” of (rightly or wrongly, depending on the case): The conflation of religion, faith, and belief. Religion imposes a structure upon faith. The Enlightenment was not an atheistic project, but an anti-authoritarian one. It sought, and seeks, to upend these structures. Indeed, that is the very problem with Protestantism: it falls short of reaching its logical – and correct – conclusions. Largely because of the real world implications of such an upheaval.

S: I think we need to have a conversation about these words “religion”, “faith” and “belief” because I think they are used in different ways, and no consensus can possibly form on that basis. Once that became clear I might end up agreeing with you.

J: I don’t think Brown understands the objections to religious moderation: Without an honest rejection of literalism or an acknowledgment of metaphor, fundamentalism and liberal denominations are joined at the hip, so long as both insist on the absolute certainty of core doctrines. It’s like enabling an alcoholic family member: you refuse to buy the rounds, but you don’t actually slap the fucker around and send him to rehabilitation because you might find some dysfunction in the core of your family system that started the whole thing to begin with.

S: I get the analogy, but I don’t understand the point (possibly because there’s more to Christianity than the fundamentalists and the liberals).

J: Ultimately, where Brown – and Sam – goes wrong is in trying to detach the philosophical and psychological underpinnings and consequences of faith from religion and then detaching those underpinnings and consequences from politics and society.

S: Do unpack that a little more….