Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good morning!

Over at All Manner of Thing, we have a link to the latest First Things article by David Bentley Hart, who reviews the latest book-writing efforts from the New Atheists and finds them - surprise! - tediously preachy and intellectually shallow. None of this is news, of course. No trained logician or historian could endorse for a minute the arguments in the bestselling tracts by Christopher Dawkins, Richard Hitchens et alia. Still less could a person of any aesthetic sensibility sympathize with their mission, which is essentially to bully people away from the nourishing symbolic frameworks of religious belief and propose, instead, that they accept the tiresome secular humanism that was fashionable in the 1970s. This is weak-tea stuff indeed, and its prevalence today - as Hart rightly notes - is symptomatic of a general decline in all religious discourse, from believers and non-believers alike.

Hart's article is worth a read, but mostly for its wit: anything that can be said about the New Atheists has already been said, and there is little hope that the continued discourse will produce anything other than mutual misunderstanding and shrill diatribes. More interesting, perhaps, is an exchange between two similarly-named atheists of very different stripes: John Gray and A. C. Grayling.

I've mentioned Gray's writing on these pages before, but knew little about Grayling (although I enjoyed reading his compact exposition of Wittgenstein). The publication of Grayling's book Ideas That Matter has ignited an apparently longstanding rivalry between the two, with Gray's publication of a rather scathing review of the book:
. . . his views on ethics, politics and religion, while adamantly held, are commonplace. Aside from the vehemence with which his prejudices are expressed, there is nothing in Ideas that Matter that would raise an eyebrow at the most genteel Hampstead dinner party. Anyone who remembers British left-liberal opinion as it was in the seventies will immediately recognize it here. Socialism and democracy, the horrors of religion and the near inevitability of ongoing secularization—these ephemera of a half-forgotten past are presented as ruling ideas of the twenty-first century.
Grayling, in other words, represents the traditional liberal-humanist view: reason can solve all problems, religion is irrational and therefore evil, and society can be indefinitely ameliorated by applying logic and technical know-how to all problems. Gray, on the other hand, believes that reason has its limits, that religion serves an important role as social cement (even though he disbelieves its metaphysical claims), and that the idea of infinite progress is an illusion.

(Three guesses which one of the two I find most sympathetic.)

In his book Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield argues that we perceive reality through a series of representations. When we come into contact with an everyday object, like a chair, we never perceive it as a set of raw sense data ("I see an irregularly-shaped brown patch in my visual field") - we simply perceive the object ("I see a chair"). The neurosis of the modern world, argues Barfield, is that for the first time in history we have come to perceive our collective representations of reality as though they were universally true: that is, we imagine that we have access, through scientific reason, to an "unrepresented core" of reality that is valid for all. Yet this consensus seems to be growing more and more fragile: the more we investigate the core constituents of physical reality (the world of subatomic particles), the more it begins to seem as though we can speak about them only in metaphors.

If Barfield is wrong and we understand the world perfectly, then there's no reason in principle why we couldn't indefinitely improve our civilization forever. If, on the other hand, our understanding of the world models and imperfectly tracks a reality that we can never fully grasp, then we are doomed to rely on traditions, habits, and customs to orient ourselves. We can strive to improve our lives at a local level - after all, our local surroundings are the part of reality that we best understand - but we can no longer believe that history is a steady march towards a secular utopia, each day a little better than the next.

Perhaps the different outlooks in question here can be reduced to three different ways of saying "Good morning". Most of us mean it as an expression of good wishes: "I hope you have a good morning". The secular humanist intends it as a prediction: "You will undoubtedly have a good morning, and an even better one tomorrow." The totalitarian dictator makes it a demand: "You will have a good morning."

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