"Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies" -Nietzsche
As the car talk guys say, do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?
As an exponent of the new atheism, I was intrigued by a recent piece by the pro-religion reporter at NPR, Barbara Hagarty, describing a "schism" in the atheist community (nudge nudge, wink wink). Apparently atheists are divided on how strident to be- whether to tell believers in religion, psychic phenomena, and all spiritualisms conventional and unconventional that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, or perhaps rather to stay in the closet, or else to suggest ecumenically that everyone has some "truth" to contribute to the "conversation".
I tend to be on the strident side, concluding after long exposure to religious claims, dabbling in various traditions, and scientific training, that, well, however well-meaning, it is all a load of bunk. But whether to tell everyone this good news is a matter of temperament, of political expediency, and also of basic philosophy- how valuable is truth, anyhow? Aren't lies sometimes better?
As a scientific type, I value truth above all things, by temperament and training. Yet how reasonable is that? Truth serves many useful functions, helping us survive, helping us know ourselves, others, and the world. But truth changes over time, and every person has his or her own version of it, sometimes diametrically opposed to that of others. In religion, this problem is particularly acute, with evangelicals as sure of their truth as atheists are of theirs. If each of us value only truth, then all will immolate each other in proselytizing fervor, particularly if the true message happens to include a dollop of evangelism, whether by insistently spreading the "good news" or by the sword as in Islam.
Another value has to take precedence, and that value is love, or at least communal regard for our fellow humans, however deluded. Truth has its place, but surely, no atheist wants to follow the example of the church in burning heretics for their own good in the hereafter, or Muslims in their early practice of killing infidels for sport and plunder, otherwise known as jihad. Nor do contemporary religionists in our fair land, excepting perhaps the far-out Major Hassans and left-behinders.
That is the essence of our cosmopolitan civilization- that while philosophy (love of truth) is an abiding pursuit and jewel of cultivation, the most important object of cultivation is our regard and love for each other, without which quests for truth can't happen. Thus cosmopolitanism (citizenship in the cosmos) seems a worthy successor to a long line of ethical traditions: Tribalism, Eye-for-an-eye-ism, Christianity, humanism, eco-ism et al.
~~~~~ Bonus post! ~~~~~~
"Freedom and not servitude is the cure of anarchy; as religion, and not atheism, is the true remedy for superstition." - Edmund Burke
I was deeply intrigued by this quote, and thought it might make a brief blog topic. Burke seems to be appealing to the golden mean, where too much freedom is anarchy, too little is servitude. All of which was so starkly demonstrated to him in the dramatic course of the French Revolution. In similar manner, religion is a little superstition, while atheism is none. This connects with other quotes of his, that "Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.", and conversely, "Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts."
The context of the top quote, in a speech about those upstart colonies across the Atlantic, is all about governance, not religion. So the simile of religion was a throwaway comparison in this instance. Yet it is surely a very common sentiment across all cultures. Catholicism, Islam, and other organized religions serve to domesticate and civilize the basic human superstitious impulses which suspect hidden powers at work behind every manifestation. Likewise, much of the horror of colonialization across the Americas and elsewhere involved the destruction of indiginous spiritual traditions, some of which declined to such sad depths as ghost dancing or drowning in a sea of alcoholism.
From an atheist perspective, indeed from most perspectives, superstition is not a good thing, no matter whether in small or large amounts, so Burke's basic comparison is not quite right. The golden mean between anarchy and totalitarianism surely is institutionalized self-government as exampled by the English parliamentary institutions. Whether that can be called "freedom" is another matter, but it seems the best practical approximation, affording as much freedom as possible, in addition to the necessity of well-regulated government.
On the other hand, where is the golden mean between superstition and no superstition? If man is indeed a religious, superstitous animal, then some accomodation may have to be a made, much as we accommodate our many other frailties, without holding them up as ideals. Eating is necessary, but we don't make it a matter of philosophical hairsplitting or organized belief with truth claims about its wonderfulness, sanctity, and relations with a divine gourmand.
That, perhaps, is the crux of the response to atheism, that it turns a supercilious eye on one of our most personal, unrepentant, and inexcusable weaknesses, which makes those under its gaze decry atheists for meanness, inability to experience great things and deep emotions, and the like.
- Topical interview with Frank Schaeffer on truth vs comity (towards the end).
- Wonderful article on the genetics, potentials, and risks of gifted children.
- Hot show on KCRW
- Nice meditation on being and seeking goodness. No need for theology at all, really, just an appreciation and cultivation of our better natures.
- But we don't want our brains to fall out, do we, Mr. Huckabee?
- Blog I am starting to follow.. on cranky, er, stimulating, contrarian, and liberal economics.