Turtles and Clueless Atheists

The God ArgumentDamon Linker has written something over at The Week, Where Are the Honest Atheists? It starts off as a review of A. C. Grayling’s latest book, The God Argument. And that’s why I read the article, because I think Grayling is an insightful thinker, and I’ve ordered the book. So I was interested to hear what people were saying about it. After reading the article, however, I’m not sure that Linker has read the book.

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that I’ve caught Linker at anything. He simply thinks that the world does not need another New Atheist book. This strikes me as odd, because I ordered the book because I don’t think of Grayling as being part of the New Atheist movement except in the most general terms. But I should know in a week or so. It has seemed to me up to this point that Grayling is a far better thinker than Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

Most of Linker’s article is about the writer Philip Larkin and his dark images of a godless universe. Linker seems to think that atheism is only valid if proponents hate it. There is something to be said for that, I guess. I think what he really has a problem with is all the happy horseshit of atheists, who are often more New Age than a 60s commune. No, if we all become atheists, we would not all just get along. But there is a happy side of atheism that very few atheists understand. Certainly Linker, who I assume is an atheist, doesn’t seem to understand it:

Finitude is a good thing!

I cannot think of a single thing as terrifying as immortality. Because if I lived forever, I would experience every one of the lesser terrors an infinite number of times. Who over the age of thirty thinks it would be cool to get older and older? Hell, I am only marginally happy with the workings of my body now; give it another 40 years and I’ll be begging for the lethal injection.

But there is a reason that we get so much happy horseshit from the New Atheists. The nonsecular world has been telling us for thousands of years that without God, there would be nothing but chaos because it is only out of fear and allegiance to God that people behave. That strikes me as a reasonable thing to argue against. Meanwhile, Linker sends us to Larkin, whose primary concern is that without God we will lose the sacred. But that’s something that the vast majority of the secular and nonsecular world have in common: the idea that God and the sacred have anything to do with each other.

There is a mystery to existence. Anyone who understands that communes with the sacred. God actually gets in the way of that because the way that most people conceptualize him (The pronoun tells all!) hides the question. This is like kindergarten theology, yet very few people seem to get it. Who created you? Your mother! And who created her? Her mother! Tracing that all the way back might get you to God, but it won’t get you to the sacred. Why? Because it isn’t about counting the turtles, it’s about accepting them.

Update (Almost Immediately)

I found this recent interview by Sam Harris with A.C. Grayling, and I must admit, I’m not impressed. In particular, this exchange is typical of what I think of as very low-level atheist thinking:

What would you say to someone who argues that we need religion, whether or not any religious doctrine is true, because religion gives us spirituality, rituals, etc.?

I say that such pleasures and relaxations as a country walk, dinner with friends, an afternoon in an art gallery, attending a concert or the theatre, intimacy with a loved one, lying on a beach in the sun, reading and learning, making things, are all “spiritual exercises” in their refreshment, strengthening and promotion of connections with others and the world—these are the only “rituals” and observances required for an intelligent appreciation of what is good and possible in human life.

This is why I like the word “sacred.” The word “spirituality” could mean anything. I take great pleasure in long walks, but they are not in themselves spiritual or sacred. All the things he mentions are important things for humans to do, but they are beside the point. It’s like telling someone who is horny that they ought to go shoes shopping because that too is sensual.

3 thoughts on “Turtles and Clueless Atheists

  1. People who find "spirituality" in church on Sunday or "lying on a beach in the sun" are to be pitied, a little. Obviously they have very little experience of true awe — really having one’s senses and thoughts overwhelmed, whether by music or intoxicants or scenery (the one that does it for me; my "sacred" place is the lonely high desert of Eastern Oregon, although I’ve felt it elsewhere, like in hidden ancient redwood groves.) Church funerals, with music and incense and strong emotions, can have something of awe to them. "Lying on a beach in the sun?" Well, maybe if you were recovering from 200 years of being a vampire, or something.

    My single favorite religious apologetic is that "without God, everyone will act crazy" one. (One always wants to ask, "what exactly is it that you really want to do that your faith prevents you from doing?") Just about the only thing I can think of that I’d love to do, but am forbidden doing by official morality, is steal cool electronic equipment from retailers all the time. (I’d also like a harem, but it’s not morality that prevents this, just my income.)

    What’s the biggest reason I don’t steal cool electronic equipment? I probably could get away with it now and again if I worked at learning how to do it. Well, if I got caught, and had to ask a friend to bail me out, I’d be horribly ashamed. My friends would think less of me for it, and I would hate that.

    Which is what REALLY deters antisocial behavior. I submit that only the mentally ill really think that doing something God hates might send them to Hell (maybe dying people make decisions on this basis without mental illness, but with certifiable mental stress.) Catholic priests and Jack Chick comics (I love those, the little 3×6 pamphlets you used to find on the subway) tell stories of people killed while sinning/Before Being Saved. "The teenagers thought heavy petting in the parked car was innocent, but then a tired truck driver veered onto the shoulder and THEY DIED!"

    Nobody takes sin seriously. If you really believed that, at any moment, if you had a stroke or got in a car wreck and had just committed some awful sin, you might burn in hell for eternity, you’d never sin. You’d probably never leave your house, lest you take a chance at sinning. And born-again believers, who have a pass on sins ("once saved, always saved, which is good ‘cuz I don’t want to go through it again," quoth Joe Bob Briggs) don’t even bother. It’s a way to judge others, really. And feel guilty.

    Guilt! My next submission is that the degree to which most people believe in God is akin to the totemic magic of baseball players. If you wear your lucky unwashed socks and go 0-for-4, you just weren’t keeping your elbow tucked and your stance closed, gotta work on that in the batting cage tomorrow. If you changed your lucky socks and went 0-for-4, however, it’s because you tempted fate by changing those socks. Vice versa if you tried a new totemic ritual.

    Guilt here is so much more powerful than positive reinforcement. If you give to the church and then buy a great used car for a terrific price, sure, you think God helped, but He helped by making you a savvy used-car buyer. You’re flogging your own ego as well as saluting Divine Will. If you cuss out your uncle and then get into a fender-bender that will cost thousands in repair bills, well, it’s hard to avoid thinking you might have saved yourself a lot of money if you’d been a little wiser and not invited Divine Wrath to impair your peripheral vision.

    There are two ways to reduce antisocial behavior. One is to create a society where most people’s needs are met, and individuals have strong feelings about maintaining the community welfare. (Like Scandinavian countries or labor unions used to be.) The other is creating a thought-controlled society with rewards for spying on others and harsh punishments for transgressions. This can be secularly based (like the USSR) or religiously so (like Utah or Saudi Arabia.)

    I find it amusing that many writers on the subject of religion and society have such a hard time imagining how people outside their perspective think. Clueless atheists imagine religious people weighing every move against the doctrine of ancient texts; clueless believers imagine atheists in a permanent Dionysian frenzy. (Again; I’d enjoy that, but I can’t afford it and my friends would disapprove.) Really, religion or atheism just amount to cultural/community standards. The brighter religious people are adjusting those standards to focus on social justice rather than God obsessing over our groins, and the dumber atheists claiming that if your groin is liberated then warfare and economic exploitation are morally justified.

    Quite silly, those folks . . .

  2. @JMF – I read a paper some time ago about the move from magic (e.g. Shaman) to prayer. The problem with magic is that it works or it doesn’t. But with prayer, it is [i]your[/i] fault if it doesn’t work. You weren’t deserving of God’s care. That’s a great escape clause that makes religion always and forever immune to criticism.

    I think you might be wrong about why you don’t steal. I think it is more that you yourself would look down on you. That’s what real socialization is about. But stealing, regardless, is a desperate act in the vast majority of cases. But then, I’m one of those bleeding heart liberals.

  3. Right — the shaman can be fired/demoted/ignored/cut up and cooked for dinner if he/she fails to deliver good crops, curses on your enemies, what have you. Ethereal God can’t. A very undemocratic mysticism.

    I would feel awful if I had nifty things stolen from other poor people. But cool electronic equipment stolen from Best Buy or the Apple store? I’d LOVE to get away with that.

    Agreed in general on the nature of theft. A while back, I got tabbed for a $1500 bill when I was out of town and someone cashed those sleazy "instant loan" checks that fell out of my overstuffed mailbox. I was able to fight off the bill by arguing with the company; turns out the guy who stole them wrote his own name at the check-cashing place. (Why not write my name? It’s on the envelope.)

    The company asked me to see if I could find where the person who wrote his name on the checks lived. Well, that was easy; that name was on the mailbox right next to mine, and his apartment is right next to our building’s laundry room. Did I give the company that information? Hell no. He probably needed the money. You turds do your own detective work. Hopefully they never found him, and the guy got a free $1500.

    A decision my friends approved of, naturally, since they are good people. But they’d be rather condemnatory if I got caught swiping an IPad from the Mall of America.

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