Sunday, 12 July 2009

Atheism: What is it? A Review

"Atheism: What is it?" is a short book by Dr Reginald Le Sueur. His definition of atheism is "nothing more than a simple denial of the existence of God". In his book, atheism cannot be religious because "religion retains its proper meaning of: worship of a spiritual, supernatural, invisible God, plus prayer and sacrifice, hymn-singing and worship, and consultation of a holy book of instruction on how to lead one's life."

He asks - "Do atheists do any of these activities? They do not". A very cursory reading of newspapers last Christmas would reveal that Richard Dawkins enjoys singing Christmas carols, which while not a counter-example to all the items on his list, nevertheless demonstrates the danger of pontificating without checking the facts. Richard Dawkins himself is notorious for mocking Christians for worshiping one God, and asks where all the Thor worshippers have gone, which again shows that he has not any knowledge of modern Neopaganism, where Thor worship has undergone a revival, probably much to the discomfort of Norse atheists!

Le Sueur asks "isn't every true Christian necessarily a fundamentalist", no doubt so that in that particular chapter, he had have a bash at the Creationists. For a detailed answer, I would suggest he reads the atheist philosopher Michael Ruse "Can a Darwinian be a Christian?", but I would note that Creationism is a very recent phenomena, and Augustine, among others, did not take the creation story as a scientific narrative of events. Along the way, he takes an opportunity to laugh at Bishop Ussher for calculating the date of creation at 4004 BC. In fact, as Stephen Jay Gould shows in "Fall in the House of Ussher" (1), this was not a religious enterprise as much as a rationalist one; as Gould says:

I shall be defending Ussher's chronology as an honorable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past--just as our current amusement in picturing a primate of the church as a garbed ape inverts the history of usage, for the zoological definition is derivative, and the ecclesiastical primary

As Gould features in the bibliography - "all his books on evolution" - it is a pity Le Sueur does not seem to have read them. I have, except for "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" (which I have read part of, it is massive at 500 pages part 1, 750 pages part 2!). This is what Gould said on belief:

To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists.

Le Sueur's target is monotheism, and he does not do a bad job in rehearsing some of the stock objections to monotheism, certainly as he defines it, although it has some really oddball moments, such as his list of "other famous atheists, agnostics and freethinkers", where he includes in his list Nietzsche and Stalin, and comments at the end of the list "all of the above are distinguished by their intelligent and intellect". Really? The philosopher who underpinned Nazism, and the monster responsible for the Gulags? I think shows a hasty list, thrown together, so that when he reached the next paragraph, he had forgotten who was included in his list, or at least - as he is a retired doctor - I hope so! He should really get his facts a bit better - Tom Paine was a deist, and to include him in the list - no doubt as a "freethinker" is to muddy the waters.

Curiously he says that Mao or Pol Pot don't count as anti-Christian, because they came from a Buddhist tradition! The fact that they rejected the tradition, and believed in simple materialism doesn't count. Le Sueur seems terribly confused as to what he wants atheism to mean; most people would consider Mao, with his suppression of any kind of religion, as being an atheist. And if he came from a Buddhist tradition, why did the Dalai Lama have to flee? His atheism is more anti-Christianity, and there is little or no attempt to understand the diversity of other cultures, some of whom (animists, for example) might well fall into his definition of atheism.

His history is also very poorly researched. I don't think it likely that any scholar would give much credence to the idea that the Pauline corpus in the Bible dates only from the third century, which no original material before that. There are too many datable manuscripts, fragments and quotations to think that. Perhaps some modern historians of the period in his bibliography would also be a good idea.

Lastly, there is almost no discussion of what Paul Heelas calls "New Age Spirituality", part of which involves the modern neopagan revival, and forms of belief like animism (as for instance with Druid Emma Restall-Orr). If you go into any modern bookshop, the amount of shelf space devoted to science is small compared to that devoted to druidry, Wicca, tarot, etc etc - which has been steadily growing over the last ten years. I imagine Le Sueur - like Dawkins - would be equally dismissive of this, yet in terms of statistics, this I think shows that far from a decay in belief (a decay in organised belief is another matter) there has been a strong dismissal of the empirical scientific materialism that he espouses. He should also visit one of the many "Mind Spirit and Health" fairs held in Jersey to see that it is not just book readers that this attracts.

This is a book written by a man who knows he is right - he recounts with evident relish refusing people in his philosophy class the right to argue about the existence of a soul - Plato must have been spinning in his grave! The Greeks philosophers, of course, had all kinds of ideas about souls long before that was drawn into Christianity.

I think that to simply say that "religious faith is a barbarous left-over from the early days of human history" is redolent of a particular kind of chronological snobbery, and does not sit well with the new age spirituality. It sounds like the kind of Whig history where there is a march of progress towards a glorious present day, or perhaps a technological future with no place for any kind of religious sensibility. It also assumes that modern science is the pinnacle of understanding of the universe, and everything which doesn't fit must be rejected, an attitude which has caused a number of scientists in the past to be profoundly mistaken. It is a profoundly simplistic book, and I have come to the conclusion that the universe is too vast, too complex and too strange to be adequately captured with this kind of reductionism.

It is worth reading, because he is a local but retired Doctor, who consistently spars with some of the people who always seem to want to command attention in the JEP with their own opinions on what Christianity is about. I found it rather to scatter-gun, too opinionated, and generally lacking in more subtle nuances that one finds in Michael Ruse or Stephen Jay Gould, as well as being rather lazy in terms of researching facts. He has a fixed idea of what he does not like, and like Dawkins, somehow feels the need to spread the good word to other people. An evangelistic impulse, one might say!

Is his atheism a belief? A command to early Christians in the Roman empire was to declare "away with the atheists". The Romans, not understanding monotheism, took rejection of a pantheon of many gods as a rejection of all, especially as Christians refused to sacrifice to the Imperial cult. They died for it, and I think that is the true measure of belief, and not one which many of us in the West may have to face. Would he be prepared to die for his atheism? That is an interesting question, but unfortunately one for which the book does not give an answer.

Links
(1) http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_house-ussher.html
(2) http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/darwin.html

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