Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Clarion Call of Unbelief

I don't know if I am simply more sensitive to matters, but it seems that there are lot more atheists about today who seem to have a passion for stridently announcing their unbelief.
I suppose the rot originally set in with Richard Dawkins, whose apogee was undoubtedly "The God Delusion". Having TV shows in which he lambasted faith, he then went on to turn an equally critical eye upon New Age believers, which is often a rather eclectic rag tag of beliefs. Vibrations, energy, Chakras, healing power, and many more matters come under that umbrella, which is dominant in bookshops, squeezing popular science down to single book cases.
Of course, there is nothing especially different from New Age and the varying kinds of folk-belief which have been part of our culture over the centuries. My great-grandmother, for example, was supposed to possess the power to charm warts away. I am generally neither a believer not a sceptic on those matters; I am, I suppose more of an observer of popular culture. If there is one trend I do not like, it is the increasing commodification of folk-beliefs. The New Age has become big business, and where that is the case, there is always room for exploitation.
It is interesting to look at Derren Brown. Like Richard Dawkins, Brown wears his atheist quite visibly, and sometimes quite stridently. But his motivation for exposing shysters, whether they be religious healers, or psychic mediums, is very different from Dawkins. When Brown exposed the bug bucks in religious healers in the USA, he was careful to approach Christian groups who also shared his concerns. He wanted to emphasis that he was not attacking religion, but those con-artistes who use religious beliefs as a means of duping people and exploiting them, often when at their most vulnerable.
But what is interesting about some arguments today is that the presenters mention that they are atheists, as if that is a guarantee that the argument must be correct. It is like saying: I am an atheist, I don't hold your religious beliefs, and therefore what I have to say is unbiased and objective, while what you have to say is not.
For example, to say in a political context, "As a European atheist, I will wholeheartedly support this piece of legislation" is to add something which not actually germane to debate, any more than anyone opposes something on the grounds that it is "contrary to God's teaching" is really telling us anything other than their own beliefs. Should a statement of personal beliefs be necessary, and can we even trust exactly what that might mean in such circumstances? Should Pagans begin their speeches by outlining the fact that they are followers of Pan? Do we really need to know this?
In a way it is like a vestigial form of the Marxist ideal of Utopia, whether according to Marxist theory, the revolution, not only brings about an altered state of society, but also an altered state of consciousness - false consciousness, which is propped up by religion, is banished, and the true state of affairs is seen by all.
What must surely matter is not that a journalist tells us that he is an atheist, for example, as if signalling that what he has to say will of necessity be iconoclastic, but whether his arguments have merit. If I am opposing the kind of Sharia law which we see enacted in some parts of the world, my argument should be to show how in removes freedom, and enslaves people.
Whether or not there are verses in the Koran or Hadith which justify, for example, death as a penalty for apostasy, is a matter for the Muslims to argue among themselves, just as Christians may argue about whether or not homosexuality is against their God's will by citing Biblical verses. But at the end of the day, citing religious authorities pulls the debate into the area of authority, and not argument, and that road is a dead end.
In fact it is rarely possible to argue against entrenched religious beliefs, and it is often equally possible to argue against entrenched atheist beliefs. The focus of the argument must be elsewhere, on the kind of groundwork laid down by Michael Sandel in political philosophy, in teasing apart the consequences and contradictions inherent in a position, and deconstructing why we think that a particular piece of legislation is good or bad. Sandel believes it is important that debate brings philosophy into the public arena so that "people find themselves wrestling with the dissonances within their own judgements. This is the moment of critical self-reflection that is the ultimate aim of philosophy."
And argument alone may not sway people, which is where the literary imagination can also be important. Part of the art of persuasion is to show people another point of view, and to enable them to visualise another point of view, in ways which they may not have perceived. Victor Hugo's' "Les Miserables" enables us to see a world which is manifestly unjust, although a degree of its force is lost because we no longer live in a world where a man could be sent to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread, but it still contains powerful lessons about injustice. But what is surely needed is today's Hugo, someone to present strong imaginative pictures of injustices in society.

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