Monday, October 23, 2006

A Failure of Imagination

Don't take this as a lapse in discipline on the part of a committed atheist, merely a snort of frustration at the inability of self-appointed spokespeople to present our case with anything like the required subtlety. Terry Eagleton, who may or may not share my views on the nonexistence of a transcendent being, eviscerates Richard Dawkins's latest publication in a review in the London Review of Books. For a respected "thinker" (I hesitate to use the word "intellectual" not because of my contempt for the term but for Dawkins's apparent unwillingness to do the work required to qualify as one) Dawkins lacks any sense of nuance. At least Eagleton understands, thanks perhaps to his Marxist training as much as his Catholic childhood, how much good can come from religion, whether intentional or not.

"Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ (he was a devout Jew, not the founder of a fancy new set-up), was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion. In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet. (The Catholic prohibition on meat on Fridays is an unscriptural church regulation.)

Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough."

Far simpler and more faithful (forgive the pun) to history to recognize, I think, that it is organized religion that is responsible for many of the crimes that Dawkins finds faith guilty of, and, were he willing to delve into sociological texts as well, he might be even more disposed to identify the culprit NOT specifically as religious faith but the institutionalization of (often but not necessarily hierarchical) relations between human beings (I suspect Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason might be beyond Dawkins for now, but even an elementary study of state formation and tribal dynamics might teach him how relations of interdependency and ritual declarations of kinship can atrophy to the point that they become exploitative). Dynamics that outlive their usefulness or their organic place in a society degrade and dissolve or else need to be sustained by the re-creation of the conditions that gave rise to their necessity (a climate of fear, for instance) or else by the demand for obedience and faith to tradition. This isn't a phenomenon exclusive to religion: It applies to all situations in which human beings forge agreements with one another and co-operate towards a collective end. That Dawkins fails to see the essentially social nature of religion in order to focus upon its "irrationality" is precisely what makes atheists appear to be patronising dogmatists no better than the fundamentalists they claim to condemn.

Okay. Off the high horse. Here's some nonreligious awe to provide some inspiration, empathy, and food for the imaginations of dogmatic materialists.

"One of the most astonishing discoveries of the last decades, revealed by exploration of space, nearby celestial objects, and especially meteorites that fell to Earth, is that many of the chemical building blocks of life form spontaneously throughout the universe. Organic chemistry, so named because it was believed to be a prerogative of living organisms, has turned out to be the most widespread and banal chemistry: the chemistry of carbon."

With thanks to the guys at D2W and the Trots.

Update: Gary Wolf has an article in Wired Online about the "New Atheists" (individuals such as Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), with some reflections and astute comments on the rigidity of their thinking. Worth a look at.

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