Note this article has been retracted in its current form following comments by Prof. Grayling. That said, my feelings about it are much the same but for slightly different reasons than the ones stated in my entry. Please read the comments below for the full story on this entry. The original text follows, with the particularly contentious statements which I have retracted highlighted in grey.
A. C. Grayling has written an article on CiF attacking the notion of ‘fundamentalist atheism’ (and indeed the word atheism itself). I think it’s easy, as an atheist, to read a piece like this and nod your head because its conclusions are ones we agree with, but in this case, this is a poor position to find yourself in. The arguments are weak, and the article as a whole is self-contradictory.First of all, in an article devoted to extolling the virtues of rationality over religion, Grayling uses an incredible array of different forms of rhetoric. I could go through this article paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word and prove this point, but I think it would be more valuable to leave it to you to do that. If you’ve already read the article, read it again thinking purely about whether or not each argument is really a good one or just one whose conclusions you agree with, and about how he presents it. To get you started, what do you think of this use of language?
We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation…
What is he attempting to convey here and in the rest of this sentence? What specifically is the rhetorical function of the word inspissated?
One of his major points is that the word atheist doesn’t mean someone who believes in the non-existence of god, but someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of god. This distinction is an important one to make, but Grayling’s usage is not the ordinary one (as a little dictionary work makes clear).
Later, Grayling urges that we drop the term atheist and instead focus on the issue of rationality. His point here is essentially one of pragmatism. The point is not to focus on the truth or falsity of beliefs, but to focus instead on how one uses knowledge in our interactions with the world. If I am understanding him correctly, this is a valid and important point. It ties in with his point about secularism. Keeping the church separate from the state is important because the state should focus on politics, which is to do with making decisions, particularly those decisions where there is a conflict of interests or beliefs.
So far so good, but this is where his argument falls apart. If politics is about making decisions where there is a conflict of interests or beliefs, you cannot simply exclude a large proportion of the population which have a particular set of interests or beliefs on the basis that they are in your view wrong. Theos is arguing for an active involvement of religion in the political process, which on the basis of the pragmatic view of politics outlined above is absolutely warranted by the fact that large numbers of people are in fact religious.
The term ‘fundamentalist atheist’ is appropriate for people who argue in this way because they are guilty of the same crime they accuse their opponents of, that is wishing to exclude people who they think are wrong from the political process.
As a postscript, it might be worth my pointing out that I think it is completely right that atheists (or whatever you want to call them), should argue against religious belief. I am not opposed to robust and strongly argued attacks on religion and faith, but we should not use means which are antithetical to the spirit of rational enquiry, and we should not praise weak arguments just because we happen to agree with their conclusions. Finally, as I have argued before, I do not think that right now the battle with religion is the most important one, and it distracts us from more important battles.
5 Comments so far
Leave a comment