It’s been awhile since I wrote anything here, so it’s been awhile since I wrote much about them atheists. I’ve been trying to stick to more important things. I shouldn’t even bother now since I’ve got several other more pressing things to do – although one of those is a presentation on atheism for next month. Speaking of which, lemme try this on: “Harkening to the Death Knells of ‘Religion’: The Re-Inscription of (Anti-)Secular Curiosities; or, Why the New Atheism Hates the Laurentian Federation.” Why yes, I did have a coupla pops before I came up with that. In any case, that’s in the back of my mind as I proceed at present. And I proceed to a quick(ish) roundup of a few atheism things I encountered this week (I’ve been reading very little of that shit lately – so much chewing the chewed).
Let’s give pride of place to the irrepressible PZ Myers.
1) On Valentine’s Day he posted, How about if we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?
Catchy. The post begins by promoting an Avaaz petition against religious education in Greek schools. But this is only to serve a Myers diatribe following the title:
I’ve usually taken a pragmatic perspective on this issue before. We don’t have much choice to but to give way on minor compromises in school curricula, and this is often an easy one: if religion is taught comparatively and objectively, it’s a good tool for breaking dogma. I can’t get too irate at a school offering a “world religions” class, because I know that would be the first step towards atheism for the students (for the same reason, though, I’m suspicious. Our opponents aren’t morons, and they’d know this too — I suspect them of plotting to smuggle orthodoxy into the classroom under cover of objectivity, and for instance, knowing that a local priest of the dominant cult will often offer to teach the course.)
But here’s my major problem. It’s a useless subject. And no, I’m not one of those elitist yahoos who thinks art and philosophy are useless subjects, rejecting anything that isn’t a hard science; I mean, it is literally useless, distracting, and narrow. If right now students were getting an hour a week in a “religious studies” class, I think they’d be far better served by getting an hour a week for anthropology, or philosophy, or poetry…or sure, more math.
I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So? Every human culture has parasites and diseases, so why don’t we have a mandatory weekly course in parasitology? It would be far more entertaining, interesting, and useful. What wouldn’t be quite so useful, though, is a course taught from the perspective of the malaria parasite, praising its role in shaping human civilizations for thousands of years, which is pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a “religious studies” class right now.
I don’t think religion will ever disappear, but I’ll be satisfied when seminaries and theology departments all shut down everywhere for lack of interest.
At the outset, I might call up the old disciplinary truism about confessional vs. non-confessional approaches to the study of religion (whatever that is). But I won’t – M heads that off by evoking conspiracies by the religious to highjack comparison and objectivity. More than that, these days, I’m 50 shades of dubious about the distinction anyway. I get a smile out of the atheist argument that World Religions ed. serves their ends creating a bunch of atheists by comparative exposure to multiple religions (… and all their comparable silliness). It’s not that I deny it, I’ve seen it in action. No, the smile I get out of it comes from the complete lack of self-awareness and self-reflexivity that accompanies this small corner of the atheists’ millenarian hope for a future godless world. Religion, comparison, objectivity, atheism are all treated as if they’re clearly defined, neutral, ahistorical terms in a god’s eye conception of the world. (To this list we might add implied or allied terms – secularism, pluralism, any named religious tradition, etc.) It’s only by regarding them as such that one can attribute nefarious intention to the committed who might teach religion, “to smuggle orthodoxy into the classroom under cover of objectivity.” And it’s only by such … uh … dogma that atheist fans of comparative religion can blind themselves to the question of the forms of … uh … secular pluralist indoctrination that such treatment of religion promotes. It ain’t just self-identified atheists who unsee this way, it is built into the very fabric of secularism in North America (buddy’s and my proposed paper for the Congress addresses this – “Codifying Pluralism: The Supreme Court of Canada and World Religions Discourse”).
In the hands of rabid secularists (=atheists?) though, so many extra layers of occlusion are part and parcel of this unvision. The rest of Myers’s post would surely give a chuckle to scholars like Fitzgerald, McCutcheon/Arnal, et al.
I won’t challenge Myers’s contention that religion is a useless academic subject (it kinda is, at least in certain senses). But one surely wonders at his distinction between art, philosophy, anthropology, and poetry, and “religious studies.” (Certainly those in the field who are prone to handwringing about what exactly RLST is and how it’s distinct from fields such as Myers names must wonder.) Some kind of cognitive dissonance (or simple ignorance) appears operative here which I might suggest is the result of the incoherence of the concepts mentioned above and the resultant confused state of the academic study of religion. What do the likes of Myers think RLST teaches that excludes anthro etc.? I’ll suppose provisionally that he means systems of (irrational) beliefs/truth claims.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not what we identify as the religions of the world are truly subject to systematic belief/doctrine/dogma, the idea that education in such systems, in and of themselves, is useless seems a tad philistinistic, if not authoritarian. K, forget about that over-the-top conclusion.
Though, in the next to last paragraph, Myers may be one, the other or both, but more importantly he simply returns to muddled belief that religion is some distinct thing within a culture (and a very very bad one) to be likened to a biological parasite, as pernicious as such things are, yet as influential on history as particular ones like malaria.* Fine. But does not the same apply to political, social and economic systems? And of course then one must ask what’s the relationship between any two or more of these? And then, throughout modern Western K-12 ed. (and post-secondary?) is it not then the parasite’s perspective that’s “pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a [insert subject here] class right now?”
We’ve reached a point here where objective vs. confessional is beside the point. Religion – constructed, deconstructed, confessed or interrogated – as an object of study is delegitimated. Moreover, that peculiar instrumental purpose for its presence in some North American K-12 curricula, acknowledgement of cultural pluralism, is proscribed.
Politically, what’s the form of secularism Myers is promoting? Pluralist it ain’t.
*Reminds me of that line I used to repeat about how the Buddhist Four Noble Truths take the form of a medical diagnosis, combined as it was with my material circumstances for the Axial Age in India: urbanization and intensification of agriculture in jungly parts of India, malaria and dengue and cholera, oh my! And here I’m going to leave aside that fundamental dogma of the modern conception of religion, according to a weird orgy of bedfellows, universality.
2) A few days earlier Myers posted, Atheists are responsible for creationism!
I must admit that the tussle that Americans have with those very aggressive forces who want to believe that the universe came about just like Genesis says (whatever that means) is just not a thing I can get that interested in. But, I guess I’m empathetic to the resistance Myers, Larry Moran et al. put up to it and the degree to which they are concerned with it.
But here, we surely seem Myers being himself, taking the least provocation to be ideological, thus asking little of historical data as he meets them, and in the end being the complete fucking asshole that he is. Nothing wrong with any of these fundamentally – but from the outset, let me say that to go from zero to asshole with a money-making blog in a heartbeat, well, gotta be something unseemly about that.
Long-short, as far as I can tell, a commenter on another post proffers the thesis that creationism was the result of the rise of public atheism. A little vague, needing refinement and specificity to be sure, but workable. And a thesis, no matter, that with a lay understanding of mine with respect to the history of religion in America I’m willing to affirm provisionally. But Myers shits all over it (maybe he knows the commenter better than I, but that’s not exactly the point): “ahistorical ignorance,” “short-sightedness,” “blame,” “idiots …. Give them a look of contempt and walk away.”
This is so much Myers at home that I can’t bother to engage it in even a sort of fisking sort of way. All I can say is, Paul, seriously, you can’t take such commentary as challenge to move thought forward, as opposed to your sort of reaction?
But by all means, offend your commentariate, and your students. But you go further, offending the scholarly field of American Religion, which you clearly understand just slightly better than the average bar patron. Admit what you don’t know well. And Scopes arises only as the result of secularism and a construction of 19th century atheism, the progress of atheism in 20th century America runs parallel to the progress of American Xty in 20th century America. You draw a cartoon for the purposes of insulting a commenter on your blog. Très unseemly.
As an educator, seriously, that’s you response? It neither prompts you to think forward nor refine what you already think? As a student, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself and then bitch to your Chair, your Dean, and the Arts Dean. You clearly refuse to accept the conventions of the academia.
Try that shit with the Religion in American History crowd.
Telling I think (though of what exactly I’m quite sure yet) that Myers wants to bracket off historically the New Atheism from the atheism of before. Do the NAs fear the realization that the movement is historically contingent, no more a reflection of an objective reality than any other historical social and political movement?
3) Leading us to the next entry, from the equally irrepressible, and Myers enemy, and former pastor, John Loftus. Does the Internet Spell Doom For Organized Religion? linking to this post by Valerie Tarico.
To the title question, Loftus answers, “Hell yes! Or, do you live in a cave?”
Lots to wonder about with respect to the confidence shown by Tarico/Loftus.
For a thorough examination of Tarico see Elizabeth Drescher, The Internet is Not Killing Organized Religion.
I won’t rehearse Drescher’s arguments. But two points significant for present purposes are worth mentioning. First, the religious are just as likely to maintain an internet presence as the non-religious. Second, what Tarico, and so Loftus, means by organized religion is mostly conservative forms of (American) Xty.
In future I’d like the discipline and enthusiasm to take a good long look at, legend in his own mind, John W. Loftus. Day after day on his blog he makes it apparent that he might have left his fundy church, but his very tiny frame of reference remains fully intact.
The thing that gets me about the predictions of religion’s demise by the likes of Loftus is the complete certitude that this will be the greatest thing ever. Never does one encounter any sense of foreboding about a world w/o religious institutions, no sense that institutions, social formations, or political/economic orders that might follow just might be far worse. This is especially disturbing in predictions that take the explicit form of a techno-sci-fi eschatology, such as I’ve written about before.
4) And what would such a roundup be without a “This Week in Thin Description” entry? As is his wont, Hemant Mehta reports on the murder of a 20 year old woman in Papua New Guinea who had been accused of practicing sorcery and thus killing a 6 year old boy.
Icky facts (if that’s what they are) to be sure. But Mehta, in his inimitable style, in the style of every one of his ilk (pour exemple our old dear friend idoubtit) reflecting on the events as he’s received them offers nothing but petty moralizing and the usual cheerleading for reason and whatnot:
This isn’t a religion-based crime, per se, but it is the sort of violence that occurs when you put faith in superstition and throw aside any notion of evidence.
This is a crime against common sense, a crime against women, and a crime against reason. It was caused by the same sort of gullible thinking that leads all sorts of religious extremists to kill in the name of their God.
For what it’s worth, 96% of natives are some form of Christian, but that didn’t seem to stop the murderers from committing their horrific act.
I don’t know what I find more wearying, the dogmas of the cult of reason and appeals to the myth of religious violence or the simple incuriosity about what’s surely the complex context left out in the mere gazetting of events in Mehta’s sources.
I’ve been trying out a new line as I think through the criticism and reaction to it by atheists of the thesis, “atheism is just another religion.” No, it’s not just another religion, it’s a pretence to an academic discipline or political party, argue I. When I read such reactions to news that interest (I use that verb loosely) the likes of Mehta or idoubtit, as well as the treatment of religion by Myers, Loftus, and other atheists, I must conclude that it’s soooo not the former, more like the later, and that kind of political party would be of a decidedly illiberal (or accidental neo-liberal) sort.