Friday, November 10, 2006

Wired's "New Atheism"

There's a big cover story in the new issue of Wired magazine about what the author referes to as "The New Atheists," namely, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. It's mostly a mediocre, wishy-washy article (to be expected from Wired), but comes out more pro-Dennett than anyone else in the end, and I like that. I think the article could've spent a bit more time really comparing the meat of the three books in question. I actually haven't read Harris' The End of Faith (its on the list though...), but I do find the differences between Breaking the Spell and The God Delusion to be rather telling.

Mainly, Dennett winds up being favored by the author of the article because his book is just the next in the sequence of books that he's been writing since Consciousness Explained. A rational inquiry into the nature of faith is the next logical step in the path of thinking that is laid down through Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves, especially. Breaking the Spell mostly spends time trying to find a model of inquiry - about the kind of questions we should be asking, and the types of distinctions that need to be made for those investigations (such as the difference between belief qua belief and belief in belief).

Dawkins (and Harris too, apparently) set out to write a polemic. It's similar, in my mind, actually to Al Gore's movie about the environment. It's not preaching to the choir, as such, but really trying to energize the lazy middle-class liberals into actually standing for something. Because of this, The God Delusion stands out a bit from Dawkins' other book-length writings, in that it isn't so much an extension of his inquiry, but a re-hashing, and brief pause to preach about a set of evils. In fact, much of The God Delusion was culled from many of Dawkins' seminars and articles on atheism. People who have read Unweaving the Rainbow and/or A Devil's Chaplain will recognize entire blocks of text, even.

The author of the article seems to fall on Dennett's side because the author, along with many "brights" fails to see the use of alienating liberals with atheistic rhetoric. Dennett's book, however, comes off as being on that side of the article simply because it isn't polemical, really (although I'm sure there are plenty of religious types that would see it as being on the offensive).

I, personally, think there is a problem with Agnosticism in America, simply because it is more of a political tool than a tenable platform of belief. There is a use for agnosticism, when dealing with rational inquiry into religion, in that one most be unbiased in any direction for the investigation to remain viable. But my sense of what agnosticism should be - basically just an extension of pragmatism, isn't really the way it seems to be functioning. It's more of a way to stay friends with all the religious-types that one might know, and its there than I think Dawkins' reasoning is important - toleration of the intolerant is a morally untenable position to maintain in a free world.


Blogger Seven Star Hand said...

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11/10/2006 3:30 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Thanks for sending that. Yeah, the border between agnosticism and atheism is something I've put a fair amount of thought into. My recent thinking lately has been that it's not much use to say I'm open to believing in God if evidence presents itself, as opposed to being flatly atheist; the evidence would have to be of an entirely different magnitude than anything ever observed. And of course your nonbelief in something would change if you found new, massively different evidence for it. This is exactly what Dawkins seems to be getting at.

On the other hand, I don't feel inclined towards too much personal hand-wringing over what to call this. I would prefer it if "atheist" didn't sound like a dirty word, but that's not a huge problem.

On the social level I'm further out in the cold about this. People blame religion for intolerance, but I think they're just two offshoots from human nature. It's not like if you did somehow get rid of religion that it would make people behave any better.

11/11/2006 4:45 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Again, I like certain notions of agnosticism, especially in contexts of inquiry - the agnostism of neutral pragmatism. But, really, the connatation of the word & concept of "atheism" is inappropriate. To me it has more to do with the belligerent ignorance of middle America than whether or not their religious - the anti-"ism" kind of sentiment from liberals does nothing to quash the still way-too-popular American anti-intellectualism.

I don't think anyone honestly believes that ending religion would do anything to quell sectarian violence. I think the hope is more that when irrational belief systems are taken out of the political discourse, than the rational peace-making can be more effective. Maybe if people just admit that they're fighting over water/oil/land rather than absent Deities, the global network of free states can do more to encourage equality and diplomacy?

11/11/2006 5:18 PM  

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