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Nov 10 2011

Sandals with socks? A whiff of wet dog?

Another rather heavy-breathing piece by Julian in his “Heathen’s Progress” series. Once again he’s saying very much what “new” atheists have been saying all along, so why is it again that he’s so annoyed by “the new atheists”? Loud voices was it? Bad haircuts? Garlic breath?

I’m very much in sympathy with this view*, and this series is largely an attempt to try to find more constructive points of engagement that can only emerge if we ditch lazy and tired preconceptions about those with whom we disagree. At the same time, however, I’m all too aware that “you just don’t understand” is a card that is often played far too swiftly and without justification.

On the one hand, but on the other hand. I agree with the obvious, but at the same time, I also agree with a different obvious. That’s philosophy.

It has become evident to me, however, that many people, especially the religious, suffer from a kind of conceptual claustrophobia. Their beliefs are of their essence somewhat vague and they are terrified of being pinned down. Although critics often leap on this and claim that this betrays woolly thinking, evasion or obscurantism, I think that there are times when such a refusal to commit is justified.

Yes – provided that you don’t then go on to make lots of confident claims, but how often is that condition met?

But embracing this mystery comes at a price. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth. Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.

Precisely; my point exactly. I’ve been saying that for years. Julian doesn’t need instruction from me, of course, but nevertheless I don’t quite see why he’s presenting all this as if it’s new and fresh as opposed to just the kind of thing the gnu atheists get so much shit for saying, sometimes from Julian himself.

*that disputants in the religion debate are talking past each other because they do not have a sufficiently rich understanding of the positions they stand against.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Sastra

    Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.

    Popular ways to backtrack when called on something stupid you said:

    “Oh, but God is mysterious, ineffable, and totally Other — far beyond our ability to comprehend: we only grope by analogy.”

    “I meant that as a metaphor, of course.”

    “Some people think that. I didn’t mean I agree with them.”

    “C’mon, that was a joke.”

    “Hey, I’m just sayin’, is all.”

  2. 2
    Aratina Cage

    But embracing this mystery comes at a price. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth.

    Waiting on the truth is such a folly. To find truths about the world is why we have science and research; we don’t just wait for truth to sneak up and bite us on the ass.

    But it’s a great description of religion. That’s what most of religion is: repetetive, superstitious, truth-evasive, foolish waiting rituals such as attending sermons that are nothing more than regurgitated fortune cookie readings that never do a single thing for a person’s life, Bible studies that do nothing of the sort and get people nowhere, and obsessive fantasy-play where people pretend their thoughts can be transmitted immaterially to a giant being in the sky in the hopes their wishes will be answered.

    If only theists could see how much better life is without all that. Well, some (or most) can. And we Gnu Atheists are here to bring that to them. With gnus, it gets better!

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Speaking of “I meant that as a metaphor, of course.” – have you all seen Sigmund’s metaphor item?

    http://sneerreview.blogspot.com/2011/11/metaphorical-illuminator.html

  4. 4
    NathanDST

    but nevertheless I don’t quite see why he’s presenting all this as if it’s new and fresh as opposed to just the kind of thing the gnu atheists get so much shit for saying, sometimes from Julian himself.

    If Julian didn’t apparently have a history of attacking gnus, I’d suggest that perhaps he’s saying it again for those in his audience that haven’t heard it before. Any chance that’s still a possibility? Or maybe he’s changing his views — and not copping to it. Which he should really do, if that’s what’s happening.

  5. 5
    sailor1031

    “Likewise, people should be able to give clear answers to straight questions such as “was Christ’s resurrection physical, leaving an empty tomb?”, even if that answer is “I don’t know”. Maintaining, for instance, that it is naive to read the gospels as literal history is – or should be – to maintain that the events it describes did not, or need not, have literally happened.”

    But this is precisely the point when dealing with christianity. Did these events happen? If not the whole theological house of cards falls to the ground. It is meretricious to claim that these things may not have happened, or do not need to have happened but that the story is still true in some fuzzy metaphorical way and so christian belief is true – in fact truer than merely historically true. Well it’s all fuckin’ numinous innit? so it must be numinously true. What a crock! But obviously atheists have been saying this for decades, maybe centuries.

    It’s obvious that the ineffability defence is put up to protect the business of RCC Inc by giving them a way, when shown to be lying, to maintain that they possess the “real truth” and so keep their superstitious laity under control and continuing to contribute their hard-earned cash to an organization that lies about religion, abuses children and adults, conspires to conceal that abuse, launders money (including mafia money), engages in financial manipulations and frauds, supported militant clergy in wartime Yugoslavia who committed massacres and other war crimes, ran a post-WWII escape-line for wanted war crimminals, and may well have connived at murder.

    BTW. why is it taking Baggini so loooong to make a few simple points?

  6. 6
    Chris Lawson

    sailor1031,

    To be fair, there are Christians, even some bishops, who have made claims that the supernatural events described in the Bible may not be literally true, including the resurrection. But these Christians are very much in the minority and are usually despised by the majority.

    An example: John Selby Spong, who believes that theism is not compatible with honest Christianity, was dismissed by Rowan Williams as a purveyor of “confusion and misinterpretation” for rejecting the absolute truth of the virgin birth and the resurrection — remember this is the same Rowan Williams who advocated the establishment of sharia law in the UK. Thus Williams is more antagonistic to fellow Christians who reject his supernatural beliefs than he is to a rival (and not particularly friendly rival) religion.

  7. 7
    Jurjen S.

    On the one hand, but on the other hand. I agree with the obvious, but at the same time, I also agree with a different obvious. That’s philosophy.

    I thought it was political science?

  8. 8
    khms
    On the one hand, but on the other hand. I agree with the obvious, but at the same time, I also agree with a different obvious. That’s philosophy.

    I thought it was political science?

    Nope, that’s clearly journalism.

  9. 9
    Torquil Macneil

    “I thought it was political science?

    Nope, that’s clearly journalism.”

    We call it ‘economics’.

  10. 10
    sailor1031

    @chris lawson;
    well tht is teh whole point. If you don’t accept that these key events really, really happened then you don’t have any basis whatsoever for being a “christian” whatever else you might or might not be.
    But I guess I am most at odds with RCC Inc. here, because I don’t believe for a moment that the senior executives of that totally corrupt organization believe for a moment that these alleged events really happened. It’s all about keeping and exercising temporal power. Basically the same for old dumbledore there, but I don’t think he’s in the same criminal class as the RCC people.

  11. 11
    Hazel

    OT:

    Ophelia,

    I am getting a 404 on the “read the rest” link for your most recent post on Rabbi Jacobs. Can’t comment under it.

  12. 12
    Rrr

    Hazel,
    I can’t even see the post at all. Maybe I look in the wrong place, maybe it was just a flesh in the pen? Let’s look again soon.

  13. 13
    FresnoBob

    Still waiting to see what’s ‘new’ in his thinking/approach.

    So far it’s all gnu.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    11, 12, I know, sorry – some sort of glitch (and I was away, so I didn’t spot it). I think it’s fixed now.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Nathan, sure, it’s a possibility…although in fact he’s been describing it as recent conclusions, developing views, etc. “It has become evident to me” and the like – which is annoying when the things that have become evident are the things gnus have been saying all along and getting shouted at for saying. But sure, it seems quite likely that his views have been changing…but then he could have the grace to actually withdraw at least some of the potshots.

  16. 16
    NathanDST

    But sure, it seems quite likely that his views have been changing…but then he could have the grace to actually withdraw at least some of the potshots

    I just took the time to actually read the piece. In a vacuum, it sounded very gnu-ish, but with a little bit of interfaith or maybe transfaith tossed in there. Not horrible, in other words. But it would be very nice if he’d acknowledge, as you say, that the gnu atheists have been saying such things for years, maybe even credit them with contributing to his “becoming evident” views. And withdraw potshots.

  17. 17
    DuWayne

    Oi – I wear socks and sandals all the time – especially this time of year, when it’s getting cold. As if there’s something off about socks and sandles…And old man shorts…

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Well I often smell of wet dog!

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