Julian has a new installment of Heathen’s Progress out, in which he sums up the progress so far, by repeating what he’s said in the previous installments, with links, then in the last couple of paragraphs asks if that’s progress, and tells the reader to tell him. It’s all rather stately and solemn, as if he were a government commission, but let’s do our best to help.
Since this series is called Heathen’s progress, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the festive break to see if I’d actually made any.
Back at the beginning, I explained that my purpose was to move the God debate on from the stalemate it seemed to be stuck in, to see what could come after the new atheism. When I said that “the battle lines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought”, I was quickly and rightly told that I should start by ditching the military, confrontational metaphors. Lesson one: how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter.
Well this is part of what makes it seem so stately and as-if-a-government-commission. It seems odd for one person to think he can move the God debate on, and to say that that’s what his purpose is. It seems…official, and powerful, and more than one person can usually do. It seems a little peremptory to look for what could come after the new atheism when it’s not at all clear that “the new atheism” is over yet. I think most gnu atheists, if you asked them, would laugh at the idea and say fuck no, we’re in the thick of it.
And then there’s the needing to be told that military confrontational metaphors are just that, and needing to learn that how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter. Actually I know perfectly well he didn’t need to be told or to learn; I know that because he’s been writing about both for years, so obviously he’s perfectly well aware of both. I suppose he means he needed to be reminded. (Then one wonders why. Is it because there’s so much pugnacious anti-gnu rhetoric around, and some of it has infected him without his noticing until readers pointed it out? Could be.)
Toward the end of his recapitulation of the entries so far, I come in for a tiny rap on the knuckles.
The clamour to sign up the articles from religious leaders and thinkers was notable by its absence. Many of the people I wrote to did not even reply. When it comes to the crunch, it seems that very few genuinely embrace, or are prepared to admit they embrace, a form of religion that doesn’t make supernatural claims. This finding was backed up by two surveys I conducted, which while far from authoritative strongly suggest that churchgoers do, indeed, hold traditional beliefs about such things as Christ’s resurrection and the need to worship God. (Oddly, many people have claimed I was surprised by these results, when, as I explained in a reply, I have never expressed any amazement at all.)
The penultimate link is to my “Surprised, surprised,” in which I quoted several people who were bemused “at Julian’s effortful discovery and announcement of what everyone already knew.” He says it’s odd that people claim he was surprised when he never said he was, and yet, in the very next paragraph he says
I think the real movement has come from grappling with the question of how important literal belief is to religion. From an agnostic position, I have become convinced that it plays a very important part…
Quite, and that’s all I meant, and that’s all the others meant. (Nobody said anything about amazement.) He laboriously discovered what a lot of people had been saying all along. It’s not particularly odd to point that out.
At the end the summing up is summed up.
Taken together, some in the blogosphere have suggested that in this series I have moved closer to the new atheists. I’m not sure this is true. For a variety of reasons (including unfortunate headlines others gave to some of my pieces) the extent to which I have disagreed with the new atheists has probably been overstated because it is the disagreements that I have found more interesting to write about. I agree with them that literal belief is not a straw man, strongly expressed belief is not aggressive dogmatism, we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and that science does pose difficult questions for many religious people. But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful and that in order to make progress we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst, and find common ground with more liberal believers in order to counter the more pernicious forms of belief.
The last sentence seems to contradict the next to last – or if not flatly contradict it, at least to take back the ground it had just seemed to yield. If we “have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst,” then we are not (and indeed should not be) “as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism.” It just doesn’t make sense to say that we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and then in the next breath say we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst (emphasis added). It looks like having it both ways, or trying to – throwing a sop to “the new atheists” but then going on to say but all the same, do it this way and not that way; focus on the good not the bad; find common ground. Well you can’t have it both ways. If we really should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, then none of that “you must meet them halfway” malarkey applies, because it certainly doesn’t apply to the way people have been criticizing atheism.
Let me try harder to be fair. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what he means by “free” – maybe he means legally free. Except that wouldn’t make sense, because we already are legally free – so he has to mean what I mean, which is socially free, rhetorically free – i.e. not constantly subject to silly social pressure to be nicer to religion. But then maybe he thinks that that kind of freedom is not in tension with practical advice to “find common ground” for the sake of…some larger goal, in this case countering “the more pernicious forms of belief.” Maybe he does. In that case the last sentence doesn’t contradict the previous one…but I still think he’s mistaken, because I think that putative practical advice is very often just a disguised version of the silly social pressure. I think at this point it’s damn near impossible to distinguish the one from the other, and I think people who give that kind of putative practical advice should be sharply aware of that.
Is that progress? You tell me.