Will he never arrive?

Via Ericmore of Julian’s interminable Heathen’s Progress. This one is about tone: not just the tone that “new atheists” use but the allegation that they (we) are tone deaf to religion. Religion is comparable to poetry and pop music. Some people don’t “get” poetry, or pop music, or both. They can’t say anything interesting about either one, because they don’t get them. They’re tone deaf to them. It’s the same with religion.

Right, except that it isn’t. Poetry doesn’t tell everyone what to do. Poetry doesn’t have a billion or more “members” or “believers” or other kinds of belongers. Poetry doesn’t have dogma. Poetry doesn’t have a single “sacred” book that many believers take as god-inspired or god-made, and authoritative, and not-to-be-disobeyed. Poetry doesn’t treat rules invented by a few pastoral men 3 thousand years ago as binding on all of humanity still and forever.

I could go on. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s all very well, all this “yes but you’re missing the music” line of chat, but religion makes claims on us, huge claims, and that makes mollifying talk about its music 1) beside the point and 2) a dangerous side-track.

But anyway it’s bullshit. It’s like saying that religion is like everything good that humans do – art and sport and wonder and imagination – and that therefore atheists should just stop being atheist in public or else art and sport and wonder and imagination will disappear!!1!

…to say that an abrasive tone is not constructive is to say more than something about a person’s manner of speech. It’s not constructive because it is rooted in a one-dimensional understanding of the phenomenon under discussion. Atheistic tone-deafness misses many of the things I’ve talked about in this series, such as placing mystery at the heart of life, and living with the aid of beneficial rituals and practices. The abrasiveness is not some kind of independent, wilful rudeness that could be smoothed over while keeping the message intact. We talk about people who are rude as being ignorant and more often than not, when someone comes over as too hostile to religion, ignorance is at the root of it, not simply an absence of good manners.

What’s at the root of it when someone comes across as too friendly to religion? What’s at the root of Julian’s tortured back-and-forth yes-but friendliness to religion? I don’t know; I leave it to your artful speculation.


  1. stonyground says

    It is obvious why the theists would keep coming up with such inapt analogies as this, they have to do something to distract us from their inability to provide a single shred of evidennce for the existence of their gods. Why an atheist would want to play this game is a mystery. In any case the accusation of being tone deaf overlooks the fact that most atheists were theists at one time. Close to 100% of those ex-theists rejected religion because they investigated it and found out that it was nonsense. Rather than losing some part of their perception which left them forever unable to appreciate religion, they gained enough perception to see it for what it is, leftovers from the primitive superstitions of ignorant people.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    When goddists complain about the tone of atheists’ arguments against religious beliefs privileges, the real grievance is with the argument having been made at all. There’s just no gentle way to tell someone they base a significant part of their life on a delusion.

    It’s interesting that there are few articles about the tone of critics of various political views, artistic preferences, or non-religious irrational beliefs. It’s commonly accepted that anyone can criticize these as vehemently as they like. However if someone criticizes religion, even a polite tone is decried as “shrill” and “militant.”

  3. Stacy says

    You know, I’m offended by the (unsupported) assertion that I am tone-deaf to the appeal of keeping mystery at the heart of life.

    Religion isn’t necessary to do that. It’s possible to bear in mind the wonder of existence, of the universe and life and consciousness, without the beliefs and rituals and dogmas that comprise religion.

    Look at Sagan.

    Hell, the epistemology that Sagan promoted and the gnus promote has mystery at its heart. We use philosophical and methodological naturalism to explore mysteries. The more we learn, the more answers we find, the more questions occur, and the exploration continues.

    And religion doesn’t do a particularly good job of keeping mystery at the heart of life anyway. A handful of mystics, brilliant eccentrics like Simone Weil, might have done it, but most religion is there to offer certainty. It’s all very well to wax poetic about “mystery”, but when the mystery has to do with death and suffering, it provokes anxiety and worse rather than warm fuzzy feelings of being A Part Of It All. Religion alleviates the anxiety by offering answers. Answers, not mystery.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    But poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

    Or so said a major (if atheistic) poet, so it must be true the law.

    But of course, we don’t – by the same logic – have to admit it…

  5. says

    Oh yeah, we’re so tone deaf to religion that “atheist pope”, Richard Dawkins, cited the first stanza of some Anglican hymn about life as something that resonated within him: “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be.”

    Accommodationism is little more than a mass burning of scarecrows.

  6. Thomas says

    Abrasives are just what you need sometimes to cut through the corrosion and corruption and get at the underlying truth, don’t you know. Nothing wrong with being abrasive at all.

  7. says

    It’s a bit hard to focus on the poetry of religion when every night on the TV we have chanting mobs of rock-throwing believers trashing everything in sight because a few copies of a book went into a fire.

    Makes one wonder if its possibly all about something else.

  8. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    “but most religion is there to offer certainty

    Yes. This.

    The “mysteries” that religion offers are bullshit, made up ones like the trinity or transubstantiation (which are on a par with “How does Santa fit all the presents on his sleigh?” or “How does he get into homes without chimneys?”). The only mystery of this to me is how anyone could possibly believe such tripe. Never mind that religionists have no real answer to the problem of evil or the Euthyphro Dilemma. They already know the will of their god and what his preferred sex positions, shoe size and favourite flavour of ice cream are. Contrast this with Feynman’s preference for an honest “I don’t know” to a premature, overconfident certainty in something that may be wrong.

  9. Brownian says

    There’s just no gentle way to tell someone they base a significant part of their life on a delusion.

    And yet, it seems to be very height of fashion to tell those of us who drank the Kool-Aid® of religion for most of our lives that, since we’re now atheist, we must never have ‘got it’, must never have understood.

    Do they tell the cafeteria Christians, those whose understanding of the faith is a fondness for B.C. comics and the vague predisposition that John 3:16 might make a great tattoo, that they’re ignorant? Or does Sophisticated Theology™ only make for an argument against religion’s critics?

    Because, if at the end of the day religious knowledge means nothing compared to whether or not you still have and respect faith, then what was the point of all those years of Catholic school and mass I had to endure? What’s the point of apologetics and reasons to believe? Just believe, and damn the reasons why.

    Because it seems both the religious and the accommodationists want to have it both ways. They want to insist that the only reasonable response to religion by those who understand it is to have sympathy for it, and at the same insist that we’re the closed-minded and intolerant ones for not thinking exactly the way they do.

  10. Hamilton Jacobi says

    What’s at the root of Julian’s tortured back-and-forth yes-but friendliness to religion?

    I think it’s his inner Karen Armstrong struggling to come out. He keeps wanting to accept it when a few people tell him that religion is all fluffy and light, with ponies and green meadows and stuff. He keeps wanting to ignore what he already knows, that for many more people it’s also a tool for political power, and one that’s used quite brutally and ruthlessly.

  11. Deepak Shetty says

    They’re tone deaf to them. It’s the same with religion.
    Or to be precise , its the same as when it comes to someone else’s religion. I dont see any Christians praising the poetry or the complexity of the Mahabharata or the rhythms of the Arabic Quran. Nor do I see Muslims rushing to praise the wonderful words of the Buddha.

  12. says

    Religion is a huge, sprawling, messy thing — indeed, hardly a single “thing” at all — and I’ve no doubt that some people’s religion is a kind of poetry or performance art or something like that. But I don’t think any of them are the ones howling for blood in Afghanistan or running for the Republican primaries just now.

  13. Svlad Cjelli says

    Rooted in hyperdimensional mathematics, of course.

    Friendliness is a hyper-cube. Rudeness is a stupid dot.

  14. Dunc says

    As someone who considers himself fairly well-attuned to both poetry and mythology, I have to say that much of religion, especially contemporary Abrahamic religion, is simply bad poetry and mythology. It’s not that I’m tone-deaf, it’s that it’s lousy. Tolkien’s creation story from The Silmarillion is far more beautiful than anything in the Bible, and the best work ever written on Christian theology was by Milton, rather than any of the Apostles.

  15. sailor1031 says

    Yes indeed, what was the point of all those years of going to mass and catholic school? Of course we got it. You’d have to have a lesser intelligence than your average rutabaga not to have gotten it. It’s just that having gotten it and thought about it we just didn’t believe it.

    “Ananda, if it doesn’t make sense to you – don’t believe it. No matter who said it. Not even if I said it” (Gotama Sakyamuni)

    @Hamilton Jacobi; great point. Love the imagery but you forgot the puppies…..

  16. says

    Ignorance is not at the heart of my hostility to religion.

    I’m afraid it’s more the familiarity, dearie. Has and does breed much contempt. And oh, my, how I do wish I didn’t have that familiarity. But the context does continue to insist, I’m afraid. Could hide in a sensory deprivation chamber, I guess, a while, but the moment I poked my head out, there’d be some silly shill or ‘nother happy to pollute my air with nonsense such as this the moment I did.

    And really, dear Baggini, I wish I could credit you with ignorance. Seems to me it’d probably be a better excuse than ‘he’s just one more slimy, predictable weasel opportunistically playing the same old song ‘cos he knows there will always be an audience’.

    Honestly, ya tosser. Get off it. I get your type on my shoe, I don’t even try to wash the mess off. I just take the whole thing off gingerly, leave it where it lies, and try to get away from the stench.

  17. eric says

    Some people don’t “get” poetry, or pop music, or both. They can’t say anything interesting about either one, because they don’t get them. They’re tone deaf to them. It’s the same with religion.

    Except that in this case, most atheists were raised as theists. By theists. We studied religion on a weekly basis – in the company of current theists – since we could read.

    Sure, some people may be tone deaf when it comes to poetry. But that argument sounds a lot sillier when folks lke Julian are pointing to every former poet in existence. If you’re doing that, you’ve pretty much got a No True Theist argument on your hands: you are post hoc deciding who has understood theism their entire life based on whether they currently agree with you or not.

    If Julian believes his hypotheses, he should test it via prediction rather than mere postdiction. IOW, use tone-deafness to tell us which current believers will become atheists and which won’t. If he can’t do that, I call postdiction shenanigans.

  18. Sastra says

    So tone does matter, I’m afraid, and not just because it’s good to be nice. Getting the tone right shows you have heard correctly; getting it wrong that you’re either incapable of listening properly or unwilling to try to do so.

    Using his own analogy, Baggini is off on the tone. The whole point of the gnu atheism is to separate what he calls the ‘lyrics’ (the fact claims) from the ‘music’ and ‘atmosphere’ (the secular bells and whistles of community, poetry, philosophy, love — iow, secular humanism.) What makes religion unique is false and pernicious.

    When we spend our time soothing and reassuring the religious that religion has many, many wonderful aspects to it that is all they hear. They shut their ears down. They trade on ambiguity, jump onto vague resemblances, merge fuzzy ideas together — and don’t hear a damn thing we say. All the good stuff comes from religion and we have nothing but envy: they heard us admit it.

  19. says

    Except that in this case, most atheists were raised as theists. By theists. We studied religion on a weekly basis – in the company of current theists – since we could read.

    Hmm. Several of you made that point, and it’s a good one, but…

    Yes and no.

    I for instance was nominally raised that way, but it never took. In that sense it may well be true that I’m deaf to the music. At least…

    oh the hell with it, this is starting to expand so I’ll just do a post.

  20. ernie keller says

    Theists want to control the tone of discussions to shift away from the substance of them, and Baggini want to help them, and I can’t figure out why. Shouldn’t it be as clear to him as it is to many of us that there is no way we can dispute the substance of religious claims without giving offense? Furthermore, Baggini doesn’t take the trouble to examine the claim that Dawkins, for instance, is gratuitously offensive in TGD, a claim that is not easy to support from reading the book. Baggini is just as resistant to evidence of real offense as the theists whose claims he supports. If he did make an effort to take offense claims seriously, I think he would come to the conclusion that I have come to, that charges of offensiveness are mostly attempts to stifle substantive discussion.

  21. says

    Poetry as such doesn’t make a truth claim about the universe. Likewise music. And with music, if the lyrics carry the meaning, as they surely do, then all the rest is just window dressing, something to help evoke a bit more emotion. But if the meaning sucks, then the meaning sucks regardless of how wonderful the notes may be. There are some oldies songs that I loved growing up, but that I’ve recently listened to, and holy fuck, the meaning to some of those lyrics is horrible! I’ve got one in mind, but I can’t seem to find it now, or I’d cite it.

    In other words, does religion make a truth claim? Check. Is it false? Check. Does it matter that there might be more going on as part of the institution? NO! For crying out loud, NO! That “more going on” bit can be found other ways; the truth claims are false, that’s what matters.

    I love the form and rhythm of rap music, but I despise the lyrics that is far, far too often associated with it. Thus, I only listen to the rap with lyrics that don’t make me feel disgusted at the rapper.

  22. says

    Found it! Thanks to my wife’s amazing memory for lyrics and melody. “Wishin’ and Hopin'”, by Dusty Springfield.

    Show him that you care just for him
    Do the things he likes to do
    Wear your hair just for him, ’cause
    You won’t get him
    Thinking and a-praying, wishing and a-hoping ”

    Do the things he likes to do? Wear your hair just for him? Yea, screw being yourself. Screw him trying things you like. Nope, shape your behavior to match what he wants, cuz otherwise you ain’t getting a man. Regardless of whether you like the melody and instrumentals, that’s just bad.


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