Another week, another inch of heathen progress

Oh dear god, Julian is still boring for Britain. What in hell do the people at Comment is Free – Andrew? David? – think they’re doing? Do they really think the series – Heathen’s Progress – is so brilliant or witty or enlightening or whatever to be worth carrying for all this time? Didn’t it start last October or something?

[pause to look]

No. Even worse: September. September 30, but still September.

Maybe the subhead for the series is all the explanation needed.

Julian Baggini sets out on a pilgrimage towards the truth, picking his way past the noisome swamp of New Atheist controversies…

It’s a chance to stick a finger in the eye of the noisomely swampy gnu atheists, and Andrew wouldn’t want to pass that up.

But it’s a dumb move, because Julian just isn’t a lively enough writer to carry it.

This time he makes the exciting unthought-of claim that reasonableness is preferable to unreasonableness. Wo! Who knew?

Of course, in reality there is no neat divide between the reasonable and the unreasonable: it’s a case or more/less, not either/or. But divisions are real even when the boundaries between them are fuzzy, and I really do think that the most important divide in the religion debate is not between believers or non-believers, but between those who show the virtues of reasonableness and those who do not. That’s why I’ve often had more fruitful dialogues with some Catholics and evangelicals than I have with some fellow atheists.

See that’s typical – “I’ve often had more fruitful dialogues with some Catholics and evangelicals than I have with some fellow atheists” – that’s a terribly clumsy way of putting it. It doesn’t work to combine “often” with “some” and then another “some” in that way; it sounds as if you’re so desperate to hedge that you can’t make sense. When I was his sub-editor I fixed things like that for him.

But more to the point, it’s the same old shit – pretending it’s a toss-up between atheists and theists. Yes there are some unreasonable atheists; no that doesn’t make theism and atheism equally reasonable as long as the individual atheist or theist is in some sense “reasonable.” It doesn’t, but it’s popular to say it does.

Maryam talked about Julian as a representative apologetic atheist in her talk at QED last week. She interjected, as she continued, “I don’t want to pick on Baggini, but – ” – I whispered to Author, “I do!” and we sniggered. It’s fair to pick on him, because he’s a prominent popularizer of philosophy, and he does a lot of this kind of thing. I think it’s bullshit. I think when you compare theist unreason with atheist unreason, you realize which set produces more and which does more harm with it.


  1. moleatthecounter says

    Whenever I have read Baggini lately, and I would point to these rather insipid, middle of the road pieces as ideal examples, I cannot help but think of the colour ‘beige’…

  2. Mattir says

    I am really tired of strawman gnu atheists. They make it hard to enjoy Baggini or de Botton or a similar authors, which is unfortunate, because if they weren’t so busy whinging about the ebil gnus, a lot of their stuff is quite interesting.


  3. Corkscrew says

    That’s why I’ve often had more fruitful dialogues with some Catholics and evangelicals than I have with some fellow atheists.

    I would be interested to know what he means by “fruitful” here.

    In my experience, science geeks tend to view a conversation as fruitful if it provides them with some well-evidenced new truths. By this standard, I have had only three fruitful conversations with theists in my entire life. By contrast, talks with atheists can be very productive as they often know more science than me.

    Philosophy geeks, on the other hand, tend to view a conversation as fruitful if it gives them some interesting new ideas to chew over. By this standard, the traditional atheist focus on hard evidence is boring. By contrast, talks with theists are often quite interesting as they don’t let facts get in the way of a cool concept.

    IMO this is why Gnu Atheists often find more in common with evangelicals than either liberal Christians or middle-ground atheists. We actually care passionately about the answer; they prefer exploring the ramifications of the question.

  4. sailor1031 says

    “… a lot of their stuff is quite interesting.”

    I suppose it is a subjective issue. Personally I lost interest in Baggini’s introspective ramblings some time back – about the time he made his little cozy accommodationist speech in St Paul’s. As for deBotton’s egotistical crap, I see not reason to bother with it. Certainly I find nothing interesting in either of them. But then I guess, as a long-time atheist, I just don’t need anybody to tell me how not to believe in gods…..

  5. Mattir says

    De Botton’s previous stuff is actually quite good. Religion for Atheists is definitely the worst of his books, and I’ve actually read them all. I suppose it depends on your enjoyment of the humanities and the subjective nature thereof, but one can be a fine Pharyngula-reading-gnu-atheist-extremist and enjoy them. (It does piss me off to be lectured constantly about how us gnu atheists are so evil and don’t appreciate rituals or the literary/artistic tradition or whatever.)

  6. says

    Sorry to be obstinate but I disagree about de Botton – I think he’s a wannabe Montaigne who isn’t Montaigne. I do enjoy the humanities, I’m a big literature geek, but I think de Botton is just more pretentious than good.

    Want brilliant essays? Skip de Botton, read Hazlitt.

  7. Mattir says

    The thing I like most about de Botton is that he’s led me to read Montaigne, Seneca, Ruskin, and to add Proust, Marcus Aurelius, and others to the queue. His style is definitely an acquired taste and, at its worst, is pretentious. He does make such original sources seem far less daunting to the uninitiated, though, and that’s a very very good thing.

    A kid story to illustrate: I homeschool my kids, and having a legal education, I tend to be a bit Socratic in my discussion style, which ticked my 11 year old daughter off to no end. Then she read Consolations of Philosophy and announced “Oh, I see what this is – cool.” Never another problem with semi-Socratic maternal questioning, and she’s learned the style to use on parents as well. A couple years later, dealing with puberty, she announced one morning that “this gross body stuff is just what Montaigne was talking about.” There’s no way she would have been able to use that reference without de Botton’s popularization of Montaigne, but it certainly helped us get through her 13th year without significantly more pulling-out of hair. So no, I don’t think de Botton’s ideas are themselves earth-shatteringly new, but his style can be amusing and can offer a non-humanities audience (including 12 year old girls) some very useful ideas.

    That being said, Religion for Atheists is a book with an astonishing amount of blown potential. It’s horrifying to realize that I’m better read in Judaism and Buddhism than he is given the amount of pontificating he did about the Jewish and Budddhist traditions, and he certainly has no grasp at all of how religion operates in the reality-based universe.

  8. says

    Paul, yes that one.

    I don’t think he ever wrote badly, so anything really. There’s a collection online – I think the site is called Blue Peter, which is odd because that used to be a kids’ tv show in the UK – you could skim some of those and see what grabs you.

    Mattir – ah right, I see what you mean. I’d used other people for the same purpose by the time I read any de Botton. I do like people who can point the way to people like Monty.

  9. Mattir says

    Anyone who can provide a decent introduction to philosophy for a bright preteen is going to have my appreciation, and hearing DaughterSpawn connect menstruation with Montaigne was amazing. Doesn’t make RFA any less horrid, though.

  10. Dave says

    Blue Peter still is a BBC kids’ show, but it’s never been the same without John Noakes…

  11. Tim Harris says

    Wholly agree with you, Ophelia, about de Botton. I read one book of his – I think it was about Proust, but it was so eminently forgettable that I’ve forgotten exactly what it was about… I have a vague memory of a large, flatulent mind, incapable of genuine insight, clothing itself in what it thought was a scintillating style.

  12. says

    I read de Botton’s sort of novel called Essays in Love. Clever guy, quite readable style, but nothing of substance to write about. He was trying to get round his inability to write a novel by writing a chopped up essay on an autobiographical experience. He writes better than he thinks. In the UK people’s pretension meters are highly sensitive and he gets a lot of stick.

    Agree about Hazlitt – quite marvellous.

    @ Mattir – I wish I could be a pre-teen again being educated by you.

    Oh Ophelia – I like your new photo.

  13. says

    I know! Funny how ambiguous that phrase is. “He writes better than he cooks”; fine; “he writes better than he thinks”; ambiguous. I’m sure everyone got it though, thanks to context.

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