Lots of you have been alerting me to this op-ed in the NY Times, but I have to confess that I read it, and Richard A. Schweder makes no sense at all in his “Atheists Agonistes” article. His conclusion seems to be that we should stop “waging intellectual battles over the existence of god(s)”, but everything preceding that point doesn’t seem to make any kind of sensible case for much of anything. Here’s the heart, I think; he’s wondering why we’re seeing this resurgence of godlessness as a literary genre:
Why, then, are the enlightened so conspicuously up in arms these days, reiterating every possible argument against the existence of God? Why are they indulging in books — Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion — in which authors lampoon religion or rail against the devout under the banner of a crusading atheism? Books dictated or co-written by God sell quite well among the 2.1 billion self-declared Christians and 1.3 billion self-declared Muslims of the world. What explains the current interest among secularists in absolutely, positively establishing that the author is a fraud?
The most obvious answer is that the armies of disbelief have been provoked. Articulate secularists may be merely reacting to the many recent incitements from religious zealots at home and abroad, as fanatics and infidels have their ways of keeping each other in business.
A deeper and far more unsettling answer, however, is that the popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.
He then describes, quite reasonably I think, that the Enlightenment hasn’t exactly been a triumph for reason, and that we’re still seeing the same ol’ religious divisions and irrationalities. That’s quite true, but it’s strange to see the atheists’ motivations described as a result of our insecurity about secularism, as if it’s different from a reaction to the religious zealotry. Complaining that we are unhappy about seeing our myth of a total victory for reason in the 18th century falling apart is a classic straw man, since I don’t know anyone on my godless side of the fence who thinks we’re in anything other than an ongoing battle that has never been won (or even, may never be won; isn’t the struggle between our rational and irrational natures always going to be something every individual has to wrestle with?)
I know Schweder is a proponent of relativistic approaches to culture, but I just don’t see the point of writing an op-ed that expresses no opinions other than that, well, people have different opinions. Ultimately within his piece we find all the usual code words for someone who wants to favor religion: there are Darwinian “article[s] of faith”, “A shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society”, the usual pious vagueness used to beg off that harsh light of skeptical inquiry. I think Schweder is merely politely throwing a prayer shawl over his head and begging leave to ignore the issue.
He may. I just have to say that I’m not fooled by his protestations that we just need to be nice to one another: he has taken sides, and he’s using a request to avoid scrutinizing his side to hide the fact that his side is feeble, weak, and doomed if inspected closely. I think we can all see where the “renewed and intense anxiety” actually lies, can’t we?