Schisms, rifts, and apologia for insanity

Jerry Coyne missed one: he lists a few annoying columnists in the Guardian, Andrew Brown and Madeleine Bunting, but I guess he didn’t notice that Michael Ruse just posted a whine about Dawkins and other atheists. Well, a few of us: he mentions Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne, and me as the people who bring atheism into disrepute. We’re in a schism, don’t you know; I just wish he’d used the term “Deep Rifts”, since that seems to be the fashionable phrase for everyone who wants to find consolation in the imminent demise of the New Atheist movement (to which we have to reply that we’re very fond of our rifts, and consider our willingness to plunge into battle with even our fellow unbelievers to be part of our plucky, feisty charm).

Now here’s the problem with Ruse. He believes that people who are atheists but are not Michael Ruse are all lacking in rigor and a charitable appreciation of the profundity of theological belief. At the same time, he believes that all those religious people whose beliefs he does not share must have built those ideas on a robust intellectual foundation, and that because they are nice people who invite him to give talks, maybe there could be something to that god-chattering stuff. And you should pat him on the back and congratulate him on his wisdom for seeing worth in even the most absurd proponent of creationism. For example:

I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.

Modest in his unbelief, perhaps, but at the same time remarkably immodest in his self-congratulatory appreciation of his own uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of his fellow human beings’ twisty theological rationales. Of course any and all of us could be mistaken, and certainly are on many matters — but that does not mean that all of our critical faculties must be discarded, that we look wise when we listen to both the bible-thumping bumpkin claiming that god made the earth by magic 6000 years ago, and the geologist rattling off a long list of detailed, technical explanations of the evidence for a 4½ billion year old earth that got to its current state by the long accrual of natural events…and we say to both, “think it possible you may be mistaken”. He looks like a clueless gobshite, instead. Ruse’s game is to suspend judgment when looking at the most appalling foolishness, a body of superstitions which he does not personally find believable, and to dial up the judgmental denial to 11 when he’s looking at atheists who are not Michael Ruse.

Now fortunately, Jerry Coyne also found another good columnist in the Guardian, Marina Hyde, who instead of the phony and peculiarly biased objectivity Ruse demands, actually suggests that looking at all religious claims critically is enlightening. She’s discussing the recent bad PR that scientology has received, and suggests that when you step back and look at other religions, Jehovah isn’t any more sensible than Xenu.

But when I think of Mel Gibson building his $42m church compound in Malibu, blithely telling interviewers at the time of the Passion of the Christ’s release that his then wife would unfortunately be going to hell, because she was Church of England … well, I can’t find it in myself to find him any less barking than Tom Cruise.

Clearly, Scientologists should be forced to justify their doctrinal lunacies – the only sadness is that other religions are apparently exempt from having to do the same. Imagine for a moment a Bashir-type interviewing some senior cardinal. “So,” he might inquire, “you’re saying that by some magic the communion wafer actually becomes the flesh of a man who died 2,000 years ago, a man who – and I don’t want to put words into your mouth here – we might categorise as an imaginary friend who can hear the things you’re thinking in your head? And when you’ve done that, do you mind going over the birth control stuff?”

What a shame that we see rather fewer of these exchanges, however amusing and useful a sideshow Scientology may be.

I am sure, if I stop for a moment and put myself in a Rusian frame of mind, that Tom Cruise is wealthier and better-looking than me, and has achieved a remarkable level of success that suggests that we shouldn’t dismiss his abilities as entirely without worth. I am also sure that McMullin, Plantinga, and Williams have also navigated the shoals of life successfully and acquired personal and professional reputations of which they can be proud. That does not in any way imply, however, that I should regard all of their views as having earned some measure of respect; rather, we should learn from these fellows that some measure of lunacy and belief in groundless, overwrought nonsense is not a barrier to worldly success, and even that a whole-hearted frolic in a superstition shared by an influential community can be a personal benefit.

Could I be wrong in my belief that there is no god? Sure. Cromwell’s cry applies to me and to you and to everyone. But you will not sway me by telling me that the proponents of god belief are not bad men, which was not an issue in question anyway; you will not find me appreciative of an approach that says the first step is to learn to be uncritical of ideas and suspend judgment simply because the other guy is caught in a different “paradigm”. An understanding that we may be mistaken does not mean that everyone is equally mistaken. Some beliefs, such as in Xenu and his fleet of space-faring DC10s, or Jesus performing cheap tricks in Galilee and giving us a ticket to heaven by being tortured to death, are simply patently absurd and demand far more rigor in their defense than lame testimonials to the good character of some theologians.