Weak tea in defense of Mary Midgley

Nick Matzke has taken exception to my criticism of Mary Midgley, and has posted a rebuttal. Well, maybe. Probably not.

Eh, I’ve read most of Midgley’s books and articles, I don’t think you [The Unpublishable Philosopher] or PZ getting her at all.

The short version of what she’s saying is that there is a lot more to life than simply scientifically assessing everything as if it was a hypothesis. The primary reason many people like their religion, despite its obvious problems from a scientific point of view, have to do with things like:

  • providing a sense of community

  • instilling values in children and in themselves

    (And whatever ranting and raving the New Atheists do about the evils in the Bible and the evils promoted by parts of modern religion, an actual fair, non-raving assessment simply has to acknowledge that a large part of religion throughout history, and especially in liberal democracies in the 20th century, has been about providing often-correct moral guidance to the parishioners. For every instance of child abuse or witch burning in history there are probably millions of instances of individuals finding good moral guidance in their religion. Of course there are a good number of cases of people finding poor moral guidance as well, but then you can say this about democracy, scientific leaders, atheist leaders, etc. as well. Religion works for many people much of the time.)

  • providing a hopeful view of their place in the grand scheme of things (the typical atheist alternative is pretty dour and depressing)

  • providing an organizational framework for social action, charity, and/or political action

In these and many other ways, there isn’t much that the atheists offer at the moment that can compare to what belonging to a church offers people. Some people feel fine without it, that’s great, but I wonder if it will ever become a common thing outside of certain professions like academia.

And pretending like these factors don’t exist and don’t matter and that it’s all just a simple matter of scientifically assessing religion based on the worst claims of its craziest proponents, or on the unsupported nature of some very fuzzy theological claims of moderates – which is basically what the atheist campaigners do – is a pretty silly thing to do. This is what Midgley is trying to point out.

The Unpublishable Philosopher and I were not providing a critique of the entirety of Midgley’s writings, but only of a specific article. It’s all well and good to claim that she’s written many smart and sensible things elsewhere, but what would convince me of that is if, say, someone actually cited something insightful from her. There seems to be an Ideal Mary Midgley floating somewhere in the æther that some of her privileged priesthood can reference, but which is inaccessible to the New Atheist rabble, who only get to see the Prosaic Mary Midgley, who is something of a twit.

True confession: Nick could be correct, because I have not read any of Midgley’s books. I’ve read many of her short articles, however, and from those I think it eminently reasonable to conclude that her longer works will be much more of the same, and not worth wasting time upon. I have also encountered many people who differ, though, and say that her books are excellent and interesting…curiously, none of them ever goes on to say why. It’s a very weird phenomenon.

Take a look at that list of thinks Nick says religion provides. How many of those require that we believe in space zombies, magic, or ghosts? Not one. Not one. Those are all social goods, and believe it or not, atheists recognize the reality of society and culture and community. In fact, you could even argue that one of the qualities of the New Atheism is that it provides greater emphasis on exactly the bullet points Nick has made. We’ve been working hard to reduce the stereotype of the atheist as the oddball loner who doesn’t get along well with others.

For an unintentionally amusing counterpoint, though, read this article by John Wilkins, about an atheist who was so annoyed by a Dawkins talk that he decided to call himself an agnostic. What did he discover when Richard Dawkins spoke that was so awful? Why, that these New Atheists were providing a sense of community, instilling values, and talking about beauty and truth in the natural world. He doesn’t cite the idea of providing a framework for social action, charity, and politics, but the Richard Dawkins Foundation is doing that, too. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

I’ll also disagree that religion has been about providing moral guidance. It certainly has not. Religion has been about the enforcement of social conformity, which is then conflated with morality. A framework for belief that actually gave instruction in morality would be reducible to a few simple non-supernatural principles — the familiar “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and I’d add “think for yourself” — which would be consistently practiced. Most religions seem to about providing theological loopholes to get around those pesky moral principles, or in some cases, even endorsing morally pernicious practices (for example, the Bible clearly endorses slavery and misogyny — this is one case where religion’s propensity for looking for loopholes actually worked to people’s benefit).

If religion actually were the source of moral thinking, then religions would always be at the forefront of virtuous social change, and we’d actually see some consistency. Look at the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and gay rights. You can find some people of faith working for the cause of justice, and unfortunately, too often using it as an advertisement for the value of religion — the civil rights movement, for instance, has been retroactively annointed as the workings of liberal religion, when the religious establishment was diligently opposing it at the time. But most often, the majority of religious leaders are out to kill any advances in equality under the banner of ‘morality’.

I do agree that religion works for many people much of the time. It is not because religion is any good, though — it’s because I optimistically believe that most people are good, and you can give them a book full of self-contradictory gibberish and they’d generally work out some way to get along with each other out of it. It’s just too bad that that book of Abrahamic gibberish is most easily interpreted to mean that our strategy for getting along is tribalism and hierarchies of control.

We might as well claim that smallpox is good, because most people survived it, and because it gave them greater immunity to the disease afterwards. Religion is like cultural smallpox — something that most people muddle through, doing as best they can, while a minority have their lives ruined. And of course, as many atheists will tell you, the surest way to become immune to religion is to actually think about what it is saying.