An Honest Atheist

A quick aside and then on to my next post.  There are just so many good things here, but I will pick out a few.
As Hamblin’s case makes clear, even defenses of religion in the publications of university presses are not worthy of the attention of the so-called “new atheists.” But what would Dawkins or Hitchens do with a book like Robert N. Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (Harvard, 2011)? This book is a critique of Western culture operating under the one-sided influence of “theoretic” (scientific) culture, and a historical account of how the theoretic is dependent on the mythic. In a review by Linda Heuman in Tricycle Magazine (Summer 2012), she writes,

“Bellah simultaneously undermines our unexamined confidence in the absolute authority of reason and increases our confidence in other kinds of truth. . . . In this view of human development, we are first embodied knowers, then storytellers, and only then analytic thinkers. Reason comes not first but last—it is the newest member of an established team, not the captain but a co-player.”
(Ummm, Burk, you may need to re-think your posts on this book—and by the way—those “other” kinds of truth are what I’ve been talking about in my posts on consequences and will address in my next post)
But what I am most concerned with is not Hitchens’s sloppy or altogether missing knowledge of theology. What I want to describe is how irresponsible his thinking is within his own professed area of expertise, Western literature and philosophy. I have “four irreducible objections” (Hitchens’s phrase): he does not acknowledge, and may not recognize at all, his own brand of metaphysics and magical thinking; he does not admit to the destructiveness of this metaphysic; he ignores the spiritual and anti-rational contributions of 19th-and 20th-century literature and philosophy; and his own thinking is ultimately an expression of faith.
I’ll begin with Hitchens’s metaphysics. Of course, a large part of his book is devoted to denouncing the stupidity of religious metaphysics, especially the idea that God is an entity outside of the ordinary workings of nature. But Hitchens has his own metaphysical claims, claims for which he seems not to feel any need to create arguments. In opposition to religion he proposes Enlightenment reason. What is “reason” for Hitchens? Your guess is as good as mine. Is it the rules of logic? Is it the scientific method? Is it Thomas Paine’s common sense? Some combination of the above? Hitchens seems to feel that, of course, everyone already knows what reason is and there is no need to elaborate its function or its virtues. But this “of course” is the marker of ideology, and the ideologist resists examining his own assumptions because to do so would be to make vulnerable his claims to authority. So eager is Hitchens to get on to the next item in his concatenation of religious insults to reason that he can’t be bothered to say what he means by the term. The one thing that he does seem to be sure of is that reason is something that shouldn’t be “outraged.” Nevertheless, there is no real difference between Hitchens’s outrage to reason and an evangelical’s outrage to God.

And what of Hitchens himself? Where is his conscience when he knowingly falsifies the history of religious and philosophical ideas? Is he not himself an example of how conscience is about what suits one’s purposes? Personal ethics tend to reflect cultural ethics, and cultural ethics usually follow tribal interests. For Hitchens, too, has a tribe: the “reasonable,” the clean, the well-spoken, the “right sort,” the Oxford men, the ones who know and revel in their difference from the ignorant, the slaves, the Baptist rubes, the ones who don’t go to Cambridge and don’t eat good lunches. Hitchens was of the oligarchs and shared their most intense privilege: the right not to have to take seriously their own lies and misdeeds.

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3 Responses to An Honest Atheist

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I haven't read Hitchens' book, and while I respect his rhetorical chops, I agree that he spent a lot of time playing to the gallery, taking plenty of cheap & hyperbolic shots along the way.

    For Bellah- he stated that he “believed” in all the traditions he covers. That hardly points to any kind of doctrinal adherence or respect for their analytic coherence. It points rather to their artistic accomplishment, making a form of ritual performance art that appeals to our deepest instincts and highest aspirations, fears, etc.

    The word “truth” gets bandied about here like a new age mantra. Well, if we are embodied knowers and storytellers first, what is the nature of that “truth”? Is it expressive of our psychological condition, or does it accurately show that E=MC2? I think you know the answer. The analytical level of knowledge and cognition, while it may not “move your world”, it describes it far more accurately than the other levels.

    You have to take your pick.. engage in an artistic, expressive endeavor, building social bonds on shared stories, etc. Or focus on analytic truth.. they are separate pursuits. The ironic thing is that while half-heartedly singing the praises of perfornmative and mythic levels of human engagement, Bellah's book was itself an example and product par excellence of an analytical mind and culture.


  2. Darrell says:

    “You have to take your pick.. engage in an artistic, expressive endeavor, building social bonds on shared stories, etc. Or focus on analytic truth..”

    Or you can do what Bellah and I are suggesting, which is both. But his greater point was which comes first and his other point was to undermine “our unexamined confidence in the absolute authority of reason and increase our confidence in other kinds of truth.” His book is a great example of an analytic mind realizing that any analysis must take into consideration truths beyond the empirical.


  3. JP says:

    In a spirit of balance, here's an answer to White's article, also published in Salon.


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