Continuing my independent (i.e. not directly for the podcast) reading into the atheism debate:
Nearly done with the Karen Armstrong book. This is a good bit of secondary literature, with short summaries of the views re. God of a really impressively wide range of historical figures. Her overall view is that of apophatic, or negative theology, which is to say that an essential part of our experience is that language has limits, and that it helps us to get through life’s hardships if we can engage with this pull within us towards transcendence through devoted practice of some sort (ritual) and symbolic gestures (myths) towards this unknowable. Religious dogma and literalism entirely miss the point, and consequently atheistic attacks on these weak “fundamentalist” positions also miss the point. I’ve not sorted out exactly what I think about this but now have a number of potential authors for us to look at to explore this position.
I’ve also started a book Wes likes to bash, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. I am initially pretty amused by it: a great work of original philosophy it is not, but it’s more thorough than I expected (given that he’s a non-philosopher!), and given that I’m sympathetic with the position on a political level, it doesn’t make me gnash my teeth in the way that a pro-religion book of equal erudition might. (And if anyone wants to recommend such a book to me, I might take a look…)
Dawkins’s book is not purely political, in that it does try to address, on all fronts, the readers’ possible reasons for believing in any kind of supernatural agency, but it surely is political, meaning that unlike Nietzsche or Freud who just found God an indefensible concept that required no refutation in their pursuit of truth, Dawkins is presenting a handbook for atheists to respond to the variety of pro-religious arguments, with the avowed aim of making atheism more mainstream by encouraging atheists to “come out of the closet.” He uses this gay analogy more than once.
We should well know by now that, politically, the important thing is not how good the arguments are, but how many people are making them, and how loudly. The arguments against gay marriage are and have always been pitiful, but it’s only been as advocates of the practice have become more socially prominent and numerous that the tide of public opinion and law has swept in the direction of its support.
Throughout most of my intellectual life (i.e. through college and grad school), I’ve cared almost nothing for politics, and in fact saw dwelling on political matters as a distraction from dealing with actual problems in your own life, just like wrapping yourself up in a sports team on which you do not play or any other kind of escapism. With a largely skeptical conclusion about my own powers of certainty and not seeing a lot of practical result of what insights I feel I have gained, using philosophical argument for political purposes seems one of the only potentially useful possibilities left for my experience. Still, most political arguments are themselves impotent: what does it matter if I add my voice, even with some additional subtlety, to the additional voices already out there preaching to the choir against conservatism or war or whatever? Putting on daily re-enactments on one’s blog of the Scopes monkey trial would just be irritating.
At this point, I’ll just raise contra Wes’s post re. skepticism the point that Dawkins’s atheism does not involve reaching beyond the bounds of the knowable to make claims with certainty about God’s non-existence. We can’t KNOW there’s no God, but Dawkins thinks that we have reasons to think God’s existence highly unlikely, and that’s really the point at issue: whether we can, or even must as a practical matter, make rough probability judgments about such matters.