Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Atheists, fundamentalists, and the rest

I forget who leveled the accusation, but I've heard it said that atheists tend to acknowledge and respond to fundamentalist branches more than religious liberals. If I remember correctly, this was said to be particularly true of the "New Atheists" (a term that seems to mean "atheists I don't like" to believers). Despite polls showing that at least some fundamentalist like beliefs are more common than many liberals admit, I felt some sympathy for the claim. Certainly an issue with someone like Hitchens is the non-empirical approach to religion that overlooks religious diversity. One doesn't get a glimpse of either the breadth or depth of human religious experience from his writing, and for that apparent lack of understanding, his arguments suffer.

Yesterday PZ Myers pulled out the stops and picked apart an interview with Karl Giberson with the same fervor one expects from him. Read it if you haven't.

Quoth PZ:
He is not a literalist looking for a bearded man in the sky described in the bible, but instead has this vague metaphorical notion that if he melts down the bible in the philosophical flux of his personal beliefs, he'll be able to extract something ethereal and true from its words — a beautiful, loving, personal god who thinks he is really, really important and wants to give him eternal life in a paradise. That's his Madonna-in-a-pita, his credulous imposition of an expected pattern on the swirling chaos of generations of ravings and noise and poetry that is the Christian faith. I suspect he is sincere in his delusion.

[...] It's all pareidolia, pure and simple, and there is no reason given that we should respect that — it's simply assumed that all matters of faith deserve reverence.

Once literalism is abandoned, all that seems to be left is one's intuition, which leads to self-serving bias. From my outsider perspective, it seems as if liberals take from the literature that which they feel is true. When the supposedly Big Questions are discussed, I don't see the important questions being asked:
  1. How do we know this is true?

  2. How would you know if it wasn't true?

Considering the number of supernatural explanations for events that we have eliminated, I don't see how a supernatural explanation for what Giberson experiences as religion is any more likely than a supernatural explanation for Our Lady of the Cheese Sandwich.

Though their targets are often literalists, the questions on the epistemology of religious claims asked by even the least empirical of the New Athiests seem to apply. Why not Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How do we know we can trust your intuition and not that of someone else? What methods of evaluating sources apply in syncretic or salad bar practices? Outside of an extremely liberal position like that of many Unitarians, it seems to me that even a liberal Christianity has its basis in at least the Gospels being true, and as Greta Christina points out, it's not clear to me that even these are accepted in full even without questioning their historical worth.

Personally, I don't mind others practicing their religions so long as they respect the rights of others to do - or not do - the same. I've backed off from religious topics in part because I feel the need to regroup and find a strategy that allows nonreligious and the liberalists to fend off the literal-minded together. But at the same time, I think our culture is ready to progress to a period where we can be publicly skeptical of any public figure who claims to know answers to the Big Questions. It's not about being hostile, it's about uncovering the truth and acknowledging the limits to our knowledge.

Conclusions only acquire worth through the method used to reach them. It's not clear to me that the religion of someone like Giberson represents anything more than wishful thinking, and I don't see any reason to respect it intellectually.

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