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Another myth about atheism

Here is a Guardian Face to Faith Piece by Nicholas Buxton. It perpetuates a whole series of myths about atheism and the Enlightenment.

Buxton is in fact more or less quoting from Rowan Williams' Dimbleby Lecture in which Williams claims that only a religious tradition makes "possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of a society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market." Buxton would have us believe only the religious ever really question our shallow commercial culture. They alone are the "free thinkers".

As an atheist philosopher who has spent half a lifetime asking such questions as whether there’s a God, whether life has meaning, what makes things right and wrong, whether there may be life after death, and whether there is anything beyond the material, I find it surprising that Buxton and the Archbishop would pretend that it’s only from the perspective of a religious tradition that such questions ever get asked.

The great religious traditions do not have a monopoly on addressing the most fundamental and challenging issues. They share that honour with the secular, philosophical tradition (which is, of course, also older than the Christian tradition).

And one advantage of a more philosophical approach to such questions (which certainly doesn’t rule out religious answers, of course) is that it doesn’t prejudge the issue. Rather than approaching such questions in a genuinely critical, open-minded way, religious enquirers have often already made up their minds: they’ve already decided that only a religious answer will do. In the hands of the faithful, questions like “What is the meaning of life?” may be asked, not in the spirit of sincere, open-minded enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to recruit more true believers.

Perhaps we need more philosophy, not more religion.


anticant said…
Sounds like a load of tosh to me. After a lifetime's discipleship, I've almost stopped reading the 'Guardian' nowadays, since this shallow-minded editorial lot took over and their misnamed "Comment is Free" site gets more and more PC and predictably boring.

Religious folk stake their pitch on the claim that they alone know the really important secret of life. The true secret is that there isn't any such secret.
Anonymous said…
"The true secret is that there isn't any such secret"
Who told you that: God?
Anonymous said…
To define Philosophy against religion reduces philosophy to a mere adjunct of anti-clerical ideology and therefore degrades philosophy.
Anonymous said…
You write:
"The great religious traditions do not have a monopoly on addressing the most fundamental and challenging issues. They share that honour with the secular, philosophical tradition (which is, of course, also older than the Christian tradition)."

Your view of what is religion seems to be limited to the narrow confessional kind. More correctly secular should be opposed to religious and in this sense Plato and Aristotle were both religious thinkers. The Judeo part of the Judeo Christian tradition had thinkers who asked probing questions cf. The Book of Job. Need I mention the Vedas and the Upanishads and Buddhist thought . In fact it is arguable that prior to the European Enlightenment there were hardly any thinkers of note who were not religious.
Stephen Law said…

Thanks for the comment. The vast majority of philosophers who now address these questions are atheists. It is simply not true that only religion addresses these questions. That was my point. It stands, I take it?

True, historically, many philosophical thinkers have also been religious (even Aristotle and Plato were pagans). It doesn't follow that their approach to or motivation in asking these questions was invariably religious. It pretty obviously wasn't.

Unless you are now using "religious" so loosely that even an atheist like myself comes out as "religious"?

But in any case, the fact is, isn't it, that Williams is wrong?
Anonymous said…

To call Plato and Aristotle pagans is an anachronism. That they were religious thinkers is beyond question in that from the earliest times their thought has been part of a mystical tradition.

Whether most contemporary philosophers are atheists is a moot point. Has anyone done a poll on this? If it is a covert claim that a goodly section of serious thinkers are atheists and therefore if you are one then you are likely to be an atheist; that would come under the rubric of 'free header'. Would it matter whether an analytic philosopher were an atheist, theist or Rosicrucian? How many philosophers of the first rank are declared atheists?

I accept that you are an atheist and a serious thinker about ultimate question and I will allow you your rood of exterior darkness. Was Williams wrong? Would that man on the Clapham omnibus ever come to ponder those questions unless they had been mentioned for his consideration in church, chapel, meeting house, temple or mosque? I think that is perhaps the core problem rather than what the illuminati are getting up to.
Anonymous said…
"Philosophical idealists" seems like the more appropriate label for Plato and Aristotle as well as for most of the great ones among their successors (Plotinus, Leibnitz, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Bergson). In either case it is abusive to present them as alternatives to religion as their belief in such things as entelechy, spirit, conscience, will etc. is of greater appeal to religious people, than to anti-religious thinkers.
Stephen Law said…
Let me get this right - anonymous and Micheal are seriously defending the view that it is only from a religious point of view that the Big Questions ever get asked.

That was the view I attacked. That is the view you two are defending, right?

PS. Plato and Aristotle and Plato were at least nominally pagans, surely. Paganism being the religion of the day. Michael, you seem to think paganism = atheism? Have I misunderstood?

PPS. TPM did a poll: the majority of philosophers are atheists. I'll try to get the details...
Stephen Law said…
By the way, anonymous, I did not say philosophy ruled out religious answers. In fact I said quite clearly that it did not.

Whether their philosophical theories and ideas would or would not appeal to religious folk is simply irrelevant to the question of whether the motivation of Plato, Aristotle, etc. and their approach to answering these questions was religious.

In any case, even if it was, which I doubt, my point is that religion does not have a monopoly on those questions. Nor, Michael, is it only those who dwell in ivory towers that tackle these questions from a religion-free perspective. Take kids. Children are struck by the basic philosophical questions from a young age (why is there anything at all? what makes things right or wrong? is it wrong to eat meat, what happens when we die? etc,). The impulse to ponder on these things seems to be innate. We all have it. Do you want to call it "religious"?

If so, that makes me "religious".
Anonymous said…
Stephen Law believes in practicing what the French call "amalgame" and the anglo-americans, guilt by association.

Anonymous did not defend the view that it is only from a religious perspective that the big questions can be discussed.

(Michael reidy himself does not appear to have claimed that; he'll be able to defend himself on that point. Stephen law, however, may have a harder time defending himself from the suspicion he likes smearing those who object to his views, as dogmatic and intolerant obscurantists. Not a very elegant debating tactic.)

Anonymous did point out that the greater Philosophers, the Classics, the ones who have stood the test of time (from Plato to Bergson), have been idealists, not atheists; that surely idealism, in so far as that it explains whatever there is to be explained by means of non material agents, is more congenial to religious folk than it is to atheists; and that to oppose philosophy to religion therefore misrepresents philosophy and the philosophic tradition.

(Perhaps Stephen Law is reducing all philosophy to an XVIIIth century philosophical movement, itself reduced to D'Holbach and Helvetius and therefore shorn of its frequent association with what the scholars refer to as Deism.)
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous

I didn't assert you were defending the Williams view that its only from a religious perspective that the big questions get asked. I asked if that is the view you are defending.

You know, because that's what this post is about, and I wanted to be clear.

Also, I didn't say philosophy ruled out religious answers. I said it didn't. I never said that philosophy is opposed to religion in that sense. My view is that philosophy isn't opposed to religion, in that sense.

BTW are you the same anonymous that is now commenting on my intelligent design post? There is a certain similarity of style, so I guessed you might be the same person.
Stephen Law said…
BTW there was supposed to be a question mark at the end of the first sentence of my 7.56 post. But it's clear enough it's a question, I would have thought?

Anyway, yes, it's a question.

So, anonymous, are you defending that view, or not?
Stephen Law said…
Michael also said earlier:

"The Judeo part of the Judeo Christian tradition had thinkers who asked probing questions cf. The Book of Job."

Yes, I never said the religious cannot think philosophically. Obviously they can. Christians too (Aquinas, Augustine, Plantinga et al).

My point is that you don't have to be religious to think philosophically. Religion does not have a monopoly on thinking philosophically.

As I say, children tend to start pondering philosophical questions anyway, whether they are exposed to religion or not.

I am amazed at how strong a response my (I would have thought) fairly modest point has provoked.

I am guessing it is because I am challenging a myth popular with the faithful - that atheists are rather more shallow than them?
Anonymous said…
Plato and Aristotle couldn't be pagans because Christianity hadn't arrived yet. Off the top of my head the term pagan refers to civilian or countryman probably cognate with paysan/paisano. The Christians referred to themselves as milites/militant soldiers of Christ and whether that was figurative or was a usage of the legions that were Christian at the time I'm not absolutely sure. Which or whether pagan does not apply to P & A. Neither were they atheists.

Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics X.9/20)
"Now some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. Nature's part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of some divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate, while argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men, but the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed."

Pagan is in any case a derogatory term and was in the past applied to all non-christians. It's best dropped.

No Stephen I don't think that religious folk have a monopoly on deep thinking and neither I would wager do Buxton or Williams. Nor having read both their pieces do I think that B. was parroting W. It was just a general spiritual weather report from a religious point of view. I don't for instance think that you are cogging Baggini's work nor has any invigilator caught you looking into Stangroom's soul (ta Woody). Trade gossip.

When children pass the age of wonder and do not thereafter encounter philosophy in a structured form, the spirit of inquiry may wither or be overwhelmed. How do people develop the critical tools to assess the values that are being thrust upon them. The present rise in the publication of non technical philosophical books for beginners is an indication of a felt need. There's also the Church. You've got your stall, go for it and the blessings of Descartes be upon you.
Stephen Law said…

I guess we are just using "pagan" differently.It's a v loose term. Not much hangs on it here, in any case.

Thanks for the encouragement re setting out my stall.

all the best

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