Monday, July 21, 2014

Book review - Know Nothing: The true history of atheism.

Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer
reviewed by Michael Robbins
To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)
Nick Spencer begins his spirited history of atheism with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, people lived in ignorant superstition, offering sacrifices to monsters in the sky. Then some clever folks used special weapons called “science” and “reason” to show that the monsters had never really existed in the first place. Some of these clever folks were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in the monsters.
Spencer’s point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. (Spencer focuses on Europe, whence modern atheism arose, and hence on Judeo-Christianity.) Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. (“You seriously believe in God?” “Well, how do you explain thunder?”)
A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live. “You must change your life,” as the broken statue of the god Apollo seems to say in Rilke’s poem. Science does not—it isn’t designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls “the conduct of life.” Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion “is a scientific theory,” “a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life.” This is—if you’ll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit... read more: