Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Boston Atheist: August 12 - August 18, 2007

Roger Scruton, writing in Prospect Magazine, is not surprised that "decent, skeptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others." Is he right, do we need an intervention by true reason, lest we be pushed by demagoguery into a irreligious nightmare.

The title of Scruton's essay is "The sacred and the human." I take his point to be that when the rabid 'new atheists' denounce religion, they are attacking a straw man that bears no functional resemblance to the mature and measured practices of actual believers. Biologist PZ Myers calls this a courtier's reply, referring to the rationalizations sputtered by the members of the Emperor's court when confronted by someone so audacious as to point out His Majesty's nakedness. Gordon Lynch, writing on The Guardian group blog "Comment is free", makes just this kind of mistake when he leaps from the observation that Dawkins writes books to the conclusion that the new atheism is of a kind with the media-savvy televangelists: "The sheer ferocity of many of the atheist critiques of religion also suggests that we are not in the territory of reasoned debate, but witnessing the birth pangs of a new, anti-religious cultural identity."

In the comments following Lynch's article, one writer says it is difficult to imagine an atheist hijacking an airplane or blowing up a bus. That's not true at all. Who among us can't imagine an anti-religious zealot with the poisoned will enough to build a bomb and explode it among Catholics in Mass or Muslims in mosque? I am surprised that Scruton doesn't predict this scenario as one of the monsters brought forth in the sleep of our collective reason.

This evening, I'd like to consider the increasing visibility of atheism, aspects of which are touched upon by all of the above authors. We will gather at seven in the private dining room at MC2 American Bistro in the Cambridge Marriott; ask for our group or my name at the hostess station when you arrive to be taken there. I shall have brought copies of the several articles mentioned here, and will read out a brief response, my own hope for a secular future -- which looks very little like Scruton's patronizing caricature. When we talk tonight, let us talk about what role atheists should take in deciding the future structure of the state and culture, and what principles should govern that future. Anyone wishing to step up on the soapbox to give their own thoughts on the matter will be invited to do so, before we table discussion and enjoy our usual relaxed godless gossip. You'll find these several articles related to this theme at http://atheists.meetup.com/59/files/, in PDF format.

Would anyone like to host a viewing of "The God Who Wasn't There" at their home in the first week of September? The next scheduled dinner meeting will be September 18th, at Boston Beerworks. Please suggest your preferred alternative location! RSVP at http://atheists.meetup.com/59/calendar/6159830/.

CHECK OUT: The Atheist Discussion Group (ADG) of Greater Boston.

In a blog post, the aforementioned Myers makes the point that people who kneel in prayer are NOT behaving metaphorically: "... if this god is a metaphor, why are people always building real monuments and cathedrals to him, and donating real money and effort to his worship? Why not just stay home on Sundays, watch football, and say you're metaphorically being religious?" The faithful really do tithe, vote according to the convictions of their faith, and infect their children with the toxic idea of original sin. [Source: Pharyngula, 07/18/07]

From Roger Zelazny's novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, 1969. The book was just reprinted after being notoriously hard to get ahold of for many years. This sacred muttering might be the most famous prayer in all of science fiction and fantasy.
Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

This article, about the stability of Canada's atheism population, makes the important point that atheists represent all socioeconomic classes, and come from every walk of life. The affirming message I see in this demographic data is that no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do, there's no reason to think you can't begin to think more rationally about the meaning of life. A gem of a quote from the study's author, sociologist Reg Bibby: "You may be a non-believer but that doesn't mean you're going to trash your grandma's long-held beliefs when you get together for a family reunion." [Source: Canada.com, 08/13/07]

Episcopal priest Borden Painter wants to block our movement into an increasingly rational, secular future. The inevitable outcome of such a campaign, he argues, is genocide and oppression. He feigns a willingness to consider his opponents, quoting Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": "All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse - the need to worship - can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed." Thus we return to Scruton's argument, that religion isn't about God, it's about the inborn need to be worship the sacred. By the way, Painter's opinion is ignorant, angry, prejudicial rubbish -- check the comments for confirmation, where the words "disingenuous," "dumb," and "yikes" are characteristic of readers' responses. [Source: Hartford Courant, 08/05/07]

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