Friday, December 18, 2015

Post-Theistic Conversation

It appears I'm going to get to quote myself.

I've heard a few times now, and sadly from some rather noteworthy figures, that my new book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, makes the critical mistake of asserting that now is the time to make the post-theistic turn (away from "atheism") when it is, quite obviously, not that time. Today, the ever-insightful Damion Reinhardt at the Skeptic Ink Network blog Background Probability joins that list in a thoughtful and concerned review.

Damion, writes a few things worth noting particularly, and I'll jump into a little discussion, clarification, and tedious quoting of myself after that.
It is a fine book, packed with sundry insightful ideas about how to move secular society forward, and I commend it to your reading. That is, I commend it with one major caveat: Ask yourself whether now is indeed the right time to go post-theistic. (emphasis original)
Damion, of course, thinks it is clearly not that time. He immediately takes a bat to my statement that New Atheism "did it's job; it changed the conversation" and likening it to a can opener, from which we would drop after opening the can, not continuing to use it for scooping out its contents. Damion wrote, abbreviating by leaving off the good argument he gave supporting his contention (which you can obviously click over to his blog and read for yourself),
The job of New Atheism is emphatically not to open the can and start a conversation about whether any gods are truly guiding humankind. 
I don't know how old Damion is, but I remember the 1990s pretty clearly, a decade not all that long ago and long after figures like Voltaire and Ingersoll. The conversation is changed. New Atheism made atheism and nonbelief standard articles of our culture, things you can talk about without having to hide, even in the hillbilly South. (I, for example, hid my own lack of belief from my own brother for almost a decade, which implies he hid his from me likewise.) At a party last night, I was asked by a Christian woman, "are you an atheist?" which was followed by "that's cool" when I replied, "sort of, but I don't take the label to myself anymore." A Jewish woman also found this non-controversial. Something is different than it was twenty years ago.

I should clarify what I think the goal of New Atheism is. To quote myself from the Introduction to Everybody Is Wrong About God on what I specifically identify as what New Atheism accomplished, in the paragraph preceding one Damion took objection to:
[New Atheism] defeated theism at the level of ideas and obliterated the taboo surrounding an open lack of belief in God, which was its main goal.
The latter of these two things is really the bigger, but in doing so, it made public all the arguments (and new ones) that Damion mentions in his defense of his point. Perhaps I should have added the word "popularly" before "defeated," looking at it in hindsight. But this is all a digression to make me feel better about his taking to that point with a verbal bat.

To the point of whether or not we should turn post-theistic now (or, really, toward it), I urge you to read my arguments in the book and critiques of everyone that provides them. My point really isn't to argue that in this blog post. Here, I want to address a very common misconception, that I think (or suggest) we should stop talking about religious belief.

To see what I mean, Damion gets to this soon after,
The proper mission of New Atheism is just the same as that taken up by every previous wave of freethought, that is, to liberate minds from received dogma. We are here to engender “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” whether those mental shackles come in the form of purported theistic revelation or otherwise.
Lindsay argues that it is time to move to a “fully post-theistic position, one where we consider theism beneath serious consideration” by which we stop “arguing against belief in God” and move on to the next step, were we leave talk about God behind entirely. (emphasis added, to make a point, not to point out the non sequitur lurking here)
To which he concludes, conveying some sense of horror at the suggestion,
Suppose we were all to take this advice, and immediately cease engaging with those who continue arguing for belief in God. Some few will still manage to free themselves from religious dogma by performing their own proactive literature review, applying the existing tools of epistemology and philosophy of religion to the intellectual scaffolding put in place by theistic apologists. Others will languish in their childhood faith, with none of their peers taking the trouble to challenge their worst ideas. I’m fairly confident that I would have ended up in the latter category myself, but for a scrappy band of atheological counterapologists who took my peculiar theistic delusions seriously enough to show me exactly where I had gone wrong. (emphasis added because I don't know where I gave that advice, ever)
Of course, I made the case in several places in the book that we should have easily accessible anthologies of rebuttals to stock theistic arguments and encourage their spread, so I won't bother with that misconception again. I also think that stories like his aren't uncommon and are hopeful. The thing is, he had to care where he had gone wrong before those "atheological counterapologists" (:cringe:) could really impact him. My book is, circumstantially, about addressing why many believers don't. New Atheism will save people like Damion, but it won't save the majority of people I know down here in East Tennessee. Ever.

Damion, though, also objects to my claim that eventually, as we turn post-theistic, we, as a culture, won't take theism seriously enough anymore to argue against it (rather like how we already treat street preachers). He puts it eloquently,
So long as at least one person that I care about takes any delusional belief seriously and allows it to guide their actions, I will take that belief seriously as a threat to their health and well-being. This holds true for theistic and secular utopian faiths no less than chiropractic subluxations and homeopathic medicine. Rationalism has no shelf life, so long as at least some people are suffering from their faith-based beliefs.
Good for him. This is an effort, if properly directed, that I fully applaud and encourage. And now that I've quoted the majority of his review, I'll stop and get to some thoughts and the laborious displeasure of quoting things I already wrote.

First, I'll mention that it's curious that he brought up chiropractic and homeopathy, given the utter lack of effectiveness arguing against those has proved--see this fun New York Times piece from October of this year. Or maybe the anti-vaccination people are worth bringing up, given the huge consequences of their adherence to dead-wrong bullshit and the studies showing that arguing with them and educating them simply doesn't work and often makes it worse.

Now I'll mention that what Damion (and Loftus) fear isn't what I actually advocate and isn't what I mean by a post-theistic position. To be clear, I don't think we should stop talking about beliefs, but we should do so differently. I must have done something wrong since I feel like the single best sentence for accurately marketing Everybody Is Wrong About God is "It's time to change the conversation about God." Change. Not end.

That said, I think it's time to quote myself a little instead of explaining this again.

When I say that theism has lost and "atheism" has won--and that we should therefore go post-theistic--what I'm saying is that the intellectual and philosophical legs that theism has enjoyed up until recently have been completely cut out from under it, nothing more. In other words, I think it's time to stop arguing about theism in the terms of theism. There are other ways to engage the topic, and there are other much more fruitful endeavors to turn our attention to.

One of the main ideas presented, repeatedly in fact, in the book is that if people feel like they have the psychological and social space to leave their religious beliefs, they often will. Efforts that work to create that space--secularism, critical thinking, social environments, socioeconomic security, community, contextualization of death, humanist ethical systems, etc.--are what I advocate over most of the arguing about philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) stuff. None of these are "atheism," though, and none of them are helped by branding them that way. (emphasis original)
And from a different post:
I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.
And another from this same different post:
Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation. (emphasis and bold in original) 
Of course, I don't expect that Damion had read those posts, so I'll quote a bit from the book as well.

Here's a pretty definitive statement from the Introduction:
It could be misunderstood that placing theism beneath serious consideration is just an attempt to shut down discussion, but it is, in fact, a strategic maneuver designed to facilitate productive conversations that move us forward. The goal isn’t to shut down any discussion, particularly not in an authoritarian way. Instead, we should shift our mentality and admit that the terms of theism aren’t serious and are therefore not owed serious consideration.
There also, I argue that we should now consider approaching things in a different way:
Over the idea of God, like with racism, there are two battles being fought at the same time, and they tend to get conflated. On one front, there is a war of ideas, which I claim has ended with the notion of God as the clear loser. On the other is a cultural fight, and that will endure for some time, maybe indefinitely. We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today. The cultural fight is mostly distinct from the arguments over the idea, and it must be fought in a different way. (emphasis added)
Adding to that point, also in the Introduction:
...apparently straightforward questions like “does God exist?” and thus “is theism true?” only seem to have meanings, but it is not clear that they do. These phrases, and the terms in them, are best characterized by perpetually seeming to elude any clarity at all. What this tells us is plain and the subject of this book: we’re talking about the whole thing the wrong way.
Clearly, I'm making a point that we should try talking about it in the right way instead, and that we probably shouldn't stop talking about it at all. In case my meaning isn't clear, also from the Introduction:
Religious beliefs and conviction to those beliefs by faith are relevant matters in the world today, along with their consequences, but theism itself is not. We must stop pretending that the meanings usually given to words like “God” and “soul” should be taken on their own terms. Of course, it isn’t that we don’t have some idea of what people mean by these words. It’s that the terms, as they are intended, are misleading and should be rejected as such. (emphasis added)
I hope it's clearly implied that "relevant matters in the world today" should continue being vigorously discussed. The rest of the paragraph gives a hint as to how. Later in the Introduction, I mention,
I insist that the time to drop this thankless job [arguing for the obvious, that there is no God] is either very near or upon us already. It is time to keep making the noises, beset by religious dogma as we still are, without pushing “atheism.” (emphasis added)
I'm getting the impression I think we should probably keep having these conversations. How about you? Still, just to really make the point clear, though, I'll quote the Introduction once more:
One might worry that theism will “win” simply by its refusal to go away—rather like we must continually address certain kinds of medical infections to prevent them from festering. If we were just dropping the matter entirely and walking away from culturally relevant discussions, there is little doubt that this would be the case. Giving up isn’t the goal. Instead, we are moving away from treating theism as if it has any theoretical legs to stand on in serious discussions, such as in academics and politics. ... We shouldn’t continue to conflate the debate over the idea of theism, which is over, with the needed cultural shift away from it, which is not. (emphasis added)
So, in the first thirty or so pages of the book, noting that I just grabbed a few passages as they jumped out at me, I think it's fair to say that I may even overstate my point that the conversation is to be changed, not ended, almost like I anticipated people wouldn't get it.

But let's continue a bit, mostly so I can share a few more little excerpts to give more flavor of what's really written in my book that so many are apparently so reluctant to open (this being a common comment I keep seeing all over the place, not something I believe Damion is guilty of).

Chapter 1 says,
To be sure, the conversation about “God” need not be put in terms of theism at all, although this statement is likely to seem profoundly controversial. In fact, it is the other way around. It is rather astounding that we seem unable to see where to place the terminology of this conversation if not in theism. There is no mystery whatsoever to where we should look to make sense of the word “God.” The term is personal, and the term is cultural. Psychology—which is to say the working of the human mind—is the obvious locus for the actual, nonmythological meaning of the term “God.”
And adds,
But God is a mythological object and thus emphatically not best treated philosophically because philosophy takes the idea too seriously in the wrong way. Philosophical terms should be jettisoned, then, and we should address “God” in terms of what it actually seems to do for people. We should also recognize theism as a pseudo-philosophical position instead of a properly philosophical one. (emphasis original)
And then,
What we cannot ignore, then, is that the word “God” does mean something, and that something has nothing to do with theism. Something that nonbelievers are sorely missing when it comes to handling the fact of religious belief in our world is a nontheistic account of the term “God.”
In Chapter 3, where Damion complains that I'm wrong to say arguing against religious belief has a shelf life, I continue from what he quoted in this way,
Note, however, that taking theism seriously enough to shoot it down has to have a shelf life. As theism becomes less and less meaningful culturally, antitheism becomes less and less appropriate. There is little reason to argue against something that most of us don’t take seriously. Ignoring it, scoffing at it, and outright making fun of it are sufficient to the task at that point. (emphasis added)
We'll come back to "outright making fun of it," which is a way, by the way, to continue talking about it--a very effective way. But I go on two paragraphs later to write,
People in this position realize that the vague, hence meaningless, general use of the term “God” is best ignored as unclear and irrelevant while the specific uses of the term are to be rejected for being incorrect and misleading.
I do this before devoting an entire short section to an example of how post-theistic conversations can be done well, citing the debate between physicist Sean Carroll and Christian apologist William Lane Craig in 2014--a clear example of conversation continuing. That section concludes,
[Carroll] directly states that theism is “not well-defined,” and his attitude is that because it isn’t well-defined, it isn’t a serious (cosmological) model. He does, however, take pains before, during, and after this set of comments to shoot down Craig’s arguments where they were specific enough to be commented upon. In this debate, Carroll gave us a perfect example of how post-theistic people, especially highly qualified ones, should handle the sophistry of theism.
I'm getting very near, or well beyond, belaboring this point, but I'll mention here that a third of the seventh chapter, about uprooting faith (as aggravated many a person on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog), is dedicated to the application of satire. The other two thirds are dedicated to directing people to engage in conversations of the Street Epistemology kind (see Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists) and that guide people into taking the Outsider Test for Faith (see John W. Loftus's The Outsider Test for Faith).

Before wrapping this up with a couple more quotes from near the end of the book, should it not have been conveyed that I make the point of my goal being to change (not end) the conversation, I'll note that the exact phrase "conversation and compromise," indicating something that I think is central to what we need to be having, appears no less than six times in the book, every single time in a context that indicates its importance.

That said, the ninth chapter is specifically about how we should "unthink" atheism and do things differently, and it notes,
The goal is to have open, honest conversations that move people away from myth and toward more fruitful and solidly grounded topics, and achieving that is an art that often requires swallowing a lot of pride and frustration. Figuring out which activities are good and bad uses of our time is important, and of all the things listed here, it is probably the most straightforward once we’re honest about what the term “God” means. Anything that treats theism on its own terms, except in particular one-on-one conversations meant to help people uproot their faith, is probably a waste of time. That which sees “God” in the light of psychosocial needs that people have and do not know how else to meet is likely to be fruitful. (emphasis added)
I don't know how to get clearer than that on the point that I think we should keep having conversations about this stuff. To wind down, though, and perhaps in bad form (spoiler alert?), I'll actually put the last paragraph of the book here too.
This is possible. Knowing that “God” doesn’t mean what people think it means clarifies the entire discussion and improves our approach. If we have a sense of where we’re going, a sense of where we are, and a sense of what the terrain between is like, charting a course will be straightforward. Our charge is to do just that, no longer wrong about God. (emphasis added)
Hopefully that clears this up a little. Really. I'm not asking anyone to end the conversation. I want the conversation to keep going, but I want it to proceed in a way that is properly informed on its topic.

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