Wednesday, October 12, 2016

you better believe it

While in a lot of ways I think the religious-focused topics on In Our Time on Radio 4 are among the least interesting ones they do, there's always just the possibility that they'll set Melvyn Bragg off on one of his occasional tirades against "militant" atheism. He had just the suspicion of a moment during last week's programme about Lakshmi, but I think in the end either his heart wasn't really in it or he realised that he didn't really know where he was going to take it. I've gone to the trouble of listening to it back a few times and I think this is a pretty accurate transcript:
I mean, the thing about these, these stories is that we tend - some people, foolishly, foolish people, tend to, foolishly, belittle them, but they're - I think they're heroic, and they're very moving, again and again, whichever civilisation - these are people like us, without the tools of knowledge which we have, the caravan has not moved on and yet they're determined to make sense of the world, where they came from, what happens in every particular and they determinedly create these things, it's amazing to see; well, to read.
You could see where he was going with the first bit; it's the same complaint as he made a while back (while, entirely coincidentally, plugging his latest book), on that occasion with much more explicit reference to Richard Dawkins, always the go-to guy for people wishing to paint atheists as some sort of humourless secular Taliban. The accusation he was making is a huge straw man anyway: no-one "belittles" the stories as stories, or claims that as stories they are of no value or cultural interest. People do, however, point out that historically a lot of people have believed that these stories were literally true, and that this is of course nonsense.

The concern seems to be (and let's not forget, Bragg self-identifies as an atheist) that if you take all these charming and fascinating old stories - and they are charming and fascinating, from an anthropological and cultural perspective, as well as being intermittently ridiculous, bloodthirsty and horrific - and explicitly make the observation that they aren't actually factual re-tellings of events that actually took place (and, in this specific case, that Lakshmi doesn't actually exist), that will somehow suck all the air out of them like a punctured football and they will be drained of all value and interest. I actually don't think this is true, and in any case Bragg and his guests happily threw phrases like "creation myth" around, and most definitions of "myth" implicitly or explicitly include the idea of its describing something fictitious. And yet still there seemed to be the idea that if someone actually said: wait a minute, let's just be clear, none of this stuff about floating around on a lotus flower over an ocean of milk is actually true, is it? - that some precious fragile thing would be shattered and lost forever, and moreover that such an observation would be harsh or "disrespectful" in some way. I was put in mind of the old Monty Python sketch about building blocks of flats by hypnosis, and them being perfectly safe as long as the residents kept believing in them.

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