Monday, February 06, 2012

scraping de botton of de barrel

A bit more on the Alain de Botton atheist temple/tower debacle and associated matters, if you don't mind. Just to ease us into things, and to set the appropriate tone, here's the excellent Charlie Brooker on de Botton from way back in 2005 capturing his essence pretty accurately: absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man - a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane - yet if you pick up one of his books and read it cover to cover, you'll come away with less insight into the human condition than if you'd worked your way through a copy of Mr Tickle instead.
Here's a thing that you'll notice if you spend any time hanging out on the internet in the vicinity of discussions about religion - the increasingly high profile of what you might call "out" atheism has created a niche between it and orthodox religion that quite a few people have been only too keen to slot into. The trick here is to sell yourself as a sort of more cuddly, more reasonable sort of atheist, only too keen to try and foster mutual "respect" between belief and unbelief, even to engage in "interfaith activism". You might even be a supposed atheist who "really aspires to be a person of faith some day", for fuck's sake, as if that makes any sense.

In addition to this, you need to sell yourself as someone in a unique position to criticise both sides of the argument, but in reality to spend all of your time distancing yourself from those nasty "shrill" destructive divisive atheists who are actually clear and unambiguous about what they think and why. Then you need to start accepting lucrative grants from the Templeton Foundation to "explore" the science/religion debate, on the understanding that it is already pre-determined what the answer will be: science and religion are totes compatible, and no-one has to abandon their faith in the face of the overwhelming evidence that all the premises it's built upon are laughably wrong. So if those shrill atheists would just sit down and stop rocking the boat, then everything would be nice and nice.

As I said in my previous frothings on the subject, the way to decode the "shrill atheists" meme is to substitute the word "uppity" for "shrill". You can substitute the word "nigger" for "atheist" while you're at it, if you like.

Maybe Britishness and our general reflexive desire not to give offence is partly to blame: I strongly suspect that there's an element of that in the manufactroversy over Sir David Attenborough's appearance on Desert Island Discs a week or so ago, during the course of which he pronounced himself unable to completely rule out the possibility of a deity overseeing the running of the universe, and therefore unleashed an entirely predictable parade of cretins going AHA!!! see, he's an agnostic, and he knows absolutely tons, so you must be wrong. I absolutely understand the desire not to offend needlessly, or draw attention away from what he feels to be his core concerns, i.e. natural history, but really it's better just to be clear. Otherwise you tempt people who might otherwise be content to stay indoors licking the windows to come out with drivel like this Daily Mail article. It's got "shrill" in the title, for goodness' sake. See if you can parse this sentence into making any sense at all:
There's something divine in the air. Agnostics and atheists are beginning to nod respectfully in the direction of the Almighty, while still, of course, maintaining that He's not there.
No? Me neither. It seems to be nodding towards something that de Botton was saying during his vacuous TED talk; that even if you're an atheist it's axiomatic that there is still a religion-shaped hole in your life that you're going to need to fill with something lest you turn into a cold-hearted dead-eyed soulless godless killing machine. Personally I tend to view the hole left by religion as being analogous to the big ragged bloody hole left after the surgical removal of some giant cancerous tumour: sure, it's real, but we don't tend to sit around wringing our hands and moaning "but what will replace the cancer?", we just recognise that we're all going to get along better all round without it. Top marks for whoever picked the stock photos for the Mail article though for finding a supremely grumpy-looking picture of Dawkins.

There really is a need not to give any ammunition to people who have an interest in perpetuating the "atheism = religion" meme; it seems a bit unreasonable to assign any blame to what you might call "accommodationist" atheism for an article as cretinous as this one by Frank Furedi in Spiked, but I do think misguided attempts to be polite and "inclusive" are probably counterproductive. Incidentally you can have a lot of fun with Spiked, a publication a lot of whose core values I admire, at least in theory, by seeing how many articles they can shoehorn their bizarre anti-environmentalist stance into. There's a brief reference in the article linked above, and they even manage to shoehorn a paragraph into a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. I mean, yes, the 9/11 terrorists may have killed 3,000 people in the name of Islam, but at least they weren't trying to make the world a better place. The bastards.

On a similar subject here's the occasionally nutty but always entertaining Bill Maher on the subject of atheism as a religion.

There is a serious corollary to this, which is that the more you bang on in a woolly and ill-thought-out fashion about "respect", and bend over backwards not to risk causing offence to even the most rabid religious lunatics, the more you encourage the sort of situation that occurred in Jaipur last week where a rabble of nutters were able to prevent Salman Rushdie appearing at a literary festival, or, nearer home (for me at least), the utter nonsense that's been going down at UCL and LSE over some Jesus & Mo cartoons lately.

And do the supposedly fair and balanced accommodationist types speak out strongly about this stuff, like they do when someone like Dawkins commits the unforgivable sin of clarity? In general, no, they do not.

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