Opera Sins *** (3 stars)
Thursday 19th August: 4.30pm
Friday 20th August: 4.30pm
Monday 23rd August: 4.30pm
Wednesday 25th August: 2.30pm
Thursday 26th August: 4.30pm
St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street; £12.50 (£8.50)
See here for more information: http://www.edinburghstudioopera.com/2010/08/30/opera-sins-fringe-2010/
Yesterday afternoon I made along to St Andrew’s and St George’s church to see the latest offering from relative Fringe newcomers, the University of Edinburgh affiliated “Edinburgh Studio Opera”. I didn’t quite know what to expect from what was essentially an opera sketch show, but at £12.50 for a one-hour performance I had high expectations.
The production took place in a beautiful oval church, with the entire building being used at various points during the scenes to greater or lesser effect. The nature of the venue dictated that there was no stage lighting to speak of, but the beauty of the surroundings and the limited costume and set combined to produce an atmosphere akin to a private performance occurring in an opulent drawing room, rather than a bawdy public spectacle, and thus the lack of “theatrical” lighting was of no detriment to the performance, and even added to the atmosphere. Nick Fletcher (Musical Director) provided a strong accompaniment to the scenes on the grand piano, and has successfully drilled the cast (who for the most part could not see him at the piano) in dynamics, expression and tempi. No mean feat with such a large, strong-voiced cast!
The scenes opened with the sin “Greed” portrayed through a scene from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. Having been involved in a production of this myself (as Marco in 2006) I know how fiendishly difficult some of the larger ensemble numbers are. The scene revolved around the relatives of the recently deceased Buoso Donati, who were frantically trying to find his last will and testament. All voices were uniformly strong in this piece as the performers rushed around stage frantically trying to find the elusive parchment, eventually retrieved from the pulpit by the lovesick Rinuccio (Joe Doody), much to the consternation of his fellows. The audience’s enjoyment of this well-staged, vocally robust scene was emphasized by the extra whoops and cheers provided for the unfortunate soul who had to lie motionless from the moment the audience entered until the end of the scene. I still preferred the way we did it in 2006 though…
This excellent introduction was unfortunately followed by a particularly weak scene from Monteverdi’s,“L’incoronazione Di Poppea” depicting “Pride”. The disappointment induced by this scene was not the fault of either of the singers, but simply because the music was dull, revolving around an uninspiring dialogue between two lovers. Halfway through I admit I gave up following the translation in my programme. One would have thought that a better example of pride could have been found amongst the multitude of scenes and arias at the production team’s disposal…
Next we were treated to Jerome Knox’s powerful rendition of a popular aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – Non più andrai. Whilst the singing of all performers in this scene was up to scratch, something about the scene just felt a little flat. Maybe it is because I am comparing the scene to Opera Ireland’s excellent production (Dublin, 2008), but I don’t think I agreed with the Director (George Ransley)’s decision to go with Gilbert & Sullivan-esque physical actions to accompany the words being sung on stage. However, this blocking did ensure that those audience members who had not paid fifty pence for a programme, or were unfamiliar with aria, knew what was going on.
Things were quickly back to their impressive beginnings with the fourth deadly sin, “Wrath”, depicted in this context by a scene from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. I have never heard this opera before but after this taster I am most definitely going to have a look for it. The music was gorgeous and lush, with Suzanne McGrath’s soprano (Ellen) soaring elegantly over the awe-inspiring sounds of the ethereal chorus in the gallery behind the audience. The chorus was led by an equally commanding Frankie Powlesland as the Reverend, and although Ian McBain did not get to sing anything as John, his portrayal of the young apprentice was touching and complemented McGrath’s performance nicely.
“Gluttony”, my favourite of the seven deadly sins, was portrayed through another excellent piece of music – the scene from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel where the young children find the gingerbread house in the woods. This was another new piece of music for me, and another piece that I am definitely going to try and track down. The performances from Rachel Timney (Hansel) and Laura Reading (Gretel) definitely made this scene, their voices being up to the task, and some of the expressions of delight on their faces being worthy of Hallmark. It was lucky that their performances were so strong as the staging for this scene was virtually non-existent. It was a clever idea to have chocolate lowered down from the gallery, and I know it would be impossible for a fringe show to produce an edible gingerbread house, but it felt somewhat cruel to leave the performers wandering aimlessly around the audience for such a long period of time.
“Envy” was portrayed in another bizarrely chosen scene from Rameau’s “Zoroastre”. It seems that the performers (Gareth McGuigan and Lauren Fraser) drew the short straw in being allocated this scene, as both had robust voices which I would have liked to have heard tackling more pleasing music… but I guess if anything this production has demonstrated a wide-survey of the opera phenomenon and shown me what I do and don’t want to investigate further.
Finally, the audience were presented with a tour de force in form of Vanity Fair from Vaughan-Williams’ “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The wonderful layers of frantic modern harmonies combined to produce a wall of breathtaking sound reminding me fondly of his “Dona Nobis Pacem” which I used to listen to on a regular basis. The entire cast were involved in this colourful scene, many of whom were wearing their costumes from previous scenes, which only added to the flamboyant and foreboding nature of the scene. ESO couldn’t have asked for a better finale to their production.
All-in-all I feel I can only give this production, as a whole, three stars. The music was uniformly of a very high standard throughout, and whilst some of the scenes were definitely worthy of a four or five-star rating, the whole piece was confounded by the inclusion of some less attractive music, and some scenes which seemed to have been directorially neglected, although admittedly to the benefit of others. However, everyone involved in this production should be proud as each and every one of them participated in some moments of greatness and the merits far outweigh the criticisms. Do try and make it along to their other two performances (and obtain copies of the Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Humperdinck).
I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby.
Yesterday I chanced upon Atheist Climber’s interesting post on “The Atheist Re-Enlightenment” whilst browsing around reddit.com, and this inspired me to make available the third chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, in a slightly updated and “blog-ified” format. This chapter was entitled “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda” and assessed the views and agenda(s) I have discerned in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and compared them with my (fairly general) impression of the views and agenda(s) of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. I hope it illustrates some of the merits and pitfalls of referring to a contemporary Enlightenment, spearheaded by certain individuals or a more general atheistic movement, and provides some interesting starting points for discussion.
The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda
Although it can be inferred from representative literature that contemporary atheism pushes a liberal agenda in favour of a peaceful, moral co-existence, where rational inquiry can be freely practised, positive expressions of this are difficult to find. This blog post teases out positive expressions from the representative writings and utilises these, in addition to the contemporary atheistic criticism of religion, to consider whether contemporary atheism promotes a twenty-first-century return to Enlightenment values. Following a brief presentation of these values, I consider various key points of contact, before concluding that there is an agenda at work, which has been heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, but also incorporates certain aspects of Romantic and anti-clerical thought.
As with any historical period, it is misleading to refer to “the Enlightenment” as a distinct, bounded phenomenon. Different Enlightenments occurred at different times during the eighteenth-century, and localised terms for “enlightenment” carried different meanings within these contexts (Outram, 2005:1). However, these contextual usages delineate a consistent theme of new light bringing fresh and deep understanding. As will become clear, it is almost always possible to find a counter-example to any simplistic designation of the Enlightenment position. However, this acknowledgement does not negate certain commonalities of spirit and purpose. It is possible to speak of the Enlightenment as an “historical fact” and an “ideal reconstruction” (Crocker, 1969:1). Whilst the individuality of various writers means that ‘the Enlightenment’ is in many ways an ideal reconstruction, it is also a “fact inasmuch as a group of writers, working self-consciously, […]sought to enlighten [humanity], using critical reason to free minds from prejudices and unexamined authority” (ibid). Humanity seemed to be freeing itself from the superstitions of the past, “human omniscience” seemed an attainable goal (Berlin, 1979:14 cf. Hampson, 1990:150-151), and people believed, with Kant, that “we are indubitably living in an age of enlightenment” (in Hof, 1997:165).
As I am not attempting to assess theological critiques of the Enlightenment, this greatly reduces the sources available for an examination of its relationship with contemporary atheism. Also, due to the large number of Enlightenment sources, I proceed from contemporary atheistic writings, and compare their implicit and explicit vision with the Enlightenment. However, the writers considered as Enlightenment representatives are by no means all atheists. Whilst “Baron d’Holbach [1723-1789] and Jacques-André Naigeon were the two foremost proselytisers for materialistic atheism during the French Enlightenment” (Kors, 1992:273), their contemporary, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) cared little “if his atheistic manuscripts saw the light of day” (ibid). Voltaire and Rousseau were most certainly deists, with Rousseau believing that atheism was immoral, arrogant, and philosophically untenable (ibid:287). And there is evidence that other thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestly, George Berkeley and Isaac Newton maintained a Christian faith, believing that “reason and revelation went largely hand in hand” (Hyland, 2003:60). Therefore, any similarities discerned between the views of “the Enlightenment” and those of contemporary atheism cannot include a denial of God’s existence.
Explicit calls for a new Enlightenment can be found in the work of Hitchens and Dawkins. In the final chapter of God is not Great, “The Need for a New Enlightenment”, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which is well “within the compass of the average person” (2008:277-283). This enlightenment is seen in direct opposition to the religious alternative being delineated “with extraordinary vividness” (2007b:xxvi). Similarly, Dawkins writes the following in his “Mission Statement” for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science…” – clearly seeing the defence of the Enlightenment as an imperative for his foundation.
It is much more difficult to find such explicit declarations in the work of Dennett and Harris. There are instances where they have participated in lecture series’ promoting Enlightenment values (Enlightenment 2.0, the Enlightenment Lecture Series), and Dennett indicates his displeasure that the spirit of the Enlightenment hasn’t led to a scientific examination of religion (2007:49). However, despite frequent insinuations and provocations from public comments, Dennett refrains from mentioning the Enlightenment in seventeen articles published in the Washington Post, and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website, suggesting that they are intentionally avoiding utilising the term. If anyone can alert me to any writings by these authors which do explicitly refer to the Enlightenment, I would be delighted to have them brought to my attention. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen to date, it appears that two representatives of contemporary atheism make sparing references to their Enlightenment agenda, and two either fail to make this explicit, or intentionally avoid doing so. Whilst potential reasons for this are discussed in another of my posts, these observations indicate that if an Enlightenment worldview is being presented, it is implicit rather than explicit.
Through previous research, I concluded that religion is overwhelmingly portrayed as physically, morally and intellectually dangerous by contemporary atheism. On this subject, the general Enlightenment position held that through reason, humanity was “freeing itself from the prejudices and superstitions that had produced so much blind cruelty in the past” and from the “repressive and disciplinary role” of Christianity (Hampson, 1990:150-151,155 cf. Dupré, 2004:251). Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Protestant, believed that Christians “are encouraged to cruel intolerance by beliefs that arouse their aggressive passions” (Crocker, 1969:10). And in a striking prelude to the writings of Harris and Hitchens, d’Holbach asserted that God is known “only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon earth” (in Hyland, 2003:89).
On the immorality of religion, in addition to the overwhelming denunciation of religiously inspired violence, Voltaire criticises biblically celebrated immoral actions (e.g. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) (Gay, 1964:28) and derides the Christian optimists who “accepted that evil was just a necessary part” of the world (Hyland, 2003:61). D’Holbach was of a similar opinion (ibid:89), and David Hume held that “religions result in cruel persecutions, bigotry, strife between sects or between sects and the civil power, and the hunting down of unorthodox opinions” (Gaskin, 1993:xvii). Concerning the non-religious origin of morals, Hume speaks for the Enlightenment, writing: “Their root [morals] strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature” (1993a:183).
Finally, in 1947, Horkenheimer and Adorno stated that “the Enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. […]The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world: […]the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (in Outram, 2005:6). Although this was an anti-Enlightenment polemic, it provides an accurate account of the Enlightenment opinion on knowledge and religion. Condorcet (1743-1794) opposed both the church and belief in God “because it perpetuated ideas detrimental to progress” (Hof, 1997:262); Voltaire thought that “it was to the interest of ecclesiastics everywhere to keep men in the condition of ignorant and submissive children” (Gay, 1964:44); and Kant maintained that the churches made their “domestic cattle dumb” (in Hyland, 2003:54). As with the previous two points of discussion, these points of commonality cannot sufficiently support a declaration that contemporary atheists are promoting an Enlightenment worldview. However, they do demonstrate that the key themes through which these atheists couch their opposition to religion found significant expression in the writings of the Enlightenment. These similarities also emphasise an anti-clerical regime which can stand apart from ‘atheism’, suggesting that contemporary atheism inadvertently endorses a secular reformist Christianity…
In his critique of the Enlightenment, Hegel wrote: “When all prejudice and superstition has been banished, the question arises: Now what?” (in Outram, 2005:109). If this question is applied to contemporary atheism it perfectly encapsulates the scope of this investigation. When the negative critique of contemporary religion is stripped away, what positive intentions can be discerned? When referring to ‘positive intentions’, the term “positive” is not used in an evaluative sense, but denotes the active courses of action proposed, as opposed to the negative criticism of religion. Thus, this analysis focuses on four key aspects of the worldview promoted by contemporary atheism, and discusses parallels with the Enlightenment: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; the stance on the continued existence of religion; and the emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature.
Throughout contemporary atheistic writings there is a recurrent emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Bafflement as to why anyone would choose religious faith over the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified when Dawkins cites Douglas Adams: “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day” (2007b:142 cf. Hitchens, 2008:278; Harris, 2006:48). Dennett emphasises the importance of this pursuit, believing that the only constant of human nature left in our post-modern, scientific age may be “our incessant curiosity” (2010:xxiii). However, this emphasis is no mere corollary of the Enlightenment denunciation of religion’s obstruction of knowledge. Yes “imposing ignorance is shameful”, but there is nothing shameful in ignorance itself (Dennett, 2007:339). “The average person [now has] access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed” (Hitchens, 2008:282) and should be allowed “to make their own informed choices” (Dennett, 2007:327) Including in matters of religion (ibid:327-328). This same concern to promote knowledge, above and beyond objecting to its censure, can be seen clearly in Enlightenment writings: Rousseau aimed “to free children from the tyranny of adult prejudice and expectation” (Hyland, 2003:83); Voltaire believed the clergy should be “told what to teach and how to teach it” (Gay, 1964:31); and “the mere diffusion of accurate and up-to-date information” was an important part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Hampson, 1990:86). However similar to the contemporary atheists’ concern for education this might seem, there are several important differences. Firstly, this concern to educate does not appear to have extended to the ‘common’ people. Aside from the expense of the Encyclopédie restricting its circulation (Hampson, 1990:86), there is evidence that Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot and Naigeon (ibid:160-161; Kors, 1992:299-300) “took the existence of an unteachable majority for granted” (Hampson, 1990:160). Secondly, it was a common thought that unrestricted use of reason was either undesirable (Kant in Outram, 2005:1) or simply impossible (Diderot and Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:96 cf. 78-79). And thirdly, it was regularly argued, in the words of the Benedictine Louis-Mayeul Chaudon (1775), that “the study of physics” could be put into the service of religion, as a cure for both atheism and superstition (in Kors, 1992:288 cf. Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:78-79). These widespread views indicate that whilst contemporary atheists may be influenced by these initial, tentative steps, their emphasis on a fully naturalistic and rational education for all takes them above and beyond the pale of the Enlightenment writers.
Dawkins states that “the atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing” (2007b:405). This double affirmation is passionately expressed in quite romantic language, by the other writers: “we have been given a lot to love” (Dennett, 2007:253) and once people have embraced reason, and “accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives” (Hitchens, 2008:6) they will “feel in their bones just how precious life is” (Harris, 2007:54 cf. 2006:226). Again there is a correlation between these views, and the general purport of the Enlightenment. The core of Voltaire, Hume and Kant’s ethics “was a favourable estimate of human nature and of the human enterprise” (Gay, 1964:135), and even the devout Anglican, Dr Johnson (1709-1784), acknowledged that “pity is […]acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason” (Hampson, 1990:159). However similar these views may seem to those of contemporary atheists, the majority of these expressions were not based upon a materialistic atheism (Kors, 1992:296-7), but upon a re-examination of the relationship between man, religion and the deity. Therefore any correlation between contemporary atheism and Enlightenment thinkers on this matter seems purely coincidental.
There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12) – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism.
Unsurprisingly, the Enlightenment exhibits a spread of opinion on this issue, with Condorcet being prepared to dispense with the church (Hof, 1997:262), and Voltaire oscillating between “white-hot hatred” and “respect and even affection” for Christianity (Dupré, 2004:253 cf. Outram, 2005:113). However, the overwhelming thrust of the Enlightenment was one of religious tolerance (Outram, 2005:114-115 cf. Hampson, 1990:152). This toleration was extolled by Kant as “enlightened” (in Hyland, 2003:57), and most explicitly by Voltaire, as “the natural attribute of humanity” (ibid:62 cf. Dupré, 2004:251; Gay, 1964:25). Whilst these arguments for tolerance share some similarity with the professed positions of contemporary atheists, there are two key differences. Firstly, Enlightenment toleration was imbued with an inherent respect for the religious beliefs of others whereas contemporary atheism views “the very ideal of religious tolerance […as] one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss” (Harris, 2006:15). And secondly, any toleration extended by these atheists is generally viewed as an interim solution, before religion eventually dies its natural, or induced, death. However, as discussed previously, contemporary atheism often exhibits an ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, which reflects the Voltaire’s oscillating position. It is also clear that, in striking resemblance to the “civil religion” proposed by Rousseau (Gehrig, 1981:51), a “religion of reason”, purged of superstition and immorality, and imbued with an anti-clerical ethos would partially address the concerns of contemporary atheists. These observations clearly add weight to theories of both Enlightenment and secular Christian influence on contemporary atheism.
The final aspect of the contemporary atheistic worldview for comparison is the tendency to view the natural world with awe and wonder. The use of romantic language by these authors is, at times, quite intense: Dawkins notes a “quasi-mystical” response amongst scientists to the “magnificence of the real world” (2007b:25,32 cf. 397,404); and the others speak of the “mystery and marvel” (Hitchens, 2008:8-9), the “unimaginable surprises” (Harris. 2006:36) and the “humility, and awe, and sheer delight, at the glory of the evolutionary landscape” (Dennett, 2007:268). The notion that the natural world is sufficient for any human is a resurgent theme throughout the writings of these four authors. However, whilst the Enlightenment saw men as “objects in nature no less than trees and stones” (Berlin, 1979:27), the message taken from this was that human interactions “could be studied as that of atoms or plants” (ibid). Hints of reverence are found in the writings of Hume, who has Philo declare that nature “possesses an infinite number of springs and principles, which incessantly discover themselves on every change of her position and situation” (1993b:50). However, the key notion here is again that these “springs and principles” of nature “discover” themselves – they make themselves known upon proper scientific examination.
It is commonly held that “the idealisation of nature” is something which occurred in the movement away from the Enlightenment and into the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century (Outram, 2005:108). This could explain why Dawkins alludes to critics at Cambridge who condemn his worldview as “nineteenth-century” – a double-edged attack aimed both at his directness and at his awe at nature’s “monstrosities of improbability” (2007b:185-187). Romanticism was itself a form of diffuse Christianity, imbued with the same anti-clericalism observed in the Enlightenment and contemporary atheistic writings. The observed parallels between contemporary atheism and Romanticism are suggestive, once again, of a sentimental attachment to certain aspects of Christianity, and a liberal, secularising reformist agenda. Thus, whilst it is not possible to label contemporary atheistic emphasis on the majesty of nature as “Enlightenment”, these observations point to an additional, Romantic, influence – itself a reaction to, and in some ways a development of, the Enlightenment. Although contemporary ecological concerns and a more “New Age”, holistic attitude to human interaction with nature are likely to influence the contemporary atheistic position, these too are rooted in Romantic ideals (Chryssides, 2007:6) and thus further support this argument.
This discussion has demonstrated that however much contemporary atheism may be influenced by Enlightenment norms and values, the consistent surpassing of Enlightenment ideals in the areas considered discourages the conclusion that contemporary atheism promotes an Enlightenment worldview per se. Only two of these four authors offer explicit support for a new Enlightenment, and then only sparingly. Their three-fold criticism of religion does indeed follow the pattern established by the Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity. I have identified that there is a positive agenda at work, even if there are disagreements over the final fate of religion. Whether this agenda is to be labelled a new Enlightenment or not appears to be down to the individual idiosyncrasies of the authors involved.
A full bibliography, and a continuation of this discussion can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief
 See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.
 See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).
 http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/foundation,ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)
 http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0, (21/03/10, 19:20)
 http://websiterepository.ed.ac.uk/explore/av/enlightenment2006/dennett.html, (21/03/10, 19:26)
 Since 14/11/06
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/daniel_c_dennett/, (21/03/10, 19:31)
 See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).
Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan
I know this has been a regular item in the news for quite a while now, but after seeing President Obama’s great speech on the BBC News website today, I thought I should put in my oar also.
Here are the three main reasons why I think it is utterly ridiculous to object to a mosque being constructed a few blocks away from Ground Zero. If I think of any more later on I will add them on:
1. What does hallowed ground mean?
“We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”
Now, at this point we could get into a big discussion on the notion of the sacred and the profane… a debate which infuses the discipline of Religious Studies and shall probably continue to do until the end of time. This would, however, be tangential and somewhat academically dry. Whilst people may debate with me on the specifics, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ground Zero is not, in some sense, hallowed. But calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed. It is an acknowledgment that an event occurred at this site which binds people together through shared grief, pain and commitment to renewal and the national identity. This “hallowedness” may even have a spiritual element, and individuals may choose to interpret this “hallowedness” through their own religious stance, however no one person or religious group holds the monopoly to the “hallowedness” of this site. The site is, in a sense, sacred… it is, in a sense, hallowed… but it is hallowed to the nation and has an oxymoronic sense of national secular sacredness. This is a sacredness that is perhaps felt more strongly by American citizens… but it is the same sacredness that any human being will feel upon visiting the war graves of the Somme, or the memorial at Auschwitz even if they have no personal connection to the horrors that took place their themselves.
Religious people are entitled to interpret this feeling of hallowedness/sacredness through their religious beliefs. But they do not have the monopoly to claim that their interpretation is the only valid one. And there is nothing oxymoronic about an agnostic, atheist or nonreligious person experiencing and fully appreciating this hallowedness also. Ground Zero is a hallowed site. But most definitely not in an exclusively Christian sense. If people have a problem with one religious building being constructed in the near vicinity, then they should have a problem with ANY religious building in this area, and not the buildings of one particular religious tradition.
2. How near is “near”?
This is a fairly basic point but one which carries a lot of weight.
Where exactly do people draw the line? I believe, with President Obama, that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” [the USA]. However, even if someone was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for keeping mosques away from Ground Zero, how far exactly would be deemed far enough away to not cause offence?
According to the Washington Post (Bloomberg News), New York currently has more than 100 mosques (compared with just 10 in 1970). Of these mosques 17 are in Manhattan (see here). I suppose it was only a matter of time before people threw up a stink about this… but seriously, where do you draw the line? One block, 10 blocks, 20 blocks, a different island, a different city, a different state, a different country? Everyone has different subjective boundaries in their heads… but the fact is that there is a specifically designated memorial area at Ground Zero, and apart from this it is all down to individual idiosyncrasy.
I put it to those who object to a mosque being constructed in the vicinity of Ground Zero that their “sensitivity”, whilst being grounded in a real relationship to a traumatic event, is based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding and is a small step away from the “sensitivity” that would see mosque construction being opposed throughout the USA.
As President Obama said:
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
3. Finally, and most importantly, MUSLIM does not equal TERRORIST!!!
I can’t beleive that, in this day and age, I am still having to write this.Yes, the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. There is a lot of debate in the Islamic community as to whether they can even still be called Muslims for carrying out such a heinous crime. And of course there is a minority who believe that their actions were righteous. For a much fuller discussion on the matter of contemporary Islam and terrorism, please see the final section of my previous post “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam”. How Muslim or non-Muslim the terrorists were is not really the issue here… the fact is that equating Islam with terror is exactly the same as making sweeping statements like “All Catholics support the IRA” or “All Southerners are in the KKK”. Seriously, what if the 9/11 attack had been carried out by the IRA? I’m sure the USA wouldn’t have gone to war with the UK and the Republic of Ireland for harbouring terrorists, but would the reaction be the same if a group of Irish American Catholics wanted to build a chapel in the vicinity of Ground Zero? Well, who knows…
And lest we not forget, Muslims – whether American citizens or foreign workers – were also the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2002 BBC News article, there were an estimated 70 Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. Also, a blogger who seems to have done quite a bit of research conservatively estimates 28 innocent Muslims died that day. By objecting to the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, opponents of this development spit in the faces of the families of those innocent Muslims who died that day. If these opponents were truly representative of Western society, is it any wonder that terrorists feel justified in their actions? Sarah Palin, a fine example of this hatred and ill-education wrote “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”. I put it to you, Sarah, that your narrow-mindedness, prejudice and petty pandering to the lowest common denominator is a perfect example of one of the gravest ills affecting Western society today, and can only serve to perpetuate division, oppression, victimisation and an end to freedom and liberty.
This is not a defence of Islam. I have many issues with Islam as a religion, and I am very aware that calls to violence and aggression are present throughout the Qur’an, the Hadith and the founding principles and stories of the faith. But I am also aware that it is not my place to judge a group of people on the basis of the literature and traditions that they hold dear. Just as there will always be Christians who think homosexuality is an abomination, that the world was created in six days and that it is okay to bomb abortion clinics, just as there will always be atheists who would fight tooth and nail to remove all traces of religion from our cultures, leaving music, art, literature, philosophy etc as but pale shadows of what they once were, so too there will always be those in the Islamic community who believe in violence and terror as a valid means of protest against the “Western” way of living. Do we assume that the same debate that ensues in non-Muslim contexts surrounding these and other issues, does not occur within Muslim communities across the globe? Do we assume that Muslims not only all think in exactly the same way, and have exactly the same opinions on every issue, but that also our caricature of their beliefs, thoughts and practices is universally applicable in all times and places? Erm… no…
So, before you go calling for restrictions on “other” people’s freedom, at least give the above three points some thought.
If you still come out feeling justified in your opinion then let’s talk some more.
“The writ of the founders must endure.”
Respect to you, President Obama!
For an excellent satirical spoof on this story, see OUTRAGE OVER PLANS TO BUILD LIBRARY NEXT TO SARAH PALIN
For coverage on the worrying publicity generated by Pamela Geller, see The US blogger on a mission to halt ‘Islamic takeover’
A quite amusing, Taiwanese take on the whole thing
And a BRILLIANT, 12 minute berating of those who would object to this “Mosque” by Keith Olbermann
And an excellent article on tolerance in Lebanon: The Ground Zero Synagogue in Lebanon
Jacob’s Ladder **** (4 stars)
Underbelly, Cowgate – 11:10AM (60 mins). 5th — 29th August. £6.50-£9.50
Yesterday I went to see my first show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010… at it was Jacob’s Ladder which was bloody awesome (however not in any way related to the 1990 Tim Robbins film of the same name).
On paper, everything about this play is “young”: The cast boast a couple of Fringe newbies; the production company has been birthed for the specific purpose of bringing this play to light (although under the experienced hands of Sam Hansford); and the website for the production describes it as having originated in the musings of “exciting young playwright Emily Moir”. However, these cursory observations are instantly forgotten the moment the action commences in this exuberant performance.
Admittedly, a play which begins with the small cast of six innocently formulating the specifics of a devil worshiping cult could hardly go wrong in my book. The Monty Python-esque logic of “What do cults do when they aren’t worshiping Satan?” – “They go in for animal sacrifice don’t they?” – “That falls under the worship, I reckon” – “Well, they must do a certain amount of farming… they have to take care of the animals they sacrifice” – “Does anyone here know how to keep animals?” – “I keep bees….” – had me squirming in my seat with joy, whilst at the same time provoking many tangential forays into the more philosophical crevices of my mind. A major achievement for a play at 11.10 in the morning!
Although nothing much happens – with the entire drama unfolding in front of a garden shed in the grounds of a sociopathic, wannabe cult-leader’s country home – this is theatrical social commentary at its best: think “Lost in Translation” rather than the stereotypically artsy 4.48 Psychosis. Whilst scattered with comedic gems, the script courses seamlessly through all colours of the emotional spectrum, and tackles all manner of subject matter – from pregnancy and sexuality, to the similarities between the British penal system, and the phenomenon of boarding school – and leaves the audience wanting more when the play comes to its all-too-abrupt end. Disappointingly, one couldn’t help but feel that the writer panicked about the time allocation in the venue, and signed off before the story reached its natural conclusion – a shame considering the running time was only 50 minutes, instead of the advertised hour. However, this in no way detracts from the power of the piece as a whole.
All of the performances on display were of a very high standard, and every cast member should be thoroughly proud of what they have achieved. Ed Sheridan was particularly affecting as the awkward and creepily convincing cult leader (Jake), and at numerous points brought elements of Hamlet and Shylock into the mix – a testament, perhaps, to his work with the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company. And in strikingly different, yet equally powerful performances, Sophie Pemberton (Sal) and Emily Rose Hay (Mary) confidently articulated many unspoken, yet real and significant aspects of female sexuality, despite their young age – “I dangle the carrot because, frankly, I don’t know what to do with the stick” summing up Mary’s dilemma succinctly.
Naturally this production is not without its negatives. At times the inevitable shoehorning of monologue after monologue started to grate, and some of the caricatured characters on display rivaled the work of the Royal Mile’s finest. And although inevitable during the Fringe, the uncomfortable seats, ludicrously shallow rake and inappropriate music drifting in at points from adjacent venues did somewhat spoil the atmosphere in places. Be that as it may, the many pros of this production far outweigh these minor cons, and I would thoroughly recommend that you take in Jacob’s Ladder with your morning Starbucks.
If there’s any justice in this cruel world, tickets for this production will be very hard to come by. Have a good fringe, guys! (And I know a good joiner, if you want to get the shed door fixed…)
(I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby)
This post has been motivated by a fascinating article by Armin W Geertz and Guðmundur Ingi Markússon “Religion is natural, atheism is not: On why everybody is both right and wrong”. It shall mostly be a summary of the main points for those of you who don’t have the time to plough through such things, but I shall also be throwing in some of my own ideas and thoughts based upon my research and personal experience.
A major stumbling block which has reared its head at numerous points throughout my study is that, dependent upon the context, both the “religion as a natural phenomenon hypothesis” and the “religion as an unnatural/parasitic phenomenon hypothesis”, seem perfectly reasonable and valid. Thus. I was instantly rapt when I read the introduction to this article, where the authors claim that one of their aims is to:
“… consider the differences between the naturalness hypothesis and Dawkins’ memetic or unnaturalness hypothesis of religion and argue that, ultimately, both approaches must be combined if we are to achieve a comprehensive account of religious and cultural systems.”
However, even more important is the fact that this argument is applied throughout the article to both religion and atheism… with great success in my opinion.
Their snapshot of current opinion on atheist numbers in the USA and Worldwide:
I am always somewhat bemused and amused at the vast differences in figures that are presented when one asks the questions “How many atheists are there in X?” or “How many people do not believe in God in Y”. The simple fact is that many of the results presented rely on such figures as church attendance, or even merely church affiliation/membership and use these as indicators of religious belief, and that the way in which questions are asked in surveys, and the population being surveyed, and the source of the statistics, impacts hugely upon the ways in which the figures can be skewed.
Geertz and Markússon write:
A consistent discourse is promoted claiming that the vast majority of American citizens believe in God (a Newsweek poll claimed 91% in 2007) and ignoring or denigrating atheists as an insignificant minority (Aronson, 2007). Other polls seem to indicate that more than 29 million American adults, or one in seven, declare themselves to be without religion (American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 gave a result of 14%) [see also here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll of 2006 gave a result of 18% [see here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll also indicated that 73% in the U.S. claimed to believe in any form of God or any type of supreme being.Figures are quite different in that poll for European countries […]. The poll suggests that in Great Britain, France and Germany, the majority are either agnostics or atheists. In Spain, agnostics and atheists are almost as numerous as believers in any form of God or any type of supreme being. In Italy, believers form a substantial majority, but still not to the extent seen in the U.S. These figures, if reliable, could indicate why Europeans generally are not as upset by the New Atheist literature as Americans are.
They also point to a rough estimate provided by Phil Zuckerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism of some 500-750 million people in the world who do not believe in God… making unbelief statistically the fourth largest “belief”, “persuasion”, “stance” or whatever you wish to call it, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (c. 2 billion, 1.2 billion and 900 million respectively). However, the key thing that I wish to stress here is that these statistics are for non-belief. No comment is being made here as to whether these people have intentionally chosen this stance, or even give religious belief a second thought… and it is most important to emphasise that these individuals are most definitely not all atheists. Unfortunately I do not have the precise citation to hand, but I remember when reading Victor Stenger’s fair abysmal The New Atheism, a moment where he effectively took the entire population of China and added them to the unbelieving choir (if not the atheist choir… damn I wish I had that citation with me). However, whether he said “unbeleivers” or “atheists” is not my central point. My point is that far too many people involved in the debate on numbers of religious or nonreligious affiliates simply make sweeping generalisations to suit their own agendas. Be very careful which figures you trust. I can”t say more than that… but just always make sure you ask where they are coming from…
The New Atheist Movement
The authors seem to agree with my conclusions that the “Four Horsemen” (whether this appellation is suitable or not) are seen from both within atheism itself (by those labelling themselves as New Atheists, and those who eschew this more contemporary form of atheism, such as Julian Baggini), and from without atheism in both scholarly and religious circles, as the main spokesmen for this “movement”. The fact that the best article they can point to as “a summary of some of the characters in the New Atheism movement” is Gary Wolf’s The Church of the Nonbelievers fills me with despair… it is no criticism of their scholarship, which seems to be of a very high standard, but simply a criticism of the Wolf article and the severe dearth of scholarly analysis that there is “out there”. If anyone is particularly interested in an overview of this nature I can supply you with my undergraduate dissertation, and I would also encourage to check out the research project “The “Return of Religion” and the Return of the Criticism of religion – The “New Atheism” in recent German and American culture” being carried out by Thomas Zenk et al in Berlin. Or indeed my previous blog post “The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats”.
Another interesting phenomea that these authors draw attention to is the emergence of atheist summer camps, starting in 1996 with Camp Quest: “Today there are six Camp Quests across North America (Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, California in the U.S. and Ontario in Canada) and one is currently being organized in the United Kingdom”. What exactly is the need for a specifically atheistic summer camp? Couldn’t it just be a summer camp for the sake of a summer camp? What do they “teach” at an atheistic summer camp? I suppose it is just a backlash against the scores of religiously themed and motivated summer camps prevalent in the US and other countries… but it still seems a bit unnecessary to me!
And finally, although in danger of extreme reductionism. the authors cite the work of Paul and Zuckerman, who propose that the reason why religiosity may still be so prevalent in the USA as compared to other first world democracies is that it is the only one without a stable, socio-economic security. Paul and Zuckerman write:
Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the U.S.
G. Paul and P. Zuckerman, Why the gods are not winning, Edge. The Third Culture (2007).
A very stimulating thesis!
The Naturalness and Unnaturalness of Religion and Atheism
What is the Naturalness of Religion Hypothesis? Phil Zuckerman is used as a caricature of an erroneous stance on this issue. He believes that the central tenet of this hypothesis is that “belief in God is biologically determined, neurologically based, or genetically inborn, growing out of the “natural” processes of the human brain”. Thus construed, he ‘naturally’ assumes that the statistics, intimated above, on the numbers of nonreligious people in the world, are essentially damning to this version of the naturalness of religion hypothesis.
The authors then discuss numerous alternative formulations of the thesis:
- They state: “The naturalness hypothesis as widely understood by cognitive scientists of religion refers to the fact that religious ideas and behaviors thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes.”
- They refer to two types of “naturalness” proposed by Pascal Boyer: a) the subjective feeling amongst believers that their beliefs are self-evident or “natural”; b) “those aspects of religion which depend upon noncultural constraints” – these constraints being evolutionary or “cognitive”… “universal features of the human mind–brain, which have a direct effect on the likelihood that certain ideas will be acquired, memorized, and transmitted”.
- And they point to Justin Barrett’s characterisation of the naturalness of religion hypothesis as “much of what is typically called “religion” may be understood as the natural product of aggregated ordinary cognitive processes”.
- But they do acknowledge that Zuckerman raises a valid question which must be dealt with by any proponent of the naturalness of religion thesis: If religion is natural, whence the spread of non-belief?
Zuckerman’s stance is then related to the prevalent stance amongst many prominent New Atheists, who are ‘naturally’ (or should I say, understandably) averse to prescribing any type of “naturalness” to religion. The preferred stance here is the “unnaturalness hypothesis”, based upon the meme concept coined by Richard Dawkins and detailed extensively in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. At its most simply, according to this thesis, religion does not depend on normal human cognitive and psychological processes but on an external “mind virus”. But at its most simple, this thesis falls foul of the immediate, common sense objection… if religion is dependent upon something external to the human species, how has this same mind virus developed, in different variations, in vastly different and unconnected cultures worldwide?
This being said, Dawkins does make a great deal of sense when he writes in The God Delusion:
“Propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature [come to a child from the respected and indeed unquestionable authorities known as parents, relatives, elders etc.]. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner”
The authors continue:
“One can understand why atheistic activists feel more at ease with the unnaturalness hypothesis than its natural alternative. The notion of religion as a transmitted, mental illness fits hand-in-glove with the ideological aspects of the New Atheist movement. Not only is religion unnatural (and by association atheism natural), it is also a condition that is treatable, at least in principle.”
However, this risks equating two very different concepts. Just because something is “natural”… whether this specifically means genetically, evolutionary, or occurring by second-nature across the globe… this is not the equivalent to saying it is correct, good or indeed necessary. There are many things which have in the past seemed normal and “natural” but which have been left behind. And similarly there are things which have even been biologically engrained which have been outgrown. If it were to be shown that religion were natural and atheism were unnatural, this does not mean that one is a better state of affairs than the other… it would simply be a comment based on observable phenomena. Any of these statements that I have made could be true or false, but the simple point is that nature does not inherently have to provide the definitive state of affairs.
The authors eloquently sum up the merits of each explanation as follows:
“The naturalness hypothesis accounts for a range of recurrent issues quite economically. For example: a) why religion is a human universal, being present in all known human groups (the human mind-brain is more or less the same everywhere); b) why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems (they activate entrenched cognitive mechanisms such as our hyperactive agency detection and are easy to process and memorize); and c) why rituals take the form that they do (due to action representation and effects on memory). The unnaturalness hypothesis, on the other hand, explains at best surface variation (say, why an important agent is called “Jesus” here but “Visnu” there) and the propagation of superstitious beliefs.”
But are careful to clarify that “we still maintain that Dawkins’ unnaturalness hypothesis identifies important aspects of cultural transmission and that a full account of religion will have to combine both approaches.”
The authors propose a simple thought experiment whereby a group of infants find themselves on an uninhabited island and grow to form a society without the aid of parental influence. Will they become religious? The authors contend that the unnatural, virus-of-the-mind hypothesis would answer “no!” and that the naturalness hypothesis would give at best a “most likely”. This is because, in this hypothetical situation, the development of religion…
“does not depend on religious concepts being genetically hardwired, independent of environmental factors. The only inborn aspects at play are normal, cognitive mechanisms of the mind–brain which we use to navigate in our mundane, day-to-day environment – such as our ability to detect agency in the environment (in other living organisms and fellow humans), our capacity to infer the intentions of other people and automatic or intuitive expectations about things in the environment (such as solid objects cannot be in more than one place at a time, that living beings have agency and that people have intentions). In this [hypothetical situation], religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) is an emergent property arising from the interplay of normal cognitive mechanisms and the immediate natural and social environment (opaque causal processes → ideas → talking → spread of supernatural concepts). Only by removing cognition from its environmental and social niche do we arrive at Zuckerman’s caricature of the cognitive science of religion.”
Here comes what I see as one of the key points of their thesis: naturalness is a question of probability, with religion being likely but not necessary – atheism, whilst being less likely, is “certainly possible, given the right environmental and cultural niche.”
“In urban conditions, the environment is to a large extent man-made, and thus there is much less incentive to interpret causal relations in terms of non-human, supernatural agency. Further, there is a difference in the modern epidemiology of ideas in the sense that naturalistic explanatory frameworks will be more readily available due to higher levels of education.”
The authors then present Justin Barrett’s thesis, that there are certain cognitive capacities when theism has no problem dealing with, that atheism will struggle to cope with, making it a much less likely outcome. At first these sound reasonable… but Geertz and Markússon manage to provide compelling counter arguments at each turn. I shall present each of Barrett’s cognitive capacities in turn, combined with Geertz and Markússon’s rebuttal:
- The Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (HADD) – “Repeated, demonstrated false alarms from HADD should equally reinforce beliefs in non-theistic, natural explanations. Wouldn’t the reasoning mind that concludes, ‘No, it’s not a tiger that brushed the branch, it’s only the wind’ also be able to conclude, ‘No, it’s not my ancestor who pushed the rock from the ledge above, it’s only a startled goat’?”
- Moral Realism – Barrett is not concerned with whether or not we can be moral without religion. What he claims is that religion gives a certain moral certitude which atheism cannot. However, “We argue that atheists also find moral certitude in the ideologies of a just society or in human compassion or simply in enlightened altruism.”
- Dealing with Death… specifically guilt: “We don’t know how atheists deal with such situations. We do agree with Barrett, however, that guilt for instance is a natural mechanism and can be felt without any apparent reason for it. But this problem must be dealt with by both atheists and theists regardless of their particular persuasions.”
Another argument that the authors use to refute the argument that atheists do not cope as well as theists in the world is quite simply that atheism is both ancient and complex… it is not a recent phenomenon. They spend a long time discussing this point, however I do not feel that it needs as much explanation as they provide. Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and James Thrower’s Western Atheism: A Short History provide an ample introduction to atheism throughout history, as of course does Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. However, the do draw attention to some work by an early historian of religions, Guiseppe Tucci, who identified a heterodox movement in India approximately 300-150BCE known as the Cārvāka school, who held the following main tenets:
- 1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
- 2. There is no deity or supernatural.
- 3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.
- 4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.
- 5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.
- 6. Material elements have an immanent force.
- 7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.
- 8. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (Thrower, 1980 and Tucci, 1924)
This bears a remarkable similarity to the views of some contemporary New Atheists…
Now what about more recent “adaptationist” or “religion by natural selection” approaches?
According to this type of approach, “instead of maintaining that it is a by-product of adaptations for mundane survival, it claims that religiosity is a functional adaptation in its own right, crafted by natural selection.”
I’m not going to do much more than throw out what Geertz and Markússon have to say on this approach. They point to the theory of Jesse Bering who “theorizes that belief in ambient, unseen agents, such as ancestors, was selected due to its beneficial effects on cooperation in our ancestral past.” He writes that the psychological foundations of some religious behaviours
“may be side effects of other design features that, quite by chance, had salutary effects of their own on the organism’s ability to pass on its genes and, over time, were independently subjected to natural selection.”
And continues: “God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.”
The authors cogently observe that “The interesting paradox here is that even staunch atheists, such as Bering himself, may continue to “hear” the “voice of God” emanating from the recesses of their mind, no matter their agility with Occam’s razor and other thinking aids of the scientific method.”
So how does this all fit with the New Atheism?
The authors tip their hat to the common (and to some extent common sense thesis) that the New Atheism “was ignited by the shattering events of September 11, 2001”, however they are quite rightly insistent that whilst 9/11 may have been a motivation to put pen to paper in some specific instances, in most cases (specifically in the case of Richard Dawkins) outspoken writing “is also the culmination of [a] long-standing opposition to religion and religion’s place in society, a career of critique antedating 9/11 by decades. Furthermore, 9/11 tells us very little about the continued strength and propagation of New Atheism.”
However, I think it is fairly obvious to you and me that, for better or worse, 9/11 has acted as a kind of “cultural primer’, enabling the message of atheism to strike a chord with others to whom it may not have reached.
The also draw attention to a Guardian piece written by Dawkins 4 days after 9/11 that I had not come across until now – “Religion’s misguided missiles: promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster”.
They point to three features of New Atheism that they believe help it spread and maintain itself:
- “A rich ecology of signs increases adaptability as it makes it possible to employ different “segments” of signs (texts, and so on) in response to different circumstances (an analogy to cells applying different segments of DNA in different contexts). Externalization techniques like signs/mnemonics further enable the “offloading” of complex concepts into the environment, thus securing their spread and transmission. Within a relatively brief number of years, variously linked concepts such as memes, genes, rationality, secularism, science, naturalism, democracy, religion-as-a-delusion, religion-as-a-virus-of-the-mind, religion-as-abuse and so on became determining hallmarks of New Atheist semiotic ecology.”
- A “reactionary semiosis” – “In order to secure the transmission of atheist thought, New Atheists have been engaged in systematic and aggressive criticism and deconstruction of theist claims.”
- Arguments from authority give credit to certain trends of semiosis – whether these be from contemporary authorities, or from a carefully chosen and cited list of older – even ancient – authorities. I stumbled upon a striking instance of this phenomenon just a few days ago when Hemant Mehta – The Friendly Atheist – asked on his popular blog “What should atheists memorise?”… the greater than 100 responses so far should prove instructive. Why on earth should atheists feel compelled to memorise particularly notable passages? And do these passages perform the same evangelical and personal commitment functions as they would within, say, Christianity? Something interesting to look into I reckon!
For the authors, then,
“In this perspective, the New Atheist movement is a complex system of signs/external mnemonics and distributed cognition, well adapted to the uneasy world of popular media and social activism. These formal, semiotic aspects, we suggest, are key factors in the movement’s spread and maintenance. To restrict New Atheism to the individual brains of New Atheists is insufficient grounds for any claims on the cognitive naturalness or unnaturalness of atheism. Modern, Western cultural, political and social contexts function as the supportive framework for atheist cognition—just as they do for religious cognition.”
And at this point they conclude their paper:
“In the course of this paper, after considering irreligion and the New Atheism, we have refuted Zuckerman’s claim that statistics on atheism pose a problem for cognitive accounts of religion. Neither the by-product nor the adaptationist hypotheses of the naturalness approach make religiosity a necessity for humans. Such would only be the case if we were to remove cognition from its socio-cultural habitat. However, cognitive accounts often proceed as if the wider cultural ecology can be ignored. To amend this, the naturalness and unnaturalness (or memetic) hypotheses must be combined, bringing cognition and culture back together again. In redirecting attention to the fact that human cognition is always situated within a natural habitat of cultural systems, we find that atheism is no less natural than religiosity is. We are therefore critical of the cognitive science of religion accounts of atheism and their unsupported assumptions about atheists.
In the end, religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive–cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.”
To my mind, this is an excellent paper. It may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it nicely frames how things aren’t always as simple as they seem, and how in the field of Religious Studies – whether we are looking at religion or irreligion, belief or nonbelief – the ultimate pitfall is to fall into the reductionistic trap of accepting on theory as definitive, to the detriment of other useful and worthwhile explanations.
I hope some of the citations, quotations, summaries and personal insights I have provided have been useful. Please do use this as a basis for further research and discussion.