Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Collateral Damage

I've been reading Hitchens' marvelous little screed, god is not Great, and brought it with me this morning on the train.

I did this with some misgiving, knowing that other people on the train might be put off, offended, or otherwise disturbed just being in the presence of a book with such a title. I've heard a reliable second-hand account of an otherwise reasonable person who was uncomfortable even having Hitchens' book in the house, as though its mere presence posed some sort of threat.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sticks and Stones

There's been some talk among atheists about what to call themselves, especially given the power of language to frame attitudes and debates. "A-theist" is negative, and maintains a focus on theism.

One effort at a redefinition is being pushed by people who call themselves "brights". Here is how they describe themseves on their website:
The noun form of the term bright refers to a person whose worldview is naturalistic--free of supernatural and mystical elements. A Bright's ethics and actions are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I've now started reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and already the book has allowed me to make explicit a useful distinction toward which I have been fumbling.

I think part of my concern about possible dogmatism at the heart of atheism comes down a sense that the natural sciences, whatever their evident power, are necessarily limited in scope. The empirical, quantitative methods of the sciences simply cannot tell us or explain everything that is interesting about the world. To the extent prominent atheists like Dawkins assume the question of God's existence or non-existence can definitively be settled by the natural sciences alone, they seem to have fallen into the dogmatic ideology of scientism.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Atheism Just Another Dogma?

I've just finished Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I very much enjoyed the author's oft-noted wit and passion for his subject, but the book still leaves me with one of the nagging questions I had going into this project.

As a skeptic, I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, particularly concerning matters that transcend the world of common experience. As a corollary, I am suspicious of polarization and false dichotomies in public discussion.

The nagging question is this: To what extent is the "new atheism" of Dawkins, Harris, et al., a form of dogmatism? One way to get the measure of this would be to ask: To what extent does the "new atheism" either presuppose or promulgate polarization?

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Atheism Project

Though I have not been a Christian since before I graduated from high school, and have consciously thought of myself as a skeptic for at least the past decade, I have never really grappled directly with the question of whether my skepticism amounts to atheism.

I have usually been content casually to think to myself - and occasionally to write in this blog - that atheism strikes me as altogether too dogmatic, and its public proponents too zealous, shrill, and occasionally repellant for it to really be taken all that seriously.

But then, recent work I've done on the consequences of the Darwinian revolution for human self-understanding and moral experience has led me to think that I cannot remain as nicely neutral on, say, the relation between science and religion, as I might have hoped.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Life Without Newton

It's bad enough that most Americans don't believe in Darwinian evolution. Far worse is that many of us - at least in daily practice - seem not to believe in Newtonian mechanics. This thought occurred to me today as I watched yet another car pull out directly in front of yet another fast-moving bus.

The driver of the car seemed in that moment not really to believe the First Law of Motion, to wit:
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.