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Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 15 by Cartomancer

It's mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing and intellectually barren tosh of the highest order of course, but at its centre lies a very peculiar conflation which throws light on this man's entire outlook. (Damn, I'm starting to sound like him now...)

As far as I can tell he genuinely believes that one has to appreciate the historical and cultural impact that a religion has had before one can "truly" reject the truth claims that it makes. He also seems to assume that historical events occurring during ages when particular brands of religion were popular are entirely attributable to that religion's influence, rather than to the unique cultural configurations of the day - to the people themselves as THEY modified the ideas they inherited. He also assumes that in order to be an atheist one must, necessarily, have been a religious believer in the past - that atheism is by definition a rejection of already held belief in gods rather than the absence of such a belief in the first place. I myself, and many others, did not "come to" atheism in this way. I have always been an atheist, and there was no herculean rejection of inherited culture required.

I for one strongly object to this pathetic idea that one is only truly allowed to call oneself an atheist if one has somehow wrestled, in Nietzchian fashion, with the world-view presented by christianity (and, worse, wrestled with it after starting from the position that it's all true and all wonderful without question). Such an attitude speaks of a woefully eurocentric, culturally blinkered individual who has not the wit to realise that cultures every bit as great, magnificent, compassionate and philosophically subtle as European culture exist beyond the geographical and temporal fringes of what used to be medieval christendom. The Chinese, Japanese, Aztecs, Maya, Hindus and so forth never needed the slightest bit of christianity to come to their rejection of its traditions and its claims, or to raise their civilizations so high. One might ask whether his rejection of the teachings of Confucius is worthless, since he has not agonised over the lofty truths they contain and mourned their passing? Likewise with his shockingly naive lack of familiarity with esoteric Zen mysticism. All this talk of "inverting the spiritual assumptions of classical antiquity" is so much parochial, self-serving puff, even before one takes into account that "classical antiquity" had more than one set of spiritual assumptions, and bits of it managed to produce exactly the kind of worrying, brave-new-world rejections of traditional "pagan" religious values of which he approves long before Nietzche or even St. Paul. Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos is the most prominent example, with its agonised looking out over a civic vista barren of gods and omens. Yet somehow this current author cannot bring himself to see atheism as anything more than the rejection of his particular brand of christianity, and therefore to find the message of Sophocles in its cultural context entirely irrelevant. He clings to a much-vaunted sense of "tragic awareness", and his degree of awareness in this particular case is indeed nothing but tragic.

As for his attack on Richard's account of the infinite regress argument, he makes the classic mistake of assuming that Richard is indeed addressing the argument as he puts it, rather than addressing an updated, more appropriate, version which actually makes sense in a modern world - one which acknowledges our scientific understanding of reality. What this author is in fact doing is saying "but Richard hasn't addressed the myriad subtleties of the christianised aristotelian thought-world from which this first cause argument emerges". Well no, he hasn't, and for good reason - the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas stand on almost no evidential foundation at all, and are merely confused best-guesses as to what underpins reality. What exactly is an "ultimate source of actuality" anyway? How do we know? And on what basis can one claim that it both differs from the kind of existence we habitually observe around us and also actually exists? Aristotle and Aquinas believed that existence (esse) was a real, actual, substantial property of things, which could be conferred or retracted somehow. To them it was like the first ingredient on the metaphysical contents list of an entity - a contents list which was itself a real metaphysical object. As such it had to be written onto that contents list somehow, and the only way properties could instantiate into something is to be shared by something that already has them. Ergo there has to be some sort of central fount of existing which can write "this exists" on the metaphysical specs of each object in the universe.

We do not think this way now, and there is no good reason why we should return to thinking this way. Any attempt to argue the infinite regress argument in such a way that it relies on such outmoded metaphysical claims is entirely equivalent to arguing that HIV does not kill religious people because the daemons which cause it are banished by their faith.

Ultimately we must treat the truth claims a religion's metaphysical system makes and its actual historical-cultural impact on the world as entirely separate things. This is, indeed, an utterly banal point - trivially true in fact - and yet even the most aggressively pompous of these theist apologists seems to let is slip entirely by. Until they do notice, there will always be a need for the wonderfully uplifting writings of our modern atheist authors.

Thu, 22 Apr 2010 13:31:00 UTC | #461790