Sunday, September 7, 2008

Comforting Fables For Atheists

After a false start or two, I finally got around to reading A. C. Grayling’s Life, sex and ideas: the good life without God (Oxford, 2003). I’m not sure whether Grayling is usually included among the current wave of New Atheists, though he’s listed at the Celebrity Atheist List and has apparently shared a pulpit with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on at least one occasion. Grayling, a philosopher who teaches at the University of London, is mostly less shrill than his fellow evangelists. That’s probably why he’s all over the British media, including The Guardian where he has a regular column on philosophy for the masses.

As I indicated, I’d tried reading Life, sex and ideas before, I think because I’d seen it reviewed favorably somewhere, but something about his manner put me off. This time I was determined to get through it, just because I feel I need to keep up better with the recent wave of atheist writing. (Still haven’t gotten to Dawkins’s The God Delusion or Hitchens’s God Is Not Great). I persisted despite being put off by his sloppy style and recurrent dumb mistakes, such as his remark that “The Romans did not have a symbol for nothing (zero), and were so hampered by the lack that they were incapable of contributing to mathematical knowledge” (18); or that “Liberal education is disappearing in the English-speaking West” (9). Or this:

The minority sort of utopia is more austere, and is generally written by formidable feminist ladies. Sex has ceased to exist, utopia is all-female, whose occupants reproduce by parthenogenesis, and who stay wrinkle-free as a result of animal extracts (secured under conditions exceedingly pleasant for the animals). When the accidental discoverers of these utopias are pleasant young men, they of course fall in love with one of the female residents, only to be discomfited or even expelled when their dystopic instincts collide with the new order. (These characterisations are distillations of Utopian imaginings entertainingly collected in The Oxford Book of Uptopias [sic] and other sources.) [98]

Grayling’s sources must have stopped with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915); later feminist utopias include formidable feminist lady Marge Piercy’s classic Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), which is not only co-ed but features plenty of sex, as do most lesbian utopias (The Female Man [1975], The Wanderground [1978]) whose authors know that men aren’t necessary for copulation. What Grayling is actually talking about, I'll bet, are the stories of all-female countries or worlds, usually written by men, who fantasized about reintroducing the penis to hordes of sex-starved females; a sampling of such was collected by Sam Moskowitz for his 1972 anthology When Women Rule.

This shows up in his treatment of religion, which reads like warmed-over Bertrand Russell. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that, but why read Grayling on religion or philosophy when you could read Russell? In general, Grayling makes the same mistakes I’ve noticed in other contemporary atheists. In an essay titled “Evil,” he declares that “All religions are anxious to proselytize the young” (34.) Of course they are, including science and atheism. As the historian of science Ronald Numbers pointed out about the New-Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett,

Displaying a degree of intolerance more characteristic of a fundamentalist fanatic than an academic philosopher, he called for “caging” those who would deliberately misinform children about the natural world, just as one would cage a threatening wild animal. “The message is clear,” he wrote: “those who will not accommodate, those will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes [traditions] they fight for”. … With the bravado of a man unmindful that only 11 percent of the public shared his enthusiasm for naturalistic evolution, he warned parents that if they insisted on teaching their children “falsehoods – that the earth is flat, that ‘Man’ is not a product of evolution by natural selection – then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity” … . Those who resisted conversion to Dennett’s scientific fundamentalism would be subject to “quarantine.”

(In Petto, Andrew J.; Godfrey, Laurie R. [editors], Scientists confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, W. W. Norton 2007, p 45.)

In an essay titled “Evil”, Grayling declares:

There is no greater social evil than religion. It is the cancer in the body of humanity. Human credulity and superstition, and the need for comforting fables, will never be extirpated, so religion will always exist, at least among the uneducated. The only way to manage the dangers it presents is to confine it entirely to the private sphere, and for the public domain to be blind to it in all but one respect: that by law no one’s private beliefs should be allowed to cause a nuisance or an injury to anyone else. For whenever and whatever religion manifests itself in the public arena as an organized phenomenon, it is the most Satanic of all things [34-5].

In the first place, it is not at all clear what “religion” is, or that it can be excised from society like a “cancer.” (I noticed that Grayling largely replaces moral pejoratives with quasi-medical ones, which is not an improvement.) Religion historically and cross-culturally includes not only teachings about gods and spirits but the arts (including visual and plastic arts, music, and literature), the sciences, philosophy, and a good deal more. This is an important point, because though Grayling sneers at what he calls the “need for comforting fables”, he also acknowledges the importance of stories in moral and ethical thinking:

And only by being aware of a rich array of possible narratives and goals to choose from can one’s choices and actions be truly informed and maximally free. Once again, exposure to stories – which in part represent possible lives – is a vital ingredient in the ethical construction of an individual’s personal future history [14].

The great classical stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Greek tragedies were, as Grayling knows, religious stories. The role of parables, which are often stories, in Jesus' teachings shouldn't be overlooked either, nor the narratives in the Hebrew Bible. These are only rarely, if ever “comforting fables” -- who considers the story of Onan (Genesis 38) comforting, to cite just one instance?

In the second place, human beings invented religion, yet atheists like Grayling persist in talking as though religion were some alien and autonomous force that has intruded on the human sphere – a very odd notion for atheists or other naturalists / secularists to hold. It has long been disputed what role religion actually plays in starting wars, for example: would war evaporate if we could somehow eliminate religion, or would people just come up with other reasons and excuses and motives? I vote for the latter; I would hold that the U.S. invasion of Vietnam (for example) had nothing to do with religion, but with the U.S. craving for geopolitical power against the Vietnamese desire for national independence. The South Vietnamese government was dominated by Roman Catholics, it’s true, as a result of French colonialism supplanted by US interference, but religion served U.S. purposes rather than directing them.

Grayling is even more confused when it comes to sex:

A major source of hostility to sex is religion. ‘Christianity gave Eros poison to drink,’ Nietzsche observed, ‘but he did not die of it, he degenerated – into vice.’ The belief that soul is heavenly and body earthly, and that everything earthly interferes with the soul’s aspiration to heaven, is the fountainhead of negative evaluations of bodily things [47].

Astonishingly, the removal from public view of erections and sexually various activities, relegating them to dark places of whispering and anxiety, is a very recent phenomenon, and one restricted almost exclusively to cultural traditions stemming from the ‘religions of the Book’ – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Every other culture, historically and contemporaneously, which has escaped their attitudes to sex and the body has two notable features: a widespread celebration of sexuality in art and religion, and a complete absence of pornography (which is not, of course, the same thing as erotica) [48].

And where did “religion” get this hostility to sex? Grayling seems to think that only Judaism, Christianity and Islam try to control human sexuality, which shows his ignorance of other world religions. Asceticism – the desire to purify the body through self-mortification – is far older than Christianity (and largely absent from Judaism): the Buddha reacted against such extremes in Hinduism. Grayling even mentions “Plato’s view that spirit is good and must be cultivated, whereas body is bad and must be disciplined” (49) as an influence on Christianity’s hostility to the flesh, which undermines his effort to put all the blame on Yahwism, as well as his later eulogy of “the absence of mysticism and false sentimentality” in Greek philosophy (223). Like many university-educated Brits of his generation Grayling has a sentimental view of ancient Greece not really based in fact. (And has he really never encountered E. R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the irrational [1951], which is hardly an obscure work in his field?)

According to an autobiographical essay near the end of Life, sex, and ideas, Grayling grew up in East Africa, with access to a small but rich private library at home. What he read there shaped him so definitely that he seems still to be lodged intellectually in the early to mid-20th century. Despite the occasional reference to Terry Eagleton (whom he dislikes) or Michel Foucault (whom he treats with surprising respect, given his background), Grayling doesn’t seem to have really learned anything since then. Either that or he’s dumbing down his columns for his audience, which isn’t a good thing either.