Resistance Is Character-Forming

A couple of the Cantabs linked to an article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian which says that atheists should be less arrogant.

I think we all agree that arrogance is a bad thing. These people, for example, are frightful oiks, as I’ve said before. It’s one of those irregular verbs, though, isn’t it? I am forthright, you are outspoken, he is arrogant. Are the objects of Fraser’s criticism arrogant?

We read two specific examples of the sort of thing he’s against. Fraser is shocked and slightly embarrassed at the sight of people who have gone to the trouble of joining secularist organisations actually saying that they want a secular world. Who’d have thought it?

This misses the point, though, as does the injunction that atheism should be more critical of itself. The point is that atheism is not a thing in the same way that a religion is. As Fraser has himself said elsewhere, atheism is strictly defined in contrast to theistic religion. Not all atheists would describe themselves as humanists, for example, though Fraser conflates the two. Most atheists wouldn’t trouble themselves to join an atheist group. They don’t feel a fraternity with other atheists, the substitute family and InstaFriendsTM which are such an attraction of religion. They don’t feel the need to indulge in critique from within, because there’s no border to turn inwards from. I might think that some of the outspoken atheists are arrogant, but I don’t feel the need to say that they’re Not True Atheists.

So, given that atheists are not by nature gregarious, those who do form groups or speak out in public probably have their reasons. Fraser picks out an atheist living in Texas, who you’d imagine might not have such an easy time of it; and Maryam Namazie, who certainly has her reasons for making the statement to which Fraser objects.

Fraser moves on to criticise the out-moded philosophy of atheists, which isn’t post-modern enough. Oddly enough, given Fraser’s advocacy of post-modernism, what I know about it is mostly filtered through Christian critique of it. So, if Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult is anything to go by, it’s about moving away from attempts to explain everything (which attempts you should refer to as meta-narratives in discussions with philosophy professors) and towards smaller stories which have meaning to individuals. From The Post-Evangelical we also learn that it’s a good idea, even though no one is very sure what it means (but see Pete Broadbent’s excellent follow-up to that post of mine for a nice description of evangelical sub-culture: Doctrinal Rectitude Trust, indeed! 🙂

Some Christians are in favour of post-modernity and some are against it. It’s not surprising that atheists are the same. As I’ve said before (bottom few paragraphs), as someone who was educated as a scientist I’m aware of how much we don’t know and where some of our most powerful ideas don’t fit together at the edges. If there is a big story, we don’t have it, and nobody who actually knew anything about it would say otherwise. I personally hope that there is a big story, and the power of scientific methods leads me to think it’s probable, but I don’t know. I don’t think relativism is a practical philosophy to live by, so I suppose I’m Not a True Post-modernist.

Fraser contradicts himself at the end of his argument (although the idea that arguments should not contradict themselves is, I suppose, an out-moded rationalist position). First he points out that that outspoken atheism is Victorian and unfashionably modern (as opposed to post-modern), and is therefore bad. Then he says the opposite, that atheism is not remotely counter-cultural, and is therefore bad. Assuming culture is defined by the views of people who read the Guardian, Fraser’s sort of Christianity is bang alongside it. This is no bad thing: it’s better for Christians to be Guardian readers than members of the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust, but he can’t have it both ways.

In fact, in the UK, both outspoken (by which I mean evangelical and to some extent Catholic) Christianity and outspoken atheism stand as opposites over a large number of people who simply don’t care one way or the other. Both are counter-cultural in way which inclusive, liberal Christianity is not (which is partly why inclusive, liberal Christianity is dying and the evangelicals will eventually own the Church of England). If the one were to cease, the need for the other would also, and we could all go home. As it is, these islands are connected to the rest of the world, and in any case, there are occasionally things to be concerned about here.

Fraser’s final call for atheists to understand religious belief is odd, given that the atheists who bother to talk about religion are often those who have the best sort of understanding possible for an unbeliever, namely that they were once believers themselves. Speaking for myself, I hope I’m only arrogant when I’m returning the favour, although I am sure exasperation gets the better of me sometimes (hint to Christians: don’t try to advertise on my journal 🙂 I understand more or less what makes believers tick. I just think they’re wrong.

13 Comments on "Resistance Is Character-Forming"


  1. It’s a very thoughtful critique and I certainly took quite a bit from it. My delight in the article was mainly born of my own frustration, though. While you recognise the difference between outspoken Chistianity and inclusive liberal Christianity, many people I’ve come across don’t: both come in for the same criticism from people who attack not the bluster but the faith itself, seeing it as being on an intellectual par with “fairies at the bottom of the garden” (the favoured phrase of someone on my friends list).

    I take your point that there isn’t a sense collective atheism in the way that there is a sense of collective faith, but it still strikes me that this sort of atheist isn’t relective enough. The zealous atheists I’ve come across are among the most tolerant people I’ve known (favouring, say, an open immigration policy, equal marriage rights for gay couples and so on), except when it comes to Christianity (less so other religions) where they are dogmatic and, in some cases, downright bigoted. It might not be so galling if these outspoken atheists only included outspoken Christianity in their attack, but they’re indiscriminate: the quiet Anglican, the Methodist, the Baptist and the trumpeter in the Salvation Army band are all fair game. I’m not a Christian myself, but I read theology and obviously have an interest in, and respect for, faith, and am irritated by such broad-brush contempt for it.

    It was mainly because of these experiences that I was glad to see the article – glad that someone should bat it back for a change and suggest that that atheists could consider re-evaluating the foundations of their own belief.

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    1. I think among some atheists there is no understanding of how someone intelligent can be a Christian. I know a lot of intelligent Christians, so that’s not a problem for me, but the most visible Christians here on LJ are fundamentalists who are impervious to reason (the originator of the “Biblical contradictions” discussion I posted about in a recent entry, for example). This makes it hard to remember that there are sane Christians out there. The fundamentalists’ refusal to discuss on anything but their own terms means that some people will give up talking to Christians at all. It simply isn’t worth having the evolution discussion with an American fundie, for example: about the most fun you can have is to attempt to wind them up.

      The sane Christians need to make more noise, I think. They probably won’t, because it’s in their nature to just quietly get on with it, but it’d be nice to see it (it does happen occasionally: mr_ricarno is one person who does seem to stand up for liberalism in his LJ).

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  2. hint to Christians: don’t try to advertise on my journal

    There’s a Christianity Explored course happening at the Burleigh Arms starting on the 31st October. Anyone who wants to come along and discuss Christianity is welcome!

    😉

    As for the rest of the post. If think the main thing which annoys be about atheists (as opposed to humanists) is that they are not saying anything useful, novel, or interesting. As you observe they define themselves in contrast to theism. It is a very easy exercise to pick holes in a worldview, but a much harder exercise to hold a coherent worldview. Humanists are better as they are actually saying something, but that we can start picking holes in their position and seeing who has bigger holes.

    I think the people who are arrogant are those who criticise a belief without offering anything better. I think that a sensible approach to considering a worldview is not to argue the flaws of a particular view, but not compare views and see which is better. I think this is the difference between relativism and the more general post-modern thought of the last century. One says all views are equally valid, the other says all views have flaws/incompleteness but some are still better than others.

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    1. There’s a Christianity Explored course

      That’s the one approved by the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust, Alpha without all that dodgy charismatic stuff, isn’t it? Is there a weekend away where absolutely nobody cries or falls over?

      If think the main thing which annoys be about atheists (as opposed to humanists) is that they are not saying anything useful, novel, or interesting… I think the people who are arrogant are those who criticise a belief without offering anything better.

      I think atheism is becoming more and more useful as religion becomes more and more dangerous. It’s occasionally interesting: although a lot of religious debate is going over old ground, there are always people who’ve not heard it. It’s not particularly novel, I suppose, as people have been modern atheists since the Enlightenment and before (Buddhism seems an atheistic religion, or at least, a religion compatible with atheism), but then, religion isn’t novel either.

      I suppose I’m in agreement with the post-modernists in some ways, in that I don’t believe everyone has to sign up to a worldview before they can criticise someone else’s, especially not to the sort of worldview which claims in principle to be able to explain everything.

      I’m also slightly surprised to see you suggest that Christianity is the least holed worldview. Firstly because it’s supposed to be absolute truth, isn’t it, and secondly because the techniques for demolishing your nonchristunfrends’ world-views in Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult apply just as well to evangelical Christianity (q.v. the recent innerancy stuff on my journal), precisely because evangelical Christianity claims not just to be something that some people might find useful, but rather to be absolute truth (if this has changed in the last 3-4 years, I’d be glad to hear it, of course). With a world-view like that, any holes in it will sink it, because it cannot then be an absolute truth.

      I agree that some views are better than others, but as you must know from mathematics, it’s perfectly valid to say that something is wrong without providing your own alternative. I don’t think I have a world-view that I could describe with an -ism or an -ianity: I have a collection of ideas with different domains of applicability, whose edges don’t always meet up. One of these ideas is that it seems likely that there’s a naturalistic explanation for all the phenomena I know about. Another is that rationality is better than irrationality. Hence, atheism, but that’s more of a consequence than an over-arching philosophy.

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      1. I think atheism is becoming more and more useful as religion becomes more and more dangerous.

        Why to you think religion is becoming more and more dangerous??

        Firstly because it’s supposed to be absolute truth, isn’t it

        I think it should be clear what Christians are claiming when they say the Bible is the absolute truth. They are not claiming that they have a complete, perfect, unchanging understanding of everything the Bible talks about. I am fairly confident that if you ask any Christian how their faith has changed in the last 3 years they will be able to point to areas of their understanding of the Bible which have changed. It is this understanding which is the worldview which has holes, rather than the Word of God.

        Similarly the Bible does have to be translated, etc. New versions are released which are better than old versions. But just because these versions are different does not mean there is not something solid they are working from.

        In a similar way, just because a scientific paradigm is found to have holes it does not mean we conclude there is a problem with reality, rather that we have to replace out paradigm with a different one, but reality remains constant.

        So when we claim the Bible is the inerrant Word of God we are claiming it is something solid to build our worldview on rather than it is the worldview itself. I keep on meaning to post a reply to our previous discussion trying to explain how I think you are confusing the concepts of inerrancy and literalism. One is a claim about the nature of God, the other is a claim that we do not need to interpret the Bible. If there is this process of interpretation then I think it is perfectly reasonable to claim the Bible is the absolute truth but that our interpreted worldviews have holes.

        When it comes to comparing worldviews I think the pointing out the flaws in others worldview is only the first step, and always must be followed by presenting them with a better worldview. Just pointing out flaws is easy.

        but as you must know from mathematics, it’s perfectly valid to say that something is wrong without providing your own alternative.

        I think this is an important point. Should we treat Christianity like we do mathematics, or should we treat it like a science? I think if you treat it like truth in the strict formal logic sense you end up being like those bitter atheists you criticesd in this post. I think the sort of truth we are claiming is much closer to the sort of truth science deals with, so I think the sort of tools scientists use are much better than those of logisticians. Having said that as mentioned in this post even mathematicians are perfectly happy to continue using things they know to be false until such time as they can be shown to be true.

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        1. As a mathematician (though not, for several years, an academic one), I am baffled by your statement that “mathematicians are perfectly happy to continue using things they know to be false until such time as they can be shown to be true”. I can’t help thinking that you must mean something slightly different.

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          1. Mathematicians used differential and integral calculus for a number of centuries before they had rigorous analytical proofs that they worked. Before then they had “proofs” for calculus which did lots of wrong things, like dividing by infinity. They knew that this was wrong, but because their calculus gave the right results they were happy to continue using it.

            That’s the sort of thing I’m refering too.

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            1. In which case, you mean that mathematications are quite happy to say things like

              If the Riemann Hypothesis is true, then [whatever]

              without requiring the Reimann Hypothesis to be proved.

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              1. No, bluap, it’s not quite the same, because NLJ is talking about an instance where mathematicians use something they know is wrong because they’re sure it gives correct results when used the way they’re using it. Dividing 0 by 0 really is broken, and Bishop Berkeley’s quip about “ghosts of departed quantities” had some real point to it; but Newton and Leibniz and their successors were (rightly) confident that what they were doing was sound even though they couldn’t explain why, and that eventually it would be better understood.

                I think mathematicians have become considerably more circumspect about doing this sort of thing since, well, basically since the revolution in rigour that began with people like Weierstrass and that was initially all about fixing the calculus. Scientists still implicitly work with things they know are broken quite often; consider “renormalization” in quantum mechanics, for instance.

                And I wouldn’t describe this as “happy to continue using things they know to be false until such time as they can show them to be true”. What early calculus users used wasn’t really any set of *statements* that were false, but a set of *techniques* that weren’t understood and whose origin they could only explain by saying a few things that weren’t true. The propositions they actually made use of were generally more or less true, and certainly not known to be false; it’s just that they didn’t have proofs.

                I’m not sure how any of this translates to Christianity. Is NLJ saying that he knows scriptural inerrancy is false but proposes to continue assuming it because doing so works well in practice and he doesn’t know any better option? That’s not quite as crazy an idea as it sounds, but I think it’s still quite crazy…

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        2. Why to you think religion is becoming more and more dangerous??

          I’m thinking of the American “Who would Jesus bomb?” attitude and of politicised Islam, both of which are violent and angling for control over people’s lives in a worrying way. I’m reminded of the old saw that “a Puritan is someone who is deathly afraid that someone, somewhere, is having fun”.

          If there is this process of interpretation then I think it is perfectly reasonable to claim the Bible is the absolute truth but that our interpreted worldviews have holes.

          In what sense is it meaningful to say the Bible is inerrant if inerrancy is actually a property of the Bible + reader’s interpretation? How do we know which interpretation is the correct one? I’m struggling to see how your understanding of inerrancy actually says anything about the Bible at all.

          I also think you’ve an unorthodox understanding of the perspicacity of Scripture. For example, churches in the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust (who are the final arbiters of orthodoxy) are certain enough of their reading of scripture to attempt to split the church on the issue of homosexuality, so the Bible must be pretty clear on that. This despite their argument relying not on a clear statement that homosexuality is wrong (or, if they’re at all sophisticated, on arguments about what malakoi and whatnot mean), but rather on an extended argument from Genesis concerning the meaning of marriage. That is, they’re not doing the single verse propositional logic that the atheist looking for simple contradictions or the embarrassing American literalist might do, but on reading a whole text and asking what the author was trying to say.

          My understanding, gained by sermons with diagrams, of how an evangelical interprets the Bible is that they look at what it meant to its original readers and then see how to translate that to Cambridge in 2005. In my example, what Paul intended to convey to his readers was that some of them would be alive to see Jesus’ return. What this means for his readers in 2005 is that Paul was, on at least one occasion, dead wrong. That doesn’t show that Christianity is wrong, by any means, but it means that the evangelical method of reading the Bible is self-defeating: if you insist that the method of interpreting Paul taught at StAG and similar places allows you access to stuff which is infallibly true, and apply it to the question of when Jesus is coming back, you find that the answer you get isn’t infallibly true.

          Just pointing out flaws is easy.

          Pointing out flaws also demonstrates that there’s something wrong with your understanding, in either maths or science. Something like the Ultraviolet Catastrophe meant that people knew their science was wrong before they had anything to replace it with. That’s a perfectly legitimate observation: insisting that you must come up with something better before you can criticise is not how it works in any field of endeavour.

          The question is then whether the problems with Christianity are like the Ultraviolet Catastrophe for classical thermal physics, or like the lack of solid foundation for calculus (or renormalisation, to take a more obviously physical example). I suppose the difference between these two is whether the practice “works”. In science, that means it gives predictions which work. I’m not sure what the analogue of renormalisation in Christianity would be, but my feeling is that if there is one, it’s about the sort of Christianity which asserts that practice and community matters more then facts (I’m thinking of the liberals and Anglo-Catholics I see around LJ), not about the sort of faiths whichs insists that facts come first, faith follows from that, and feelings are relegated to third place. In the latter sort of Christianity, if you can show that the facts are wrong, it’s catastrophic.

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          1. In what sense is it meaningful to say the Bible is inerrant if inerrancy is actually a property of the Bible + reader’s interpretation?

            In that same sort of sense that it is meaningful to say that Scripture is inerrant as originally given, despite not having the original documents, and having to rely on a translation process.

            I’m not actually claiming inerrancy is a property of (Bible + interpretation). What I am claiming is that if we want to test if the Bible (meaning scripture as originally given – I can’t be bothered to type that each time) stands up to the claims to be inerrant by testing if what we read in the Bible contains contradictions, then there are a number of areas problems could arrive. Translation + interpretation being the two obvious ones. I often find it is my interpretation which has the problems rather than Scripture.

            I think the above paragraph is true for reading any text. If it doesn’t seem to be making sense, then a good first question is “Have I understood it correctly?”.

            As for which interpretation is correct, I guess the important aspect for this discussion is that it is one which seeks the balance of Scripture and avoids succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions. Yes, that’s essentially circular. Is that a problem?

            I also think you’ve an unorthodox understanding of the perspicacity of Scripture.

            What is your understanding of the orthodox understanding perspicacity? My understanding is that it was the alternative to four-fold mystic allegory sort of reading of the Bible which was predominant in the Catholic church at the time. Instead it was emphasising a historico-crtical reading which could be done by anyone without any mystic knowledge.

            if you insist that the method of interpreting Paul taught at StAG

            Did the people you knew at StAG reach the conclusion you suggested when interpreting Paul? If not, then may I suggest there is some subtle difference between the method that you are describing and that used by people at StAG. And that this difference in the method (or more likely the application of it) is the source of your problems. (Note to self: post reply to previous thread).

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            1. In that same sort of sense that it is meaningful to say that Scripture is inerrant as originally given, despite not having the original documents, and having to rely on a translation process.

              I’m not sure that’s meaningful either, or at least, not useful. Saying you believe that a document which you no longer have access to contains no errors is all very well, but I can’t see how it’d affect your life very much.

              In fact, evangelicals don’t seem to be very receptive to attempts to construct the original scripture by saying that some parts of Paul’s letters are interpolations or that some letters are combinations of earlier ones, for example, so my impression is that functionally, evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures as we have them now. Again, I’d be interested to know if I’m wrong about what you (plural) think about textual criticism.

              As for which interpretation is correct, I guess the important aspect for this discussion is that it is one which seeks the balance of Scripture and avoids succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions. Yes, that’s essentially circular. Is that a problem?

              It is a problem in that it doesn’t provide a way of knowing the correct interpretation, so I’m still struggling to know what inerrancy means in practice. Perhaps “taking the Bible very seriously” might be a better term?

              What is your understanding of the orthodox understanding perspicacity?

              That the important things in the Bible are easy to understand. In the context of my argument, I’m saying that evangelicals clearly believe they can draw momentuous conclusions, about which they presumably will not change their minds, from extended arguments from the text as a whole, not individual proof verses. That must be pretty close to an inerrant interpretation, in their opinion.

              Did the people you knew at StAG reach the conclusion you suggested when interpreting Paul?

              No. That’s because they’d already taken it as axiomatic that Paul writes without error. I think that an honest reading of Paul shows that he made a mistake, but that if you want an interpretation which doesn’t contradict your axiom (making the entire system internally contradictory) you’ve got to adopt an allegorised reading of Paul’s teaching on the second coming, in which all Christians potentialy stand in the role of Paul’s readers in the 1st Century. Which is what evangelicals do. Personally, I think that this is inconsistent: evangelicals make other arguments about the broad sweep of the text (such as the homosexuality one), but are not prepared to concede that the sum of Paul’s teaching on the parousia is that it’s coming within the lifetime of his readers.

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              1. I’m not sure that’s meaningful either, or at least, not useful. Saying you believe that a document which you no longer have access to contains no errors is all very well, but I can’t see how it’d affect your life very much.

                It affects your life because we have access to documents based on those original documents. I think many things in the Bible are expressed with alot of redundancy, so even if we don’t have an loseless copying and translation system we can still have a pretty good idea of what was originally said.

                Again, I’d be interested to know if I’m wrong about what you (plural) think about textual criticism.

                I’m not too sure I am qualified to speak for us (plural) on textual criticism, I’m also not familiar with these claims that Paul’s letters are combinations of earlier ones. Please explain what the basis for such claims is. I will make the following observations:

                1) We are quite happy to acknowledge that many documents have been modified by later editors who have added explanatory footnotes (esp. bath-blah is where blah blah blah did blah blah blah) – although none of these make substantial differences to the meaning of the passages.

                2) The past generation did lots of textual criticism based on word studies (ie. this author uses these words, and this doesn’t use those words in any of his other writings, so maybe this piece by the second author which contains these words is actually by the first author). This is not now thought to be a particularly strong arguement.

                3) I think the starting point should always be the obvious. If something looks like a letter, and reads like a letter, then it probably is a letter rather than snippings of a collection of letters. Although, without knowing the specifics of what you’re refering to I don’t think I can say much else.

                It is a problem in that it doesn’t provide a way of knowing the correct interpretation, so I’m still struggling to know what inerrancy means in practice. Perhaps “taking the Bible very seriously” might be a better term?

                In practice inerrancy will mean “taking the Bible very seriously”, although Doctinal statements are not intended to say what people do, but what they believe. While we might have difficulty knowing the 100% correct interpretation, I think we can still say that some interpretations are better than others and different interpretation interpret things in meaningful and meaningless ways. I think it is the same with any communication: if I were to analyse everything you have said in your posts I sure I would find bits which I was not too sure what you meant, or I had misunderstood, etc.. but despite this we are still capable of meaningful communication.

                I think that an honest reading of Paul shows that he made a mistake

                I don’t think you are allowed to get away with saying “an honest reading”. Please explain what this honest understanding of Paul’s writing is – who you think he was and why he wrote the things he did.

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