Thursday, September 01, 2011

Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

...A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Hey, I'm not going to tell someone that they can't indulge their masochistic fetish for being suspended indefinitely on existential tenterhooks, but, yuh know, on that note, it seems to this observer that those of us who have serenely accepted the nonexistence of any God worthy of the name are the ones who have moved on to the more pressing concerns of how to live in this world with only our fellow fallible humans to rely on for love, support and justice, whereas it is this particular type of doubter who wants to encase religious questions in amber, leaving them incapable of being resolved to any practical satisfaction. It's people like Lane who dogmatically insist that anything less than 100% certain knowledge on this issue means we must remain open to the possibility that something like the Abrahamic religions just might be true after all. And I still say that if it weren't for the oppressive, overbearing presence of a jealous, vindictive God haunting our collective cultural memory, no one would think it such a big deal to consider the matter settled for all intents and purposes and get on with it.

What I found really funny, though, was seeing yet another essay using Dawkins as the prime example of strident, intolerant atheism... with a link in the sidebar to related articles, including an interview with Dawkins on the same site that totally belies the claim.


  1. "Atheists are the real believers!" has become quite a thing recently. Among stupid people. Many of whom are paid according to their popularity among a mostly (nominally) Christian readership.
    The reason I've taken positions that seem at odds with atheists like yourself is that I think understanding the world is a neverending process of discovery and I think dismissing concepts like "God" and "spirituality" should be starting places for new ideas, not merely reactions to what others think. If God doesn't exist, why does anything? If I have nothing like a spirit whatsoever, why does it seem so clear to me that I do? When answers to those questions are dismissive, I think it reveals the same kind of failing that we accuse the religious of having: stopping thinking before you have satisfactory answers.

  2. I'm not refusing to listen to people because they might tell me something I'm afraid to hear, it's just that in my advanced old age, I've become more certain through repetition that I'm never going to hear anything original in defense of these ideas. I think it was Sam Harris who noted that a medieval theologian could sit down and follow right along with theology today, because they're still using the same basic arguments. No other branch of knowledge would facilitate that sort of time-traveling experiment.

  3. I'm not saying you're not listening or even wrong about anything. I'm trying to convince you that there is more to philosophy than destruction. What can you say about the questions that others have answered wrongly?

  4. As Bakunin said, "The urge to destroy is also a creative act."

    Well, I honestly feel that a lot of truth is best approached as one would a sculpture, rather than, say, painting or any other creative act. It's not in need of being explicated and built up in words; it's more about chipping away at the excess that others have already built up to reveal what's underneath it all.

    Sometimes, then, I think my "answer" is implied in the criticism itself. I probably got that from Taoism, the idea that the "negative" approach of correcting other people's obvious errors in a process of elimination is just as, if not more valid, than telling them what I think they should do.

  5. Criticism is entirely valid. But if you look at the plans for a house and say, "That's not going to work.", even if you're right, you'll be expected to continue with suggestions for a better way. Not building the house is not an option, and I'm not seeing a workable plan here, even though I'm in agreement with you with almost all your criticisms.

  6. Brian M11:58 AM

    But is it the Scribbler's role to do this, noel? Maybe some people are better at "destruction". Unless our host is a total renaisance man who can see all and do all, maybe it is good that he can fulfill the role of the doubter, the scoffer, the destroyer. There are certainly other writers, other sources, out there doing what you ask????

    Especially if you believe in an individualized spirituality, a unique personal "anser" to these questions. I see Scribbler as more of a Gaahl, myself (LOL)

    "Teach us" and he just stares blankly at the dweeb.

    LOL :)

  7. Brian M12:01 PM

    "I have no interest in getting a flock of sheep that's just following me in the same one direction. That would be just as bad as society is" LOL

  8. If spiritual narratives and explanatory frameworks are analogous to a house here, then I would say no, the house doesn't need to be built. I see what you're getting at, of course, but I don't think people need to have something to replace metaphysical beliefs with. In any event, what is it specifically you think I should be addressing?

  9. The problem of how to live rationally isn't solved by saying, "That's just the way it is.", or something similar. How can we say people are culpable for their actions if they don't have any continuous existence as individuals? Your real life is not separate from your philosophy.

  10. Not separate, but not identical either. People were living their lives long before anyone tried to systematically philosophize about how to do it. And I'll say again, I've always been attracted to those who refused on principle to attempt to lay down rules and systems, Nietzsche and the Taoists, most importantly. It's not about being evasive, it's insisting that life has to be lived first; attempting to describe it in a rational framework will always be lagging a bit behind and slightly inaccurate.

    There's no such thing as absolute free will, but we do indeed make choices within our limited ability to do so. Assuming we haven't acquired some sort of Memento-style brain damage, we have memories of the choices we made and why we made them. That works well enough to hold people culpable for their actions. Just because you're not the exact same person you were ten years ago on a cellular level, it doesn't negate any of that. There's some sort of continuity between the you of ten years ago and you right now.

  11. I've decided to jump into the fray. Not to pick on you Noel, but as an SNR "type" myself, there's still a lot I don't get about the movement.

    "If I have nothing like a spirit whatsoever, why does it seem so clear to me that I do? When answers to those questions are dismissive, I think it reveals the same kind of failing that we accuse the religious of having: stopping thinking before you have satisfactory answers."

    I'm dismissive because I don't care. I don't find the question interesting, or even worthy of looking into; perhaps because it's only speculation (I distrust pure rationale as an argument. Logic implies reliability. It does not demonstrate it. For that you need data.) I have decided for myself that my reason for existing is to learn, and to be as engaged as possible in the experience of living. Whether this is defensible, rational, or anything else is utterly immaterial to me. If nothing of me survives this world, that doesn't matter either. If it turns out to be all a waste of time (although who defines that I don't know) well, at least I wasn't bored.

    As I see it, your argument with Scribbles is that if he won't go along with 'irrational' thought frameworks like religion and spirituality, AND he won't go along with Neo-Platonism uber-rationality, he ought to be able to at least frame a third alternative, rather than criticize.

    But I see them as a continuum, and the tension between them is the source of any real 'truth'. The problem is that you can't balance on a knife edge. All life is flux, and therefore the answer is somewhere in the middle, but it's a moving target, and always will be. As soon as you decide you've grasped it, you've almost certainly lost it.

  12. All life is flux, and therefore the answer is somewhere in the middle, but it's a moving target, and always will be. As soon as you decide you've grasped it, you've almost certainly lost it.

    Well said! Articulations are artificial. I don't have much use for words like spiritual or God, either. And "movements" are abhorrent to me. My point is this: it's true that we pretend that there's more to us than there is. But what's interesting is that we really do have a point of view, there really is something experiencing what we experience, doing what we do, suffering what we suffer, even if we are constantly mistaken about its true nature. When scientists say that a person's locus of consciousness changes from one moment to the next, aren't they admitting that we have one? I was never trying to tell Scribbs not to give fuzzy thinkers hell; I was just trying to expand the dialogue a little. Not sure if I was successful or not.

  13. Consciousness is an interesting beast. I don't think that every person has a consciousness. Perhaps they did but they lost it; perhaps they became numb to it, or life beat it out of them somehow.

    But to me, the essence of consciousness is the ability to reflect. How many people do you see who are entirely unreflective, who when you prod them, it's like poking jello-- you make no impression upon them. Perhaps they do think, almost certainly they do suffer. But they are not, to my way of thinking, conscious, and I have a kind of horror of that kind of life. Perhaps it would be better to be dead, but if you were in that state, could you even form the thought?

    So, although it seems elitist, there is, as Scribbles occassionally suggests, people without the spark of consciousness can be almost entirely disregarded from ideas like this. They don't know, don't care, and in fact have no frame of reference for the concept. Nominal religion or spirituality serves their purposes for as much meaning as they ever feel the need to consider, and thus it ever was.

    I'm not saying they're cattle to be managed. Bread and circuses is a bad idea; no matter how practical, how efficient, to marginalize any demographic that large is to beg for trouble. This is why I have no problem with pop- anything (except, perhaps, for the Secret) because it meets the masses where they are at.

    I don't think even Scribs would argue that consciousness exists... certainly he comments on its lack often enough. But whether it's greater than ourselves, whether it belongs on another plane entirely I think is asking the wrong question.
    I have it, and like every good toy, I want to try it out and see what it can do. The existential questions can wait for a rainy day when there's nothing better to do.

  14. You... have consciousness? If you didn't have it, you wouldn't be you.