Atheism and Curiosity

15 August 2011

James Wood recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker called, “Secularism and Its Discontents” – a review of and response to The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine. Atheism, secularism, religion, etc; these things are on my mind most days, not only because I study religion, nor simply because I don’t believe in God (let’s note now: this is distinct from saying, “I believe there is no God”), but because of my interest in politics, in the conversations of people I pass by in the street, because of literature I read, movies I watch, etc. I’ll mention a couple of other recent sources below. First, however, I’d like to respond to a few points Wood makes/cites.

Early on Wood, commenting on a “convinced atheist” friend who wakes in the night anxious whether the universe really could just come from an accidental big bang, explains the following: ”In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts.” I was not, after this opening, expecting to enjoy this piece. (As it happens, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, and it convinced me to be interested in The Joy of Secularism.) What does it mean to be a “convinced” atheist? It’s funny, Wood will later refer, rather casually, to the so-called New Atheists as miltant atheists. This word contains sufficiently diverse connotations – some sufficiently mild, i.e. not all refer to violence – for my complaint to be limited. Sure, they are confrontational. But is the dogmatism so woefully (for Wood) demonstrated by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, not contained within this little adjective convinced? Convinced of what, exactly: atheism? Convinced that there is no God, yet waking in the night to wonder whether there just might be? I’m just not sure what it would mean to be a convinced atheist – perhaps this is why people would want the term agnostic to be used more frequently, but so too would people prefer I respected all religious traditions and beliefs equally, when some simply are not as respectable as others. Atheism seems to me to describe someone who has not been convinced. Perhaps a convinced atheist is convinced she is not convinced. Now, I know, the word is not always used that way, but even the denial of the existence of God seems to me different than the belief that there is none. (Emphasis, again, on the term ‘belief.’) Agnosticism, as it happens, is a perfectly fine word, and as it also happens I apply neither word to myself, but only because they don’t seem particularly useful titles for me. Nevertheless, atheists are not supposed to ask themselves whether their lives are cosmically irrelevant? Well then, who else is going to ask? Any convinced theists would have no need for such a question. Unconvinced theists, on the other hand – now, they are an interesting bunch… That Wood’s friend seems to, without too much concern, posit irrelevance and accidentalness as the obvious results of the revelation of God’s death would occupy a greater share of this blog post, were it not for the fact that Wood’s subject is a book that hopes to posit secularism as not a loss but a gain. A great start.

Nevertheless, Wood quotes one of the authors from the volume as follows: “Believers, then, make an autonomous choice ‘to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.’” I’d be curious to see the extent to which this plays out in people’s lives. I.e. I agree that there is a choice – undoubtedly. But is this an autonomous choice? I.e. is it even viewed as a choice by the chooser? Or is it a choice the autonomy of which (i.e. its being a choice) would be debated by the believer? Should we not at least ask?

Yet another author is quoted later on: “De Waal warns against conflating ‘the reasons why a behavior evolved and the reasons why individual actors show it, a distinction as sacred to biologists as the one between church and state in modern society.’ As he says, ‘The evolutionary reasons for altruistic behavior are not necessarily the animals’ reasons.’” Wood’s continuation: “In other words, human morality can be explained without being explained away.” Though it is always fun to argue, I am quite grateful to read this little excerpt. Does it not strike the chord one expects to and longs to hear, like the resolution of a Wagnerian epic, where instead we often hear the dissonance of what Wood here calls “bad reduction”?

Timely enough, Discovery has released this the first episode of “Curiosity” with Stephen Hawking musing on the origins of the universe. He makes a quick but convincing argument rooted in science that there is no need to posit any God to understand the big bang or the fact of the universe seemingly springing from nothing. Firstly, he explains, quantum mechanics allows for spontaneous generation of particles. Secondly, negative energy (empty space, as far as I can tell) actually “balances the books” of the universe: we did not get something out of nothing, we got a fabulously active nothing. Or, to say it better, we got zero out of zero – it’s just that there are very many configurations through which zero can be attained. Is this difficult to imagine and understand? Why, yes. Is it accurate? That’s not for me to say. I would have to do a hell of a lot more math study to have a better grasp. I’ll say it’s elegant, and even though this program started with a rather lame dramatization of Vikings looking at the sun during a violent storm, Hawking struck a terrific tone, and for the most part the producers animated his images well.

PS Watch all four parts of the video!

10 Responses to “Atheism and Curiosity”

  1. jqmarks Says:

    One question is what we should do with and expect from atheism and secularism. Wood’s article – and, if his description of the book he reviews holds, that new volume, too – helps with this question. But I want to return to his demonization of the New Atheists. I wrote a post about Sam Harris a few weeks ago – which prompted a lively debate about epistemology and psychedelics. Here’s a video of Richard Dawkins speaking of the queerness of the universe and, in a way Sean Carroll might like, questioning the limits of human knowledge and perception. You’ve read about this man and his “strident” atheism, you’ve perhaps read Reza Aslan (whose article I linked to in a previous post) railing against the “There’s Probably No God” advertisements (of which he is a proponent) on London buses, and you’ve maybe come to see him as a dogmatic and stubborn, arrogant and disrespectful atheist. This talk was done July 2005 - The God Delusion came out the following year. Do you suppose he left his imaginative and curious nature behind him to pursue atheist propaganda? What can I say? I disagree.

    Nevertheless, I do not defend every action or word of the New Atheists. Far from it. But do thinkers like Wood not appreciate the extent to which they have helped pull this discussion closer to the mainstream? I’m grateful for voices that go further than my middle-way tendencies would take my own, as well as to the voices that push against those voices further in the opposite direction than I would. But sometimes I read authors arguing for secular or atheistic or agnostic positions who seem so anxious about the New Atheists, they focus on what’s worrisome about Hitchens to such excess it makes their own positions less clear, less convincing, less relevant. Then, of course, you get articles like this one, on the rapid increase in “godlessness” in recent generations, which, while focused enough on facts, is a bit annoyingly pervaded by the author’s snooty atheism. I can see, to a certain extent, why people don’t want to be considered aligned with people they consider arrogant and extreme in their atheism and their insistence on it. Some of them really are annoying about it. The New Atheists, I simply happen to think, are more interesting and thoughtful in their performances and arguments than people like Adam Lee seems to be. AC Grayling, writing here about the bus campaign, makes a fair point but in a familiarly annoying tone. The New Atheists are clearly guilty of this tone often enough. I guess I just wonder why we can’t come up with any better responses to them than “You’re just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists you criticize!” Don’t we ever tire of such rhetorical moves? 

  2. Paul Says:

    “Believers, then, make an autonomous choice ‘to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.’”

    I find this quote most interesting and my glib side would say, “Wow, an oxymoron.” By definition, can a “believer” make an autonomous assessment or choice? It seems that once belief – accepting that something is true or real– settles in, the cement hardens. How does one stay open to counter possibilities? What is true autonomy if 1) not understanding the wankering of unconscious subterfuge, the foil master of mind, that makes belief utterly believable; and 2) failing to understand that autonomy is hardly autonomous (is anything?)? Once belief burrows into the marrow of believer…my God, save me.

    • jqmarks Says:

      I think this speaks to my ambivalence regarding religion as it is practiced – religious belief seems to play such a significant role, and when people demand respect for religious practice, they often seem to mean that we must not question religious belief, no matter what. And the quotation that caught both your eye and mine seems like a rather clever way of creating this kind of approach. Secularists may cherish choice, and believers may often see themselves as submitting to a higher will, but since both of these are autonomous choices, “Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.” This seems unhelpful. I understand why your glib side would be drawn out by this quotation. I read a lot of articles and essays from the various sides of these questions, and most of them tend, at least at some point or other, to wake up that glib side of mine. But what you point out seems to me most important, namely, that the argument makes investigating what true autonomy might be even more difficult. Or, rather, it completely undermines that project by presenting autonomy as merely the agent’s conceiving of itself after the fact as having made a decision, and settles the question there. This is why I wish these conversations would focus less time on questions like, “Is Dawkins a fundamentalist?” and “The similarities between religious and secular people,” and more on questions like what the process of belief is, etc.

      • Paul Says:

        “Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.”
        You see, here’s the linguistic rub of this formulation? The term, “independent evaluations” cleverly belies the double-meaning of many the so-called believers’ “independent evaluations;” namely that individuals “believe” that they are independent when they (or any of us) in fact are in dependence on belief and unconscious motivation, which throws autonomy– as we believe it–to the wind; and (thus) believe (like most of us) that they are independent beings governed by external forces, which again completely negates any autonomous or independent evaluating.  With that said, that “they [believers and atheists] go about finding [life-meaning] in similar ways” is totally fallacious.  And that’s the point.  It is in the how of the “go about finding it” that potentially leads to erroneous belief.  If you want to talk about faith, then that at least feels more authentic.  This is not merely a semantic game, it is a meaningful difference.  Further, conflating the methodologies of atheistic and theistic seeking is rhetorically deceptive.


  3. [...] on Philip Kitcher’s essay in the recent The Joy of Secularism, which I’ve mentioned previously, as a counterpoint to the Dawkins approach to debating theism from an atheistic standpoint. [...]


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