I have been calling for nearly two decades for massive educational
reform that would put the study of comparative religion at the center
of the university curriculum.... I view each world religion, including
Judeo-Christianity and Islam, as a complex symbol system, a
metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity
of the universe. Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West's foundational
texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers.
But as a "symbol system," ancient religious texts have no peculiar spiritual virtue whatever, and those less parochial than Paglia appears to be will see the signs of vastness and sublimity in far more diverse things: An Attic tragedy or a baroque dance; a star or an atom; a scientific law or philosophical idea; the touch of a lover or the smile of a child; a grain of sand or the egg of the wren.
To paraphrase Clemenceau, religion is too important to be left to religious texts.
I'm certainly willing to grant Humpty Dumpty privileges to Mark Kleiman if he wants to redefine "religion" as the deep appreciation of literature and music as applied to life (or whatever). And I totally agree: If God is Love, Metaphor, the Atom, or a Wicker Chair, then belief in God is not ridiculous.
But as Kleiman well knows, when atheists say that belief in God is ridiculous, they have rather a different definition in mind -- viz., the definition that, you know, is accepted by the vast majority of believers.
So when he concludes on the basis of his rank equivocation that atheists who disdain religion (in the non-inverted-comma sense) thereby "refuse to learn anything from...traditions that go back thousands of
years" and "cut them[selves] off from much
of the world's great literature, art, and music," well, that's just a load of bollocks. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
SIDE NOTE: Kleiman argues that most people misunderstand religion in much the same way they misunderstand science:
Most Americans no
doubt "believe" that matter is made of atoms....
But if you ask them what an "atom" is, most of them will tell you that it consists of a nucleus — a
mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons — with
still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a
miniature Solar System. That is, they'll describe the Bohr atom,
vintage about 1925.
Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn't work. It
doesn't agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics
believes in it.
On Myers's reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory....
Um, "most Americans" are practicing religious observers, not practicing scientists. (Would that more theists went to science class on Sunday.) Furthermore, there is no analogous consensus theory in religion to get "wrong," no "model" in religion that could be "false." On Kleiman's reasoning, in fact, there is simply no way to "discredit" religion at all.
Suffice it to say that Kleiman's analogy doesn't agree with the experiments.
UPDATE: PZ Myers has more on the inaptness of Kleiman's analogy.
I hate to disagree with the mighty Mark Kleiman two days in a row, but, well...
In criticizing PZ Myers' claim that theists are "ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed," Kleiman issues this challenge:
I've always wanted to ask someone like Meyers — or Dawkins, or Pinker —
how much smarter he thinks he is than, let's say, Heraclitus or
Socrates or Maimonides or Newton, who thought hard about religion and
didn't dismiss it as nonsense.
Yes, it's true -- Newton believed in God. He also believed in alchemy, absolute space, a deterministic universe (save for God's intermittent interventions), and that Revelation predicts the End of Days. (And he "thought hard" about these topics too.)
In short, Newton was a man of his time. I'd like to think we've learned a little since 1700, wouldn't you?
Michael Gerson muses about what would happen "[i]f God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth...."
Well, for one thing, men would have to be more honest about the source and status of their moral beliefs. Admittedly, honesty is often hard, but I do think better than the alternative. (Gerson's very dishonest article would make for a very good Exhibit A. [UPDATE: See posts by Mark Kleiman and Hilzoy for details.])
Anyway, it seems never to occur to Gerson that God has been the author of some confusion on these matters, and that as a result men have always been forced into the role of arbiter in settling what it is God supposedly said. To wit, God was "dethroned" about the time man started writing the Word down.
Now if they would just take the next step logical step and dethrone God's professed scriveners...
This article in the Independent writes of Peter Hitchens that he "question[s] whether [his brother] Christopher truly believe[s] his own assertion that there isn't a God," and quotes Peter's reasoning as follows:
There is always, in the atheistical struggle with God, the fight against temptation. If it didn't matter to you, why write a book about how wrong it is? The first person you have to convince with any book you write, is yourself. If you didn't need convincing... why go to all those lengths?
Shorter, logically formalized Peter Hitchens, then:
For any proposition p, and for any agent A: If A argues that p, then A believes that not-p.
Such a universal disproof will undoubtedly prove useful. No it won't. Yes it will. No it won't.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are right that theism is a ridiculous idea. (N.B.: This is not to say I think one is therefore justified generally in ridiculing religious people for holding such beliefs; I don't.) But their leading causal claim--that theism is a peculiar gateway to nocuous irrationality--is so obviously overblown, and history has bludgeoned us with counterexamples so many times, that even to name those counterexamples seems hackneyed: Mao; Stalin; Pol Pot. But there they still are. And while the examples lend no support to the standard cant propounded by some theists ("But atheism has caused far more evil than theism..."), they do rather clearly point up the obvious third variable that Dawkins-Harris seem always to elide: Authoritarianism. And if authoritarianism is the problem, than the focus by Dawkins-Harris on religion is worse than tangential; by Harris' own logic, it "inadvertently shelters" authoritarianism by diverting attention from the problem to but one of its local manifestations.
Their subsidiary claim--that the world can do without religious reasons for meaningful, moral activity and a happy and productive life because there are equally good secular reasons--presupposes that all those with religious impulses are capable of, or have the time for, doing the significant therapeutic work it takes to stand equal to life in this "pitiless, indifferent" universe. Let's face it: Some people will ever need to believe in a world enchanted with spirits, succeeded by a life ever after. And why not let them, if they are otherwise healthy and productive, and as long as they mind their own metaphysical business? Harris and Dawkins, for all their energetic atheology and amusing snark, never really provide a plausible answer to that question.
A dead body is found in the park. Homicide arrives to investigate.
Presently, an onlooker approaches the investigators and assures them they need look no further. The investigators look up from their work, eyeing the man skeptically. "You've solved the murder, have you?"
"Yes," he sagely replies. "It was the murderer. The murderer did it."
Postscript: Not long after, the county coroner issued her conclusion--death by natural causes.
"Aggrieved" Christians like Tobias Jones will just never get over the fact that however "militant" a secularist Richard Dawkins is, Dawkins would never be so indecent as to put up with (much less worship and defend) a god that would consign Jones to eternal torment in Hell. (Is this personal window unto Christianity's inherent moral depravity not the source of almost all contemporary Christian ressentiment?)
But you really should read Jones' bizarre article--both as a spectacle in itself, and as a prerequisite to understanding some of the wry commentary that intermittently follows it.