Saturday, August 27, 2011

The new atheism

Interesting article by James Wood in today's Guardian about the way fiction can be used to examine questions of religion and God. It makes the point that Dawkins et al are so strident in their atheism there is no place for nuanced discussion. Fiction, meanwhile, allows more complex debate on some of the issues. I don't think Woods says anything particularly new or striking, to be honest, but it raises some decent questions.

I'm amazed that a run-through of writers who use fiction to air religious debates does not include either Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy, both of whose work is shot through with a Catholic analysis of modernity and the difficulties of redemption and grace therein.

For me, the article really gets interesting when discussing Rowan Williams' suggestion that religious metaphors (the Virgin birth etc) allow an "event" or "space" in history in which man can pause to understand the hidden truths. I'm not a believer, but I think this is a powerful argument and there is much to commend it. Frustratingly, the article ends here and doesn't go into more detail. Whether you believe in God or not, or any other deity, or any other supernatural explanation of our existence, it is still true that there is a "beyond", about which we cannot ever know anything. In narrow terms, that would encompass the time before your birth and after your death: you will never be able to understand what happens beyond those poles. And, in broader human terms, the same poles exist, for the time before time and the time after time, whether that is the Christian eschaton or something different. The metaphors, or myths, that Williams alludes to are the only possible way we can ever explore these questions. The sterility and dogmatism of the new atheists' stance allows for no such contemplation, which is unfortunately blinkered.


Doug Lance said...

It makes no sense to contemplate time after time or time before time. That's like contemplating birth before birth or death after death. It is impossible because it doesn't exist.

Do you know how unicorns grow such large horns? No? You don't think unicorns are real? Your absolutist attitude about unicorns limits our debate of unicorns!

The human mind did not evolve to understand finality in such terms. It evolved to throw rocks at moving targets in a macroscopic world. We cannot understand impossibilities and paradoxes, so we make it up.

Tom Conoboy said...

The human mind did not evolve to understand finality in such terms. It evolved to throw rocks at moving targets in a macroscopic world. We cannot understand impossibilities and paradoxes, so we make it up

I think that's essentially the point I'm making. We use mythology and symbolisation to try to understand those things we don't and can't comprehend.

Time before time is not the same as birth before birth. Birth is simply a process, something that happens to an individual. Time is the reality in which we find ourselves, and as a species for some reason we seem peculiarly drawn to investigating and speculating on what happens outside it.

Fauntleroy said...

Doug Lance: Thank you! I too feel no need to give the religious a less-limited space in which to debate the merits of belief in this or that. All of us who live in a free society have enough room to discuss and contemplate as we please already. I don't need to silence myself or "nuance" my approach in order to further appease the religously-minded majority.

Tom Conoboy said...

Fauntleroy, your comment is another example of the ridiculously overblown response of certain literalist individuals. Aggression appears to be the default position.

I am not part of the religiously minded majority you mention. As I said in my original post, I am not a believer. But debate can be useful. Just as many of the religiosuly minded majority have a tendency to wish to silence debate, so does your aggressive stance serve to achieve the same thing.

Your suggestion that you "do not need to silence yourself" is a pointless fallacious argument. Nowhere in my post is there anything that could be construed as an attempt to "silence" you. Far from it, I suggest you carry on - your words eloquently make my case for me.