Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Believe in me

Wired had an interesting cover this month: "The New Atheism: No Heaven, No Hell, Just Science. Inside the Crusade Against Religion." I expected something splashy and superficial, but it actually turned out to be an extremely thoughtful treatment of the most famous non-believers and their current attempts to dispel religion from modern thought.

The author makes no bones about being generally sympathetic to their cause, and he lets the proponents of non-belief -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett -- make their case in their own terms and on their own turf. He also isn't shy about bringing up the natural counter-arguments to their positions. How can they be so critical of close-minded certainty, when they themselves are so damn self-righteous about knowing the truth? Dawkins, especially, seemed to be full of social-engineering aspirations, thinking it much better if the state could teach children instead of the parents.

The most interesting exception the tone of strident rebellion was Daniel Dennett. I've always had mixed feelings about Dennett, because I loved The Mind's Eye, and yet the man himself was rather unpleasant, in a sneeringly superior way, when I extended him an invitation to speak at my school. (The experience contrasted strongly with my talk with Douglas Hofstadter, Dennett's co-author of The Mind's Eye, who was extraordinarily nice to me, even though he turned down the offer to speak.) But I liked Dennett's tone; he was not out to get faith, like all the others. More importantly, he knew that reason alone could not generate values, and that at some point humanity had to have faith in something, even if that something is just their moral intuitions. It was a subtlety lacking in almost all the other atheists.

I guess I was most disappointed in the fact that no one, not even Dennett, really addressed the question of meaning. The atheists recognized that they needed to do more to make their philosophy more attractive, if they were going to change people's minds. It seemed to me that the first job of such a philosophy would be to make a compelling case for morality, meaning and purpose. There are a brave few, like Stephen Pinker, who are trying to show that you can have a real morality and purpose without positing divinity. I wish there were more . . . but then again, if they were fully aware of those needs, they might not have been atheists in the first place.

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