Wednesday, 14 April 2010

A.C. Grayling at the Atheist Convention

I was listening to selections from a talk by A.C. Grayling, given at the recent Global Atheist Convention. Based on the introduction, I'd hoped for some robust argument to provoke some discussion. To be honest, I was disappointed. Here are just three parts of his talk that I take issue with.

In the discussion of "science and religion" he posed the question about what each could offer the other. His answer was that science can help study the phenomena of religion, whereas religion can't help understand the Higgs boson. Not only has he presented this only from a scientific viewpoint, but he's been quite selective about his areas of interest. Should we instead be asking about how religion can contribute to discussions in the philosophy of science, or the social dimensions of science? While I'll be at the front of the line to argue that science and religion are incapable of contributing to each other in all areas, it was oddly dismissive of Grayling to target only the asymmetry between the two.

Going further, in his critique of religion, he bundles all religions together in order to build a picture of religion in general. Christianity, Islam, Roman religion... all with their own nuances that distinguish one from another, and with dialogue inside each one, but selectively lumped together as RELIGION for his own purposes. It's precisely the same technique as the woeful selection of proof texts used by the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church, harnessed only to support a preconceived notion.

Lastly, his analysis of the common ancestor of science and religion was a cheap shot. Ignorance, he proclaimed, was the common ancestor of the two and there has been a parallel evolution of science and religion ever since, in just the same way as from a common ancestor came Cro Magnon man ("Us," he said) and Neanderthal ("and them," he said). The invocation of "us and them" is a sorry indictment, and perhaps the genuine self-disclosed exposure of the talk. Just as he grouped the Nuremberg rallies with the skilled rhetoric in a megachurch, he himself uses the same techniques in order to appease and enthuse his audience.

I'd hoped for a reasonable talk, but didn't get it. Instead I heard biased argument from someone claiming to pursue a scientific method of inquiry. I'll leave this with some words from Scott Stephens, in his more lengthy review of the convention.

But the GAC was a different matter entirely. As was observed by several of the speakers at the Convention — Phillip Adams and Tamas Pataki being the most courageous - that initial sense of moral outrage seems to have been traded for satire, and the commendable desire to argue for the superiority of atheism over every rival outlook has devolved into self-indulgent bravado.

This style of atheism lacks the appropriate seriousness, and so ends up pandering to the fashionable cynicism and ethical disengagement that dominates Western societies.

Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's description of German Protestantism in the 1930s, the upshot of such atheism in our time is to make people feel better, or at least more smug, about their morally bankrupt lives.

Consequently, the GAC will prove to have been little more than a Hillsong for the irreligious - which is to say, an orgy of self-congratulation presided over by egotistic pseudo-celebrities.

To put it in a nutshell: the fundamental problem with the type of atheism on display at the Convention is that it is a conceit that perfectly suits our times by providing morally indefensible lives with an alibi, a kind of rational overlay.
Hillsong for Unbelievers, Scott Stephens

Edit: See also some comments from Margaret Coffey about the Global Atheist Convention. She shares similar disappointment about the actual content of the GAC. See, for example:
It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’.
Post a Comment