Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Madeleine Bunting is at it again

Madeleine Bunting is up to her old trick of complaining about 'new' atheists.

It's all very tedious and confused as usual so I'll leave it mostly alone. I couldn't ignore this part, however:

The great mistake the atheists made is to claim that religion started out as a clumsy stab at science – trying to explain how the world worked – and is now clearly redundant. That misses the point entirely: religion is not about explaining how an earthquake or flood happens; rather it offers meanings for such events. When someone is killed in a car accident, western rationality is good at analysing how the brakes failed and the road curved, but has nothing to say about why, on that particular day, the brakes failed when it was you in the car: the sequence of random events that kill. This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit.

Bunting seems to jump back and forth between what 'science' and 'religion' were in the olden days and where they are now in order to make her point. But it's pure sleight of hand. When we didn't know anything about earthquakes, for example, 'how' and 'why' they happened seemed like the same question and it's hardly surprising that people speculated they might have a single answer: a god could provide both means and motive.

Now that, thanks to science, we know a lot more about the world, 'how' and 'why' no longer seem like the same questions. 'Why' (in the sense Bunting means: "Why is this happening to *me*, specifically?" as opposed to "What forces caused the plate to slip at just that moment?") is a question that most scientists feel doesn't really need answering. Less so as we learn more about the world. At some point we have to conclude that shit just happens and things like earthquakes and car crashes don't have meanings.

It's the religious who tend to attach undue importance to the 'why' question: most (non-religious) scientists tend to think of it as meaningless (again in the sense Bunting means it). Scientists are like toddlers who continuously ask "why?" whenever you answer their last "why?" question. The religious are like the adults who tire of this and answer "Just because" or "Because I said so".

I for one am proud to be a toddler. I know there's always another why question and that "because I said so" is no answer at all.

It is from this modern perspective that Bunting tries to argue that religion was always that way. Personally, I think the proto-science argument for the origins of religion is perfectly plausible. For one thing, it explains how god has been moved into ever smaller gaps as we've learned more about the world.

But I don't much care whether it's the right explanation for religion's origins or not. It doesn't have the slightest bearing on whether or not religion is true. It isn't essential to an atheist view and it doesn't even necessarily invalidate any particular view of god or religion. It's just a hypothesis about the history of religion.

And yet Bunting claims that this is the atheists' "great mistake" without ever explaining why. I assume she is asserting that there's more to life that materialistic atheists just don't get. Since she is just flat out asserting this anyway, why does she bother with the smoke and mirrors about the hypothesised history of religion?

She says "This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit." and perhaps she's right. But it's a search for meaning that - as far as we can tell - doesn't exist.

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