Friday, 3 January 2014

Nicholas Frankovich Wonders If Atheists Really Exist

William F. Buckley Jr. leaning precariously, as he often did. To my knowledge
he never fell while on the air.
Back in 1955, legendary conservative brain-person, William F. Buckley Jr. -- with whom I would have loved to hang out in his younger days were I alive and had enough cash on hand -- founded a magazine called the National Review.

He was no doubt a very smart and charming sort of fellow. This made him all the more aggravating to listen to back in my proto-liberal childhood days.

I was subjected to near lethal doses of him on his Firing Line programme, where he always seemed to win pretty much any argument. I didn't understand the topics at hand, but I can remember waiting and hoping he would fall over on his chair from over extending the upper part of his body to the side.

I suppose this made me a mischievous little runt, but please forgive me. If memory serves, he came on right after the Lawrence Welk Show and no amount of bubble machine could save me from that sheer boredom. So by the time Buckley's stuffy baroque theme song bounced around our living room, I was already desperate for stimulus. I'm sorry, Bach.

I also recall eating a lot of roast beef with horseradish and Yorkshire Pudding on those evenings. Honestly, if we were any white-Traditional-Catholic-conservative the albedo of the planet would have increased and global cooling would have surely set in.

Buckley wrote this:
“I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” 
Meanwhile, Nicholas Frankovich writes for the National Review and he wants to know if atheists exist.

Do Atheists Exist?

A new “godless” church makes you wonder. 

What other kind of church would atheists make?

Of course, William F. Buckley Jr. had that one right. Yes, Nicholas, they do exist. Let's dive a little into his interesting essay anyway.

He's talking about the Sunday Assembly phenomenon, which I've been covering on and off since their beginning.
“Church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked),” Jones and Evans confess in a short piece that appeared in the New York Times to mark the launch of their venture. Stuart Balkham, an earnest convert, told the Guardian that at a London meeting he attended the Assembly was “unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format,” which he thought was great.
Frankovich can't understand how atheists, agnostics and nones can just get together in a room and be happy together while celebrating life and science and feeling awe at existence.

His first mistake seems to be to assume that atheism could actually be a religion -- which it isn't. But even if it where, this doesn't make it something other than atheism. Like many other religious writers I've seen, he seems to smuggle extra meaning into a word that ultimately means nothing more than non-belief in any gods and then tries to cancel it out.
If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all.
No. A certain moral and philosophical seriousness does not have to be religion. In fact, I would say that religion lowers the bar, muddies and dilutes proper consideration of ethical questions. Anyway, he makes a pretty good point that some mainline Protestant religions and some world religions are either so watered down or overtly atheist. It then sort of gets thrown away.

Okay, I love this sentence!
We live in a post-secular age, having run up against the limitations of procedural liberalism, which, while regulating the market on which God and the Devil compete for souls, remains scrupulously disinterested in the outcome.
I believe the theory is that secularists now have control over the rules of war between these two fictional characters and they don't care -- maybe because they are made up characters.

He then mentions a few atheists whom I've never heard of who are actually suggesting more religion for us all because our culture derives its morals from religion. My only response to this is relief that I've never heard of these so-called atheists, because they sound like terrible human beings if their only solution for us is to feed more delusions to the hoi polloi. Really, shame on them for thinking so lowly of human kind.

He then proceeds to pick away at the stated goals of the Sunday Assembly.
Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.
Wow, does this ever annoy me. It's astounding that the finger is pointed at us for sidestepping the question of why there is something and how it came to be. While an honest admission of we don't know (yet) is apparently a sidestep, the bold and unsubstantiated claim that some magical man in the sky did it all by snapping his fingers is a perfectly reasonable solution to the problem? He then caps this off by throwing in what a good atheist ought not to do. This motif of defining our proper behaviour - what a good atheist should be -- from without is showing up with ever increasing frequency in theist essays.

He seems to almost recognize that accusing atheists of not having a proper answer for everything demands he back it up with his own theory. He does this in the ever predictable way: Mystery that nobody can ever hope to understand!
Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. 
You atheists don't have an answer! But we do! It's God! What's that, you ask? Mystery!

Then, like Dante, we are whisked down into several strata of something, I guess. The path is so windy, it's hard to say where we're going. Once someone pulls out Wittgenstein, you can bet that all hope for clear understanding is near totally lost.
The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.
Yeah, sure. Now which shell is the peanut under? I've completely lost track.

Well, once that's all been explained, he moves the post further by claiming that the God folks like Dawkins is attacking isn't the real God anyway. How convenient. 

Next stratum: Talking about Greek and Hebrew translations of the verb to be.

Next stratum: Hellenism's spread over the Mediterranean. Plato. Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas. Latin translation of the verb to be.

Next stratum: Moses asking God why there's something other than nothing and God can't stop talking about himself.

Next stratum: Atheists attack a personal god who's a patriarch -- you know, the one in the Bible -- but that's not really God (see above).

Next stratum: He blames Atheists for being too impatient in their understanding of God. They are too quick to assume the've understood God (something that apparently cannot be understood at any intellectual level) before dismissing him (as some kind of funny feeling). Apparently, the closest answer to the question is a feeling. Yeah, not good enough. The burden is on the theist to make their case.

Next stratum: Quantum theory. The nothing of vacuum that still has the random coming into existence and bursting away into non-existence of particles. Brace yourself for a possible Chopra Maneuver.

Finally, God is stripped of any sort of personal or knowable structure and reduced down to Nothing at all! Because, nothing is still something.
It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer
The mistake Frankovich seems to make here seems to be common among theists. Everything is something in language. Nothing, like God, is a word. I can make up another one -- blauberbluch. I define this word to mean both nothing and something at the same time. After all, nothing is something... it's a word. 

There is no such thing as nothing because as soon as it's something it's not nothing -- unless you're just talking about words.
Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? 
It's amazing. It's like God and nothing are somehow equivalent!
No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him. 
No. He's still an atheist who is filled with awe for life and the world and happy to be on this planet.


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