This used to be a blog dedicated to one of my interests, dream interpretation. I have decided to expand it to include thoughts about pretty much Everything.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Comments on the debate "New Religion vs. New Atheism"

Recently Peter Rollins and Lawrence Krauss debated on the topic "New Religion vs. New Atheism."  Actually, calling it a "debate" was a bit of a stretch.  It was more a conversation, a conversation that ended up getting rather confused as it went along, but worth hearing nonetheless.  And since this is a topic I'm really interested in, I wanted to add my opinion on how it went. First, for those who didn't see/hear it, here's the debate:

The first thing that comes to mind is that I wonder why they chose someone to represent New Atheism who doesn't even seem to think that New Atheism is a thing at all. Krauss kept saying things like "it's just atheism. Atheism isn't a thing." It's certainly an opinion I can sympathize with, but "New Atheism" has been observed as a societal phenomenon, and applying a label to a set of tactics is far from invalid. Krauss kept trying to debate about atheism vs. belief, when the debate (as far as I was able to understand) was actually about how the societal phenomena of New Atheism and New Religion were working in culture at large, and which of the approaches used were more effective in their goals. When one side of the debate refuses to admit that there's even something to debate about, the conversation is doomed from the start.  I was rather disgusted by Krauss, actually, on this point.  When he said "I don't understand what New Atheism is," I rolled my eyes and thought, "Why is he here, then?"  and then I thought, "Aha, who's paying for him to be here?"  (Rollins showed a lot of grace at that point; I would have been quite irritated.)  Krauss kept saying "All we atheists do is ask questions" etc., but I kept shouting at him, No you don't! Even in the context of this very conversation, you've already called religion 'silly,' 'ridiculous,' 'a source of problems,' and so on!  The perspective that New Atheism is violent against religion is accurate!  So there was a disconnect, right from the start.

Because of this disconnect, I think it would have been extremely helpful to define terms and limit the debate from the very beginning. What questions, exactly, should the two be discussing?

For example, while New Atheism has been clearly established as a thing, the only resource I could find on "New Religion" was a site written by a guy named Aman who recently got direct inspiration from angels, archangels, and God Almighty, Himself, to write three books that will lead the world into a new era of peace and righteousness!  Yay!  But still... Pretty sure that Dr. Rollins isn't promoting the Three Books of Aman!  So, what is "New Religion" as it's used in this debate? A term invented by the organizers of the conference? By Rollins?  By historians?  Who is included in this movement?  How would we distinguish it from liberal or progressive factions of Christianity (since Rollins states later on that NR is focused on Christianity)? Or is it just the idiosyncratic approach to rhetoric that only Rollins uses?

Clarity, people.  For dummies like me, we need clarity.

Certainly, some of that disconnect is due to Kraus' laziness, in that he didn't prepare adequately for the debate. However, Rollins didn't help with this as much as he could have, either.  Many of his points were so buried in interesting and funny examples, that (for me, at least) they caused the point to be lost altogether.  (Like, really, what's the deal about the sex scene?  I didn't get that at all, even though it was a funny story.)  He did a good job of expressing why he thinks that New Atheism is not an effective combat to Fundamentalism, but I don't think he adequately explained how and why "New Religion" does it better.  This gave Kraus the opportunity to defend New Atheism's tactics (which he largely failed to do), but did not give him anything positively to critique in return.  Thus, the question from the audience member at the end, about whether Rollins was attempting to shield himself from criticism was a valid one, I think.

So here's an outline of how I wish the conversation would have gone:

I.  Rollins makes his three critiques of New Atheism:
  1. By creating new tribal identities, it creates an antithesis to Fundamentalism that only ends up being a shadow of the very thing it tries to attack.  
  2. By engaging with Fundamentalism, New Atheism only ends up legitimizing and strengthening it.  
  3. New Atheism doesn't have the resources needed to decenter people.
II.  Rollins explains what New Religion is and why it's a better approach than New Atheism.  The closest he came to this was saying that it exists to "create spaces" to allow people to come to realize that they actually already know that they don't really believe what they say they believe.  (Myself having read other things by Rollins, and having heard John Caputo speak, and several others who might be associated with Dr. Rollins, I think I have a better idea than Dr. Krauss did about what he's getting at. But I'm not sure, and would like more clarity, myself.)

III. Kraus responds to each of the three criticisms.  For example (I'm not him, so I don't know if he would agree with these things, but the best I can come up with is as follows):
  1. Why is it a bad thing to have a tribal identity around being smart instead of around being stupid? Forming tribes is a very human thing, and people need community and solidarity, so what's the big deal?  Also, New Atheism doesn't only attack Fundamentalism; it attacks any form of religion, liberal groups as well as fundamentalists.
  2. (He actually did respond to this one) Everyone knows that engaging with hard core Fundamentalists is useless, but they do it for the sake of those who are less hard-core, for the audience, who might be persuaded by reason and evidence, and come to realize that their respected leaders might be more ridiculous than they had thought.  Plus, ridiculing something can, actually, be a very effective method of persuasion.
  3. What does "decentered" mean?  (Seriously, I don't know what decentering someone means, and why that's a desired thing.)
IV.  Kraus critiques New Religion.  What he would say would depend on how NR ends up being defined, of course, but based on what Rollins said in this debate, he could make points something like these:
  1. Since New Religion would not exist without a Fundamentalism to try to pull people out of, is it not also a shadow of Fundamentalism?
  2. Since New Religion uses religious symbols to subvert people's beliefs instead of supporting them, could it not also be seen as inherently violent?  At least New Atheism is direct in its aggression.  New Religion's tactics (if I understand them right) seem passive-aggressive.  
  3. On the other hand, for those who won't be fooled by the subversive techniques, couldn't it also be argued that by using Fundamentalism's own religious imagery, New Religion is also legitimizing and strengthening Fundamentalism?
  4. (He actually did say this, and it was a good point that could have been expounded.) Why would you replace a religion that isn't "working" with a worldview based on angst? You say NR is focused on "how" more than "what," but isn't the very assumption that one ought to focus on the "how" a fundamental "what" as well? (It seems one can't escape positivism, no matter how hard one tries.)
V. Rollins responds, etc.

Doesn't that seem better?  I can go to bed now. :)

Well, actually, I can't finish this post without a bit more grief for Dr. Krauss, unfortunately.  I actually agree with him on most of his points (irrelevant though many of them were to how Dr. Rollins tried to frame the discussion), and I admire his work. However, on religion, he is wrong about several things.

For example, one of his earlier points was that religion doesn't change to fit the times, and this couldn't be further from the truth.  There is no religious sect, denomination, or group that doesn't have a cultural identity strongly influenced by the times in which it finds itself. Christianity today looks vastly different from Christianity 4 centuries ago.  This is true for every religion.  However, some groups are more pliable than others, of course.

He also said, "That 'God is dead' is not a loss; it's a gain...  Loss of faith is not a loss of anything; it's a gain."  From his perspective, this may be true, but it can't be denied that those who experience the change of their belief system, especially when that system includes God, do feel a strong sense of loss.  Whether or not God really exists, if someone grows up thinking he does, and bases all their important life decisions around that assumption, finds comfort in that assumption, and finds solidarity with other people who hold the same assumption, then the wrenching away from that fundamental assumption can be quite traumatic.  Someone telling this person, "don't worry, he was never real anyway," feels bittersweet, at best.  The choices you could have made differently, the people you can't talk with anymore, the daily comfort you must find a replacement for-- these things are real, even if God isn't.  Sure, perhaps it's a necessary pain, in order to get to a more rational way of thinking (according to Krauss' perspective), but denying the profound grief of so many people is callous.

There are a lot more nits to pick, as well as some really great points to praise, in this discussion, but that's enough for now.

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