Enough, already!

Another accommodationist attack in the Guardian on Grayling and his new book. The subtitle says it all:

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 6.20.33 PM

It’s by Jonathan Rée, and is completely predictable:

Militant atheism makes the strangest bedfellows. Grayling sees himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, but in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals. He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes. Resistance is, of course, futile. If you suggest that his vaunted “clarifications” annihilate the poetry of religious experience or the nuance of theological reflection*, he will mark you down for obstructive irrationalism. He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and his training tells him that what cannot be translated into plain words is nothing but sophistry and illusion**.

Yadda yadda yadda. . .

There’s nothing new I can say about this stuff. It’s tedious, it’s repetitive, it’s unoriginal, and it’s wrong. But it never stops.

Oh, I’ll say one thing: once you take the Bible as metaphor, any interpretation is possible. In that sense, fundamentalists are more intellectually honest than the “moderate” faithful.

UPDATE: For a palliative, read Grayling’s lovely Guardian essay from 2006, “Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?” A snippet:

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”. What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?

________

My footnotes:

*”The nuance of theological reflection” = obscurantism
**What Rée means here is this: obscurantism = profundity

54 Comments

  1. Wowbagger
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    I’m going to fall back on the argumentum ad capillum to counter this nonsense, i.e. AC Grayling has better hair than you*, so your argument is invalid.

    *No, I’ve never seen the chap in question, but I don’t have to; Grayling’s hair is that good.

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps Grayling could debate Steven Pinker on something.

    • Mark
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Argumentum trichum?

  2. gbjames
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Wowbagger
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Anyway, jokes aside, it’s one of more pathetic arguments they use to try and discredit atheism – that ‘we have more in common with fundamentalists’ because we’re so beastly as to point out the intellectual dishonesty of liberal Christians trying to have their bible cake and eat it too.

    When cherry-picking Christians can explain precisely how and when they know to apply this ‘nuance of theological reflection’ then maybe we can take it seriously. Until then they’ve got to live with the reality that, as you’ve noted, fundamentalist Christians are by far the more honest.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      They need to produce an annotated, redacted, and color coded scripture settling just which bits we should accept literally and which not. Once they accomplish that impossibility and settle their internal irreconcilable intuitions, they may resume scolding nonbelievers for blasting the whole mess.

      • JJ
        Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        There are as many religions as there are people that believe in them.

  4. Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    “A believer might like to point out that science, too, can be traced back to the Dark Ages… ” — but would be unlikely to acknowledge how much science has changed since then, how much knowledge about and understanding of the world science has provided – how very, very much — compared to how little religion has. Sophisticated Theology™ aside, most (?) Christian believers still reiterate Dark Age dogma and ritual.

    /@

    • Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      & §

    • TJR
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Traced back to the Dark Ages just before Classical Greece, of course.

    • lamacher
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      A very excellent book, in 2nd edition, is David Lindberg’s “Beginning of Western Science”, very well written and researched. Recommended. On e-book, less than $10.

  5. Alex Shuffell
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    We have more in common with fundamentalists because we’re the people who take the religious texts seriously, we read the books for what they say. We don’t reduce it to metaphor or reinterpret the work to fit with our evolving moralities. Once you start down that path you can imagine your books to say whatever you want them to say, religion has turned that into an artform and continues to divide itself in more sub-genres. Theology has made itself irrelevant.

  6. Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    I share your annoyance at these reviews, especially at how they seem not to want to engage with the arguments for atheism. I’m trying to think of a silver lining. Perhaps at least it’s nice that books about atheism are getting public recognition at all? And perhaps coming from a theist, the charge of fundamentalism isn’t all bad? After all, theists seem to think that if you believe something really strongly, you should get to have special rights about that thing.

  7. lanceleuven
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Further and further the Guardian slides into the abyss…

  8. Occam
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    If you suggest that his vaunted “clarifications” annihilate the poetry of religious experience or the nuance of theological reflection, he will mark you down for obstructive irrationalism. He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and his training tells him that what cannot be translated into plain words is nothing but sophistry and illusion.

    Ah, the conceit of the learned.

    The sire Rée is maliciously chimping Wittgenstein’s (in)famous Proposition 7 from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus here: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.)

    But, given all the angel food he’s piled up above, his real aim must be to transperce Wittgenstein, and by proxy, Grayling, with a dart from the quiver of Jesus Sirach (3:21-22): “What is too sublime for you, do not seek; do not reach into things that are hidden from you. What is committed to you, pay heed to; what is hidden is not your concern.” Aquinas conveys his unkind regards.

    Here’s Rée’s Wittgenstein shtick, in the flesh:
    http://iai.tv/video/wittgenstein-s-collection-of-nonsense

    I note, from his Wikipedia entry, that Rée has written for Lingua Franca, and interviewed Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Edward Said. By the company thou keepest thout shalt be judged.

    To end on a cheerful note: the sire Rée has apparently penned unkind words about Peter Hitchens, to which the much-maligned Mr. Hitchens has responded. Like in a dogfight, my sympathies, or rather total lack thereof, are equitably divided.

  9. darrelle
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    How tiresome. Basically he is just calling Grayling names, like a child in a playground dust up.

    Attributing militant anything to Grayling is pretty funny. These people just don’t seem to mind making fools of themselves.

    • gluonspring
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      fernickity in the comments says:

      ==============================
      What a religious person has to do to be labelled “militant”: fly planes into buildings, throw acid in people’s faces, bury people up to their heads and then stone them, threaten to decapitate people for disrespecting their prophet. Anything less than that (e.g. vocally supporting the people who do the above, treating women as second-class human beings, wishing to maintain privileges for themselves while denying equality to others) and they’re merely ‘pious’. Perhaps at a pinch, ‘very pious’.

      What an atheist has to do to be labelled “militant”: politely but persistently point out that religious assertions do not enjoy the support of objectively verifiable evidence.

      That’s what several millennia of the privileging of religious discourse and ideas has done to our societies. That’s how profoundly unbalancing it is. And that’s why the efforts of Grayling, Dawkins and the others are so urgently necessary.
      =========================================

      The comments are cheering if the article is not.

      • Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        I would add to the list of things a non-believer has to do to be called militant. It seems to be very likely sufficient to simply *laugh* at a religious claim rather than engage it intellectually. (One should do both, I think.)

  10. Susan
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    “What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? ”

    I knew I liked Grayling for a reason, if you don’t belive you don’t believe all the way. “a divine foot” love it.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      +1

      I was thinking that a non-fundamentalist atheist would be someone who thought that the nonexistence of deities was to be understood as a metaphor.

      • Dominic
        Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        I am all for the buttock god. What about you two – left cheekists or right cheekists?

        • gbjames
          Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          Here we go. Another split. A schism. A crack in the faith.

          Next we’ll have the holists (or is that spelled “holeists”?.

          • Occam
            Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

            A Carrollian chasm.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

            ROFL!

    • eric
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Its a great comeback, but misses the point I think. By ‘fundamentalism’ Ree seems to be referring to biblical literalism. So a non-fundamentalist atheist (in Ree’s terms) would be one who thinks the biblical authors themselves did not intend for their texts to be taken literally (nonliteralism), yet also believes those texts are substantively wrong in their theoligical claims because no such god exists (atheism).

      OTOH Ree is practicing a bit of cherry picking. “Look, this atheist does biblical interpretation wrong!” says nothing of value about Grayling’s broader arguments against religion or arguments for atheism. Ree is picking up a small weak point to focus on while ignoring the much bigger, stronger arguments.

      • Mark
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:10 am | Permalink

        It’s still a bit of a strange argument. The books of the bible have been edited, redacted, and changed enough in the re-telling that it’s tough to talk about any singular “intent” on the part of the authors, editors and redactors over the centuries and it’s even more difficult to consider it an important issue.

        Put differently, if Ree wants to interpret the phrase “son of God” in the gospels metaphorically — as it was intended in the Hebrew Bible — and is similarly liberal with other phrases in the Bible, he is going to run out of things worth debating with atheists very quickly. All there is left to do is to mutter something about poetry and how boring and rigid the atheist worldview is before skulking away. A debate requires two people willing to clearly state their disagreements.

    • Roux Brownwell
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      I seem to remember that the Fugs had a tune called “The Divine Toe”. Maybe they were onto something.

  11. Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Mr. Ree seems to think that if something is widely held to be a work of fiction, you are not allowed to mock it when it has one of its characters jump a shark.

    Hey, it’s fiction. Don’t slag off ‘Happy Days’ because it had the Fonz jump a shark. Nobody really thinks it literally happened.

    Sorry. Mr. Ree, even fiction has to have quality control.

    On your planet, people don’t mock fictional stories of people jumping a shark.

    On this planet, people are perfectly entitled to do so. And saying that they are not intended literally is as lame as saying that nobody really believes the Fonz jumped a shark.

    And religion has so many jumping the shark moments that Grayling could write a dozen books pointing those episodes out as well.

  12. Dominic
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    For those interested, Grayling’s website has a lot of his articles/reviews etc
    http://www.acgrayling.com/

  13. @eightyc
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    lol.

    Accommodationists should try their hand on scientific journals and interpret the methods and results sections metaphorically and allegorically. haha

  14. Dermot C
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Blimey, Occam, your style’s getting a bit purple these days!

    These Guardian reviews of New Atheism are beginning to really bug me. I recently demolished (at least that’s what I thought it was) an Eagleton slag-off of some New Atheist; lobbed unceremoniously into the Letters Editor’s recycling box, it was.

    This review is so wrong in so many ways; Hitchens old sneer, “You’re wrong…twice”, comes nowhere near covering it.

    As for this tosh about fundamentalism, bejasus, they don’t know what they’re talking about. No fundamentalist believes that the End Times came in the era of Jesus’ generation; and neither does anyone else.

    How can New Atheists have so much in common with fundamentalists, if fundamentalists aren’t even fundamentalist?

    • Occam
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      🙂

    • Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Actually, I seem to remember someone trolling on alt.atheism or something years ago who claimed that there was a 2000 year old palestinian around somewhere, because “this generation” has to not have passed away yet …

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        The Wandering Jew myth

        • Kevin
          Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          Although having been around for that long, he’s probably a biologist who writes books on evolution….

          • Posted March 13, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            He must get through a lot of boots.

            And sample a lot of different noms.

            And all that jazz.

            /@

  15. TJR
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I read this article in the real paper version on saturday and wondered whether JAC would pick up on it.

    As you say, the same old same old, pretending not to realise that we don’t criticise greek mythology in the same way that we criticise the bible simply because *everyone* treats it as metaphor/story and *no-one* persecutes anyone who believes slightly the wrong thing about it.

  16. eric
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes.

    Yes, how dare any atheist claim that most Christians believe a real person really rose from the dead! Don’t you know that stuff is just allegory and symbolism?

    Oh, wait…

  17. Jeff Johnson
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    These zombie accomodationist ideas, like the claim that atheists are the mirror image of religious fundamentalists, are like rust or tooth decay. They won’t go away, and we simply need to tirelessly and relentlessly repeat the preventive measures to combat their pernicious effects, like flossing, brushing, rinsing, and spitting out the residue.

    Perhaps, a little more optimistically, fighting these zombie ideas is more like fighting polio. There is some hope that with a concerted effort the infection can eventually be eradicated.

    To address the false claim, I would be happy to allow the scriptures “to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes.” We have lots of novels, plays, poetry, and other literature that flourishes in the same way. I enjoy some Bible stories and ideas. I’m very fond of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, or “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. Another hit is “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, or “man cannot serve two masters, both Mamon and God”. I’m also a fan of Matthew Ch. 6, where Jesus tells his followers not to pray in public, not to stand in temples and street corners like hypocrites seeking the approval of other men. Pray in secret, briefly and simply. No need to repeat prayers incessantly because God already knows what you need before you ask for it. If only more Christians read and understood and followed what is being said there.

    I like the traditional Rabinnical interpretation of the sin of Sodom as a failure to treat strangers with kindness, generosity, and other graces of hospitality. All of these things have intelligible meanings and reflect wisdom without having to connect them to a literal belief in God. One can interpret them by thinking of God and the human spirit as the collective will of humans for peace, love, prosperity, well being, happiness, and joy, and that realizing and serving this will is an objective good that can be pursued by serving humanity as a biological species and promoting its beneficial future by following the ethical principles required logically to promote these goals. This idea of the human spirit is all purely metaphorical and without any belief that there is something special that the Bible possesses that couldn’t also appear in poetry or literature, or that God is a real metaphysical property of existence independent of human subjective experience.

    The problem with the Bible, besides the fact that much in it is simply wrong or arguably immoral, is that along with all this many-layered literary meaning, metaphor, and myth, even the most liberal and non-fundamentalist of believers believe that God literally exists, literally listens to and responds to prayer, that Jesus literally was born of a virgin and literally performed miracles, and literally is both God and the son of God, and was literally resurrected, or that Mohammad was literally a prophet of God who spoke literally through him. They also believe these things are what invest scripture with special authority that is more worthy of respect than Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and other classic literature. Instead we should treat the historical Jesus as we would treat Socrates or an actor who played Hamlet, a possible historical person in a role that is largely or possibly entirely fictional.

    The religious apologists who think they are so intelligent and sophisticated because they believe in evolution and don’t think Adam and Eve or the flood or other Genesis stories are literal, and their faith encompasses “doubt” and “mystery”, can’t have it both ways. Either they treat the Bible as fiction, or they treat it as to a greater or lesser degree possessing some special and unique truths about the universe and existence that can’t be found by any other source or method. The reality is, all the actual truths in the Bible can also be expressed in other literary contexts without reference to God, miracles, souls, spirits, daemons, heaven, or life after death. These fundamentally false metaphysical claims need to be bracketed off and ignored to get any truth out of the Bible, and generally what remains are just truths about people, what they want, and how they behave, with some normative ideas that have varying degrees of practical value.

    There is nothing fundamentalist about saying “Gee, all the knowledge and evidence we possesss indicate that the idea of God is anthropocentric and specific to human culture, created by humans for humans’ own purposes.”

  18. Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    It shouldn’t surprise me–but it does–that more believers don’t give up their theism and seek their meaning instead in humanism and science’s portrait of nature and the history of life. Instead, they insist that it’s the theism that cannot be compromised and so it must be the worldview of science that is flawed and inadequate. Put this way, the persistence sounds deeply social==having to do with the unity and identity of broad groups over long periods of time. And there is a political tinge as well, since it is about power. I wonder how sociologists might analyze it.

  19. @eightyc
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    ”The nuance of theological reflection” = Verbal Masturbation.

    lol

  20. truthspeaker
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    “ut in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals. ”

    On the contrary, Grayling concludes, as many individuals in the Enlightenment did, that a progressive, critical reading leads to atheism.

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    In addition to atheism, he’s got that Ben Franklin look going for him.

  22. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    HERE IS Peter Hitchens going off the deep end at his Mailonline blog in a post entitled The Reviewer Reviewed. A Response to Jonathan Ree

    It’s delightfully ‘handbags at dawn’ & reveals how thin is the skin of The Phitch when he gets a negative review of his scribblings

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Ooops. Just noticed that Occam has covered this above…

  23. moarscienceplz
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    “Oh, I’ll say one thing: once you take the Bible as metaphor, any interpretation is possible.”

    Reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s song, “Smut”:

    All books can be indecent books
    Though recent books are bolder,
    For filth (I’m glad to say) is in
    the mind of the beholder.
    When correctly viewed,
    Everything is lewd.
    (I could tell you things about Peter Pan,
    And the Wizard of Oz, there’s a dirty old man!)

    • Marcoli
      Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      And…

      Get in line in that processional,
      Step into that small confessional,
      There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
      Tell you if your sin’s original.
      If it is, try playin’ it safer,
      Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
      Two, four, six, eight,
      Time to transubstantiate!

  24. Posted March 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables

    I know that for a lot of us, that’s a response to fundamentalists. It’s they who insist that the Bible must be taken literally*, and we’ve simply taken them at their word. If nice liberal metaphoricalistic Christians dominated social and political discourse, the atheist community wouldn’t have gotten so up in arms in the first place.

    * notwithstanding they do plenty of interpreting themselves, of necessity

  25. marcusa1971
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the “militant” AC Grayling. Can’t you just imagine him on a beach somewhere, in combat fatigues. Holding a rifle in one hand, half a cigar burning in his mouth, one foot resting atop a pile of the skulls of his enemies, announcing to the world his love of the smell burnt christians in the morning. I certainly can, and all with that wonderful hair.

    • Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:17 am | Permalink

      That was extremely disturbing. I like it.

  26. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    “Oh, I’ll say one thing: once you take the Bible as metaphor, any interpretation is possible. In that sense, fundamentalists are more intellectually honest than the “moderate” faithful.”

    Maybe, but I’ll take a bit of ‘moderate’ intellectual dishonesty over ‘honest’ fundamentalism any day. IMO, sincerity is never an excuse or mitigation for fanaticism. I’m afraid giving fundamentalists credit for sincerity is like praising evil. To my mind, the more sincere they are, the worse they are likely to be.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      … and another thing, how is it possible to be ‘intellectually honest’ when viewing the bible as literally true, considering that it contradicts itself in one place or another in almost every respect? It *cannot* be literally true in its entirety. To pretend that it is, requires selective attention (ignoring the awkward bits), or sophistimacated theology to pretend to resolve the differences, either of which is as crooked and intellectually dishonest as you can get. The only way to salvage this in a rational way is to regard the whole thing as metaphor.

      So, no, I won’t give fundamentalists the credit for intellectual honesty, not even compared with wishy-washy don’t-care-much accommodationists.

  27. harrync
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Re: “…perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays?” I was going to suggest believing in three-fifths of a god, but that three-fifths thing didn’t work out so well last time.


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