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Archive for July, 2011

How Much do Atheists need to study Religion?

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

There have been a number of critiques of the popular atheist writings of the last few years (of which the canonical example is that of Dawkins) along the lines that these atheist writers ignore a long tradition of critical studies in religion. For example, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (17th February), Mary Beard makes a typical comment of this type: “[Ferdinand Mount's] attack on Dawkins et al. for their fundamentalist atheism and their apparent ignorance of the long history of the sceptical study of religion…is a powerful, sometimes devastating, polemic”. I find attacks of this kind intuitively dissatisfying, and in this post I’d like to try and unpick the reasons why.

I think that the core of my dissatisfaction is that the pro-theist arguments seem so far removed from something that would be real that it seems weird to engage with the detailed critical work in that area. This is the power of the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument; the FSM seems, to many atheists, to be just as ludicrous and therefore as worthy of engagement (or not!) as any traditional religion.

This seems something that the theist side of the argument fails to understand – despite the fact that many theists believe strongly in one particular version of theism and would be very happy to dismiss other religious traditions through an FSM-style argument: this is the well-known “we are all basically atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you” argument.

Imagine that, suddenly, we found a community that took some area of human activity (say, music) and reified the experience of musicking into some real, supernatural entity. Or, for that matter, the people (who I understand are not trivial in number) who believe that soap operas depict a real event. Would the sudden discovery of a large community of critical writing in this area represent something that would need to be engaged with, or would we be able to carry on dismissing this as just basically ludicrous from its basic ideas? Is it just the sheer size of the religious community/ies that demands that the details of such a community be taken into account, or is there a difference in kind between these hypothetical communities and the religious communities?

There are one or two examples of communities that are off-mainstream and yet do, have substantial bodies of work that critics don’t feel the need to engage with The first is the new age woo-woo community. Whilst it would be hard to argue that there is a critical tradition in this area, there is a large quantity of writing in this area. Similarly, there is the tradition of crank writing in mathematics (see e.g. Underwood Dudley’s books). It seems that a difference here these are weak examples as they lack a real critical community. There is a difference between the two communities in that the crank mathematics community is fragmented – each crank works in isolation and might well believe the other cranks to be deluded; by contrast, the new age community is well connected and mutually-supporting.

Or, am I being as naive as the people who attack science as “scientism” without really engaging with science properly? This is not to attack all of “science studies” but just those areas that extrapolate from a small number of features.