Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

There seems to be two ways (inter alia) in which we can distinguish the views of Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins.

1. The issue of ‘Brights’

From what I’ve read, it seems that both Dennett and Dawkins believe that it is a good thing to come out as an atheist, agnostic, secular or ‘rationalist’. This is good as a statement of solidarity against religious belief and its prevalence in the world. Dawkins asserts that coming out as a bright is comparable to coming out as a homosexual in the 1960s-70s, in that its a minority affair and people are still stigmatised for it. This is an interesting analogy to make, especially given both the fight that gay rights still has to make, and the progress it has made so far.

Hitchens differs on this issue, stating that irreligiousity is no position at all. To be an anti-theist (the preferred term) is a negative, and it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations. Hitchens gives the conciliartory example of Hume, who had friends and amicable relations with religious persons and his views, while challenging through the written word, did not encapsulate him as a person. This is an issue of, what some people call ‘Freedom of the Pen’. Both points seem to be correct, although Hitchens’ justification seems like a red herring here. It is contingently true that in many parts of the world, coming out as a secularist leads to much unpopularity, in that sense, there is a political and ideological significance, at least contingently, for ‘coming out’.

2. Should we abandon religion and religious belief?

Hitchens makes this point very strongly, and so does Dawkins to a lesser extent. What I find interesting and convincing in the argument of Hitchens and Dawkins is the unifying component of the explanatory thesis ‘religion ruins everything’. Dawkins addresses how a lot of evil comes from religious belief, such as New Labour policies, the deleterious notion of ‘diversity’ (although not developed as well as I would have wanted this point to be), and intolerance. Hitchens’ line of thought on this issue is persuasive in that he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion. The violence in Serbia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and historical Europe are almost entirely fuelled by religious figures, in such a way where it is exceptionally difficult to give the defence of distinguishing between the ‘official doctrine’ and ‘misinterpretation’.

There are ways in which wars are not labelled as religious, and keeps a certain kind of truce in war, by re-labelling the nature of the conflict. Factions divided by ethnicity gloss over the fact that this division is also religion-based. ‘Eth nic cleansing’ is a terrible phenomena, but even more terrible is the fact that it is just as discriminatory against religious groups than it is an ‘ethnic’ one. It is uncouth to acknowledge a religiously based war where there is one, compared to the more packageable and media-friendly ethnically based hatred. There are a lot of other appeals that Hitchens makes, such as the horrors of childhood genital rituals. Hitchens gives the example of how children had died from a circumcision ritual which involved manually removing the foreskin with his teeth; some children had contracted genital herpes as a result.

By making the moral and social corruption of religion total, there is a sense in which Hitchens (and Dawkins) assert that religion must go. It is by trying to argue for the totalising negative effects that such an argument can work; Dennett by contrast, remains agnostic on the issue that religion needs to die. Dawkins does establish that religion has an very important cultural significance; Dawkins goes into great detail to describe how there are many phrases in English which are derived from the King James version, there are also a great many literary references that cannot be understood without familiarity with the Bible. Consider the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ (Plath), which is an interesting twist on the miracle story of ressurection.  Hitchens is perhaps the most notable in this kind of argument because he almost accepts his own inner conflict on this issue; while religion ruins everything, a life without the reference to the past, and the past’s preoccupation of religion and religious ideas is untenable. Our cultural heritage stems from these many biblical references, and these influences make our culture rich.

Consider the case of Yiddish culture, it has been said and reported on that there is a state of decline in Yiddish culture. Most of Yiddish culture seems to be based around New York City. Although Yiddish culture seems to be fighting for its continuation by the few proponents it does have, there are many influences in New Yorker culture that have been exported, this ranges from inflections or synonyms for male to the music and harmony of George Gershwin. There is a sense in which, our deference to religious culture, in terms of how it has influenced people and still continues to influence us in popular culture or even high culture, is important for the continuation of great music, comedy, poetry etc. This seems to be the biggest concession of the New Atheists; but not one that is harmful to their argument. It is this concession that seems to make the notion of an aggressive atheist seem redundant (granted that they acknowledge this issue).

As a side point, I have heard that many historians of ancient and medieval philosophy tend to have a religious background; Martha Nussbaum being the popular example. This seems to make more sense to me when considering Hitchens’ point that he earlier made, that skills such as biblical referencing, memorising passages are skills of exegesis, that is, the critical, expositional and interpretative abilities that are transferrable from the study of religious texts to say, the works of Aristotle. I’ve found, for instance, that every particular historical thinker has their own set of exegetical problems and issues, here are a few of them:

1. Authorship – as there are questionable authors in the Old and New Testaments, there is also the similar problem of authorship in Aristotle scholarship
2. (mis)Translation – there are issues in Kant scholarship between translation that is readable in english, or translation that is accurately verbose, syntactically complex that genuinely reflects the complexity of Kant’s original German – consider that, with modernising the bible to account for modern english to the point of diluting it.
3. Consistency – Leibniz changes his views throughout the corpus of his work, such to say that a systematic view is difficult or perhaps not desirable. Whether there is a unified view, or a series of works that enable thought and encourage certain ways of thinking is a disputed issue. Why does the work have to be systematic anyway? A similar point can be made in Nietsche studies
4. The significance of writing style/role of interpreters: Song of Songs is a poetic love story, whereas the letters of Paul tend to be more didactic; does the differing writing style entail a different method or presentation of dogma? Catholicism deals with this by stating dogma through the various encyclicals and systematic theologies which present ‘how to read the Bible’ . Another movement attempts to study biblical texts in historical ways. Aristotle studies has a comparible history; there are the interpreters who had seemed to have a high status in disseminating Aristotle’s works with elaboration and guarding a certain kind of reading. Catholicism too has its doctors, like Augustine and Aquinas, who carry the ‘recieved view’ of Catholic beliefs. There are also ‘hereticals’ who interpret differently. Difference in interpretation can be treated with eccentricity, respect, or as a view in its own right, consider the case of Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein.

In short, there is a certain cultrual and educational import, but this is apparently a small concession for the New Atheists, as it is not a concession on beliefs, but the cultural impact of religions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an argument used ‘against’ atheism.

Michael

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One thought on “Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

  1. Naturally, I have comments. 🙂

    1. This painting of atheism as a minority is not quite as simple as is given here. Yes, there are situations in which atheism is looked down upon, but there are as many situations in which Christians or other religious groups are similarly disadvantaged. In particular, in the sciences “coming out” as an atheist is no problem, but coming out as a Christian results in significant prejudice (I have interviewed Christians working as scientists in the US in this regard). On the whole, my problem here is not with the idea of “atheist rights” but rather than the general problem of prejudice against different metaphysical beliefs would be better dealt with *as a whole* than on a case-by-case basis, but in opposing religion this kind of conciliation does not seem to be reachable by the New Atheists. *They* set themselves apart from the other minorities who face similar issues… the Gay movement *included* other minorities with similar issues… is it any wonder progress for them is slow?

    I find myself strangely agreeing with Hitchens that “it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations” but it is hilariously misguided to claim that anti-theism is not a position! A pricelessly silly claim.

    2. “Should we abandon religion and religious belief?”

    Hitchens is seriously confused if he thinks he has no position, but then advocates a blanket metaphysical strategy that we “must adopt”! Once again, I find myself wishing the New Atheists were more well-read.

    “…he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion.”

    This is a typically blinkered perspective from Hitchens. Wars etc. occur because cultural groups enter conflict – it does not matter whether or not religion is part of that cultural set up, as indicated by the Tamil Tigers et al. To believe that the elimination of religion from culture would decrease these conflicts is not a claim supported by the evidence, and it also overlooks the role of religion in supporting non-violent conflict. (Hitchens is a master at choosing his facts to support his conclusions).

    Re: initiation rites involving genital circumcisions etc. I want to observe that the majority of boys born in the US are circumcised without any reason, something I find quite horrific but which I accept because I have no business telling other people how they must live. Opponents to tribal rites always seem to ignore this fact, and turn to the most lurid tales they can bring up, usually from African native cultures. Bottom line: if Hitchens wants to send in “peacekeepers” to excoriate and eliminate indigenous cultures he is at least an imperialist and possibly a Totalitarian in the making. There is a reason we agree to let each culture determine its own standards of living, and that there are “horrific tales” to be told only indicates the extent of the cultural divide, not the urgency of action.

    I guess this is why Hitchens can be more supportive of war – because he has a messianic attitude to his own cultural values and is more than happy to go to war and have people kill in the name of his values. On all these points, Hitchens would do well to read and understand Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism before he proposes repeating a history of disaster under supposedly “new” grounds.

    Enjoying reading your thoughts on these topics, though… it’s good to get multiple perspectives – something Hitchens is not so good at in my experience. 😉

    Best wishes!

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