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The Church Of The New Atheism: Alain De Botton's Epistles Examined
Siobhan McKeown , March 20th, 2012 08:30

Siobhan McKeown ploughs through Alan De Botton's Religion For Atheists and finds it - along with other New Atheist texts - lacking

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It started with a tweet. I was rude about Alain de Botton. Not very rude, just a little. Moments later, I had an email from the man himself. The gist: "Siobhan, I'm sorry if I have upset you. Is there anything I can do about it?" After the initial shock that a public figure had searched the internet to find my email address, I spent the rest of the day laughing. What the hell was Alain de Botton doing emailing me? Customer service, it turns out. I guess it worked, because a few days later I was reading his new book Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton, 2012).

It's not the first time I've read a book about atheism. In 2007, I dutifully picked up The God Delusion (Transworld, 2006). "Ah," I thought, as I read Richard Dawkins' polemic, "Yes, yes, you're definitely right about that. Thank you Richard Dawkins, for telling me stuff I already knew but in a much more angry way." Growing up in Northern Ireland, I've been on the wrong side of religious persecution, so there's not a lot I would disagree about in his criticism of religion. But you don't need Richard Dawkins to tell you about outrages carried out in the name of religion, just open your eyes and look around the world.

Since the publication of The God Delusion, atheism, New Atheism, has been on the up. I've no idea if there are quantifiably more atheists, but they are much louder and much angrier. At the same time, atheism has collided with dogmatic scientific materialism and hooked up with liberal humanism. It seems impossible to be an atheist anymore without signing up to science-worship.

Sometimes, Dawkins really makes me squirm. Science has become the sole arbiter of truth. In science things are proven to be true or false, hypotheses can be tested and the truth can be decided. That's not contentious. But are the only things of interest, the only things that constitute reality, 100% testable and knowable?

In The God Delusion Dawkins cites experiments carried out by Marc Hauser (Moral Minds). Hauser carried out tests in which he asked people a series of ever more complex "trolley" questions; a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are standing at the points: do you divert the trolley to save the people, killing a man trapped on the siding in the process? Dawkins and Hauser make much of the fact that atheists and believers all had similar responses. Hauser gets around the rather obvious criticism that even non-believers are en-cultured by religion, by citing research on the Kuna tribe in Central America which had the same results.

In 2010, Marc Hauser took a leave of absence from Harvard, after being held solely responsible for eight instances of scientific misconduct. Scientific misconduct explicitly excludes "honest error or difference of opinion". It has been defined by the US National Science Foundation as falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. Eight counts... that's a lot. A year later Hauser was barred from teaching and eventually resigned.

What you don't get from Dawkins is that when you scratch the surface of the scientific world there are people scrabbling for research funding; the quest for truth is often secondary to the politics and in-fighting; people are desperate to get their papers published in major journals. In extreme cases, results are fabricated. The fabricated paper in the Lancet claiming a link between the MMR and autism, for example, had dangerous consequences.

What's that? "It's people that do it, people who falsify data, who make shit up, it's not science!" But science, doesn't exist without people, it's a bit like religion like that. And also like religion, when science claims something to be true, its followers uncritically believe it, whether they have access to the whole truth or not.

It's not the only thing that science and religion have in common. A New Atheist would not like it if I suggested to them that the science they follow rests on unproven beliefs. It's not an argument I tend to get into, because there's not much difference in arguing with a New Atheist and arguing with a Christian about God. At the core of New Atheism is the dogmatic concept of immutable truth. This is the view of Biologist Rupert Sheldrake who, in the unfortunately titled The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012), points out that "the belief system that governs scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology".

Sheldrake is a pariah in the scientific community. His theory of morphic resonance and his research into the telepathy of dogs are frequently ridiculed. But whether you are convinced by his research or not, it's hard to argue with the basic premise of his latest book – what he calls the "10 dogmas of science" need to be questioned. These include the view that everything is mechanical, that the laws of nature are fixed, and that all biological inheritance is from material. For Sheldrake, the scientific model that is synonymous with New Atheism is grounded in a materialist worldview. That materialism is an assumption, not a proven fact.

Let's follow Sheldrake, who asks, "Are the laws of nature fixed?" We take it for granted that the laws of nature will be the same today as they were yesterday, and they will be tomorrow. It's a perfectly rational assumption, based on inductive reasoning, that enables us to come up with lots of useful facts about the world. "Laws of Nature" implies something fixed, constant , but were these laws present before the Big Bang? Or was that the single, inexplicable miracle that created the Universe and created all of these fixed laws? Or if they already existed, where were they? And are these laws of nature the same all over the Universe, at all times?

The notion of fixity, of truth, at the heart of New Atheism, is itself derived from the Christian perception of the world. Sheldrake isn't the first to point that one out. More than a hundred years ago Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the same thing. Nietzsche's explanation for the emergence of religion as a mechanism for staving off nihilism (The Genealogy of Morality), which is infinitely more convincing and elegant than the one provided by Richard Dawkins, ends with a scathing attack on science and liberal ideals for having uncritically inherited a Platonic worldview from Christianity. In Platonism, there is a fixed, ideal world of transcendental forms, the truth of which is knowable to the intellect. This is opposed to the deceptive fluctuations of the phenomenal world perceived via the senses. "Laws of nature" are not dissimilar to fixed transcendental forms. It's not surprising really, given that our scientific forefathers were deeply religious men, that our conception of truth should be so very Christian. But as non-believers, atheists, shouldn't we be questioning the fundamentals of what we have inherited?

It's not the only fundamental concept that science has inherited from religion. John Gray, the author of Black Mass: How Religion Led the World into Crisis (Allen Lane: 2007), argues that that "progress" is a Christian belief adopted by science. Of course, knowledge does accumulate, in the sense that more is known about the world. But this notion of progression is extrapolated into politics and ethics. Just because we know more doesn't mean that the world is improving, getting better, progressing. In fact, things that are sold to us as progress are often things getting progressively shitter. Faith in humanity moving inextricably towards the truth, to a society of enlightened, rational individuals, is about as Christian as you get, and is foundational to the church of New Atheism.

What's new about New Atheism, in contrast to old atheism where you could just get along not believing and not really thinking about it, is that structurally it is so very like a church. An example: every Christmas a large group of people gathers together. They all agree with each other on the fundamentals. They sit for a few hours and they listen to people who have access to deep truths of the universe. These truths are passed on by the few, usually in a watered down, palatable form, to the many. All nod in agreement, then go home, their view of the world confirmed but made even more shiny and wondrous. They've had a lovely time at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People.

There's something about this that makes me feel intensely uncomfortable. Lots of people hanging out, agreeing with each other, thinking everyone else is a silly... it all has an inescapable aura of smugness. What's wrong with doing something that challenges your beliefs, rather than just confirming them? Whose idea of fun involves Richard Dawkins, centre stage, papers clutched, pointing out how silly crystal healing is? He says, "It's so sad to think about all that they're missing. The real world, properly understood in the scientific way, is deeply beautiful and unfailingly interesting." Nail on head - the only proper way to understand the world is through science, and anyone who doesn't see it that way should be pitied.

Science replaces God, with church-like institutions in place. A few people are at the top making decisions about truth – the public face of this in the UK is mostly men, with Dawkins and, until recently, Hitchens at the forefront; angry, white, wealthy, men. (What is it about this country? Why do we love angry waspish men so much? What is it about them that we can't get enough of?) The truth that they decide is then passed on by comedians, the new preachers of scientific dogmatism.

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Truth is passed on. And while the scientists at the top may know exactly what they are talking about the grassroots you-and-I atheists often take what they say as (for want of a better word) gospel.

What isn't publicised by scientists that court the media is that scientific dogmatism sits on a set of core beliefs and unquestioned premises. Which kind of makes it a little bit like religion, right?

This marriage of atheism with dogmatic scientific materialism leads to a horribly instrumentalist worldview. Only science, which has already figured out the structures of reality, has any say over truth. Scientists become accountants, tallying up the facts for the rest of us. They decide what is true and what is false, what is important and unimportant, and the rest of us are spoon-fed the answers. Nietzsche is much more scathing than me: "I'm not impressed at all with such a fuss and chattering from agitators: these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians. One can hear well enough that their notes do not sound out of the depths."

It wouldn't be a stretch to re-title and re-focus Dawkins' book as The Poetry Delusion, a polemic against the tyranny of artistic truth. Poetry as a virus, metaphor only useful in terms of conveying facts: the blind watchmaker, the selfish gene.

You don't need to be G.W.F. Hegel to catch the whiff of a dialectic in all this. Atheism, a description of unbelief, has turned into a complex belief that takes Science as its God. And in the process many of the worst aspects of religion, those hankerings that have lay dormant in secular people since the death of God, dogmatism, myopia, the need to be part of something greater than yourself, have become very much part of it. I used to be happy to say I was an atheist, now I feel guilty by association.

No longer welcome among atheists, I need to find a new mode of unbelief. Lucky I got that email from Alain de Botton! Religion for Atheists - maybe that's for me. After all, some of my favourite things, from the paintings of El Greco to the music of Arvo Pärt, are deeply religious. I've never read a book by Alain De Botton before. You don't need to know a whole lot about him to assume that he's quite lame, but I've always been secretly afraid that I would agree with him.

I didn't agree with him. No, not at all. I read Religion For Atheists – shouts of horror rang through the house as I smashed my Kindle against my head in frustration.

Religion For Atheists is a book of nightmares. Alain de Botton stands at the pick & mix of world religion, and the sweets he chooses are the worst. What can we learn from religion? Religious ceremonies often involve eating, so let's create a seating-plan-as-self-help-restaurant where people are forced to have dinner alongside people they don't know to, you know, make friends and learn about other cultures and stuff (HORROR!); religions have iconography so let's have billboard advertising for secular values (CRINGE!); everyone likes a temple so why not create temples to humanity (GAH!)? By the time I had finished Religion For Atheists I was willing the wholesale destruction of the Earth.

In Alain de Botton's world, all we need is a cuddle. It's a world in which somewhere like this could conceivably exist:

Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o43gmAbMfXc

De Botton and Dawkins both share one assumption – that people are inherently nice. They find it strange that people just won't ruddy well think like them, but are convinced that it's possible for anyone to be as enlightened as they are.

People are awful creatures: we do terrible things to each other, and religion is one of our excuses. Dawkins is fond of citing Steven Weinburg who said that "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion." Does he mean that the atrocities carried out in concentration camps, the Gulag or in Tibet, were only carried out by evil people? Weinburg would have been more accurate if he had placed religion with "belief". It's dogmatic belief that leads to atrocities, whether it's belief in religion, or racial superiority, or ideology, or perhaps even, one day, in the superiority of the rational few who know that there is no God.

In a backstage interview for the BBC4 recording of Lessons And Carols For Godless People, smiley-features-PROFESSOR-Brian-Cox said, "The march of rationality begins here, and sweeps across the green fields of Britain." I've long considered myself a rationalist, but this isn't a march I'll be joining. After all, it walks on a ground of unquestioned belief, underneath a cloud of smugness.

What happens at the end of this scientific long march? When science holds the keys to all truth will everything become subservient to it? Think about it: push this instrumentalist approach to the world to its logical conclusion.

I still think it's possible to be an atheist and concede that many of the fundamentals are not figured out. You don't need dark matter to know that the fact of our existence is mysterious. I don't deny that science is a wonderful thing that should be celebrated. I get as excited as anyone else by discoveries at CERN. But that can't be everything. Not only science, please. Isn't there more to existence than science can discover? Isn't truth a broader church than New Atheism would have us believe?

Jane Frances
Mar 20, 2012 12:59pm

Siobhan,
This is such a strange article. You seem really annoyed with atheists of all persuasions, but in firing off your salvoes, you hardly scratch the surface of the idea that Alain de Botton's book attacks the very scientific dogma that you find so objectionable in Dawkins. What precisely is your point about de Botton's book? You say you wanted to smash your Kindle, but don't explain why, assuming it's just a natural thing to do! Overall, you fail to explain to us readers what you do believe. So you're an atheist, you hate Dawkins, you hate de Botton - but what then do you like? Your tastes seems very peculiar and undefinable.

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Bob Bob Bob Bob Fish
Mar 20, 2012 1:22pm

I was really looking forward to reading this. Unfortunately the author seems to completely misunderstand what science is (or should be). It's not the definition of the absolute truth, it's the search for it. Science doesn't seek to provide a doctrine by which people should live - it tries to use combined and assembled knowledge to best explain the world around us, knowing that it might not be the best way, but at least provides a vehicle for explaining or investigating more. Science is continuously evolving, striving to improve it's description of what is around us. This could be what separates science and religion; science acknowledges that it might not be correct, but is aiming to one day (perhaps never) reach the all encompassing explanation; religion deems itself to be correct - infallible, inflexible, the final word.
The author doesn't understand this and therefore spoils a very good opportunity to write something half decent.
The best thing about this article was the South Park clip, and that was pretty disappointing - out of context, unreasoned, cut short - ah, you get the point.

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Mar 20, 2012 1:38pm

This article is absolute drivel, I can't believe such a good site published it. The author is reacting to a media circus without understanding any of the ideas that sit behind it. The only reason you know there was an MMR hoax is because of science - until the hoax claims were interrogated and proven false, the hoaxers were getting away with it. I find the publishing trend for atheism boring too, becuase I've no need to think about it. But popular science writing is a whole different thing: it's not about opinion pieces in the papers, it's about communicating the surprising ways in which things work.
Anyone who's spent five minutes considering the philosophy of science will see right through Rupert Sheldrake's village idiot "questions". He's squarely in the conspiracy theorist's "well you can't prove it *isn't* true" zone with this stuff - his arguments are all over the place, and cynically exploit people's ignorance in these areas. His whole scam is based the false premise that we live in societies in which a stifling rationalist/scientific orthodoxy rules. These societies have never existed - just look at our governments!

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Frankie Poullain
Mar 20, 2012 1:50pm

I really enjoyed this piece. In answer to the previous two comments: "People are awful creatures: we do terrible things to each other, and religion is one of our excuses." Or in your case: We 'say' terrible things about each other and atheism is one of our excuses." ....!

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scott
Mar 20, 2012 1:52pm

Hardly any understanding of science in this article. Bunch of straw men being critiqued. Science is _falsifiable_. That is the point. That's kind of the only point. A scientist may be dogmatic, but that is a personal flaw, not a problem with science itself. "New Atheism" is for the most part a term used to denigrate atheism. By giving it capital letters and a title, it's more easily ridiculed and dismissed. It's quite a simple matter to not believe in god; you don't need to join a club in order to seek evidence and a reasonable understanding of the world around you. Sad that the author of this article botches this so badly.

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Rich M
Mar 20, 2012 2:01pm

Glad other people have pointed out the author's complete lack of understanding of the scientific method but it really bears repeating.

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Rich M
Mar 20, 2012 2:02pm

In reply to Rich M:

That said, Brian Cox is incredibly smug.

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Points of information.
Mar 20, 2012 2:05pm

Urgh. Right...

“but were these laws present before the Big Bang? Or was that the single, inexplicable miracle that created the Universe and created all of these fixed laws? Or if they already existed, where were they? And are these laws of nature the same all over the Universe, at all times?"

You can’t claim to make a relativistic argument against the discourse of science by asking the same questions that scientists are asking. Nobody knows the answer to all these questions and science doesn’t claim to. But these questions miss the point, they are in no way a proper rebuttal to science.

“The notion of fixity, of truth, at the heart of New Atheism, is itself derived from the Christian perception of the world.”

No! The biggest difference between science and religion is that scientific discourse is founded on fluidity, the ability to react to contradictory evidence, and to evolve. Religion cannot progress past it’s original doctrines.

“Of course, knowledge does accumulate, in the sense that more is known about the world. But this notion of progression is extrapolated into politics and ethics. Just because we know more doesn't mean that the world is improving, getting better, progressing. In fact, things that are sold to us as progress are often things getting progressively shitter. “

This is just semantics. I accept that the forward marching notions of progress adopted by the powers of the enlightenment may have come from the then-new discipline of science. But the term ‘scientific progress’, really just refers to the accumulation of knowledge. The progress of science, not society. All forms of rhetoric are open to being co-opted by politicians…

“.. it all has an inescapable aura of smugness.”

You may not like it, but ‘smug’ isn’t really a proper rebuttal is it?

“Science replaces God, with church-like institutions in place. A few people are at the top making decisions about truth”

Unfortunately science is pretty complex. Not everyone can understand it. It’s not the responsibility of the natural world to be easy to understand. No conspiracy theory here…

“After all, it walks on a ground of unquestioned belief, underneath a cloud of smugness.”

So what exactly should we be questioning? (Other than what happened before the big bang..) Which part of the methods or discourse of science do you feel is unfounded? Specifically. In detail. I can’t for the life of me find it in the above article…

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Mar 20, 2012 2:42pm

In reply to Bob Bob Bob Bob Fish:

"science acknowledges that it might not be correct, but is aiming to one day (perhaps never) reach the all encompassing explanation" ...
I think the belief that there is an all-encompassing explanation there to be discovered is one of the notions inherited from Christianity that the author is talking about. Good piece.

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Rory Gibb
Mar 20, 2012 2:44pm

Most of my issues with this piece have already been discussed above. Science is a method. It's not a overarching enitity, a single body, a group of individuals set as a replacement for a 'God' in some 'new atheist' form of religion. Asking what will happen when "science holds the keys to all truth" suggests a misunderstanding of science's use as a set of tools by which to better understand the way things work. By its very definition it's not possible for science to hold the keys to all truth - but it is possible for the scientific method to incrementally increase our understanding of it, assisted by self-regulating processes like peer review that work to ensure that the biases/agendas of any given individual (or group of individuals) can be ironed out over a longer period of time.

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str8_bro
Mar 20, 2012 2:52pm

so many strawmen, so little time.

here's a quote from eliezer yudkowski that sums up my position better than i ever could:

"I think, if you'll look at what's said above, the idea is that to get anywhere we must follow a course that partakes of the rationality-pattern, of evidence-processing. Nothing is said of all problems being solvable. Nothing is being said of humans becoming perfect through following, with their finite computing power and noisy brains, some rationalist's apprehension of the Way.

But it is equally an error to say, "This Way will not always give you a solution; therefore, it must not be the true Way; therefore, to draw maps without looking must be the true Way, and will always yield a solution."

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Spaceship Mark
Mar 20, 2012 3:42pm

Oh, here we go. The article is not attacking science, nor is it attacking atheism, it is an attack on the angry/smug and, where appropriated by the Tim Minchins of this world, often cheap use of atheism as some kind of proof of intellectual and rational superiority.
To qualify, I, because I simply find it impossible to believe in any kind of higher power, am an athiest. Yet I do not believe I therefore have the right to call religious people idiots, and indeed such action is often counter productive.
Those commenting that the true nature of science is to explore, to find reason to explain, and that the point raised in the article, specifically that science, or at least New Atheism, is a falsehood are missing the point.
In the same way that all religious people are not idiots similarly all atheists are not intelligent. And the most dangerous fundamentalists are always those who are most willing to follow, sheep like, the teachings of their leaders. Be those leaders those 'hate preachers' the Daily Mail loves to write about, or Robin Ince. And it is THOSE atheists who miss the point about science and it is THOSE such as Dawkins who in their pop science way, perpetuate the impossibility that current scientific knowledge is absolute and omnipotent. And if you think they don't just imagine the phrase "We KNOW this because..." being said by Brian Cox and being followed by some irrefutable fact about the Universe, and tell me he expects us to question it. Now excuse me while I sail off the edge of the world...

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Points of information.
Mar 20, 2012 4:01pm

In reply to Spaceship Mark:

I'm curious to know which of Brian Cox's facts about the universe you would like to refute? Which bits of science are you sceptical about?

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Mar 20, 2012 4:03pm

In reply to Spaceship Mark:

Complaining that Brian Cox doesn't enable people to question the tenets of received science during tv shows is the equivalent of expecting to sit at the back of a secondary school science class room shouting 'Oh yeah? But what if you're WRONG!'

The function of Pop science is to inform and enthuse the general public about science - a valuable thing to do, not least because it encourages people to go on to study science - enabling them to then make more informed challenges and critiques of the concepts he's simplifying for the benefit of an audience without a scientific education...

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Tim Layton
Mar 20, 2012 4:06pm

In reply to Spaceship Mark:

No it isn't.

An article about how the actions and behaviour of rabid anti-theists quoting Dawkins and Hitchins server only to turn people off and allows organised religion to therefore characterise all Atheists and even secularists as attacking them could be quite interesting.

This is not what this article does.

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Mar 20, 2012 4:14pm

In reply to Points of information.:

I'm not trying to refute any, I'm merely pointing out that, in his pop science tv programs, everything seems to be presented as irrefutable fact as opposed to current thinking. At least that's how I see it. Although I get confused when he tells me space-time looks likes the alpine mountain range he is inexplicably atop.
As far as I'm aware quantum theory (as an example) is a set of rules which fit a set of observations and, at present, all observations seem to follow these rules. BUT at one time there were earlier rules, derived from observations and tested until it was shown that all observations followed the rules.
As time progresses we are able to facilitate better observations and have to alter the, once irrefutable, theories.
So I'm not saying anyone can refute what science says, what I'm saying is they might be able to one day, which makes a fundamemtalist approach a bit regressive.

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Mar 20, 2012 4:15pm

In reply to :

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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Mar 20, 2012 4:18pm

In reply to Tim Layton:

Tim,

Fair enough, I read enough of what you just said into the article to post my comment, maybe I misinterpretted, or just have a bee in my bonnet about fundamentalist atheists being annoying...

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Mar 20, 2012 4:20pm

In reply to :

I think Siobhan McKeown has proved that!

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Points of information.
Mar 20, 2012 4:27pm

In reply to :

But Cox and Dawkins don't say that! That's just not true, they never have. Because they're scientists and no scientist would. If they seem millitant it's because science must be defended against people who feel the 'theory' of creationism should be taught alongside the 'theory' of evolution. Gravity is a 'theory' in the scientific community. But as far as most lay-people are concerned it's a provable fact, and to be honest, I'm okay with that. There's a lot of evidence in favour of gravity...

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Mar 20, 2012 4:33pm

In reply to Points of information.:

The Creationism/Evolution arguement is the Hitler/Nazis of this debate. I am, I must say, a firm evolutionist. I just don't believe that making out that religious people are idiots who believe in 'woo-woo'* is doing anything to help the cause of rationalism, science and whatever else. I think that fundamentalist atheists are doing more harm than good.

*I'm sure i heard Brian Cox use the term 'woo-woo', correct me if i'm wrong.

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Mar 20, 2012 4:35pm

So in short, SK: some people on TV and in newspapers are a bit annoying. Thanks.

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str8 bro
Mar 20, 2012 5:22pm

In reply to :

skeptics generally use the term "woo woo" to attack the psuedo-science used to justify daft practices such as e-meters, crystal healing and homeopathy. it's not used to dismiss irrational beliefs or religion in general. deepak chopra with his "quantum healing" is considered the main culprit, i think.

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Spacious
Mar 20, 2012 10:23pm

What do you call an Atheist that prizes logic and reason? An Agnostic.

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Mar 20, 2012 11:30pm

Weak ambling unsound drivel. De Botton and you. Not Dawkins, Dawkins is coherent. Bye!

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Andrew
Mar 21, 2012 12:12am

In reply to Spaceship Mark:

"And if you think they don't just imagine the phrase "We KNOW this because..." being said by Brian Cox and being followed by some irrefutable fact about the Universe, and tell me he expects us to question it. Now excuse me while I sail off the edge of the world..."

The fact being irrefutable is your own assertion. It IS refutable because you can cite other evidence and other research. It is refutable because they've told you how they came to their conclusions. Or you can say they are being somewhat transparent. Which is a step above simply being told the conclusion.

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Henry Chambers
Mar 21, 2012 2:02am

The scientific method does not need defending. I think we can all appreciate how useful it is. When applied to test something in the lab, obviously it's the way to go.

However, objective reasoning can only serve to give answers on a materialistic level. It inherently denies the possibility of any spiritual felling or experience. (I use that loosely here, subjective beauty etc, I'm not talking about jesus or shit like that). If something cannot be empirically measured, it simply does not exist. How can that be right? I don't believe such a deliberately reductive world-view should be glorified. I think it is the enemy of art and free thought.

This is the issue Ms. McKeown's article specifically raised, yet everyone seems to have ignored it. New Atheism, or whatever you want to call it - the modern conception of scientific fact as king - is just another limiting "truth". It gives arbitrary bounds to the infinite. It is solace for those who cannot face staring into an abyss...

Plus the men who lay claim to part of the almighty scientific truth are aggravating in the extreme. You only have to look at one of its champions, that odious little man Ricky Gervais, to see how rubbish it is. The cretin named one of his routines Science... Does anyone really want to stand up for that and Alain De Botton's bromidic philosophy?

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cregan
Mar 21, 2012 4:14am

Its pretty common for people who have been brought up with religion to regard science as another belief system. Its a lack of understanding of the very basics of what science is. Did these people not go to secondary school? Or are the teachers that bad?

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Chris Cavanagh
Mar 21, 2012 9:06am

"What isn't publicised by scientists that court the media is that scientific dogmatism sits on a set of core beliefs and unquestioned premises." Kindly justify this statement. Alas, it shows the paucity of your whole argument.

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jeres
Mar 21, 2012 10:24am

"New Atheism" is a perfectly rational response to nearly 2,000 years of religious oppression. People used to get put to death for what they believed, and in some countries they still do. Things'll settle down eventually. I'm not really down with this idea of New Atheism and in particular the New Naive; they seem to be frustrated and convoluted attacks on expression. But it's all expression in itself, so it's okay.

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Ryan
Mar 21, 2012 1:24pm

Wow.

'What isn't publicised by scientists that court the media is that scientific dogmatism sits on a set of core beliefs and unquestioned premises. Which kind of makes it a little bit like religion, right?'

Incorrect. These beliefs she is talking about are facts. Science has progressed in its view of the basic laws. It took many years to get there and correct previous wrong assumptions, but it got there. This in no way compares to religion.

Again:
Only science, which has already figured out the structures of reality, has any say over truth. Scientists become accountants, tallying up the facts for the rest of us. They decide what is true and what is false, what is important and unimportant, and the rest of us are spoon-fed the answers.

True and false, yes. And why is that bad. Important and umimportant? absolutely not. No credible scientist has made this claim.

Again
It wouldn't be a stretch to re-title and re-focus Dawkins' book as The Poetry Delusion, a polemic against the tyranny of artistic truth. Poetry as a virus, metaphor only useful in terms of conveying facts: the blind watchmaker, the selfish gene.

Dawkins has absolutely no quarms with poetry and art and mentions this in his books. I do not know why she has made the jump to assume this dislike.

Again:
No longer welcome among atheists, I need to find a new mode of unbelief. Lucky I got that email from Alain de Botton! Religion for Atheists - maybe that's for me. After all, some of my favourite things, from the paintings of El Greco to the music of Arvo Pärt, are deeply religious. I've never read a book by Alain De Botton before. You don't need to know a whole lot about him to assume that he's quite lame, but I've always been secretly afraid that I would agree with him.'

Why does she feel the need to personally attack him here before she knows anything about him? She seems to resent and laugh about the fact that he wanted to contact her and this shows from the start of the article.

Another:
In a backstage interview for the BBC4 recording of Lessons And Carols For Godless People, smiley-features-PROFESSOR-Brian-Cox said, "The march of rationality begins here, and sweeps across the green fields of Britain." I've long considered myself a rationalist, but this isn't a march I'll be joining. After all, it walks on a ground of unquestioned belief, underneath a cloud of smugness.

Why does she attack Brian Cox personally? Unquestioned? Thats an outrageous comment to make. Science is anything but unquestioned. Questioning the facts have brought about the progess to get us to where we are today and it continues to be questioned. She seems to have set out to write this article with a point and has tried to scrape together points to make her view seem correct. Sound familiar?

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Mar 21, 2012 11:16pm

In reply to Henry Chambers:

Two things Henry:

If we could all appreciate the scientific method this article wouldn’t have been written. There is no conflict between intuitive/subjective and rational/scientific ways of thinking – we all use a cocktail of both, every second of the day. There is no conflict between experiencing things you can’t put into words or intellectualise satisfactorily (get a taste of people trying in the Quietus reviews section:-) and putting empirical claims about material reality to the test. The “conflict” is entirely fabricated in media outlets that should (and I think secretly do) know better, to create comment landslides like this one. The Clash were named after the most common term that appeared in tabloid headlines, you know – clashes are what the press has always thrived on, because they generate 100 skewed articles instead of one balanced one.

The only issue is style. It can appear as if these slightly grating popular science guys are being triumphalist and dismissing your felt experience, the arts etc, by focusing on what you can objectively speak about. But they’re not; they’re just trying to get their subject area across through a noisy media landscape. Their headline messages become campaigning points only because you can’t have a message that includes every facet of everyone’s experience ever.

As for the grating wankers: Alain de Boton doesn’t honestly fall on any side of any debate. He’s a multimillion-heir who deals in platitudes, a self-marketed “people’s philosopher” who writes books about what it’s probably like to have to work for a living. He doesn’t have any serious academic credentials in philosophy, and has none whatsoever in science. He has, however, the assured, charmless delivery style of his elite peers. Who include Sheldrake and all those huffing hacks on the other side of this manufactured “debate”. They’re all irrelevant in themselves; but some of them (like Dawkins) can tell you about useful and interesting things. Keep the egos out of it and look for the content.

And C) by interpreting this unfocused article as being “about” something or making a main “point” you’re doing the writer’s work for them. It could be about all sorts, but it’s about everything and nothing.

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Queenie
Mar 22, 2012 5:55pm

Hello, Siobhan. Poor Alain!

You may be interested in the writings of or about Paul Feyerabend, influential philosopher of science.

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Rasheed
Mar 23, 2012 12:35am

I've seen "new atheism" adds on the sides of a few metro busses.

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John Thomas
Mar 27, 2012 8:58pm

Aaaaaah. Was diddums scared by a science teacher when she was young?

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Henry Chambers
Mar 29, 2012 11:43pm

In reply to :

Ahh a response, was not expecting that. Just to clarify I had had a couple of drinks when I posted that comment, so I am little embarrassed by it now. Thank you for your concern though. I'm glad that the men on tv are not secretly invalidating my personal experiences, that is a relief. Richard Dawkins is very alpha male, a beautiful loser like me sometimes struggles with such unrelenting truth.

There is one thing you yourself might want to consider; that the breakdown of "types of thought" into rational/intuitive/subjective/scientific etc is essentially flawed. It's a construction of linguistics. What we think is not the result of either binary or complex "types" of impulse mixing around whatever actually constitutes our "consciousness". What a person thinks is entirely and only what they think. You can analyze it and break it down into specifics, you can MRI that shit all day long, but in my opinion, you're left with a sum of inadequate parts and no satisfactory answers. So you'll forgive me if I don't want to argue on that. As you can probably tell, I don't really understand it myself.

However, I do think the guidelines/rules/beliefs that are prevalent in society and which we then internalize and use to make value judgements, can be scientific, spiritual or absurd even. Because we give them definition after the fact, you know?

The issue I have with 'new atheism' or science and the many wonders of our finite and exploding/imploding universe, is that I don't really want to think of the world like that. It's too neat. It draws lines under things and makes them knowable, and more worryingly packageable. We are at a point where what was once mysterious to neolithic man is now the thing that funds the eunuch from D:Ream's quest to inform the ignorant middle-class scum that watch the bbc... That is a joke, I do like Brian Cox, he does seem like a very lovely man.

Honestly... I can't help but see it as linked to the rise of consumer capitalist western culture. They're easy stomachable answers that are wheeled out because people can't face the enormity of life and death... We do have the answers. We do know best. Everything is going to be okay.

To suggest I understood what the writer was saying though, that was silly. Very presumptuous. And liking Milan Kundra... it's not good. I should have stayed away from it. In my defense I just wanted to argue with the angry, but enthusiastic, amateur scientists below the line. Peace.

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Mar 29, 2012 11:46pm

In reply to :

PS. I thought your reference to The Clash was contrived.

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Daniel Sayer
Apr 5, 2012 6:24am

Kafka summed it up:

To believe in progress is not to say that any progress has yet been made, that wouldn't amount to a belief...

Bit more pithy than all those wind bags you mention...

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Hmmmm
May 18, 2012 3:44am

In reply to Rich M:

Surely this is too strong. The author's "complete lack of understanding of the scientific method"?!

This author does not decry or misunderstand the scientific method. She merely notes the all-too-casual conflation of methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism or philosophical materialism which is quite prevalent these days.

Using the methods of natural science does not commit you to any philosophical/theological position whatsoever.

I also agree that not all truth is derived from the evidence of our senses.

What does Brian Cox think rationality IS?

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Thomas Van Duyne
Jun 1, 2012 7:48pm

I agree with Jane Frances and Bob Bob Bob Bob Fish. Though this article is entertaining and well-written, the arguments made are really poor, demonstrated by a lack of understanding of what Atheism and Science are. Science is a search for knowledge and truths. Atheism is purely the absence of theism. In this way, Atheism cannot be a religion because there are no beliefs that are universally accepted among atheists. This is where one must make the distinction between scientist and Atheist. These terms are not interchangeable.

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Michael Fiedler
Dec 5, 2012 7:07am

Dear Siobhan,
I think what your article and even more so the reaction shows is that people still expect are lazy. There can't be one book, one person that/who will give us the truth. I'm an atheist since childhood and Dawkins didn't tell me anything new about that. De Botton is a sweet guy and I'd like to give him a hug but at the same time out there it is WAR, and it isn't just a religious war. The world is connected like never before and cultures fight for their right to party (be lazy), stay as they are so that people don't have to think.
People aren't nice, they are scared and lazy, ok and a little stupid on the side.
It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
But there will be no saviour

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