Monday, 7 May 2007

Madeleine Bunting - Can we get back to the debate, please?

Madeleine Bunting, Guardian columnist and perennial penner of articles excoriating anyone with a firmly held opinion, has written yet another editorial denouncing Richard Dawkins and his ilk for being too forceful in their writings. Whilst she attacks their style as too polemic to engage a religious audience, it is surprising how little she chooses to engage with their arguments herself – instead relying on a well rehearsed set of ad hominems.

She strongly implies throughout the article that the authors of the current breed of pop-atheism books are motivated either by a desire for a quick buck, through a spot on the bestseller charts, or a raise in celebrity status. Sam Harris, for example, is a ‘previously unknown neuro-science graduate’ whilst all these books are good for ‘boosting the pension fund’. This last line of attack is particularly odd from a journalist who makes money by writing articles on religious faith.

The personality attacks continue with a series of short quotes from each of the author’s works, designed to illustrate their general unpleasantness. Hitchens is shown to have attacked Martin Luther King and a Sam Harris quote purporting to demonstrate his support for a new inquisition against those of religious faith are both held up to be examples of the poison poured into the debate by their contributors. However these quotes are suspiciously short and out of context, and Bunting makes no effort to explore them, nevermind examine any of the broader and more crucial lines of argument used by atheists against religious thought, including the most telling of all questions: What grounds do we have for establishing the truth of God’s existence?

In fact she repudiates the need to establish this truth through the back-door method of asserting –

“In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?”

It would be helpful if sources were attributed for this research, so we could judge exactly what conclusions she is referring to, however as one of the commentators beneath her article has shown, there is at least some research that suggests what she states may be true. But in accepting this we should continue beyond the premise and paradoxically ask, is this increase in wellbeing is a good thing?

The answer is, of course, that there are many lies which if told to people would increase their happiness - imagine the joy of living in a world in which you are told there is no poverty, illness, or death. Yet few people would choose this anaesthetised existence and those who did would have no cause to struggle against such evils. Whatever joy religion brings and however benign, it always remains a comforting lie, numbing the desire for a more painful, but more worthy inquiry into what it means to be human.

Bunting actually accuses her opponents of not being willing to take part in this inquiry themselves when she says they have no interest in solving the question of religion’s place in the science of evolutionary psychology. This is simply false - despite the fact it would be contradictory to espouse the importance and nobility of science in this area and then ignore it's results, almost all of the people mentioned have shown a willingness to engage these matters. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both discussed these questions heavily at the ‘Beyond Belief’ conference in 2006, videos of which can be found here.

All these criticisms build into the suggestion that the debate isn’t helped by the savage prose and strong personalities of those offering arguments and no converts will be obtained through these methods, but even if we allow ourselves to be distracted from the debate itself into this side question of how the debate should be conducted, it’s doubtful her point is true. Persuasive argument is often forceful as any fire-and-brimstone preacher will tell you, and although it is deeply unlikely that anyone will renounce strongly held beliefs, to those who have not begun to think in this area these books provide strong provocation to do so. Converting outlooks and ways of thought are not seismic shifts accomplished in the reading of one book, however each book read marks a milestone on the road of thought.

Madeleine Bunting should focus less on the personalities and the nature of the debate between the religious and secular worlds and more on the fundamental questions of the debate itself.

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