Sunday, January 06, 2013

Atheism lite


As an atheist, I wanted to like Susan Jacoby's pro-atheist article in today's NY Times, but it's so full of foolishness it's offensive:
 
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world---whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws---without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next...Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was one of the most famous orators of his generation, personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll insisted that there was no difference between atheism and agnosticism because it was impossible for anyone to “know” whether God existed or not. He used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals.
 
Of course to an atheist this world is the only world, but "social causes" and good works will availeth you not, and, in any event, are irrelevant to the matter of belief and unbelief. It's like Supervisor Kim's insistence that, when asked why she didn't take the Pledge of Allegiance, she still qualified as a patriotic American because of her past political activism, which of course was irrelevant.
 
Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was one of the most famous orators of his generation, personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll insisted that there was no difference between atheism and agnosticism because it was impossible for anyone to “know” whether God existed or not. He used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals.  
 
Agnosticism is wishy-washy atheism, an attempt to have it both ways and take the higher ground with an argument that sounds rational. People, we're dealing with probabilities here. How probable is it that this world was divinely created? Humanity has gone from many gods to one god or no god. I detect a cosmic truth in that trend. And invoking the "secular pulpit to advocate for social causes," as I pointed out, is beside the point. Believers can pontificate at the pulpit about social causes just as well as non-believers.
 
Since she's written a biography of The Great Agnostic, Jacoby is selling Robert Ingersoll, but the following is the least convincing point she makes:
 
He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest...The dead do not suffer.”
 
This is a monstrous, fatuous irrelevance that makes Ingersoll sound dumb. The real issue at a "graveside" is the suffering of the living, not of the dead, whose suffering obviously is at an end.
 
Jacoby compounds Ingersoll's idiocy with her own, as she suggests something that President Obama might have said at Newtown:
 
“Whether you are religious or nonreligious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.” Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but “only perfect rest.” 
 
"Perfect rest"? Jacoby is prettying up eternal nothingness, which is what we all face in the end. The children slaughtered in Newtown will be dead forever---and their parents will grieve forever, since, in spite of insipid talk about "healing," it's unlikely you ever really get over the death of a child.
 
All Jacoby has demonstrated is that atheists can be just as dumb as believers.

It's fitting that the piece is dwarfed by a banal graphic (pictured above) from Anthony Burrill that, in the hard copy of the Times, takes up more space than Jacoby's text. Must have been a slow content day at the NY Times.

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