Sunday Sermon

The suggestion, by Daniel Dennett, of the name “brights” for non-believers in God and religion has been endorsed by Richard Dawkins. (Thanks to Wendy James for this link.) The supporting argument is that

having “a naturalistic world view that is free of supernatural or mystical elements” is regarded with suspicion in America, and that part of the problem is that our very vocabulary embodies a certain negativity: godless, unbelief, nonreligious, atheistic.

I have a few observations on this. First, this is primarily an issue in the US, since active believers are a minority in the rest of the developed world. Second, given the decay of classical studies, I doubt that there are that many Americans who recognise “atheist” and “agnostic” as the negative forms of “theist” and “gnostic”.

Third, there are already a string of names to choose from, each with somewhat different meanings.

  • Rationalists reject religious belief primarily on the basis of logical reasoning, and represent the endpoint of a line of development from Protestantism through Unitarianism and Deism. Rationalists were an important group in the 19th century, but are very rare these days, though the Australian Rationalist magazine had a late flowering under the editorship of Kenneth Davidson
  • Materialists rely mainly on scientific evidence to show that the phenomena typically explained using supernatural elements (including human behavior, emotions and so on) can be explained using purely material explanations based on atoms, genes and so on
  • Humanists transfer to humanity the kinds of feelings and aspirations associated with God in religious (more specifically, Christian) world views)
  • Secularists don’t necessarily have a specific world view, but are not religious believers and are hostile to the idea that religion should play a role in public life

In this classification, Dennett and Dawkins are materialists, and are at least as hostile to humanism as to theism.

While I’m on this topic, it’s worth observing that the “death of God” has turned out to be one of the great non-questions of modern history. In the 19th century, most people who thought about it assumed that the decay of religious belief would have profound (mostly negative) effects on the way the mass of ordinary people behaved, and on society as a whole. This has proved to be quite untrue. Although we talk a lot about differences between Europe and the US, they are trivial compared with the similarities. The issues where religion makes a big difference in the US are mostly related to trivial points of religious doctrine, such as the ethical status of stem cells and the political status of Jerusalem. The same point could me made comparing the current political processes and outcomes with those of the 19th century.

Finally, I should link to the related discussion over at Crooked Timber. Gregg Easterbrook’s apparent belief in intelligent design is taking a pasting. I was also struck by this rhetorical question from Chris Bertram

How could an intelligent person of any political persuasion not admire Plato and Nietzsche?

Let me out myself on this one. Not only do I not admire Nietzsche, I’ve never been able to work out what his positive contribution to thought is supposed to be. The most concrete thing I’ve been able to extract is a focus on the nonproblem that “God is Dead”. Beyond that, there’s nothing but power-worship, irrationalism and glorification of war.

It’s no doubt unreasonable to blame Nietzsche for the specific pathologies of Nazism, particularly anti-Semitism, but he surely would have welcomed the rise of fascism in its original Italian form. Mussolini, as his admirers portrayed him in the 1920s, was a direct descendant of Nietzschean heroes like Caesar and Napoleon (we are lucky enough to remember the less impressive sight he made hanging upside down). And whether or not Nietzsche contributed to Prussian militarism before 1914, I’m sure he would have welcomed the outbreak of the Great War.