James Wood on New Atheism

From now on I'll just say "what James Wood says"  Brilliant, and based on his recommendation, now I have a novel to read next--Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen.


David Evans said...

"Dawkins is dead to metaphor"? The very titles of his books give the lie to that - The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, River Out Of Eden... His metaphors differ from religious ones in being metaphors for something real. What is the virgin birth a metaphor for, please?

"God is not just a metaphor"? Dawkins would be entitled to ask "How do you know"? And by saying that, is not Wood abandoning his "plague on both their houses" and coming down decisively on one side - where, one feels, his sympathies always lay?

Jean Kazez said...

I agree--that's a bad sentence. Dawkins is certainly not dead to metaphor.

What I think is right in the article is Wood's claim that new atheists like Dawkins don't understand religious belief--they just seriously don't know what's going on in the heads of at least a lot of believers. They focus on the heads of the most literal, fundamentalist believers, and thus remain benighted about other kinds of heads.

This attempt to understand is typically derided as "accommodationist" but I think it's just good science, actually. If you want to understand sport, you can't just focus on American team sports. Likewise, if you want to understand the religious state of mind, you can't endlessly hammer on about the worst kinds of fundamentalism.

David Evans said...

I think Dawkins is not particularly concerned with understanding religious belief (Dennett may be different in that respect). Dawkins is angry that what he sees as a factually false belief system gets automatic respect, and is looked to as a source of moral insights. As well, of course, as being fiercely angry at the violent fundamentalists. He would probably argue that we can just see that (for instance) astrology is entitled neither to our respect nor to a place in our decision making. How the believers in astrology feel about it is interesting but irrelevant.

I am, as you can guess, a new atheist by temperament. I do know from the inside what it's like to grow up Christian - in the relatively moderate Church in Wales. I can tell you that at no time in my formative years did any Christian suggest to me that Genesis or the New Testament were not literally true. No accommodation from that side of the equation.

Jean Kazez said...

I actually don't know from the inside what it's like to believe. I've never believed for a moment. But that's made me very curious what it's like to believe--so I ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes, and like to read people who write in a non-judgmental, anthropological mode about the psychology of religion. That's certainly not what new atheists are good at, but I'm a partial fan--they're certainly very good at other things.

Anonymous said...

What about the new atheists who already have an understanding of the religious state of mind because they were once religious themselves or come from a heavily religious family or community? Isn't it possible that they already understand something that you don't because you have never been a believer? You are curious and want to learn more. They already have a lot of experience and information. How does that make your approach more scientific?

Jean Kazez said...

Sure, they understand something--namely that one thing they experienced back when they believed. But that may cause them to fixate on that one specific form of religion. That's not a good starting point for being a student of the whole spectrum of religious experience. It's like expatriate Americans writing a book about America. Naturally they're going to focus on those aspects that made them leave, and not on the parts of American experience that make other people stay.