Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Studying Atheism

I have mentioned biblical scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann before and how much I usually like his writing and commentary.

He has a recent piece asking and answering the question "Should Atheism Be Studied?" I like the question because it raises the issue of what the subject of Atheism is, really is.

Is Atheism simply and only "not-religion"? Anti-atheists certainly don't think so, and I don't either. Indeed, Hoffmann points out that in the absence of Atheists defining their subject, their opponents do it for them. To the holy-righteous superheros, people who don't read the right kinds of scripture create a confusion in the world that leads to socialism and terrorism (that is, Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden).

Hoffmann gets to his thesis and raises issues I have recently tackled, namely questions about the use of the "myth" concept and about the real possibility of gods:
In fact, the whole faith-versus-unbelief debate is askew.

The righteous and the right-minded have chosen to draw their battle-line on the map of myth. Yet both sides know that the trigger-question is not whether Genesis is “true” but whether the possibility of a being like God is true. The believer, if he is a profound Christian, says simply yes, because the story is true, it being validated by the power and authority whose story it is. This is not the time to drag out a logic primer or a copy of The God Delusion. Quantum physics? Forget about it.

It is time to be foxier than that. If the answer is yes, because the story says so, then the job of education (something atheists claim to care about) is to examine stories about gods. Not just the one in Genesis--all the stories.
I for one am on board with the idea of examining all the stories about gods. I am pretty sure Daniel Dennett has made specific comments arguing for multi-religion examination, too. Indeed, it seems to me a standard Atheist debating point to mention that the Hebrew/Christian gods are not and have not been the only show in town.

I start to part ways with Hoffmann when he insists that the so-called New Atheists are all about taunts and jests at the rational foibles and real crimes of the religious. To a great extent--the greater extent, I would say--the New Atheists champion education, reason, and method.

Hoffmann gives a brief statement of what Atheists might focus on in their educational wish-list:
If the pious know what they want–school prayer for instance–what should an atheist want that can be taught?

For one thing, atheists should insist on courses in moral development. In the UK, where the idea of church-state separation isn’t quite as sharp-edged as in the Great Republic, classes in “spiritual and physical development” are usual, though the phrase really just means “moral” and physical education–important add-ons to intellectual formation through the standard lens of liberal learning.

Atheists should insist on ethics- or values-education. They should be fighting battles for good textbooks on the subject, texts that do more than offer an unsuspecting sixth- grader the most uninspiring precis of lives lived and thoughts thought– “Plato was an Athenian philosopher of the fifth century bce who is famous for his idea of the ‘forms’. He was also the teacher of fourth-century thinker, Aristotle who was famous for something else….”

Atheists (I stress) need to be interested in the history and development of culture, not just the assumed predominance of science. Culture and science are not the same thing, but they share a story.
On the one hand, I am all for Hoffmann's basic proposal. Pre-college courses on morality, philosophy, and cultural studies would certainly be valuable to students and should be sought by all parents, Atheists and theists. On the other hand, Hoffmann makes no mention of mathematics, science, scientific reasoning, and the history of these disciplines. My impression is that American education is sorely lacking in these areas compared to other national systems.

Indeed, although my own background and training are in the humanities, I think that scientific and mathematical reasoning ought to be primary emphases throughout the education of our schoolchildren. I regard philosophy highly, and I take great personal joy in literature and the arts. But science works.

I also suspect that the pious among us feel that American education already focuses too much on "secular" ethics and values. The pious know what they want: to re-make what we have in their image. To combat secular humanism, materialism, and relativism.

Hoffmann concludes by defining the role of the Atheist and the challenge to Atheists for engaging the educational fight at the ground-level:
The atheist role is to insist that knowledge is not a grand and beautiful tapestry but the story of doubt and the role of doubt in the wider story of human achievement. Can we not teach that? Should we not teach that?

The question isn’t whether atheism “can” be studied, but when atheists are going to come down from the rooftops and begin making telescopes for the rest of us. That is hard work. That is the real challenge.
I have reservations about these points. The atheist role? The? Does identifying as an Atheist mean I must assume this one role at all times and in all places? Must I flatten all my other concerns, interests, inquiries, and contradictions into "the story of doubt"?

And what does Hoffmann mean by his figurative use of rooftops and telescopes? Maybe he means that folks like me should work to get onto local school boards, which is a very good idea. Maybe he has no specific plans formulated but rather means to make a general comment that Atheists are too aloof and elite/elitist.

I wonder whether Hoffmann reads much of the Atheist blogs, which are everywhere and could hardly be more populist. To me, these blogs are precisely the telescopes that he means. They are the best education going. Yes, there's plenty of flotsam and chaff (yeah, yeah) in the blogosphere, but it seems to me that one is no less likely to encounter a quality blog than a dreadful one. The nature of blogs--linked, dialogic, combative--drives even a modestly curious person to many different sources of knowledge and opinion. Eventually, the traveler of the blogosphere realizes that there's no help out there but self-help. There are no given views, just grown ones.

I see blogs as a very helpful and important part of education. Whatever a student wants to learn, whether or not it's in the classroom, can be found on the blogosphere. Atheist blogs are part of what's available to curious minds. It's as full-contact as one can get from behind a computer, as journalism/language writer Roy Peter Clark found out on Language Log:
  • The Internet is not a pleasant little garden. There are more snakes than robins, and no writer should enter without being prepared to be handled roughly, at times venomously.
  • If you are willing to venture in you can learn an awful lot, including from commentators who are, at times, uncivil or worse.
  • When you comment on a person’s work, especially when he or she is not part of the conversation, it’s good to envision that person a real and not virtual – as someone who you might run into the next day on the cafeteria line.
  • In an area as vast as language, there are many so-called discourse communities that sometimes express themselves as factions: linguists, poets, journalists, deconstructionists, semanticists, composition teachers, prescriptivists, descriptivists, free lancers, and many more. All pilgrims should be prepared to encounter reflexive misunderstanding of their motives, values, and intentions
If Hoffmann is talking about Atheists becoming more active at the grassroots level--real communities, schools, and public forums--I agree completely. I think that this is an inevitable progression. In some parts of the US, it's now almost fashionable for people to identify as Atheists. As Atheism becomes more and more a "normal" identity for a greater number of people, many of Hoffmann's recommendations will become part of the mainstream.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see you've written a critique on this article.

    I too frequent Hoffmann's blog, and I wanted to criticize this article, but I wrote a Jesus one instead.

    I think Hoffmann lost me at "Should Atheism be Taught?" as if Atheism was a philosophy.

    It's a non-philosophy. And it's hard to teach people that aren't. I don't know about Hoffmann, but I'm an atheist because of the failure of Christianity to stand up to critical scrutiny, not because I choose the "philosophy of atheism" (whatever that might mean).

    Instead of teaching "atheism" why not teach 'All the other things atheist believe n' instead of what they don't believe in.

    But wouldn't that just be considered philosophy?

    Part of my book, as you know, is to define atheism more clearly. So I also have issues with his suggestion that no atheists are trying to come down from their lofty/elitist rooftops... or whatever. Again, I was sort of lost in his colloquial speak.

    And I agree with you about atheist blogs... many of them are well written, highly educational, well informed, places to share ideas and participate in dialogues with other educated folks who are open minded enough to talk about such ideas without being offended.

    We can disagree and still not feel threatened by anyone else's personal beliefs. And that's the importance of sharing ideas.

    So maybe Hoffmann should focus on the importance of the discourse rather than the teaching of a non-philosophy. Just my two cents.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.