Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Faithlessness in fiction

Few things rile my impatience as the assertion that atheists can't be people of deep thought and values.

Randy Boyagoda, chair of English at Ryerson University, has written an essay for First Things which more or less accurately identifies the waning of explicitly Christian voices in contemporary literature:
I always have ready some recommendations of current writers who take the life of faith seriously in their work—the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the poet Geoffrey Hill, assorted scholars and reviewers writing criticism—but I realize they have a point. While religion significantly matters in minor literary contexts today (as with the eccentric popularity of Amish romance novels) and in vulgar commercial contexts (as with Dan Brown’s books), serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture.
(Emphasis mine.) There's an absolute ecology of unexamined, and I'd say indefensible, assumptions underlying the idea that identifies deep and thoughtful "informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are" exclusively with religiously informed understandings. The unexplored alternative to this idea is that certain author and artists may, by dint of the depth and richness of their understanding, have had to abandon "religious" (read: theistic) framings of the world. This is not a negligence on their part, but a feature of their engagement with reality as it comes. 

Boyagoda has a more sympathetic case, a less privilege-blind case, if he were using the word "religious" to encompass nontheistic worldviews, such as those aligned, e.g., with deep ecology or religious* humanism; but I see no evidence that he is doing so. Very well; we carry on with our own work in the larger pluralism outside the purview of sectarian commentary. You can be sure that the forthcoming companion site to Pen & Anvil's secular imprint, Secular Age, will do diligent work in focusing attention on new books from secular thinkers, and in promoting awareness of the many ways an atheistic worldview may nonetheless have consort with things infinite.

(I encourage anyone reading to recommend in the comments below any authors or books who are exemplary in this respect.)

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* How good if it were more widely understood that the term "religious" can apply with equal usefulness to wholly nontheistic and materialistic traditions such as "religious humanism." Alas, most readers see "religion" and think a god-belief of some kind is involved (the case of some kinds of Buddhism not much changing these facts).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Brookes on Taylor's "Secular Age" thesis

"Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice [Oh? Which? -ZWB] — give us a richer understanding of our natures. [...] These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge. ¶ But [...] these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength." (NYTimes)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Louis CK on practical epistemology

In his feature-length stand-up show Live at the Beacon Theater, comedian Louis CK lays bare an oft-overlooked fact concerning the relationship between belief and behavior:
I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them. They're my little believies.
The show is available on Netflix (at around 6 minutes in) and may well be on YouTube.


Don't doubt for a moment that there is an ethical dimension to the lack of conformation between what one believes and what one does. As a good introduction, dial over to, and read William Clifford's 1877 essay, "The Ethics of Belief." The infamous, and terrifically portable, summary of his position on the matter: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." A corollary: Since humans are all always guilty in one way or another of holding beliefs (of some sort or scope) that aren't warranted by sufficient evidence that we ourselves have worked through, it is the case that we (yes, all of us) are living always in a state of epistemic failure (here I almost wrote, "epistemic sin!). Knowing this is the beginning of rationality.


A corollary from Oscar Wilde: “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.” Contrast this to the wisdom theme of H.P. Lovecraft's tale, “The Call of Cthulhu”: “ he most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” If there were a divinity of perfect rationality, would we not have to call this being either insensate as a stone, or wholly mad? (See also Borges' story "Funes the Memorious" for a case example of how a perfect omnimnemonic could not in practice survive with his reason intact, free to live a life we could call human.)