Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Charming!

Andrew Sullivan highlights Jerry Coyne's dispatch from a major meeting of atheists last weekend:
Dan Dennett talked about interviews with active priests and ministers who are atheists, and also mounted a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity”: a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out — ripped from their texts — in a Powerpoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.
The first time I read this, I thought there was no way that's what Coyne meant to say - his words must have been, for lack a better phrase, "ripped from the text." Then I went and read the whole thing in context, which is what you do when you have even a modicum of respect for people with whom you disagree - or for the pursuit of knowledge generally.

But that didn't change anything. Coyne is actually suggesting that "ripping" the words of major writers "from their texts" - something the rest of us call "taking things out of context" - is the best way to engage in debate, rather than a tactic which would get you dismissed from any serious conversation. After all, most people respond positively to sneering contempt and lazy intellectual posturing. I think it's clear that whatever small interest people like this have in changing minds is totally overwhelmed by the pleasure they get from patting each other on the back. (By the way, for those who are interested, I took a more comprehensive look at this issue here.)


Lukas said...

It's actually been really amusing to have to defend catholicism since I've been here at school. It's kind of amazing- many of these very intelligent and curious people are pretty deeply ignorant about something that a huge chunk of the worldwide population subscribes to. They're really quick to just shut it down without any consideration. (A conversation in the 'Philosophy' section of the Town and Country Books and Co. comes to mind)

N. said...

Yeah. It's really easy - and lazy - to dismiss entire worldviews that don't conform with your own biases, and when you're surrounded by like-minded people, it's even comforting. I struggle mightily with that intellectual laziness, which is one big reason why I blog.

And for all my problems with Catholic stances on various issues, there is an impressive intellectual, philosophical, and theological tradition within the Church that deserves respect. At least enough respect to be argued against in a serious way. (You often find, too, that once pressed, people can't defend their opinions as well as they think they can, and find that in fact, Catholic thought is not so easily dismissed.)

I'm actually working on a paper right now that addresses that very tension - how polities can reject natural law without becoming adrift in a sea of relativism. I'm convinced that it's possible, but it's an uphill battle, and admittedly, I don't think - despite all the objections to the Catholic approach - it's very easy to come up with a watertight alternative.