Sunday, September 27, 2009

On motes and beams

It's a strong field in which to compete but I think Andrew Brown's argument here that the 'New Atheists' are a bunch of snobs has to win the prize for the most inconsistent and absurd attempt to claim the class card for one's position that I have ever seen.

He begins by acknowledging that adherence to religion has no class element in this country, unlike the US (this in itself a dubious proposition). Not a particularly strong basis on which to argue that atheists are really just social elitists in drag, one would have thought? To compound his difficulties, he then goes on to describe the motivation behind working class atheism with a truly breath-taking condescension:
"But in this country, unlike the US, the poor are not devout. They're hardly atheist on principle; they just reckon that "it's all rubbish", along with every other system of organised thought. This means that not going to church does not function in itself as a class marker here in the way that it works in the US."
I appreciate this will be difficult to believe but he then moves from here to claim the solidarity with the poor card for his particular brand of patrician Anglicanism*:
"Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it's perfectly OK to sneer at "faith heads" for all these things: that shows you're enlightened. It's pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well."
Amazing, isn't it? One can form an argument based on a contradiction of what you yourself have already said in the previous paragraphs of your own goddamn article and still pick up a pay-check from Guardian.co.uk.

But lurking in the shadows of this truly dismal piece is a half-formed argument that we've seen previously on this space from the likes of the excruciating Karen Armstrong, which is - and I hope that they'll forgive me for summarising it crudely, but accurately, as: religion isn't about what you believe but what you do. 'Performative' is a word beloved of - what shall we call them? - the New Guardianista Theists For Obfuscation?

But this won't do. What the believer does is informed and motivated by what they believe. I dare say the rituals and customs of 'performative' piety give consolation, sense of belonging and all that but one could be forgiven for thinking that Brown, Armstrong et al are engaged in an exercise that is attempting to delegitimize any questioning of the beliefs that motivate these acts of piety.

Why they should do this when history is replete with examples of how organized religion has used the claim to cognitive infallibility to such lethal effect is a question for them to answer but I'd like to ask them something else as well: doesn't the often threadbare utilitarian defences they give for their varying brands of conservative catholicism rather undermine the basis of the belief system they claim to defend? For no man ever forsook his father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter and took up his cross in order to support the nuclear family, preserve the work ethic, reduce crime in the neighbourhood or foster charitable giving as an important ingredient in civil society. Rather it was for the salvation of his own soul. An inconvenient truth for the soft theists of Comment is Free but if they were concerned with truth, they would realise they're simply engaged in an exercise that has to do with imposing a liberal narrative on salvation religions that don't have one. Then they'd be out of a job. Sorry, what was that you were saying about social hierarchy?

*Correction: from the comments below, I learn that Brown isn't an Anglican - just one of those high-church atheist types - 'Atheism is ok - just don't discuss it in front of the servants' .

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