Friday, 27 March 2009

Only the FSM can save us now!

It's sometimes reassuring to find that it's not only articles in the lowbrow Mail that cause me to want to bang my head on the desk. Yes, it's Guardian time! Enter, stage left, the frequently pointless CiF Belief blogger Andrew Brown, attempting to troll both religion and science at the same time with his usual panache in If God does not exist, we must urgently invent one. First off, some background if you've never read Andrew Brown. He's sort of pro-religion and sort of pro-science, and so his blogs tend to alternate between annoying both camps as he bravely tries to reconcile science and religion with whatever tools he can find (although he's still not as annoying as Mark Vernon).

The other thing to note about Brown is that he bags a lot of angry comments because he isn't particularly adept at getting his point across. He had to enter his comments section on numerous occasions the other day in the entry Why religion can't be just for consenting adults to try and explain what he was getting at when he wrote things like;

But religion is not like that. Any religion is much more a matter of "Yes" and "No" – things that any child can understand, and can't in fact be brought up without
(The premise of his column seemed to be that children can't logically understand religion, so you need to just inculcate it into them in the same way you teach them not to run out in front of a lorry, apparently under the impression that kids remain impervious to any kind of logic until they turn 16).

Anyway, back to today's effort, and Brown starts his column off by setting up and then knocking down an atheist straw man argument that will piss off both camps:

If God won't rescue us from impending doom, as the Archbishop of Canterbury claims, what possible use is it to believe in him? This looks like a knock-down argument, but it turns out to be a swing at empty air.
For background, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently tried to stave off people wondering where the fuck this God guy has got to by saying that he was going to leave us alone to figure out climate change and economic problems by ourselves (see God 'will not give happy ending' - stop sniggering at the back, perverts!). Brown reckons that atheists will try and show this as evidence that believing in God is pointless, which some of them probably will. They shouldn't bother though; if people managed to stay religious despite being hit with two World Wars, the AIDS epidemic, and that fucking Sandi Thom single from a couple of years back, it seems that the belief that God actually cares enough to save us from abject misery isn't a prerequisite for believing he exists.

Brown makes pretty much this point, albeit without the needless swearing and comedy 'incongruous third item in a list' technique I just used, but so far so good. He then goes on to argue that this means religious people therefore have to believe that we can save ourselves. What do atheists believe, then? That we're all screwed and can't possibly do any good? Presumably atheism is basically the same thing as nihilism now. Brown goes on:

So wouldn't we be better to trust to our own powers, and to our rational self-interest? This is where the argument gets interesting: if our rational self-interest were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all.
Let's enjoy that last bit again; "if our rational self-interest were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all". Hold that thought while you read this bit:

If the global crises facing the world are to be solved, then this will demand something that looks very like a religion. It will be necessary to invent god because organised religions or things very like them are the only ways ever discovered to make millions of civilians co-operate whole-heartedly.
Now let's go back to his previous argument, and replace 'our rational self-interest' with 'religion' and see how it sounds. "If religion were enough to solve the problems of humanity, we would hardly have any at all". Wow, it works pretty much just as well, doesn't it? I'd have more sympathy with this whole piece if it was clear that we'd been led into disaster by thousands of years of a dominant atheist paradigm, but a quick glance across the globe suggests that we're not about to be electing Richard Dawkins ruler of the world any time soon. Did I miss the meeting where atheism killed off religion?

The blog essentially comes down to a false dichotomy; there's rationality and there's religion, only one can save us. People have worked together in the name of God before, whereas by not believing in God you essentially commit yourself to a life of self-interest. Y'know, if you ignore all the examples of altruism in animals, and the history of the ethic of reciprocity, among other things.

So, let's accept for a moment the premise that the non-religious are gonna be too self-involved to convince people that climate change is worth doing something about. How does Brown propose we go about establishing this new quasi-religion in an era of science and education where large numbers of people (like me) have grown accustomed to the idea that you can get along just fine without the need to serve the nebulous interests of an invisible entity that may or may not have a beard and may or may not be a complete bastard? Well, he doesn't. He merely seems to be lamenting that we'd be able to get everyone to work to a common goal if only they all believed the same improbable thing. Well done, you just successfully wasted my time arguing that we could solve climate change by simply doing something completely impossible! If we're just going to make up fantasy solutions to climate change, might I propose that we build a massive metaphysical knife capable of stabbing God with, so we can rough him up a bit in a cosmic subway and threaten him until he comes to help sort out the mess?

Perhaps the biggest problem with all this is that even if we could convince everyone to join hands across the globe under the same religion, we'd still be have some work to do to convince many of them that climate change actually exists. Since the current Bible seems to missing the pages that explain what to do in the event of the build-up of man-made greenhouse gases causing an upward temperature shift, we're going to have to also come up with the authority that it exists, presumably without using actual science since that's incapable of uniting people. Of course, if you want to appoint me as the God figure in our sassy new 21st century religion, I'll be happy to don an ethereal-looking white robe and dictate 'Anthropogenic global warming is hella real, kids, be cool!' to whatever stone-tablet scribes you've got handy. Always like to do my bit, see. I'd also be prepared to work under the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you need someone a bit more photogenic than me.

No comments:

Post a Comment