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So this is the last part of a trilogy about Militant-Atheism. Previously, we tried to show that a variation over scholastic and deistic beliefs generates contemporary Atheism. In this sense, Atheism is a kind of Catholicism.

Of course, the exact same path can be walked backwards, so we have knowledge of god as just another kind of knowledge, as amenable to scientific inquiry as any.

I fear both stances loose the most important.

The prejudiced atheistic view on religion has that a priest will say anything to keep the congregation paying the tithe. This can be interpreted as disregard for the truth. But it is also a demand for hearing things that are felt personally, directly. Religious ideas are supposed to have more subjective impact than, say, a sub-particle that can only be detected with a sensor the size of a house.

It’s not so much disregard for truth, since she is demanding justification that she can evaluate herself. Instead, it is that the scientific mindset has a different sensibility for truth.

A good illustration of these different sensibilities is the Mary’s Room thought experiment: Imagine a girl who had forever been constrained to a room where all interaction she has with the external world are through a black-and-white television, and imagine that she learns everything there is to learn about colour, from the physical characteristics of light to the neurological workings of colour perception in the brain — when you release her from the room and she sees colour for the first time, will she be learning something new? Most people (not everyone though) would say that there is something new, something important about the first-hand experience. Now the scientific sensibility is that which feels the in-room knowledge of colour is more important than the outside direct experience.

It is very counter-spontaneous for a human to to give first-hand experience lower precedence than anything else. And scientists are certainly people too. What happens is that scientists-to-be are subjected to a host of experiences (direct ones, but not exactly) that frame their further experiences so that indirect knowledge can seem to be more important. In other words, to learn to be a scientist is not only to apprehend theories and equations, but also to train this specific kind of sensibility.

It is not only a matter of disliking (negatively) personal knowledge — though it can easily be misconstrued as such. But instead of liking (positively) generalizable knowledge.

To cultivate this taste, data-transmission is not enough. There is nothing you can say to someone that will make him acquire it. The person needs to live through academic life.

Regardless of being a bunch of other stuff too, academia is a structured set of procedures that develops and reinforces a symbolic system. A very important part of this system is the scientific sensibility.

“Structured procedures reinforcing a symbolic system” is a basic definition of ritual.

Militant Atheism, in spite of describing itself as exclusively secular, mixes with academic ritual. That isn’t such an ideal arrangement.

Of course, to characterize ritual as merely pretence, as theatrical, to assert ritual to not have any efficacy, this is a poor mistake. So for example a crucial (though not central) part of academic ritual is grasping concepts. That is a special case of mental gymnastics, of muscle-building for the brain. To grasp an advanced concept requires a lot of effort, and much more than rote-memorization. Once mastered, this concept can be used to read the world, literally opening up new realms of behaviour and experience. With adequate peer reinforcement, this experience of abstraction can be nurtured into a taste for abstraction. And this sensibility is extremely complex, exactly because formality for it’s own sake derails in theatrics, abstraction can’t ignore the specific case without becoming what Wittgenstein called a tautology, which is a symbol-device that can at the same time mean anything and everything. The ritual has to be much more than classes or exercises. The ritual has efficacy(ies).

Fused in this symbol-system there is a certain dislike for metaphysics. It is a deep conviction that it is more useful to keep your focus on stuff you can see and manipulate and measure. But (& this is very important) the dislike for metaphysics does not conflict with the taste for abstraction. Counter-intuitive as this may be, avoiding metaphysics tries to conserve abstraction, to avoid losing it at the opposite side of the concreteness scale. This terribly subtle and extremely useful distinction underlines the sophistication of the ritual tradition that is contemporary western thought.

Meanwhile, Neo-Pentecostalism provides a different kind of ritual, one where the experience of faith is not a concept, but a powerful force, felt full-on in Dolby-Surround, that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of god. Even disparaged by a rulebook from ancient Greek times, this church can still feel “more real” than science to people. So, in a way, we could say the academic ritual has fallen to the trap of being too metaphysical!

The richness of Pentecostal ritual experience is not so much a talent of theirs as a simple contrast to the stark poverty of ritual life elsewhere. Contemporary society, in its ambiguous adoration of science, prescribes a system of beliefs that is not morally informative. That is to say, belief in Atheism does not help normal people conduct their lives.

Not that there isn’t a morality to be taken out of science. There certainly is. It is just very hard to decode. It is a monastic symbol system, developed by scientists as devout as monks (which often enough were monks, by the way) and as such it can’t help but give precedence to “big questions”. The morality of science is at the wrong scale.

{Interestingly, the likes of Dawkins and Kauffman who try to convince us that science provides all the awe one might need, they commit two of the things they call sins: Lit-Crit in that they use theology-avoiding people’s works to prove the theology of atheism, and Pentecostal Populism in that they dress science as just what the people want to hear…}

So, hopefully, i’ve managed to piss off all sides of this crowded debate: Militant and non-militant Atheists i blamed naïve, Charismatic Neo-Pentecostals i labelled cheap-sake and unsophisticated, conservative Catholics i put as obsolete. Even Ecumenism and Agnosticism could be dismissed as fence-sitting in that they refuse to deal with the issue at the level that matters.

Because in the end it is all a matter of Beliefs. Not only about ideas, but about which ideas we take as important enough to be endorsed in our very lives.

Thus religion turns out to be a matter of epistemology, albeit of a rather guerilla flavour.

And conversely, everything else literally turns out to be a matter of religion, albeit religion in a desperate need for a reboot.

We want something to believe in — a god — and it has to be reliable, but it must not prevent us from thinking freely. If you think about it, this is a paradox. We want to dodge, in a single movement, both idolatry (beliefs that are too concrete) and metaphysics (beliefs that are too ineffable). We need transcendence that is not semi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but to organize belief is, in itself, a dumbing process.

The very same issue, framed differently: We need enlightenment for the masses, but any enlightenment that is not a personal experience is just delusion.

Beyond the initial rage and posterior fear of all the parties involved (which alone makes this problem unsolvable) there awaits an even harder issue: That inherently there are no simple answers.


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