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domenica 2 gennaio 2011

A project for the New Year

A new year has begun and I have decided to commit myself to do a number of things.
An important project is to undertake a study of some of the most powerful defenses of religion that can be found nowadays, and collect the materials that skeptics, atheists and freethinkers have written to counter them.
I don't know why but I'm under the impression that something isn't quite right, I get the feeling that people in our camp have been addressing our weaker adversaries.
What do I mean by that?
Well, many people have taken up various arguments by ID proponents, and dismantled them bit by bit. A nicely done job, and some of it required a fair amount of knowledge of mathematics and physics, which is not widely available. But ID is basically a fake, a big bubble of creationism covered by a veneer of (pseudo)scientific jargon.
Richard Dawkins, probably the guy I look up to the most nowadays, has written "The God Delusion" and "The Greatest Show on Earth". He has also done a two-part TV program for British TV, "The Root of All Evil?"
Wonderful stuff, but he took on some of the worst and quirkiest religious nuts that America can offer today. And then he went after the IDers.
Sam Harris, who might very well be one of the smartest people around, has gone into the fight both with "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation", where he has underlined the need to avoid excessive tolerance toward religions and religious thought in general (where "excessive" really means "any")
Right, this is an approach which is crucial in this battle of ideas.
However, I think he was mainly addressing us non-theists, urging us not to be too conciliatory. And while I agree entirely with him, something seems missing.
Furthermore what has gone into action in this new century is a broad skeptical/atheist movement which is expanding rapidly, and which includes, thankfully, a large number of younger men and women* . This is very important, otherwise just by looking at the leading proponents of the so-called "New Atheism" (all men, average age over 60), the future would not look too bright.
Now this broader movement of younger people, whose experience is obviously relatively small, but which is eager to learn and move forward (and multiply...),  should arm itself theoretically with the materials that can prepare the ground to conduct this battle for a long time, and also for the future generations.
Concretely, I think that this requires essentially two things.
The first one is challenging all the established churches, and this is already happening with a wide range of option (up to and including Pastafarianism, for instance). 
The second one is to dissect the best arguments of our best opponents, and they are not the IDers or any religious fundamentalist sect/church, but rather the most leftist/liberal elements in the religious movement. Those very same people that are often our allies in fighting IDers and suchlike. In some cases, they are even part of this broader (skeptic, secular) movement, and my point is NOT that they should be driven away.
Clearly, this kind of educational discussion can't be done with blunted tools, or in an haphazard fashion, or behaving "like dicks".
We need to engage them in a serious and respectful discussion -- precisely because they are mainly sane and almost entirely rational people -- and what they do (or did) is/was providing a means to integrate elements of modernity into the ancient historic or middle-ages myths that are at the heart of every religion. 
While we may regard their approach as spurious or eclectic, they likely do not, and consider themselves simply as contemporary proponents of Christianity (or Judaism or even Islam). In particular, a thorough critique of Buddhism, especially in its most sophisticated forms, is absolutely necessary, as many intelligent people, who are otherwise quite free of dogmatic baggage, seem to take it seriously.
These people are those that we could consider pro-NOMA from within religion. I use this formulation, because while there are plenty of critiques of pro-NOMA scientists and intellectuals who happen to be atheists, I'm not sure that these "pro-NOMA religionists" have been even recognised as such, and probably have not been criticized.**  
As I am writing this with the intent to undertake a study of the field, it may very well be the case that I'm entirely wrong, that no such "progressive religious people" exist, or that whatever they have written it has already been dealt with. Or a combination of the two. 
I don't know, but I intend to find out.***

P.S.: Another project is to write the item announced a few weeks ago. See below in this blog. Hopefully this will be easier...

* The figures for the expansion of groups like the SSA, for instance, are quite significant. But in general there are new secular coalitions and initiatives all over the USA/North America and Europe/Australasia.
** Stephen J. Gould was the original proponent of this "Non-Overlapping MAgisteria" nonsense (the idea is quite older, though). Michael Ruse still pedlles it. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have been in the forefront of the polemics against this. The late Pope Woytila, no less, could be regarded as some kind of supporter of this view from within the religious system.
*** Here is the methodological rationale for this project. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a prominent Italian Communist, who spent the last twelve years of his life in a fascist prison. During that time he wrote a large amount of guarded (at times cryptic) annotations, which have been published after the end of the war in Italy and elsewhere. 
When I used to be a Marxist I have never been particularly fond of Gramsci, for several reasons, and this has not changed lately.
However, in his critique of Bukharin he made a point which is quite valuable methodologically, and that can find applications outside of the concrete frame of reference that he addressed. As I can't find the exact quote, here is the gist of his critique of a book where Bukharin took upon himself the job of explaining the basics of Marxism, by polemicizing with his critics. Gramsci felt that Bukharin had severely undermined his own aims, by choosing to attack some of the weaker opponents, while he should have taken up the arguments of the strongest opponents; because only when the most powerful views countering yours have been dealt with, you can consider your job done.

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