19 April 2008

Hitchens and his two acolytes

(recycled from the now defunct blog section in the Village magazine website -- first published on 28 June 2007)

In the last couple of weeks, Ireland’s two self-styled print media enfants terribles, John Waters and Kevin Myers, have both had a run-in with the Irish wagon of Christopher Hitchens’ publicity train for his new book, God is Not Great. Waters was duped into taking the role of Hitchens’ floor wipe at the Gate Theatre on 17 June in a public debate on the merits of religion (Waters being in favour of God and Hitchens against) and Myers imposed on Indo readers two extraordinarily pretentious articles about evolution, Hitchens and faith, apparently arising out of a stroll he took with the British journalist through Temple Bar.

Now the said Hitchens has had the term “intellectual” appended to his name in various places, so you would have thought the oh-so-obvious aspirations of Messrs Waters and Myers in the same direction would have benefited by their recent association with him. Unfortunately though, the quality of their respective contributions to the debate (along with, in Myers’ case, the dubious aesthetic sensibility he exposed in choosing Temple Bar for a scenic Dublin stroll with an illustrious visitor) has kept them out of the running for membership of the intelligentsia for the moment.

In the case of Myers, I hope he will one day blush at his depressing demonstration that he hasn’t the foggiest idea of the basic principles of evolutionary theory. “I certainly don't accept Darwinian theories of evolution, as currently posited” he informs us self-importantly as if he had a PhD in the subject, and then goes on to provide us with the information that he “cannot see how 'evolution' was accidentally able to create hundreds of proteins, any molecule of which consists of maybe 1,000 different amino-acids, in precisely the right sequence”, thus in a single sentence revealing to anyone with the slightest notion of the subject that the insights of the modern synthesis between Darwin’s ideas and modern genetic theory have gone completely over his head.

In order to fool us into thinking he hadn’t lifted his argument wholesale from some American website he replaces a jumbo jet with the Taj Mahal in his version of the fatuous Christian fundamentalist metaphor that a wind going through a junkyard could never spontaneously assemble something as sophisticated as a modern jet liner (or a white marble temple to love if you like), never mind a human being or a dinosaur. The letters page of the Indo this week would suggest that this demonstration of ignorance didn't go unnoticed.

Waters, who has declared himself in the Irish Times to be the implacable scourge of precisely the sort of "aggressive secularism" advocated by Hitchens, on all accounts just lay prone before the master on the night of the debate, just managing to get in a plea for acknowledgement of the role of Christian tradition in the development of enlightenment values. The fire instilled in him by philosopher John Gray (whose pretentious neo-Nietzschean anti-enlightenment effort Straw Dogs Waters is recorded as having read in preparation for a discussion with Ivana Bacik on RTÉ a few months ago) was all gone, along with his passionate opposition to liberalism, which he recently redeclared as part of his cack-handed effort to back up Bertie Ahern’s unintelligible and incoherent views on some undefined aggressive secularist threat or other to somebody or other's freedom of religion or something.

What you’d expect from Myers and Waters is that they’d admire Hitchens. You’d guess he’d be exactly the sort of journalist they’d aspire to be. And such indeed seems to be the case – Waters’ supine attitude to the man and Myers’ extraordinary overblown praise for his book – “… God is Not Great is easily the most brilliant and fascinating contemplation upon the role of religion in human society in recent times, the Das Kapital of a tolerant, if exasperated, atheism” – would seem only explainable as boyish hero worship.

But in fact there is nothing particularly brilliant about Hitchens’ book. In style and content it is essentially the same as last year’s atheist blockbuster The God Delusion by Prof. Richard Dawkins. Nor is there anything particularly challenging about the arguments it contains: just like the Dawkins book (which is by no means the genius professor’s best) it fails to land punches with any real force on any type of pro-religious view other than the sort of literalist nonsense found in American mainstream Protestantism, Roman Catholic orthodoxy, conservative Islamic thought and the like. Now I’m not saying these targets don’t deserve a bit of punishment, but it has to be said that Hitchens' arguments display nothing even close to the originality or imagination required to describe them in the sort of superlatives that Myers uses.

Indeed the barn doors that were Hitchens' particular targets have been bashed off their hinges since soon after the publication of The Origin of the Species in the middle of the 19th century. As sources of any serious intellectual stimulation, they have been a right old bore for a very long time indeed.

Now there probably is some point in discussing effective political strategies to combat antediluvian, religious-inspired belligerence, bigotry and chauvinism, but the fact is that neither book makes any serious attempt to suggest antidotes to the recent resurrection of religious conservatism in Western political thought. They don't seem to do much more than lament forlornly at the seemingly unstoppable irrational tide (Hitchens’ own now ludicrous view that the invasion of Iraq was likely to be a help in stemming this tide is mercifully left out of his book). The problem is not so much as that their message is fundamentally a negative one — ie, fundamentalist religion is nasty — but that it is also childishly obvious to anyone likely to be picking up their books.

But it’s not as if there’s nothing interesting to say on the subject. Kim Sterelny is right when telling us, in a very useful book explaining the long-running (and much misunderstood) controversy between Dawkins and the late palaeontologist Steven Jay Gould, that “… Dawkins is wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life”. Indeed the way Dawkins talks freely about “facts” and “truth” as if the concepts were entirely unproblematic indicates either his ignorance of or his lack of interest in the preoccupations of the most fashionable currents in 20th century philosophy, collectively known as “postmodernism”. He simply ignores them.

It is precisely the problematic status of such terms as “truth” and “reality” that has defined the main battle lines at least in philosophy of knowledge in the second half of the 20th century, and especially in philosophy of science, and it is to a large extent this unfinished argument that has permitted the return of religion as a powerful force in the West.

Hitchens, on the other hand, is surely conscious of these issues, and perhaps this is why his argument against religion, if it can be distinguished from Dawkins’, depends a tiny bit more on the effects of religion on human behaviour and a fair amount less on demonstrating the falsity of his opponents’ metaphysical claims. Neither author, however, even begins to deal with the bundle of issues that gave rise to the mishmash of attitudes and doctrines and works that make up the postmodern canon.

I suspect that both Dawkins and Hitchens share philosopher Daniel Dennett’s famous disdain for many of the pretensions of postmodern thinking. (By the way, the same Daniel Dennett has written a far-superior book criticising religion, Breaking the Spell, one of its virtues being that it does at least contain at least one sensible political suggestion in discussing religion — namely that we should insist on challenging religious people’s uniquely exaggerated sensitivity to criticism of their opinions, continually defying them to discuss of their most cherished beliefs rationally, no matter how much it might hurt them.)

Still and all, Dennett too failed to tackle the postmodern challenge: he tantalisingly dismisses to certain unnamed European philosophical trends as "obscurantism", but declines to tell us why (one suspects that he feels it's not worthwhile).

Simply ignoring postmodern thinking, however justified your disdain for it may be, is hard to justify as a serious intellectual strategy, and it certainly isn’t a respectable response if the political debate you’re participating in is being played out precisely on territory marked out by postmodernism.

And postmodernist attitudes are central to the challenge to such thinkers as Hitchens and Dawkins. Even opponents who'd run a mile from many of the “discoveries” of postmodernism slip easily into and out of postmodern thinking in defending their view of religion. Belfast-born professional Dawkins-basher Alister McGrath refers to atheism as "a belief system" rather than "a factual statement about reality" (whatever that means). Pope Benedict XVI, amongst others, is very fond of referring to scientists unsympathetic to religion as "positivists" (a favourite term of abuse amongst postmodernists). While we can have our suspicions about such tactics, it is not a trivial task to sort out where they are legitimate and where they're used simply to muddy the water.

One of the special difficulties for non-postmodernists about postmodern thought (especially in its various continental European incarnations), is that many of its heroes write extremely opaque prose (the suspected fraud, Nazi sympathiser and acknowledged postmodern hero Martin Heidegger once described any demand to make his writings intelligible as "suicide for philosophy"). The unwillingness of many in the postmodern tradition to pin down the meanings of the words they use is also notorious, as is their frequent disrespect for traditional conventions governing the structure of philosophical arguments.

For defenders of religion, such styles of argumentation are very useful, and extremely frustrating for potential opponents, hence the understandable reluctance of the latter to condescend to dealing with what they see as intentional obfustication. However, given the state of play in 21st century intellectual debate — with postmodernism firmly established (even dominant) in humanities (and sometimes even natural science) faculties of universities all over the western world — such people as Hitchens and his allies have no choice but to join battle on postmodernist home territory.

It is here that the heavy intellectual lifting needs to be done — and difficult and dirty work it is, too. Neither Hitchens nor Dawkins have yet really turned their minds to it. I presume they share my suspicion that the postmodern emperor dresses relatively lightly, but to see just how little he has on you have to enter the palace.

As to Myers and Waters, before they try to put on the clothes of Ireland’s intellectual elite, they should make sure their underwear is clean — it might save them some embarrassment.


joya said...

this is a fantastic post.

CheekyVimto said...

I think you're wrong about the hegemony of postmodernism. It is popular but there are many who oppose it on the grounds that it is self-contradictory, willfully obscurantist and almost content free. Chomsky is one. Umberto Eco is another.

Also, I've never received the same answer twice to the question 'what is postmodernism?'. It's almost like no-one really knows.