Bigoted atheism redux

P.Z. Myers, not satisfied with a single dose of correction, requires another. It’s astonishing how proud some people are of not being able to understand religious language, like tone-deaf people telling you that you can’t REALLY be enjoying music because there’s no such thing.

P.Z. Myers (whose name I apologize for having misspelled &#8212 I hate that when people do it to me, which is often) responds to my criticism of his theological tone-deafness by repeating his original false argument VERY … LOUDLY … AND … VERY … SLOWLY, for those of us whose intelligence is less acute than his.

On one crucial point he misreads my argument. I didn’t say that most believers are self-aware of the metaphorical/mystical nature of the beliefs embodied in the traditions they follow; I haven’t done the appropriate study, and it would be a hard study to do.

But the fact (if it is a fact in this case) that most of the people who believe some idea believe a trivial or vicious version of it doesn’t show that the idea, properly understood, is false, let alone that it is stupid and worthless.

Take the atomic theory of matter, for example. Most Americans no doubt “believe” that matter is made of atoms; they were told as much in school, and fortunately the Religious Right hasn’t decided to deny it as un-Biblical.

But if you ask them what an “atom” is, most of them will tell you (if they can tell you anything) that it consists of a nucleus &#8212 a mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons &#8212 with still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a miniature Solar System. That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.

Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

On Myers’s reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory; sure, a few egghead professors have sensible ideas about the constitution of matter, but the atomic theory as an actual belief of large numbers of people is arrant nonsense, and we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply), and atomic theory as a superstition imposed on the populace.

As to Myers’s belief that many widely-held religious beliefs don’t work very well as metaphors, I’m largely on his side. I can’t make much sense of a “personal God,” any more than I can of a “personal sine wave” or a “personal photoelectric effect” or a “personal Law of Noncontradiction” or a “personal Categorical Imperative.” So, for me, “that which alone is wise and good” does not allow itself to be called “Zeus,” or by any other name. (“The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name,” says Lao-tse.)

But your mileage may vary; a metaphor that doesn’t work for me may be life-giving to you. And not believing a given religious tale, even metaphorically, doesn’t deprive it of all value. No one even professes to believe any more that there’s a perpetual party on Olympus, with Zeus presiding over a dysfunctional family, but Hermes and Athena represent real forces in the world, and there is much to be learned from the myths about them and their modern re-tellings. (Cf. Cryptonomicon.)

Newton’s astrological interests are cited as evidence that, despite his greatness, he was subject to believing whacky ideas. But let’s look at that one more closely, shall we? The prime belief of astrology was summed up in the maxim “As above, so below”: what happens in the heavens is reflected on Earth.

The project of judicial astrology was a wild-goose chase, even before it was vulgarized by the newspapers. But the maxim, as transmuted by Newton’s genius, turned out to be gloriously correct: the laws of motion here below are the same as the laws of motion in the heavens, and the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that holds the Moon in its orbit.

Could a non-astrologer have made that fantastic leap? We’ll never know. But we know that Newton, the astrologer, did in fact make it.

It’s the eagerness of people like Myers to scoff at, and therefore refuse to learn anything from, traditions that go back thousands of years that bothers me. Among other things, it cuts them off from much of the world’s great literature, art, and music. Heaven may not exist, but a Byrd motet or a Tallis mass is the “soundtrack of Heaven” (the place where “all that is not silence is music”) just the same.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: