Sunday, August 19, 2007


Gnostic Doubts

Michael Shermer has a column in Scientific American today, entitled "Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens," that advises neo-atheists against certain types of aggressiveness. It is, I think, at least worth consideration.

One thing I was particularly interested in was a quote of Darwin from an 1880 letter to Edward Aveling, the lover of Karl Marx's daughter. In the letter, Darwin declined having Aveling's book, The Students' Darwin, dedicated to him. This letter led to the myth that Marx wanted to dedicate one of the volumes of Das Kapital to Darwin. This is a somewhat more complete quote from the letter:

[T]hough I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow from the advance of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family , if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.
Francis Darwin further expounded on his father's views and the attempt by Aveling to claim Darwin shared his own views:

Dr. Aveling has published an account of a conversation with my father. I think that the readers of this pamphlet ('The Religious Views of Charles Darwin,' Free Thought Publishing Company, 1883) may be misled into seeing more resemblance than really existed between the positions of my father and Dr. Aveling: and I say this in spite of my conviction that Dr. Aveling gives quite fairly his impressions of my father's views. Dr. Aveling tried to show that the terms "Agnostic" and "Atheist" were practically equivalent -- that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity. My father's replies implied his preference for the unaggressive attitude of an Agnostic. Dr. Aveling seems (p. 5) to regard the absence of aggressiveness in my father's views as distinguishing them in an unessential manner from his own. But, in my judgment, it is precisely differences of this kind which distinguish him so completely from the class of thinkers to which Dr. Aveling belongs. - Darwin, Francis ed. 1887. The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. Volume 1, p. 317.
To me, Darwin's approach is more likely to succeed in the end. But how familiar is the attempt to appropriate others to the cause? The more things change ...

The first two points in Shermer's column are interesting, in the light of "Intelligent Design" and its strategy:

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.
2. Positive assertions are necessary.

I wish that they were true.
Ah, but is ID really only anti-evolution? Positive assetions that are hidden, depending on the audience at the moment, are still there.

Neo-atheists, on the other hand, do not have an extensive history of teachings that can be referred to with a wink and a nod, the way IDeologists do. I suspect that Shermer is right that atheists and other secularists do have to make some sort of positive case, if they want to go beyond preaching to the choir and get a wider public to drop religion and other supernaturalisms.
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