Friday, May 8, 2009

god is not Great chapter 18 & 19

The final two chapters of god is not Great are interesting, although in the end sadly not terribly poignant. Hitchens discusses the history of rational conflict with religion which is sadly a very short history due to a shortage of well known atheists throughout history. In the final chapter Hitchens mostly discusses the need he feels for a new enlightenment, basically like Europe had in the 17th through 19th centuries.

Hitchens is a competent historian, but is by no means a professional in the field it would seem. He makes good points in discussing the accusations against Socrates, as well as the writings of Spinoza. But in the end the chapter has little choice but to fall flat. There's plenty of discussion going on, but regardless we have no way of knowing what historical potential atheists really believed, and whether they were in fact atheists. None that I'm aware of actually professed atheism. Now, while we could certainly assume someone like Spinoza was a proto-atheist, at the same time I think its important to recognize something Dawkins said as I feel it applies here: parpaphrased, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Now, I don't like parroting Dawkins, but I feel that was an incredibly salient point he made. We can speculate about the beliefs of anyone: Spinoza, Socrates, Adolf Hitler, Thomas Jefferson, L. Ron Hubbard. It makes no difference; we can never know any of it for sure. Hitchens even recognizes this, and because he recognizes it, I'm glad he can see the weakness in his discussion, but am at the same time rather disappointed that he ended the body of the book with something without much punch, as this would have definitely been a great place to put one.

When he discusses the need for a new enlightenment, it is pretty much just a call to rational minds. He proposes that, unlike the previous enlightenment, today we have the potential and knowledge available for a kind of mass enlightenment, exponentially more powerful than the first. I've probably blown that up a bit, because it reads very utopian and Hitchens is not a Utopian thinker. That said, it makes a good point, but is not realistic. The religious will continue clinging to their holy books and their gods, and the world will continue to move forward. While I certainly believe the world will change with religion continually falling behind and losing ground, I certainly don't see a major shift in the very near future. Maybe in the next couple decades.

Final analysis later today...


  1. I'm having trouble understanding what your (mild) complaint is here. Are you saying there's no need for a realignment?

    Regarding the idea of classification, I guess I agree with you. Even ignoring the fact that we'll never really know whether these famous dead people would have agreed with the label, I've always felt that searching out smart/accomplished people who support your opinion (or non opinion?) on something is an implicit argument by authority.

    To be fair, I'm not an atheist; it may be useful to show people that there were smart atheists (since it's got such an undeservedly bad reputation).

    I myself avoid searching for people who agree with me.

  2. No... what I'm actually saying is that what Hitchens really wants in his new enlightenment is unrealistic.

    We do need a new enlightenment which is based more in the population than solely in the intelligencia, but I really don't think that can be based solely on the problems of religion. I think it needs to be based on our philosophical and scientific advancement as well as simply meeting the needs of a modern society.

    As far as the finding of smart and accomplished people who agree with a position, I agree. It is basically self argument from authority, i.e convincing oneself because of the quality of someone else's bona fides. Overally, the arguments when discussing previous possible atheists just felt like it didn't have an eventual point.

    I also try to avoid the echo chamber. I have tried to be very criticial of Hitchens, and I believe I've succeeded in that.