Friday, August 14, 2009

That's a Long Wait for That Whine

And sadly it hasn't cellared very well

Those paying attention to the (somehow) swirling controversy over the (somehow infamous) atheist Bus Ads may recall Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's recent response to them.

"Putting things on buses, as though that's going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on," Taylor chucked in an interview with Philosophy Now magazine. "A bus slogan! It's not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody."

Nearly three weeks after Taylor's comments, Justin Trottier and Michael Payton of the Centre for Inquiry have finally seen fit to respond to Taylor's comments, in an op/ed appearing in the religion section of the National Post:
"In a recent interview with Philosophy Now magazine, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, commented on the atheist bus-ad campaign, calling it 'odd' and 'pathetic' for atheists to use such tactics to promote their worldview. In the same interview, Taylor, who is a practising Roman Catholic, compared the backlash of atheists and secularists to the reactions of disgruntled English bishops after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in the 19th Century.

What Taylor failed to understand is that the bus campaign neither signals the emergence of a new reactionary movement nor is it catalyzed by a 'secularizing intelligentsia' that has woken up to realize the world isn't what it thought it would be. As Canada undergoes secularization, atheist and secularist organizations, which have long existed alongside religious ones as a quiet part of the fabric of this diverse country, have grown steadily in a process. The atheist bus campaign may be a symbolic coming of age, but the movement that spawned it is certainly not new or reactionary.
A great many people would rightly disagree.

What Trottier and Payton are neglecting to mention is that these ads have been supported, on both a philosophical level and monetarily (in Britain), by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has provided the so-called "new atheists" with not only the clarion call to be a good deal more public with their beliefs -- not in and of itself such a bad thing, necessarily -- but has also provided them with an intellectual template for the promotion of fundamentalist atheism.
"To the best of my knowledge, Taylor has never criticized edgy sloganeering from feminist or gay rights groups, nor the often offensive religious ads that have been on buses since buses first started operating in this country. Indeed, the ubiquitous religious ads are worth comparing to the bus campaign: Such advertising hardly adds to the diversity of Canada (given that religious organizations are already an acknowledged and welcome part of the public discourse). Atheist ads, on the other hand, have successfully added a major new dimension to the public debate."
Certainly, certain individuals would insist that it's unfair to criticize Charles Taylor for failing to criticize the "edgy sloganeering" of feminist or gay rights movements. Or not.

But Trottier and Payton's argument falls flat when one points out that, as far as "edgy sloganeering" goes, "There's probably no god" isn't all that edgy at all. This, of course is one of the details that has made complaints over the ads being offensive all the more pointless.

Taylor is under no obligation to criticize the edgy sloganeering (actual edgy sloganeering) of feminist or gay rights groups. Furthermore, these groups can often show the (usually) positive results this sloganeering has accumulated.

Atheists cannot say the same. As Taylor remarked, a bus ad telling people that there probably is no God isn't likely to win many converts.
"Thanks to such assertive advertising and other controversial and edgy manoeuvres, atheists have now emerged alongside the religious in the media — they are regular involved in radio and TV debates, public discussion on campuses and are even invited to contribute to newspaper projects like Holy Post.

Who would object to this trend in a country like Canada?

Finally, Taylor's comment that atheist ads are unlikely 'to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on' signals that he has been overly focusing on religious communities and their emphasis on conversion, rather than speaking with those involved in atheist or secularist associations.

Had he engaged the latter group, he might have understood that the atheist ads are not about crass conversion. They are a signal to the skeptic and the doubter to not be afraid to take the road toward rejection of religion. They are a challenge to everyone to engage in critical reflection of their deepest beliefs.
Trottier and Payton should know fully that this argument simply doesn't hold water.

What would the purpose of a "there's probably no God" ad be, other than to attempt to convince people that there is (probably) no God? An ad that was merely intending to "signal the skeptic and doubter to not be afraid" would likely be an ad that tells people "we don't believe in God. Deal with it," or even "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."

Even a skeptic or doubter who is prodded down the road to rejection of religion becomes a convert if they were religious to begin with.

While Trottier and Payton are right when they note that participation by atheists in religious debate is, overall, a positive thing, they sorely overestimate their ability to sell an argumentive bill of bad goods to Canadians.

Most Canadians aren't terribly offended by the bus ads -- as unoriginal as they are for groups that pride themselves on being "free thinkers" -- nor should they be. Judging from his criticism of the ads themselves, it seems that Charles Taylor isn't terribly threatened by them himself.

But if Justin Trottier and Michael Payton are going to wait three weeks to respond to Taylor's comments, one would have thought they would have done better for themselves -- after all, every modern atheist or even skeptic seems to fancy themselves an expert philosopher.

Apparently not.

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