After ‘New Atheism’, let’s re-humanise humanism
In his latest selection of essays, Raymond Tallis puts the case for wonder against the deterministic pseudoscience of modern atheists.
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
In his latest collection of essays, philosopher, physician and polymath Raymond Tallis covers a characteristically wide range, including McEwan and Chekhov, baldness, literary pornography and time travel. ‘Philosophy should begin and end in wonder’, runs Tallis’ opening line and, as he begins with a defence of philosophy and ends with a defence of atheism, and though there are more wonders to be found in the 26 intervening chapters, this review will concentrate on these two essays.
Tallis takes off from the polemic against ‘scientism’ launched in his last book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. In that work, he challenged the fashionable attempts to explain all human life in terms of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and the associated denial of human agency and elevation of anti-humanist prejudices. As he ironically sums up the apologetic ideology of ‘neurotruistics’ proclaimed in a thousand banner headlines: ‘The latest findings of neuroscience confirm what we already know.’ Here, Tallis begins with the claims of physicists to have arrived at a theory of everything, noting that they ‘can get away with metaphysical murder because their technologies are practically so useful’ (not something that the biologists, surveying the hubris of the Human Genome Project and the ‘decade of the brain’, can claim). Quite apart from the problem that the two most comprehensive theories of the material world put forward by physicists – relativity and quantum mechanics – are incompatible, much of the natural world, including matters such as the relationship between the living cell and the organism, our relationship to our own bodies, vision, memory, language, remain beyond scientific explanation.
As Tallis observes, the scientific gaze ‘chills as it amazes’, while philosophy ‘seeks to achieve most directly the state of wonder to which art brings us by indirection’, inviting us ‘to be surprised and puzzled by the things that lie closest to hand’. In place of the dogmatic certitudes of scientism, Tallis recommends a philosophy that ‘can be truly adult wondering, something that remains in touch with reality but puts into question what we accept without question, enabling a widened sense of possibility that is equally remote from the passive saucer-eyed wonder of the child and the idle wondering of the idly curious or even the narrow active institutionalised wondering of scientific inquiry’. This is the approach that Tallis pursued most fruitfully in 2011’s Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence, which examines the historic significance of the pointing finger, now more familiarly symbolised by those spongy hand extensions waved by Olympics ‘Games Makers’ than by the famous mural in the Sistine Chapel. In further essays in this collection, on consciousness, memory and time, Tallis, starting from the mundane, seeks to discover the transcendent.
In ‘Why I am an atheist’, Tallis briskly dismisses the familiar ‘bad’ reasons advanced by the popular ‘New Atheists’ – including claims of a lack of ‘evidence’, catalogues of the evils committed by religious institutions, the alleged obstructiveness of religion towards science, and the concern that religious doctrines scare people, especially children. His first ‘good reason’ is that ‘God unites in his person a risibly odd combination of properties’. Tallis argues that a concept of God that conflates ‘metaphysics and morality, physics and politeness’ certainly reflects ‘local and historical human preoccupations’, but amounts to an ‘ontological monstrosity’. He accepts that, though the existence of God cannot be demonstrated – or disproved – by logical argument, ‘we can place limits on a possibility’. For Tallis, a God who is minimal (and infinite), unchanging (yet engages in action), unbounded (yet distinct from creation), a being (but not brought into being), omniscient, omnipotent and good is an impossible entity.
One response to the impossibility of combining all these positive qualities in a single entity is the argument for an ‘apophatic’ God, one defined by negative characteristics, a deity which is ‘unthinkable’. This theology, with a long tradition in the Eastern Orthodox churches, has recently been endorsed by distinguished Christian writers such as Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson (whose Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is a brilliant defence of human subjectivity against the ‘parascience’ of the New Atheists). But Tallis insists that the burden of proof lies on the believers: to deny ‘an unthinkable collection of concepts’ is ‘far less presumptious than to maintain, as theists do, that the impossible is possible’.
Though not a believer, Tallis pays due respect to religion and its traditions. The idea of God, he writes, is ‘the greatest – the biggest and most terrible – idea that humans have ever had’. It is the only idea that has ‘a depth equal to our condition as knowing animals’ surrounded by uncertainty, yet facing the ultimate certainty of death. God ‘is the place where our unique sense of the hidden comes together’.
In his appreciation of religious faith, Tallis echoes the approach of Jonathan Ree in his series of articles and reviews in the New Humanist. In response to the New Atheists, Ree, too, is conscious of the need to ‘avoid taking our atheism to puritanical extremes’ and ‘to remind ourselves that most of what we prize in human culture has been handed down to us by religious believers’. Ree emphasises that the importance of religion does not merely lie in art, music and literature – or in the ‘vast tracts of natural science built on theistic assumptions’ – but also in the contribution of religion in relation to ‘everyday practical issues’, such as the ethics of mourning or of reverence.
Tallis and Ree stand for a humanism distinct from that of the New Atheists, one that rejects religion not as an end in itself but as the beginning of a quest for truth based on an open-ended orientation to experience, including religious experience. They call us to the quest to humanise humanism though the defence of subjectivity that is everywhere under attack, not least from the ‘scientism’ (or ‘parascience’) of the New Atheists.
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