At least not if the atheist is acclaimed Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn. From a Blackburn essay:
Some years ago, without realizing what it might mean, I accepted a dinner invitation from a Jewish colleague for dinner on Friday night. I should say that my colleague had never appeared particularly orthodox, and he would have known that I am an atheist. However, in the course of the meal, some kind of observance was put in train, and it turned out I was expected to play along—put on a hat, or some such. I demurred, saying that I felt uncomfortable doing something that might be the expression of some belief that I do not hold, or of joining a “fellowship” with which I felt no special community, and with which I would not have any particular fellow-feeling beyond whatever I feel for human beings in general. I was assured that what it would signify, if I went through with the observance, was not that I shared the world views or beliefs of my host, or wished myself to identify uniquely with some particular small subset of humanity, but only that I respected his beliefs, or perhaps his stance. I replied that in that case, equally, I could not in conscience do what was required. The evening was strained after that. But, I argued to myself, why should I “respect” belief systems that I do not share? I would not be expected to respect the beliefs of flat earthers or those of the people who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a recycling facility for dead Californians, and killed themselves in order to join it. Had my host stood up and asked me to toast the Hale-Bopp hopefuls, or to break bread or some such in token of fellowship with them, I would have been just as embarrassed and indeed angry. I lament and regret the holding of such beliefs, and I deplore the features of humanity that make them so common.
I suppose it takes a certain kind of academic brilliance to make behaving like a pluperfect ass into an occasion of standing on principle. As Niall, our London reader who shared this with me, writes:
This syllogistic and legalistic response — simultaneously thoughtless and overthought — seems both entirely typical of our rationalistic age, and above all just rather rude and graceless, especially given the Jewish tradition of hospitality and welcome. Maybe it’s my upbringing as an impeccably middle-class Englishman, but if you accept someone’s hospitality then you accept their way of doing things under their roof, within reason. Blackburn wasn’t being asked to read from the Torah, or have himself circumcised, or go to shul. It sounds like he was basically being asked to participate in some form of thanksgiving. Any guest who came to my home for dinner and ostentatiously opted out of our saying grace would probably not be invited back!
I suppose there is a limit to how far one can go in affirming beliefs that you think false, but it seems to me to lie somewhat beyond participation in rituals of thanksgiving for food. Indeed, for an atheist, there is less excuse than for a religious believer. As a Christian, I might hem and haw about an Islamic grace which denied the Trinity, but if you don’t believe there’s any God, whether one person, three, or a dozen, why bother to object at all — except perhaps from a sense of self-importance?
True. This, by the way, is the kind of thing one gets used to if one spends time around people with Asperger’s. They can be ruthlessly logical, and therefore socially inept. Perhaps Blackburn is limited in this way.
I had one experience with Blackburn, who led a seminar during my 2009 Templeton-Cambridge fellowship. During the Q&A, I attempted to ask him a question about science and religion. I can’t remember the precise nature of the question, but I seem to recall it had to do with Kierkegaard and epistemology. The philosopher refused to entertain the question because, as he explained to me, it contained within it the idea that religion might be a valid way of knowing. I tried to rephrase the question, but he insisted that the question was meaningless because it did not originate from the premises he recognized as valid. I was first struck not by how closed the man’s mind was, but by how rude, how arrogant, was his response. It was along the lines of, “How dare you expect me to take such a question seriously?” Kierkegaard, apparently, is not to be taken seriously because he was a religious believer. Useful to get that learned.
That said, I do commend the paper to you, because Blackburn makes a particularly good point in his analysis of the uses of religion. He says that people who wish to defend the claims of religion by saying that they don’t mean anything literal, but are rather expressions of the hopes, dreams, and desires of people who wish to believe these things are fooling themselves. In other words, he says that religious liberals are self-deluded. See below the jump:
I do not think the expressive account of religion could possibly be the whole story. This is because I doubt whether religion could perform this amplifying function if expressive theology were accurate to the sociology or the sentiments of the ordinary believer. In other words, I believe that the amplification only works because in the ‘somewhat unaccountable’ state of mind there is a fair mix of onto-religion. The thought that God wants us to take the land or punish the women could not get its extra punch if everyone knew, and knew that everyone knew, that it was no more than a symbolic or metaphorical expression of the desire for the land or the repression of women that we have decided upon by ourselves. The idea of authority coming down, being delivered from outside, is crucial to the working. I believe it may be crucial even if we cannot find anyone who puts their hand on their heart and admits to believing the ontological bit. It might still affect them as an imagining that they cannot shake—and just as imaginings which we know to be such can all the same be possible sources of emotions such as terror, so they can form a possible source of self-righteousness, and its associated respect creep.
My sense is that Blackburn may believe in what I think is a false choice: either believe everything in Scripture is literally true, or believe that it is all equally untrue. There is no room for interpretation, in this scheme. Whatever Blackburn personally believes, he’s no doubt right that for religion to have any authority, there has to be at least a residual belief in the literal truth of the myth. This is why our contemporary liberal forms of religion — a religion that tries to make the claims of faith palatable by putting them in quotation marks, so to speak — is doomed to fail. It has no staying power. Indeed, Blackburn later in the paper calls it a “depressing” finding of social anthropology that religious communities have a lot more staying power than others.
Expressive theology is rightly an object of suspicion. People who go in for it sound like atheists in dog collars. It sounds as though they have discovered a nice cheat. You need only defend religious sayings as a kind of fiction, which is not too hard, for who can object to fictions? But then you can go ahead and use the sayings with all the force of conviction and belief. You have relieved yourself of epistemic obligations, but kept the old fire and fury. And, as I have said, I think that a cheat is embodied in the whole procedure: the function of the language (the legitimation of attitudes and attitudes to attitudes) actually depends on ontological imaginings that the position officially disavows.