Caring About Reality is "Crude"

So apparently, Andrew Sullivan thinks atheist epistemology is “crude” because we care about whether the things we believe actually happened.

I think my brain just tried to eat itself.

I’d rant more, but Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels already tore him about sixty new assholes, and I don’t think there’s anything left to rend.

Caring About Reality is "Crude"
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6 thoughts on “Caring About Reality is "Crude"

  1. 1

    Also posted at Butterflies and Wheels:

    That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It isn’t real but it is true? And if you’re going to say that any of it – like resurrection – actually happened, how can you say that the other miracles didn’t actually happen but are true? And if there were no miracles, and there was no resurrection, then there is no Christianity. You can still derive a moral philosophy – not going to comment on its overall value or virtues and flaws – out of the supposed teachings of Jesus but you don’t have a religion. If people are going to strip out everything that makes religion a religion, why not just not have a religion? Why go to such lengths to have some weird mystical notion of “these are just stories that didn’t really happen but they’re TRUE therefore God.” It totally baffles me.

  2. 3

    Why go to such lengths to have some weird mystical notion of “these are just stories that didn’t really happen but they’re TRUE therefore God.” It totally baffles me.

    It makes more sense if you change that to: “these are just stories that didn’t really happen, but my ‘Christian heritage’ is an important part of who I am, therefore they are true to me.”

    It is possible to have a coherent epistemology that accepts fiction, like the complete works of Shakespeare, as true. For example, it is possible to argue that “Mercutio was killed by Tybalt” is a true statement, despite the fact that they are both fictional characters. It is also possible for Mercutio’s death to be meaningful in my life.

    On the other hand, this is just me being charitable. Sullivan never clearly defines his terms. He also overreaches considerably with his argument, showing that he likely has a poor understanding of postmodern epistemology. And then, of course, there’s the fact that he’s obnoxious.

  3. 5

    I think that the most charitable reading of Sullivan’s real/true distinction is something akin to Plato’s “noble lie”, where a story/parable/fable/myth that is literally false (the tortoise and the hare never really had a race) expresses a moral or practical truth (i.e. a proposition that accurately describes some aspect of the world – such as “It is better to work in a slow and steady manner than through fickle bursts of high productivity”). Talking about “non-real truths” is, then, an incredibly awkward way of talking about moral or metaphysical truths.

    But in invoking a metaphorical, non-literal interpretation of religious mythology, Sullivan cuts the floor out from under himself, and looks rather silly the whole time.

    I have no problem with this metaphorical approach in principle. Metaphorical and moral truths expressed through stories are not a problem for nontheists. Our epistemology is not so crude as to rule out metaphorical expression of insight into the human condition. Indeed, there are lots of great truths that can be clearly and cleverly conveyed through story, metaphor, and other artistic modes of expression.

    Neither is our metaphysics so crude. Sullivan seems to think atheism rules out anything that can’t be described in narrow empirical terms. But how many atheists claim that the only things that can properly said to truly exist (“be real”) are those that are strictly physical. This is a strawman of the most hay-filled degree. How many times do we need to point out that atheism is not the same as overly-simplistic and crass materialism? We recognize love, beauty, and morality as really real (really!), and yes, we often express there truths through non-literal means, that is, through parables, stories, myths, and metaphors.

    What Sullivan misses is that atheists don’t deny the metaphorical side of religious mythology. Indeed, it’s the only kind of interpretation we think even could be viable in most cases. The problem is that many of us find the metaphors of Christianity to be utter rubbish. There are better ways to understand and express the human condition.

    It’s not that atheists reject morality, it’s that many of us find the various moral systems at the heart of so much of Christianity to be ethically bankrupt, and the source of far more harm than good.

    Really, the only things that are crude here are Sullivan’s presentation of the noble lie, and his understanding of “atheist epistemology”, “atheist metaphysics”, and “atheist morality”.

  4. 6

    Wow. The only way “true but not real” could work is if you talk about works of fiction. As in, a fictional story might not be factually true as something that really happened, but still tell us something “true” about our society, human nature or whatever.
    And, yeah, I gues you can read the bible (or parts of it) that way: it holds interesting truths about the time and society of the time it was written, the story of Lazarus tells us about our longing for being able to overcome death, the story of the virgin Mary about the pervasiveness of the virgin-whore dichotomy and to what lengths people will go to overcome it… So, lots of interesting truths – but none of them includes the existence of god.

    And, seriously, the contradictions in a text are supposed to be evidence for “god’s entrance into human history”, because they are the only way to express something inexpressible? This is the bullshit one of my teachers pulled when we pointed to the absurdity of “Jesus is both man and god – not half and half, but both fully”. To put it simply: the contradictory, hypocritic ramblings of, say, Rush Limbaugh are not proof for the existence of god.

    Finally I’d like to point to Dawkins’ “no relativists at 30.000 feet”-argument: I’d really like to see which plane Sullivan would choose to fly with – one designed by engineers and mechanics that is able to fly accordings to FACTS of aerodynamics, or one that I built based on my personal TRUTH that it looks like something that should be able to fly.

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