Thursday, October 26, 2006

Shelley: atheistic champion of reason

It's common in some quarters to associate atheism with rationality. Sometimes people can make a decent case for this. But, for others, it's just a dull prejudice which, on occasion, moves them to say some silly things.

Here's an example from a Wired article on "the New Atheism" (via Paul in comments):
Oxford University is the capital of reason, its Jerusalem. Logic Lane, a tiny road under a low, right-angled bridge, cuts sharply across to the place where Robert Boyle formulated his law on gases and Robert Hooke first used a microscope to see a living cell. A few steps away is the memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here he lies, sculpted naked in stone, behind the walls of the university that expelled him almost 200 years ago -- for atheism.
So, Boyle, Hooke, and Shelley are cited as champions of reason? Well, Boyle and Hooke (both of whom were Christians, as it happens) are all right, though they're not the best a person could come up with.* But Shelley? The author implies that Shelley's atheism shows how rational he was. But Shelley was a great Romantic poet, part of a movement that was, in large part, a reaction to the unconditional veneration of reason (and associated ideals of the Enlightenment).

A quick glance at Shelley's The Necessity of Atheism (which led to his expulsion from Oxford) suggests two things about his thoughts on religion. First, the tract is hardly a showcase of reasoned argument. Second, Shelley wasn't an atheist:
This negation [that there is no God] must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.
The term "atheism" used to be used quite a bit more loosely than it is nowadays; nowadays, we'd probably say that Shelley was a pantheist. (Coincidentally, I'm currently reading On Religion, by another prominent Romantic, Schleiermacher. In that book, Schleiermacher defends a conception of religion which is probably more or less identical to Shelley's belief in a "pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe". Both Schleiermacher and Shelley seem to be fond of Spinoza, who was another famous pantheist who used to get labeled as an atheist.)

* It seems to me that Kant trumps pretty much everyone else in this regard. Of course, Kant doesn't fit into the setting of the article, because he taught at the University of Königsberg, not Oxford. (And this, I'd say, suffices to show that the University of Königsberg has more right to the title of "capital of reason" than does Oxford, based on this principle: If X is the place where Kant worked, then X is the capital of reason.) Plus, Kant was a theist (albeit not much of one).


Paul said...

You see, this is why I don't contribute much to online philosophical discussions. Boyle and Hooke I recall from Chem and Bio classes, but Kant is a dimly remembered specter in a ten-years-gone Poli 201 class. I gave an hours-long presentation on the damn guy and I still can't remember anything he said, except a vague recollection of something about duty. And I know more about Kant than more or less any other philosopher... Shelley is just the husband of Mrs. Frankenstein to me. Just don't have much of a head for philosophy - certainly not enough to keep up with you folk.

Now, if we want to debate nuclear non-proliferation or Vito Fossella's chances in the New York 13th, let me in. Otherwise I'm a bit out of my depth here.

Toby said...

This post was pretty incidental. It wasn't really meant as a response to the main substance of the article. (That might come later.)

And it wasn't meant to be a response to you in particular. As far as that goes: what do you think of Juan Cole's claim that (contrary to most media accounts) Ahmadinejad hasn't actually called for the violent destruction of Israel?

Paul said...

I think that Juan Cole, in almost every situation, can be taken at face value. It's not possible for an Iranian leader (or many other Middle Eastern leaders, for that matter) to get elected or govern without playing to some degree to anti-Israel sentiment. Not beign a Farsi speaker myself, I'll take Juan Cole's word for it. I've never really bought the prospect that Ahmadinejad was a deranged terrorist; his calls for the end of Israel, though certainly sincere, seem to be more of the someday-in-the-distant-future wishful thinking vein.

That said, there's no seriously denying that he and his government are vigorously pursuing nuclear weapons. While I don't think they'd ever consider using them against Israel (contrary to media alarmism) - the prospect is too nightmarish on too many other levels to be allowed.

As for how to stop it, that's another debate entirely.

Micah said...

Shelley certainly seems to have not only read his Hume, but swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

So, to keep going further afield, just because this thread is rather interesting in its own right, Paul: Why do you think Ahmedinejad wouldn't want to nuke Israel? Just because he wouldn't want to nuke anyone?

Paul said...

Because Ahmadinejad, for all his sound and fury, has never done anything to suggest he's not a rational thinker. From an Iranian point of view, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is a reasonable and entirely well-thought-out goal - particularly considering the way non-nuclear Iraq has been toppled while nuclear North Korea rests undisturbed.

His loud rhetoric plays well to the committed religious partisans who motivate much of Iranian politics despite comprising perhaps only 20% of the population. This is Ahmadinejad's base, and he has to tell them what they want to hear. This doesn't mean he doesn't believe it (he really does want Israel wiped off the map, as do many Persian and Arab fundamentalists). But he's also a shrewd politician and, as far as I can tell, has a functional grasp of the underlying strategic fundamentals. He knows that using a nuclear weapon against Israel (and it will be years before he has even one) will provoke cataclysmic retaliation from Israel and the US.

Ahmadinejad's overarching strategic goal is to transform Iran into a regional hegemon while maintaining the security and "purity" of the Islamic state - this is the central rationale for seeking nuclear weapons. Actually *using* any nukes would simply transform Iran into a radioactive crater. Ahmadinejad, though not exactly to sort of person we want at the head of a rising petropower, at least understands this much.

Micah said...

Well, yeah, I guess some measure of detente is going to come into play with nuclear weapons. I actually think the bomb was the biggest blessing in disguise for the second half of the 20th century: notice there were no world wars.