Friday, June 15, 2007

Rorty among the believers

Naturally, there have been many posts about Rorty's death on philosophy-related blogs, like here and here and here (which even links to little old me). But I'm impressed by how often the news has been mentioned on blogs which don't have all that much to do with philosophy. I knew on some level that Rorty was fairly popular outside of philosophical circles, but I've still been surprised. (Some philosophers would say that this is owing to the fact that Rorty's appeal was limited to the philosophically ignorant. Which, I suppose, I was when I first became a Rorty fan.)

In particular, I'm surprised by how often he's been mentioned, and treated with respect and even admiration, on religion-oriented blogs like SoMA, Jesus Politics (in a series of links), Levellers (link via Jesus Politics), and the conservative First Things (link via Levellers). Rorty was an outspoken atheist who clearly didn't see religion as any sort of personal option, thought that it was about time that modern culture grew up and got over the religious urge (and here he included secular imitations of religion--e.g., what he saw as a tendency to treat scientists as a replacement priesthood), and took a hard line against there being any role for religion in the public political sphere. Yet there are apparently quite a few theists who found him worth reading, and worth engaging on something more than a merely polemical level. (I have in the past detected some distinctly Rorty-flavoured vocabulary coming out of the local divinity school. Of course, I'm unconvinced that the divinity school is particularly religious, so that might not mean much.)

It might even be possible that he managed to convince some theists to reconsider the wish that God had more of a place in political discourse. Well, that's pure speculation on my part, but he presented a good case (the same case that you'll find in Rawls or Habermas--but with better rhetoric). I'm thinking that maybe the "new atheists" should take some notes, assuming they have any interest in going beyond mere polemics, and saying something potentially useful. From the Levellers post:
As a believer, I also appreciate having atheistic dialogue partners like Rorty, rather than the current wave of angry atheists (fundamentalists of unbelief!) like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
But I suppose an "angry atheist" might think that this just shows that Rorty was too soft on religion.

(Incidentally, as I've said before, I don't think Dennett belongs on that list. The basic idea of the book--that the phenomenon of religion should be subject to empirical examination, and that the religious shouldn't shy away from that--sounds fine to me, as far as it goes. Though I suppose I should probably actually read the thing before I really pass judgment on it. Dennett was another big philosophical influence on me, back in the day, so I'm not entirely unbiased here.)


MisterEff said...

I'm reading the Dennett book right now. It's ok. Not as polemical as some of the others you've mentioned, but it seems a tad...I'm not sure what. It seems a lot like a pretty good just-so story about religion. A lot of conjeture and unsubstantiated hypotheses. Still, he's a pleasure to read.

Tucker said...

FYI, as far as I've known, just-so stories are the only stories Dennett knows. Kind of his m.o. Take 'em or leave 'em.

Toby said...

I hope to read Dennett's book sometime this summer. I like reading him, so long as no one's forcing me to try to figure out how to turn what he writes into an argument.