Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Atheists and stamp-collectors

Peter Hitchens reviews The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism by it A.C. Grayling. He refers to an interesting analogy by the author,
‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.
He finds the analogy wanting,
But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.

Professor Grayling is too pleased with himself to have realised this. Intoxicated with amusement at his own dud metaphor, he asks: ‘How could someone be a militant non-stamp-collector?’ I rather think he has written the manual for anyone who might like to take up this activity.
But I think Hitchens should have pushed this admittedly poor analogy. Atheists are the men who make use of the postal service; who frequently write and receive letters; yet claim stamps are both undesigned and have no purpose; and the postman is a fiction.


  1. I thought Hitchen's review was pathetic - certainly doesn't dissuade me from reading the book. Grayling's philosophy can be very innovative and clear.

    Jerry Coyne has an excellent response to Hitchen's poor argument about stamp collecting:

    "At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery. There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.

    The difference between stamp collecting and religion is that the former is a private activity, with no effect on anyone else.

    1. But what Jerry Coyne has failed to notice with his critique is he is merely further demonstrating why Grayling's original metaphor falls flat.

  2. Actually the analogy is more untrue than that. I believe that 'Atheism' is actually a poor term. The better term is 'Materialist'. While atheists do reject the notion of God, they are positively pushing a perspective of the world. Thus the negative defintion of "not believing in God" hides the fact that it is an all-encompassing worldview. Therefore, the atheist is doing more than simply not collecting stamps. He is actually engaging in an activity all of his own.

  3. Jc-Freak - it's not Grayling's metaphor - it's an old one he has picked up.

    My experience of people who use the term "materialist" is that they have no understanding of what it could possibly mean in today's world. When I ask them to define matter they prove completely inadequate - usually exposing their understanding as limited to a couple of centuries ago - "mechanical materialism." Completely inadequate. And of course, dishonest to attribute those sort of naive understandings to others.

    All that atheism means is non-belief in a god - an atheist can have a myriad of other beliefs or philosophies from the stupid to the profound - but not covered by that simple description.

    Peter Hitchen's himself exposes a completely out-of-this world understanding of atheism with his attack on Jerry Coyne's criticism of his review:

    "Once again, we see here the visceral hatred, rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics (and of the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club). This, of course, is caused by their own lack of confidence in their faith, though they lack the candour or even the self-awareness to admit it *is* a faith. The mildest doubts are treated as dreadful heresy, and the death of the supposed heretic is openly desired (and that desire is then sneakily denied when it is pointed out). No serious person argues in this spite-filled, spittle-flecked fashion. Do grow up."

    He just can't accept criticism, can he?

    In his reply Jerry shows how inadequate Hitchen's understanding of evolutionary science, and science in general, is.

    It's worth reading.

  4. JCF, I agree that the metaphor is poor, and I am fine with Hitchen's dismissal, I just wanted to push it: denying the source for your arguments so to speak.

  5. Ken, I did not find Coyne's critique of Hitchen's compelling, and he defended the stamp collecting analogy rather than dismiss it for the idiocy it is: deference to the creator of the universe and the source of all life is hardly akin to cataloguing a few stamps in your spare time.

    I read the other 2 articles as well. The next one was philosophically confused. The third one (which you linked to) had 9 items of which at least 8 were false or represented confusion over the issues.

  6. Bethyada, well I guess that's that then. You have ruled - without actually dealing with any of the issues.
    Confirmation bias anyone?

  7. I have ruled on what? The poor analogy or that Coyne is unconvincing? Do you wish me to address this in detail?

  8. bethyda - the extent of your "argument" is:

    "I did not find Coyne's critique of Hitchen's compelling,"
    "The next one was philosophically confused."
    "The third one (which you linked to) had 9 items of which at least 8 were false or represented confusion over the issues."

    These are simply declarations of your own position - without any support.

    My opinion is that I find your positions silly and prejudiced.

    That seems to be the extent of the discussion you are prepared to enter into. The level of intellectual debate around here! Jeez.



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