04 March 2013

The problem is when stamp collecting isn’t just about collecting stamps

This is another A C Grayling-related post; turns out he has written a new book. Defenders of religion will likely not be persuaded by the arguments contained within Grayling’s latest work, but hopefully fence-sitting readers will be convinced of the superior values of humanism. One such religious sympathiser who clearly wasn’t impressed with Grayling’s book is Peter ‘brother-of-Christopher’ Hitchens. The younger Hitchens is in many ways the ideological opposite of his more (in)famous brother. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

‘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.
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.

The (by now clich├ęd) point that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby was meant to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim that atheists are as ‘dogmatic’ or ‘faithful’ as religious believers in precisely the same way. That’s rubbish, of course. But Hitchens’s argument – that the comparison is indeed inaccurate, but only because atheists are often mean and obnoxious, unlike non-stamp collectors – sounds reasonable. I admit that immediately after reading the passage quoted above, I nodded my head conceding that he had a point.

But not so fast. Jerry Coyne wrote a post responding to Hitchens’s negative book review, and found a serious flaw in his argument. Coyne rebuts:

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.