In a recent post responding to a blog review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition by atheist blogger Richard Carrier, I made the point that his own contribution to the book does not rise above the level of pedantic lecturing on a theorem of dubious value to engage the literary matter.
Carrier has claimed on a number of occasions that his approach is revolutionary, a…
Several colleagues will be responding on this site in a week to claims made by atheist blogger and amateur "logician" Richard Carrier concerning the historical Jesus (contra Bart Ehrman) and his abuse of Bayes's theorem. In the meantime, this from 2011.
The elections are over. The election is upon us. Long live the Democratic Process! And a tip of the hat to the founding fathers, who in their prescience must have known that the fundamental metaphor for twenty-first century politics would be an endless and pointless NASCAR race.
Now we sigh deeply, wipe away a wanton tear, and try to adjust to the fact that barely two years after the election of Barack Obama (
“The gods must die so that humanity might live.” (The Buddha)
Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world. Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle. Many people who regard themselves as religious believe it as well. The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.
The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it. To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support.
Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water. The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion. Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any. Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor. We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world. As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our promethean effort to understand.
There is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule. The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history.
Unfortunately this is the narrow view often assumed by people who believe religion has nothing to teach us–when of course what they may be saying is that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created. The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.
Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now. But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago. Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history. Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.” A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error. Yet that is what religion once required of us.
For these reasons the human prospect will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route. But it will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of our moral intelligence. The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82). The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.” That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.
UPDATE: Apologies are due to Greta Christina who was in fact ranked by an atheist website as one of the top ten popular atheist bloggers. rjh
Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
The Missouri boy in Connecticut
HO remembers their Huckleberry Finn? In chapter 19, Huck, Tom and Jim, afloat on the Mississippi River, meet up with two grifters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who claim to be exiled European royalty.
Their scam is going from town to town performing makeshift “scenes” from Shakespeare’s plays, then escaping with their lives when the rube public hear declamations like this:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
After spending a few hours with the scoundrels, Huck reflects,
It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble.
But (in one of the great mysteries of the book) Huck continues to aid and abet, pastes their playbills on buildings in towns along the river, enjoys swapping tales with them on the raft, and even saves their skin when they have a close shave.
The Duke and the Dauphin are Mark Twain’s contribution to a a literary stereotype that goes back to plays like Our American Cousin (an English drama of 1858) that pit a pampered and brainless British aristocracy against the dull, stammering but basically honest Yankee (Lord Dundreary and Asa Trenchard, respectively, in the play): Americans are naive, optimistic, uncultured, energetic and gullible; the British are cunning, cynical, indolent and intellectually dissipated. America is a good place to make a buck by selling wares that His Majesty’s subjects either can’t afford or simply don’t have much use for.
Things like atheism. I recently cited the statistics for religion in Britain. If you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is not an encouraging thing to note that only about 36% of Britons claim to be religious and a higher number claim not to believe in God.
Compare these to statistics for atheism in America. The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found that 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion (“nones”), of which only 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%). If you are an atheist-front organization, also not an encouraging picture, no matter how you fiddle the stats to make “No religious preference” or “Sorry, really in a hurry” survey-takers into atheists. Nones further have to be adjusted for mothers whose safety clasp just failed on their child-seat doing a drive-by after school pickup, and shoppers standing in line at the exchange counter on December 26th.
If I were an atheist strategy specialist there is at least one biblical story I would need to believe was literally true: the saga of David and Goliath. I’d want to know how a very little movement can bring down a cultural behemoth like American religion by throwing a few stones.
This led me to reflect on how the new atheism arrived in America and who is in charge of pasting the playbills on the storefronts.
OT to deny the contribution of several authors to the “movement”–Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens–I think it’s safe to say that the style of the new atheism extrudes from the work of Richard Dawkins. The paradigmatic shift from detente to full scale assault against religion as an undifferentiated mass of human error and superstitious thinking belongs to him: Why should we live with ideas that we find absurd and repugnant, or indulge people who fantasize the truth of their beliefs into norms that other people ought to follow? Gloves off, me hearties: Error should be resisted, countered, argued against, corrected, defeated–not coddled.
And what is the truth? Science is the truth.
The God Delusion (2006) and the wave of comment it created is now yesterday’s news. To remind myself of how I felt in 2006 while reading it, I talked myself (under the influence of several spirituous incentives) into re-reading it, and, much to my surprise, I liked it better the second time around–as a book rather than a best selling icon. It was a better book than Daniel Dennett’s really very sloppy Breaking the Spell, which I reviewed soon after it appeared in 2007. But then I forced myself to re-read a few of the reviews I had archived over the past several years, and this one by Murrough O’Brien from The Independent flagged itself. Just after pointing out Dawkins’s abuse of Bertrand Russell’s famous “Teapot Argument,” O’Brien notes.
Some of [Dawkins's] arguments are old atheistic chestnuts, and how merrily they crack in the roasting pan. The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. Dawkins squirts this sachet of puerile pap (most of us had outgrown it before hitting double figures) over the whole book, to inadvertently comic effect. He writes: “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” The short response to that is a simple “Why?” The long one goes something like this: the question “Who made God?”only makes sense if one assumes that the Divine nature is subject to a kind of inverted evolutionary process by which the complex is preceded by the still more complex, but why on earth should we assume this? Why should God be subject to any version of a biological theorem? Why not the laws of physics, or of chemistry?
But then the real punch, trilitorally speaking, of The God Delusion was panache. Dawkins was an extrovert and spellbinder compared to Dennett, with his Darwinesque looks, and the singularly incoherent Harris, whose work Scott Atran, a serious researcher and cognitivist,called playacting at science and politically pernicious while also getting basic anthropological theories backwards, like his famous wowser concerning the work of Franz Boas.
The real success story of the new atheism is that it was bought and sold after being intellectually panned by almost all the cognoscenti who weren’t atheist activists. In fact, as the circle closed around a tightly knit cadre of God-opposers, opposing God became virtually the sole criterion for what, in their parochial view, counted for anthropology, archaeology, sociology and the study of religion–about which all of the four (check the footnotes) were blissfully ignorant.
And I mean that in the most damning sense. Virtually all of the credible reviews alleged it of Dawkins, and the others didn’t fare much better outside the atheist camp. The reflexive answer was to accuse anyone who opposed the unscientific, malformed, and totally ignorant premises of these books of being “faitheists” and to say that dispute would be treated as treason against the higher purposes for which the books had been written.
If that didn’t stick, sane voices were denounced as jealous voices, as though reputable scholars wished they had written historical and philosophical travesty under their own names.
The repetitive accusation against Dawkins–that he was attacking a straw man, a sort of tertia res religiosa that did not exist–became the new framing device for every critique of new atheist tactics: its critics (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) were attacking a form ofatheism that did not exist. Sensible, if complex views like those of John Gray on the origin of humanitarian impulses, were conveniently set aside in favour of a new recipe for a scientific-evolutionary morality that floats above historical causality: Wrote Atran,
There is an irony of history that completely escapes Harris and other new atheists in their evangelical quest for a global morality rooted in scientific truth. As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place….Harris’s own messianic moral absolutism, based on devotion to “truth,” leads to some rather nutty proposals that defy common sense and are justified by made-up history that is patently untrue.
So much for Harris’s pop-psychology, or rather MRI-enhanced pop-psychology. Dawkins and Dennett were serious academics working out-of-field but who seem honestly to have believed that the methodologies developed in other disciplines were easily mastered and just as easily dismissed–a cavalier attitude toward critique that bordered on Dominican hubris at best and anti-intellectualism at the deep end.
Always guided by the nature of the game, Hitchens, the only true intellectual and by far the best-read of the group, was in it for the ride. All four looked as though they had powered their way through their task by reading the Cliff’s Notes to Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, and in some cases not even those carefully enough.
From any objective reading of the serious reviews, their mission to God’s kingdom was an epic fail in terms of what they brought home from the journey. It was all finished, critically speaking, in 2006 when Terry Eagleton said,
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
Dawkins’s precedence in ignoring the opposition by denying they constituted serious oppositionbecame a trademark of the movement he put into place. But despite the discounted value of the books as credible intellectual proposals, there were plenty of people prepared to spread the mission stateside, where Dawkins’s accent, his unabashed science-thumping and his wares were more valuable than in Blighty, where people had been giving up on God (in droves) for decades without his help.
What hath anti-God wrought: The new atheism, which was really an American phenomenon, like Spam.
One can’t simply blame Richard Dawkins for creating the kind of poster-pasters his leadership had produced in Gotchaland. He didn’t ordain them, exactly. That would be like blaming Jesus for founding the church. Is a rock star guilty of the excesses of his fans? Of course not.
But it is undeniable that new atheism would never have congealed, to the extent it ever congealed, if American neo-Darwinist soldiers and a few strays hadn’t taken on the fight. Dawkins, as Garry Wolff commented in 2006, was very old news in England when he decided to try plowing the fundamentalist pastures of America. And soldiers there were, just waiting for the right fight and marching orders. And a good thing too: Dawkins himself came off relatively unsullied by these battles, while his American promoters didn’t mind a little mud.
Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a biology professor at Chicago. His only book, Why Evolution is True (2009), is his contribution to the anti-intelligent design debate and carries endorsements from Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker and others in the atheist-neo-Darwinist klatch. Dawkins reviewed the book for Atheist News in 2009. Hardly anyone would fault Coyne for his attempts to combat the anti-evolution fever that grips the establishment that is failed American science education. I for one think Jerry Coyne has struck a blow for rationality and common sense by writing this lucid book. It’s a shame therefore that Coyne buys into the Dawkinsincompatibility model that makes religion the sworn enemy of science and science the salvation of the race. It is frankly embarassing, after two hundred years of the scientific study of religion, to hear a scientist saying things like this:
In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.
Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did. Why does the perfectly reasonable opposition to religious craziness have to descend to this caricaturing of the history of religion? And some information: the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most venerable in the nation–after which the Chicago School of Religionswissenschaft got its name (and turned Europeans green with envy at its methods)–one notably lacking in Irish elves–is located at 1025 E. 58th Street. Any number of evolution-accepting scholars–including Martin Riesebrodt would be happy to have a chat and set you straight. Of course, if you really believe that a degree in biology trumps every other discipline, then why bother?
P Z Myers. Winner of the 2009 “Humanist of the Year Award,” a lapse of judgement for which the American Humanist Association will burn like cotton floss in a non-existent hell for their abuse of the word humanist,
P Z Myers is cut from the same neo-Darwinist fabric as Dr Coyne, but without the credentials. That means he is anti-intelligent design, pro-evolution, and happy to be known as the Don Rickles of the Dawkins theatre troupe. He’s the purveyor of the award-winning science blogPharyngula where he specializes in calling people who don’t agree with him stupid and moronic.
To his credit, Myers has published no book of popular or scientific merit though if his rep holds up as the sun goes down on new atheism he does have a collection of his favourite anecdotes and outrages coming out in 2012. But this does not stop him from being the voice to which most of the young neo-atheists pay heed. I was reminded last year, after being told by P Z that I needed to be more respectful to the cause, that he deserves to be called Dr Myers. I hadasked why someone who teaches in a university could not distinguish between free speech and inciteful behaviour–like that associated with Koran-burning Florida yahoo Terry Jones.
Myers, who describes himself as a moral nihilist, writes like this:
There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion. Webster Cook smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it. This isn’t the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. …. It is just a cracker! So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls.
So, God love him, P Z Myers got the chance to kick the pope in the balls by spearing a consecrated host (eucharist is the name of the sacrament you fucking ex-Lutheran moron–whoops, just resorting to idiom) and a few other factotums. For this he is famous. And humanist of the year.
But let me just say this about the evolutionary, neo-Darwinist, religion sucks, anti-intelligent design phalanx of new atheism: If ever atheism got dumber and less impressive, it is in the work of this dissolute insult- monger. If there were ever an occasion for a serious scholar like Dawkins to say, this is over the top, P Z Myers is that opportunity. So far–nothing. The clowns are now the whole circus.
Greta Christina. I’m not sure whether Greta is a headlight, because there can only be two and she will see any reference to three as some sort of weird sexual joke. That’s the problem. She sees everything as a weird sexual joke. Ranked as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, Christina exemplifies in her work the increasing influence of LGBTQ trend toward identifying atheism and humanism with victimization and social marginalization. She can be amusing, but needs to take on some serious issues, such as why radical feminism and lesbianism are often perceived to be anti science when new atheism is purely devoted to an evolutionary model that, frankly, is not friendly to special pleading for biological exceptionalism based on sex. Didn’t understand that sentence? You need to.
Mark Twain just needed Huck and Tom to paste the handbills to the walls. Dawkins has a small retinue of Americans who will do him favours and not ask for money.
Ophelia Benson, host of Butterflies and Wheels, has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen. I still regard her as a fair-broker who needs to rise above the temptation to turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to the grousers who loiter around her kitchen table. I mean campfire.
The ex-Revd Eric MacDonald touts his website as being devoted to death with dignity. I’m for it; a close colleague and collaborator of mine, Gerald Larue, was one of the founders of theHemlock Society. Unfortunately MacDonald has become just another horn in the bagpipe blown by Coyne and Myers. His constant theme is that theology is not worth the trouble. That’s an odd enough thesis for an atheist. More troubling is the fact that MacDonald doesn’t seem to know bloody anything about the academic study of religion and pretends that there is no difference between what he read as a young priest (mainly liberal post-Tillichian pap) and what’s being taught to PhD candidates in Religion at Harvard. It’s all ignorant bravado, but unfortunately some people read him, people like…
Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician qua neo-Darwinian atheist who teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. Rosenhouse [sic] essentially does book reviews of things that cross his path and passes judgment on what he doesn’t like, usually anything that rises an inch beyond cultural Judaism. Of Rabbi Alan Lurie’s recent HuffPo piece on religion, Rosenhouse opined,
We’re really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I’m not sure what he means by ‘the histories,’ but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world’s various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world’s ‘mystical teachings’ should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces.
To which I say…Go on. Suggest already. KFCs, meth clinics, museums, failing public libraries, Starbuck’s. You choose. America, as we know, is awash in sacred spaces so the fewer of these antiquities the better. Let’s use the real estate for what we really hold sacred. I sometimes wonder why people whose only contribution to blogdom consists of sentences like “Most religious rituals leave me beyond cold,” find themselves titillating? Can’t he do this onFacebook and get a thousand likes to boot?
0 many other poster-pasters, but time is up and I hope my case is made.
The new atheism was as American as apple pie, which was invented in fourteenth century England. Just try finding apple pie in twenty-first century England.
HERE is a final question. Why does this matter? Why, more specifically, does it matter to me–why does someone who considers himself an unbeliever care about this subject at all? –So what if the ranters are ranters, that they pay no attention to serious religious studies scholarship, ignore the realities of two hundred years of academic inquiry into the foundations of religious thought and dismiss tons of modern scientific investigation into the nature of religious belief as worthless?
Jason Rosenhouse says, presumably with a straight face and clear conscience, he doesn’t know what “scientism” is. Naturally his question, in the ringaround-the-rosey style of this support group, is enthusiastically echoed by Coyne.
Let me offer my assistance. Scientism is a form of nominalism (q.v.) that collapses important methodological differences and qualities into a single term (“science”) as though the term had an existence apart from the methods that comprise it. Scientism is the belief that “science” is a supervening mode of knowing that can be imposed willy nilly on other disciplines whose methods have had a different organic evolution, yet methods normally just as true to their subject matter as biology or physics, for example, have been to their own. Most of the concrete results in historical studies biblical studies, the history of religion, textual studies (paleography), linguistics and assorted disciplines have been based on methods specific to their objects.
To deny the authority and validity of specific methods without knowing them is just as heinous an offense against reason as a fundamentalist’s rejection of a theory–like evolution–that he doesn’t fully understand. That is what scientism is and what it means and why it must be rejected. As Wittgenstein was finally forced to conclude, the belief that science is the final arbiter of what constitutes truth (or true propositions) is as “glaringly metaphysical” as the premises of traditional philosophy.
The willful ignorance of the new atheists matters because it makes almost impossible the work of serious religion scholars who have no commitment to belief, but who happen to feel that the study of religion belongs to and is inestimably important to the study of history and culture.
In the long run, real science acknowledges failed experiments and the humbling contribution of being wrong as a way of moving toward the right answers. It can’t rest like a medieval pope on its teaching authority. The “scientism” of the new atheists consists in a failed experiment in the misapplication of method. Richard Dawkins has been fond of saying that religion is the trivialization of complexities, a default position favoured by “dims” who just don’t get science. The scientistic worldview favoured by his promoters has relied heavily on the trivialization of appropriate methods for understanding religion. Given the starting point of his argument, there can be no other outcome.
The way forward in any useful critique of religion does not depend on activism disguised as judgement, opinion hiding behind tangential scholarly pursuits, or defenses of science and reason that are inherently unreasonable in themselves.
Iwill always write about religion because that is what I was trained to do. My field is the study of religion. It is an interesting and important field. It deserves to be treated seriously because religion has been influential in shaping ideas and society since before there were alphabets and wedges to tell us its story. Like science– like everything, as Nietzsche and common sense tell us–it is antinomous: that means it has opposition built into it– good and bad, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong. The Persians may have been the first to see this, but I am not sure. The Chinese saw it too, the Greeks certainly did, and the Manicheans of Augustine’s day–and Augustine himself. The primal choice is a choice about the way in which something beautiful—a fruit, let’s say, symbolically—can be used for good or bad. When religion has talked about good and evil, it has sometimes failed to see itself in its own dichotomy, as though ‘religion’ was the cure and not the essence of the tension. But in my opinion religion is the revelation of the tension between salvation and destruction. It cannot escape from itself. It cannot pretend to be all good since there is evil in it. It is not all good. And it is not all evil. That has to be determined, like apples and atoms, by the way people use it.
But I have decided to stop writing about atheism. Because I believe that atheism is to religion what counting on your fingers is to mathematics. It works, to a point. But it ends where the serious questions and complexities begin.
I suppose that some people will find this an odd statement. Atheists sometimes like to see mathematics and science as particular ‘strengths’ in their war against religion. But they are wrong. The scientific –ballistic-evolutionary argument against religion is not a reasoned assessment at all but an assault based on assumptions that have not changed much since the nineteenth century. It presupposes that science, adequately explicated, contains a knock down disproof of religious faith. I am not going to pronounce on the silliness of that assumption except to say that no one as yet can define what ‘adequately explicated’ can possibly mean, and until we can science offers at best scattered and tentative evidence against elements of religious faith that can just as easily be arrived at through common sense—or systematic theology.
The use of science by atheists has not really touched “religion” at all. It has been a paltry, casuistic attack on particular cherry picked ideas taken largely from the Judaeo Christian corpus of beliefs–out of which atheism sprang. And it sprang from this corpus because Christianity created the environment for doubt when it created the opportunity for faith. The narrowness of the atheist critique and its carping on ideas and doctrines that the modern world and shopping malls have rendered obsolete illustrates the poverty of its message.
Atheists in America especially want to think of themselves as plain-spoken, hard-headed, pragmatic, scientifically-inclined, reason-abiding savants who just want to let people know that they are right and religious folk are wrong.
But this shortcutting is almost always an example of ignorance or maybe evidence that they lack a passport and have not traveled much. Why be curious about what other people believe if all belief is rancid, simplistic, retardant nonsense? Most of world history and the study of culture becomes optional, if not useless, when we make scientific sophistication the criterion for “real” knowledge of the world. Along with their claim to intellectual correctness, atheists, ironically, want people (though what audience is not clear) to know that they are a persecuted minority engaged in a civil rights struggle against the superstitions and outrages of religion.
Coming out atheist only a few years ago was beginning to look a lot like a Billy Graham Crusade, where repentant whoremongers and alcoholics “accepted” Jesus in a public display of their born-again life in the spirit. When the “new” atheism (now being remaindered in second hand bookshops everywhere) has run its course, it will be remembered primarily for what it is: intellectually vacuous, analytically sloppy and humanistically absent.
But we do need to continue to think and write about religion—critically. For almost thirty years, beinning as a graduate student, I was involved with the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, CSER, which has emerged as one of the greatest of many casualties of the collapse of the Center for Inquiry in 2008.
What CSER had just about right was the belief that an independent voice–neither academic nor ecclesiastical–was needed to deal with topics ranging from Quranic origins to religious violence to biblical misinterpretation in a—can I say this with a straight face—fair and blanced way. The more strident, anti-religion and God-bashing stance of new atheists nailed the coffin shut on the enterprise, rendering any future work from any equivalent organization impossible and unreliable. If religious parochialism was what CSER tried hard to avoid and challenge on the one hand, atheist parochialism was the pit that it didn’t see coming.
We need to care about religion because much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious: arranged marriages, oppressive and Neolithic views of women, absurd philosophies of personhood, political systems, whether in America or Nigeria, unduly influenced by tribal loyalty, regimes that oppose scientific research because they contradict “revealed” religion.
Yet I can point—have pointed on this site– to a thousand areas where religious philosophies unprompted by secular motives or the condition of unbelief have changed life and culture, ranging from the university movements of the twelfth century to the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements of the nineteenth and twentieth. It is no good saying that belief in god—a God of a certain disposition—is not responsible for ‘incentivizing’ such activity. The greater glory of God, to quote the old Jesuit motto, drove everything from the slaughter of South American indigenes to the founding of Georgetown, ideas of war and ideas of everlasting peace , “where the lion lay down with the lamb.” Like the modern nation-state, religion is capable of helping and hurting; and it is only the unhistorical presumption that it is designed only to help that causes confusion and misunderstanding among its critics. A well-taught course in anthropology or the sociology of belief would put the critics straight, but as I am reminded again and again, that is asking too much when we can simply jump up and down and shout for religion to go away.
I seem to be coming back again and again to the same theme: what has atheism ever got us? Professor Grayling’s laughable new “university” which is little more than a correspondence school with big names on the letterhead? Hospitals? Charities? You may want to say that atheism has been prevented from doing great works by religion. But think about that for just a moment. I know there is a current trend of thought that asks us to think that the Church has been preoccupied with suppressing atheism, but it is nothing more than revisionist fantasy. The real story of Christianity and to a certain extent Islam is the triumph of its heretics over the status quo, their battle for a better, more worthy, more human image of God. I include among those critics many atheists—Sartre for example—who considered the image so discredited by war and suffering that simple honesty required sending it to the attic with other antiquities.
Most of all however, I have come to consider atheism unimportant. At the beginning of any relationship, lovers love each other, the poet said; but in the end only love being in love. Many people were infatuated with the new atheism when it was new, but it’s ceased to be exciting to many thousands, or perhaps only hundreds, of people because it is repetitious and unproductive, like the phrase “I love you” said one too many times. There must be many people who take pride in being unbelievers, but the simple truth is, their unbelief makes no difference if it is only based on a lust to be different from religious troglodytes who believe that every word of sacred scripture is literally true. In a world of sameness such as the United States has become, a nation dominated by a religious discussion so barren of intellectual substance that I sometimes want to sell my passport, I can easily understand the temptation to atheism. It has the appeal of shock value in a country where independent thinking is not especially valued. –The same sort of shock value you would get if, in any city strip, you could insert a porn shop between MacDonald’s and Burger King, across the street from Arby’s and Wendy’s.
For me, atheism will always belong to the larger philosophical context of religious belief. That is where it belongs, and not on a T-shirt. It is a position that has to be considered within that broader context. It should be discussed, debated, and taken seriously. But that seriousness is justified only when religious ideas and beliefs can be assessed in a systematic and historical way—not simply lampooned and pilloried as though they have not played the role they have played, good and bad, in our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization.