On Not Quite Believing in God

A New Oxonian pebble from 2010

Baruch Spinoza


We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled atheist readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

No one has come right out and said what this might imply: that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction. I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day, just calls for batch. Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo non est deus.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed” (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs. He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked. Yes always, they replied. Was God always a father? Yes, always, they said: God does not change. Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. And they wrote their creed and gave the West a god who lasted, more or less, for 1500 years.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned to the fire by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer. Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?” I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political. But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence. In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980′s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic. When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details. I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.” I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy. Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means. It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right. It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few months, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either. So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.

It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible. Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others. For example, the belief that God created the world. In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically, will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God. In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking, thinking and arguing. But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God–full stop, unless you have endowed that opinion with some authority outside the reasoning process you needed to get you there. That’s what fundamentalists do.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being. But that’s another story.

Frankly, some atheists are like instant oatmeal: quickly cooked and ready for consumption.  No stove–no mental anguish, soul searching, philosophical dilemmas or affronts to ordinary morality–has cooked them.  They are quick and, to belabor a term, EZ. When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational groundsan atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true or a very important senior atheist, an atheist bishop, say, says so.

Most atheists, of course, do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally. No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.  But something tells me, most haven’t.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position. It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  They point to the wonders of science, the horrors of the Bible, the political overreaching of religious activists.  They also point to a mythical history of prejudice and persecution against atheists that, they may honestly believe, locates them in a civil rights struggle: to be an atheist is like being gay, black, a woman, an abused child.

Atheist Pride is just around the corner–no sorry: I’ve just seen the t-shirt.

A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus, a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing?

Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion. The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago, my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much, or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this. Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners. At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent. And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing. That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher. Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it. It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be. It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.

An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures given by significant thinkers is heady stuff. Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube. It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real. And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.  –Jesus didn’t do post-surgical care.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents. Two from recent Facebook posts will do. In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy. Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial. A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage. A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.” That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.’” –I actually happen to agree with him. But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers. I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.

The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit. But it won’t be. For all the wrong reasons. When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course. Almost no one except a few humanists saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory. And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful. And as I have said pretty often, that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.

Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda. They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded. Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this. I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists. Then we could get somewhere. We could say what we like, just the way we like it. We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy: I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.

2 thoughts on “On Not Quite Believing in God

  1. “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not…”

    Great article, and I shall brood over it for at least a week longer.

    Even though you mentioned the flying spaghetti monster, you did forget to mention that the expression “crazy Rabbi” comes from he antiquarian joke with the punch line:
    “Crazy Rabbi, Kicks are for Trids!”

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