Of Atheist Tribes

First of all, I refrain from mentioning any names or organizations that can properly be called atheistically thick-headed. They know who they are. I’ve named them before, without salvific effect. They are proud of who they are. They like their atheism short, sweet, rude, and raw. If they get on people’s nerves, that’s okay because religion gets on their nerves.

Who can disagree? The standard cable network service, before they cut you off entirely when you haven’t paid the bill, leaves you with what for your viewing pleasure? At the mercy of 24-7 infomercial stations and Mother Angelica, in a loop with her Ninety Nasal Nuns, saying the rosary. You have a choice between a guy who wants to sell you a pulverizer for fruits and veg for $19.98 with six special blades not available in stores order now!, and Jimmy Swaggart (still here after all these years) offering his four-volume study series on the Cross of Christ usually $40 a volume but purchase today for only $60 for all four order now! Tell me the truth, if you can’t pay to see movies on HBO, are you really going to make yourself feel better by buying a pulverizer from an aging fitness freak or a set of books from a self-ordained, perpetually repentant Louisiana preacherman?

No, clearly, the Time Warners and Road Runners of this great nation keep these things on to punish us. They know that nothing will get you to fork over that extra $75 bucks or run your new low-limit credit card right up to the brink like having to listen to that 100th Hail Mary or hear the guy selling the snake oil for osteoarthritis mispronouncing the word osteoarthritis.

I don’t blame the atheist tribe for hating this stuff. I hate it. Everyone I know hates it. My European friends when they visit cannot believe that America is not a suburb of the Philippines, so pure is our devotion to crap products and crappy religion.

But therein lies the problem. Too many atheists assume two false things. First, that their sense of outrage is unique, a more refined version of contempt than a “religious” believer is likely to have when they look at the obnoxious underbelly of American religion. Second, they assume that the best way to deal with the problem is to harpoon all religion, because religion is a ROBOT: Really One Big Offensive Thing.

Stereotyping is a part of being human, of course. A Canadian friend of mine (who meant well) once said, over a third pint at a Cowley pub, “I really hate Americans, but you’re ok.” We were sitting among British friends, and they nodded in agreement. I was pleased, kind of, with the verdict on my amiability, but I was obliged to say, “Well, you might be surprised to know that I’m not really fond of Americans either–but there are one or two others besides me you might like.” An Australian law student sitting across the table, on his fourth said, “You’re all fuckin’ septics as far as I can tell.” (For any readers not familiar with this patois, it’s short for septic tank.) Short, sweet, rude, and raw.

I think the atheist dickhead phenomenon is about at this level of discussion right now. It’s no longer about God, it’s about “others.” It’s about the purity of your unbelief, measured not against any philosophical standard or line of argument but about finding religious believers septic and converting polite unbelievers to the more radical view that religion runs from noxious to poisonous, not from good to bad. It’s also about your solidarity with others who share your radical unbelief and how you measure the attitudes and intentions of other members of the tribe.

Religion (the custom of the group provides) is the first resort of dimwits and moral weaklings, helped along its mossy path by bad science, superstition, and useless doctrines, practices, and social customs.

I suggested a few months ago that this level of full-frontal atheism needs to be assessed by an empirical standard–by how many things you don’tbelieve about God. Jewish atheists and ex-Muslims would come out relatively badly, as not believing anything about only one God; ex-Catholics slightly better as not believing anything ever taught about the Trinity; and Hindus would be way out in front with their rejection of 330 million gods and avatars.

What some people, even me, occasionally, are calling “atheist fundamentalists” really ought to be called atheist tribalists. And just like people from small countries find it irresistible to think that all citizens of big countries are obnoxious, atheists being a small clutch of people sharing a common intellectual position, more or less, find the sheer size of the world’s religious population an argument against it. It springs from a natural sense (by the way, one I don’t entirely reject) that this many people can’t be right. –The flipside of a standard argument that would be persuasive if the world’s faiths used one number for all beliefs: that so many right-headed people can’t be wrong.

But it ignores the fact that many of the groups and subgroups that constitute this highly artificial category called religion don’t agree with each other, and are just as miserable as atheists when they see religions behaving badly.

Anyone who has ever lived in a “foreign” country and tried to seem a “little less foreign” will know what I mean about the semiotics of embarrassment: Nothing embarrasses a British-educated Pakistani more than his cousin who wasn’t. Nothing embarrassed the third generation of acculturated Americans more than their first-generation Slovak grandparents. Nothing embarrasses a clever, well-spoken, moderately-religious woman more than the excesses of her own faith. Atheists have the luxury of using hasty generalization as a mode of analysis rather than calling it out as a fallacy. Smart religious people are forced to be discriminate in their approach to religion. Perhaps that’s why atheists can afford to be irresponsible and so rude to believers: they don’t have to pick up after themselves.

Having God is really like having a lot of money and a grating accent. When American soldiers first arrived in great numbers in England in 1942, the famous quip about them was that they were “Over-paid, oversexed and over here.” They could “afford” things, had better teeth, but talked too loud and laughed too easily. The idea that there were millions and millions more just like them across the wide sea was not cheering to sober people in villages like Upper Heyford and Mildenhall, who had never seen an example of the species before.

In fact, most of the atheist tribalists are reacting to religion at the same, village level, as something that is “foreign,” unacceptable, and so big that it has to be bad. The beliefs they know about (and reject) are not derived from studying anything about the history and doctrine of particular religions, but from a whole range of indirect encounters: with their tv set, with news stories about creation science and prayer in school, with tales of disorderly Mormon elders and their six wives and thirty children, violent Muslims declaring jihad against members of their own faith as well as on the “West,” with reports of (yet another) pedophile priest being arrested or another bishop covering up priestly crimes, or with another know-nothing politician who thinks America was founded as a Christian nation. Who can disagree that these encounters are typical of what more and more people are beginning to see as what “being religious” means–as the whole of religion? Is there a difference between Big and Big and Ugly

But prevalence is not totality. Religion doesn’t only consist of externalization, and there are plenty of believing critics out there who would consider every one of these externals unacceptable, or ignorant, or attributable to causes that aren’t necessarily religious at all. It strikes me as curious that their criticism might need to be discounted because it comes from the wrong quarter. If radical unbelief becomes the license for informed critique, does simple belief disqualify someone as a critic?

To be an atheist tribalist means that you answered Yes to that question: But to be honest, if the laundry list above is what the atheist sees as the entirety of religious experience or religious ideology, he is really no better off than my friend in the pub who, out of pious ignorance I came to realize, sees America as a great cesspool where annoying, nasal, uncynical nabobs swim around in the muck of mental gloom. Of course, anyone who knows a little history, a little geography, a little anything about anything, knows that this is a caricature designed to make Europeans feel less bad about the eighteenth century cesspools from which American immigrants escaped and evolved, and that we have no monopoly on loud, nasal, or annoying. Atheists in rejecting religion–most anyhow–have a similar evolution to recount.

The philosophy that the tribe is better than the nation persisted in human civilization for a long time, and then reemerged as paternalism and petty nationalism in the colonial period. Colonies, in turn, began to feel better than their masters. It’s especially troubling to see atheists, who claim the intellectual upper hand in debates about God and his people, behaving in a way that simply mimics the self-protective instincts of threatened minorities through insult, provocation, and belligerence. It’s all part of the dance, the same old story.

Is there a God? Swinburne v. Hoffmann

The following is a transcript of the first portion (prepared statements) of a debate between me and Professor Richard Swinburne, emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University, held at Florida State University in 2006. Further portions will be posted as I decipher my own handwriting.

I thank the sponsors of this event for bringing me all the way from early winter in Buffalo to late fall in Tallahassee for this discussion. This is homecoming for me, since I graduated from a certain local illustrious university, in the last century, before moving on to Harvard Divinity School and later to Oxford.

I don’t know whether this makes me a black sheep or a favorite son, but whatever the case it is nice to be back. It is also nice to share space with Professor Swinburne. While I have FSU in common with many of you, I have the Oxford theological tradition (if there is only one) in common with him.

Let me say at the outset that you should put aside any assumptions you may have about this being a debate between an atheist and a believer. It is a debate about what we can know and meaningfully say about God.

I maintain that there is no difference between a God who does not exist and a God about whom nothing can be known. That being so, what we know and “where” we know it from becomes immeasurably important. I’ll come back to that in a couple of minutes.

The theme of this debate is posed as a question, Is there a God? rather than as a proposition such as God Exists. I am going to say that there is no God, and I am going to make this case using the following premises: As I do so, please keep in mind that argumentation is not the exclusive property of philosophers. I was trained as an historical theologian, and historical argument figures heavily in what I want to say. Moreover, the problem of God is too important to be left to philosophers.

Duns Scotus

First: All existence is historical and the existence of persons is historical. (Hic Rhodus hic salta.)

All real existence is historical and we do not know things outside history. By historical I do not mean merely temporal. Temporal means literally existing in time and refers to duration. It means a measurement, so that my temporal span upon earth might be 90 years or 60 years. Relatively speaking, I favor 90. But my temporal life is pretty boring and flat. Historical existence supplies the content; it’s literally the story of my life as a person—an individual with drives, and habits, and the ability to act more or less freely.

My personal life—my life as a person–is more than temporal. It can be told as a story with a beginning, middle and end. I can tell it, or someone else can tell it. But the requirement for telling it is my historical existence.

I can also lie about things to do with this historical existence. I can tell my biographer than I won a Pulitzer prize, when I didn’t, had seven children when I had none, loved to kayak when I have never been near the water, and enjoy opera when I only listen to country music. If I am the author of my history, I will know what is true and what is not (as Abraham did when he lied about his relationship with Sarah in Egypt). If my biographer is a good historian, there are ways in which he can find out whether I am lying.

In short, historical existence means the ability to test what we say about historical persons. And all real existence, even the existence of the universe, is historical in that, more or less, its story can be told.

Second: Not all stories are the stories of real persons. By design or through error, writers of history can also invent false persons, not just false bits of true histories as we find, for example, in Herodotus. When this is done innocently, for explanatory purpose—say in trying to explain floods, diseases, or the origins of the universe or the origin of different languages, things which have not always been explainable in scientific terms—we call the story myth.

Myths are not always understood by their hearers as false stories. They are often written down, regarded with reverence because time invests them with authority. They are thought to be true, in the sense they possess meaning and value.

And myths are not only very old but are set in ages before the ages began—not just once upon a time but “In the Beginning,” or “When on High.” Myths alone can tell stories about primordial time because history relies on knowledge gleaned from records, preferably records contemporary with the events described. No records of the beginning of time exist, except in mythology.

Even if myths are regarded as true, or sacred, by the believers in a religious community, they are false in the sense that they are populated by false persons and events. That is why very devout Christians will ordinarily reject the assertion that the Genesis creation story is a myth: because they accept the idea that myths are false with respect to actual persons and events.

False persons come in different shapes and sizes. Santa Claus is a false person, and not only that but one whose existence you are encouraged to reject at age six. If you still believe in him at age forty, your mother will have a talk with you. Probably the psychiatrist and the parish priest too. You may argue that you know his story by heart, the names of his reindeer, that you have always received presents at Christmas, and that you can sing seven different songs about him being jolly and fat. But the psychiatrist will say “You are wrong.” There is no such person. There is just a story.

Rumplestiltskin is a false person. The six-foot rabbit called Harvey that Elwood P. Dowd talks to is a false person. We say they are false because the prima facie evidence for their existence, their story, is false. Mind you, it has temporal existence—it has lasted—but the story itself is false. I might also mention that some false persons, like Odysseus and Abraham, are so vivid that we want them to be true, and that others like the biblical God are so entrenched in psyche and society that we wish them to be true.

The degree of enthusiasm for wanting false persons to be true persons has no bearing on their existence.

Harvey and Dowd

Once you have given up Santa Claus and six-foot rabbits, you will hardly be distressed to know that the gods are false.

Prometheus did not spoil Zeus’s plan for a tranquil world of immortal bliss. He is a false person. Leda was not really ravished by Zeus in swan form because both are false persons. With a little practice, you will have no difficulty in rejecting out of hand the creation stories of the Mixtex Indians, the story of Pangu creating the world from his body or the perfecting of the first world by Nuwo, all of Norse mythology, and the story of the flood in the Gilgamesh.

You will reject the gods and heroes as false persons who nevertheless are enshrined in stories that were believed widely and tenaciously in their time and culture. What caused their rejection is a better and more compelling story that made better sense of the information at hand. The innate skepticism that characterizes homo curiosus led to better and more adequate explanations of how things came to exist and we came to exist as a species on this planet.

Historically speaking, explanation of all events moves away from god and the gods, not towards a singular omni-purpose god as the explanation of all events.

At some point, a skeptical professor of religion will say to you (maybe even an Oxford theologian) that the Bible also “contains” myths, and that the core myth is the myth of a god named Yahweh, molded from the gods of Hebrew tribal lore, who made the world, established the stars in their orbit, destroys it out of frustration at human sin, promises to redeem it, after destroying it yet again, sometime (but not next week), and in the meantime watches unslumberingly over Israel.

He might also say, depending on how brave he is and where he teaches, that many—not all—of the biblical heroes are false persons, like the false persons of other mythologies.

He may stop at the acknowledgment of particular falsities, or he may go further.

To go further is to say that the god of the Bible is a false person, like the gods of other mythological narratives with their odd blend of real place names, plausible battles, lovely poetry, ritual and law.

Yahweh, like the procession of gods before and around him, is a false person embedded in a story about his dealing with the world, the raqia (firmament) he is said to have created. I am not sure Professor Swinburne would put it quite this way, but it is clear to many people and quietly agreeable to many more that the God of the Bible is a false person. He has never existed historically, temporally, or supertemporally. His story, of course, does exist. It is a myth made by human hands. It did not exist even four thousand years ago.

Let me put this another way. True persons are persons whose story is more than imaginary, persons whose reality, actions, attributes, and identity can be established using the normal laws of historical evidence. Put bluntly, they have an existence outside their story, just as any story about me or Charlemagne is an expression, a snapshot, not the same thing as me or Charlemagne. There are billions of real persons who have really existed outside any story about them. But there are only millions who have existed both in story and in fact. And there are many thousands of stories about persons who have never existed, whose stories are so improbable that they disprove rather than support their historical reality. If Adam and Eve really existed, their story would not be the same as their actual existence. If they did not exist, then they are false persons, the same as Zeus and Pangu. But it is, in fact, their story that establishes their falsity.

God evicting Adam and Eve

Third: If the God of Christian theism is a false person his existence is a conceptual existence, an imaginary existence. The idea, which evolves, of supreme or maximal greatness attached to this being (by theologians like Anselm, for instance) must also be false. Moreover his falseness can be demonstrated using simple if seemingly superficial tests: He is not heard of apart from his story. He shares his attributes and parts of his story with his neighbor gods whose stories are equally improbable. His story, in keeping with the pattern of false stories generally, is inconsistent and contradictory, even in terms of describing him.

But I acknowledge that even if I could get agreement that the god of the Bible is a false person, I would not have proved that there is not a god, just that there is not this god, the Lord god of armies (hosts), whose name is Mighty.

Fourth: The God of theology and the God of the philosophers is a rewritten myth, but forms part of the same account of God.

Early Christian theology borrowed certain philosophical ideas from classical thought, so that the whole project became an attempt to construct a philosophically plausible god from the frustratingly deficient god of story and Hebrew myth.

For example, using the so called Omni-properties of God that date back to the Greek idea of Zeus the all-seeing, Christian theologians preferred using the so called via eminentiae to describe their remodeled god: God is omnipotent. They do this with the aid of biblical texts. Doesn’t St. Matthew say With God all things are possible? Yes, But doesn’t the book of Judges say that “the Lord was with Judah” but was “unable to drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron”—Yahweh, not yet having developed his powers of omniscience, defeated in battle by armies with superior technology and espionage? Again, yes.

The theologians claimed that God is omniscient, though a core biblical myth records that he changed his mind about what to do with mankind and was “sorry he ever decided to create men upon the earth” (Gen. 6.7)–not only not omniscient, but not far-sighted.

Noah's ark, complete with chimney

The medieval Church insisted that, like Plato’s Good, the God of revelation is immutable, unchanging, but then drove its theologians to distraction trying to show how god could be ontologically changeless, yet go from being fatherless to a father, satisfied to angry, creator to destroyer, punishing judge to redeemer.

I am not going to go into the inconsistencies of the biblical text–the biblical contradictions–with the glee of a nineteenth century village atheist because this is precisely the kind of thing one expects in stories about false persons–that is to say, what we expect of mythology. Christianity offered to solve this problem by closing the book and breaking God into three persons and then gluing him back together in the trinity as a union in “essence”—father/creator-son/redeemer-holy spirit—well who knows really. But three has been a nice number for philosophy since antiquity.

The “classical” way of thinking about God as timeless and changeless—eternal and immutable if you like theological terms–comes from Plato in part and partly, a bit later, from Aristotle–especially those bits that imagine god as a being known from effects and identifiable with causes.

Many believers have no interest at all in this God because he is too abstract or intellectual, too “ideal,” not the robust God of hymn, war and Bible story. And yet, from an early period, Christian theology tried to fuse ideas from classical philosophy to sacred scripture—to its particular revelation, taking the untidy remnants of the religious past and repackaging them as “teaching.”

Much—most–of theology is the history of that effort. Mind you, the “person” we get at the end is still the false person we started with. But it is a story now being told by (chiefly) men with changed interests, people for whom the god of the Bible was no longer enough to explain the complexities of the theology they had invented for themselves, the theological tasks they had set for themselves—in short, inconsistent with their project.

The god of the bible, if not an inconvenience or a metaphor, was (at least) inconvenient and slightly embarrassing.

Conclusion: I extend the notion of false personhood, therefore, to any attempt, however distant to the biblical God it may stand, to identify a personal god possessed of attributes, maxi or mini, or to claim for this being individuality, agency, purpose, and action, however direct, however indirect.

Because I include theology as part of his story, I claim that the falseness of his story undermines and defeats the possibility of there being an equivalent or similar person resembling him: that is, the demonstrable false personhood of the God of Christian theism offers significant reason to think there is no other god corresponding in attributes to this God.

Not coincidentally, since we define monotheism as the reduction of the belief in many specialized gods to the belief in one supreme all-purpose god, such as the God of the Bible, establishing that this God does not exist is really the same as establishing that no God exists.

This is true whether we simply acknowledge that there is no position less than monotheism that would leave us a god to believe in (what whole number is less than 1?) or whether we say that most–virtually all—debates about the existence of God in the philosophy of religion and theology have really been debates about this god and not some other god.

But this claim is not radical. It is simply a matter of common sense suffocated by the pretext that a specious philosophical god can out- last the discussion of historicity.

Think back to Santa Claus, who is “kind of” omniscient, knowing who’s naughty and nice, but not really (maybe he has spies under your bed) or perhaps he just knows. If I say to you, as a matter of conscience: “Okay, Santa doesn’t live at the north pole, doesn’t have reindeer that fly, doesn’t squeeze down three billion chimneys between sunrise in Australia and sundown in Topeka, but that’s no reason not to believe in a thin man in a blazer in Miami who supports the Christian Children’s Fund with generous donations and it is precisely the same guy,” you will say—“No, it’s not: that’s not Santa Claus.”

Similarly, if I say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who spoke to Moses in a fiery bush, parted the Red Sea waters, spoke through the prophets, destroyed Sodom and sent his only son into the world as the expiation for sin doesn’t exist, but can I interest you in a god who is 52% probable (Richard Swinburne’s better-than-even-chance estimate of God’s real existence) to explain the orderliness of the universe, our intelligent perception of it, human life on this planet, and some other stuff as well, you would be right to be skeptical. It’s not the same thing.

The difference between a God who has none of the attributes of his myth and a God who does not exist is 0.

The god of Christian theism is fatally vulnerable to this assessment.

The history of God does not permit us to think of God at a discounted rate, as a person whose existence explains everything and who acts in such and such a way in relation to balance, proportion and logic, such that everything works out the way it does. This God cannot be used as the explanation of anything-–let alone everything–because he is himself completely unexplained—indeed, more unexplained than the biblical god who was assigned the personality of a temperamental king, a petty tyrant who played favorites and enjoyed arbitrary displays of power.

Yahweh on his chariot (coin)

That kind of god, even if preposterous when projected onto the global screen of philosophy and science, is at least more comprehensible than a God who is nothing more than the sum total of solutions to the problems his existence entails. Swinburne’s god, who is said to explain “everything there is and not just some narrow range of data” is that kind of god.

To summarize: God is a false person whose story runs from the purely mythological to pseudo-philosophical attempts to restate and revise the primitive data. The suggestion that God is a false person is not based on classical atheist objections to the existence of God but on historical judgment that weighs heavily against the view that God exists.

God Reads…

And knoweth the hearts and minds of all his creatures.

God at His Computer

Well, no–not what this is about. This is about the new genre in religion (not religious) non-fiction which I have decided to name, for lack of an original thought, “God Reads”–books that are affecting to make a new case for God, or to restate old ones.

Actually the genre goes back a few years: Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2005) was a little premature when it was published, barely a year before the atheist best-seller The God Delusion (yes, that Dawkins) appeared (September, 2006) and seemed to suggest an atheist sunrise instead. It was dutifully followed by McGrath’s less poignant The Dawkins Delusion (2007) which (nonetheless) is a far better read than its nasty title suggests.

Besides, the former Master of Wycliffe College, Oxford and the sometime Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had slugged it out before, several times in fact–McGrath having the distinction of having trained as a scientist (which shows) and Dawkins having the good fortune, or sense, never to have trained as a theologian (which also shows.)

And so the back and forth was born, God’s defenders giving in equal measure what his detractors were at pains to inflict on his holy name. What was also born was a minor canon of celebrity atheists, variously called “New,” “Fundamentalist,” “Brights,” “Militant”–or merely Annoying depending what side of the line you were standing on and whose book you had read most recently.

I recall visiting the home of a kindly retired atheist couple in Tallahassee in 2007 where I had gone to debate the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne on the “God Question.” On their coffee table was displayed the whole array of new atheist titles, of which they professed to have read “only a little of Dawkins.” Still, as a Victorian mother might have the Authorized Version of the Bible handy in the parlour, a new generation had arisen who had embraced new authority and were prepared to use it (or at least allude to it in the absence of actually having read it) –In other words, just like the Bible.

In reviews and popular media, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett were dubbed, and basked in the glow, the “Four Horsemen” of a new age of scientific thinking–knights on a mission to debunk the claims and pretensions of religion. A few wannabes such as Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis) made their literary votives to the cause as well; in some cases, their books were actually slightly better than the canonical ones. But essentially the ranks were closed, like the book of the gospels at only four.

The voice of the atheist is still heard in the land. But my guess is, the shine is off the apple and we were out of Eden anyway. Ideas that were considered titillating and slightly dangerous (who says atheism isn’t slightly sexy?) became less interesting when read. I doubt there will be a rejuvenation, a rebirth, of the surprising interest (in some cases bordering on rock star fervor), that greeted the Dawkins Revolution.

The shine was off the apple.

The current spate of God Reads is a bit more interesting, to take only two recent examples. Karen Armstrong’s the Case for God, already reviewed in these pages, is not only lacking in sophisticated theistic argument but also lacks a sophisticated thesis. This hat is so old it’s made of rabbit fur and just as fuzzy. She perpetuates the idea that religion is intrinsically good and that bad people make bad religion.
If only they would grow up, buy a shovel, and dig down to the goldmine of wisdom and niceness that lay at the heart of every faith. Armstrong seems to have bluffed her way through the history of religion for a long time, but in this book she shows a woeful lack of information about history, psychology, and anthropology and pushes a unified-theory-of-religious-thesis that was last fashionable in 1969, primarily in sanghas and disorderly convents.

Robert Wright’s seductively titled The Evolution of God (2009), a far better read than Armstrong and basically naturalistic in its view of religions, nonetheless develops a premise that is hard to swallow, or, to be fair, one that I have trouble understanding. As the New Yorker review enthused, “[Wright theorizes] that religious world views are becoming more open, compassionate, and synthesized. Occasionally, his prescriptions can seem obvious—for instance, that members of the different Abrahamic faiths should think of their religions as ‘having been involved, all along, in the same undertaking.’ But his core argument, that religion is getting ‘better’ with each passing aeon, is enthralling.”

Enthralling, sure. But if that is true, then the tendency of religion to become better must have something to do with either (a) people taking religious doctrine less seriously or (b) the secularization of society that makes religion less appealing and more vulnerable to common sense. That being so, how can anyone say that religion, as opposed to the species, is getting “better.”

Maybe no one is–exactly–and this is a quibble. As John Loftus observes, Wright’s God is illusory from an ontological standpoint: it is our attitudes about God that evolve and change, and a healthy critique of the past–including the sacred books and interpretations that form the story of the human past–are important relics of that development or amelioration. The process affects religion because it affects society in every other area. God evolves, not only man. My own guess is that Wright is being slightly mischievous. These “Abrahamic Faiths” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially the most aggressive of them. Better therefore to convince the slowest to evolve that a compassionate state of acceptance is its future? I am highly skeptical.

Where are we with God Reads? Is anybody likely to have the last word in this contest of words?


Just now, I think, the momentum is with the Defense, the defenders of the God-hypothesis. Not in terms of argument but in terms of energy. Apologists are paying attention to names that may have been missed first time around, prior to the Dawkins Revolution. Names like Scott Atran (In Gods we Trust), Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds, a superb slightly older work that deserves reading now), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Todd Tremkin (Minds and God), Barbara King (Evolving God). The pro-religion forces are reading works of cognitive science and evolutionary biology and psychology as fast as they can, and it seems to me with more at stake. You always read faster before an exam.

The God Question could not escape this lens indefinitely, and the best modern reads often begin with something like Wright’s evolutionary view rather than with the stale philosophical and theodical questions that were raised by the new atheists. Given the fact that interest in outbreaks of intellectual zeal last about as long at great awakenings in American religious history, the Dawkins phase is already looking a little quaint.

And it’s a good thing that the religious and anti-religious are reading some of the same stuff, even if they have different ends in view. When a team at the University of Montreal conducted experiments on an order of Carmelite nuns in 2005-6 (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience), we were flabbergasted to learn that while they were subjectively in a state of union with God, “this state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.” Can you even point to Reno on a map? I thought not.

Carmelite Ecstasy

The study (“Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”: Mario Bauregard and Vincent Paquette) confidently concluded that “the results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.”

In other people, thoughts about more mundane kinds of union, puppy dogs and chocolate will illuminate the same regions. But the analogy that the physical basis of “mystical” experience explodes the reality of mystical experience (and take this from someone who likes chocolate) is a point that apologists for religion are right to challenge: It is argumentum ad superciliarum–a bit of logic based on a naturalistic smirk.

To the extent that the evolutionary and cognitive studies resemble this logic they have a long way to go. I offer the frankly disappointing view and research of Richard Hamer in The God Gene and the (antithetical) hodgepodge of material served up by Rause, Newberg and d’Aquili (all three medical doctors) in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief as evidence of where science can lead the opposite armies.

But the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God–no matter how much we want to make it that. And even if it were, we still won’t have settled the dispute between people like Hitchens, who think God is a very bad, indeed a poisonous idea, and people like McGrath who see it as the most sublime thought of which we mortals are capable.

Maybe Feuerbach was right: it all depends on what you eat.