Tagatheism

the weakness of religion

I am by most measures a pretty deeply committed Christian. I am quite active in my church; I teach at a Christian college; I have written extensively in support of Christian ideas and belief. Yet when I ask myself how much of what I do and think is driven by my religious beliefs, the honest answer is “not so much.” The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day – these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like [Christopher] Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.

Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

Me, nine years ago. I still hold this view.

transcendent experience

I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace?

Interesting how from its title onward — Religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience — this piece is absolutely desperate to avoid considering the possibility of a living God. People often say that it’s quite unfair that God expects us to believe in him if he doesn’t make himself evident to us. But what if he does and we choose to interpret the experience in some other way?

Thus C. S. Lewis at the beginning of his book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing…. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”

New Atheist axioms

1) The progress of science will make religious belief less and less plausible; that is, science cannot develop in ways that would make religious belief seem more reasonable and attractive;

2) Nothing in the history of unbelief has any relevance to current disputes, because our knowledge today is absolutely secure in ways that our atheist predecessors’ was not.

There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

But when you divide the brain into bitty bits and make millions of calculations according to a bunch of inferences, there are abundant opportunities for error, particularly when you are relying on software to do much of the work. This was made glaringly apparent back in 2009, when a graduate student conducted an fM.R.I. scan of a dead salmon and found neural activity in its brain when it was shown photographs of humans in social situations. Again, it was a salmon. And it was dead.

Do You Believe in God, or Is That a Software Glitch? – The New York Times. I read this immediately after yet another story lamenting the public’s inexplicable reluctance to accept the verdicts of experts.

straw men and new atheists

A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting—even a little luxurious—to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’—which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men—might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market.

— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. Reading Hart is such a … bracing thing. Sort of like knocking back a tumbler of white lightning.

 

my struggle with TNC

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “If you truly believe that abortion is murder, than the killing of George Tiller must be viewed as a success.” Get that? If you believe that abortion is murder, you cannot believe in the rule of law. (Because obviously if you believe that a murder has taken place you believe that you have the right and perhaps even the obligation to pursue vigilante justice.) If you believe that abortion is murder you must and do support terrorism.

And what do we Americans do with terrorists?

A similar simplifying and calcifying of thought can be seen in a recent post about why Coates has become an atheist:

I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.

Atheists like TNC don’t believe, they understand. (The rest of us just don’t understand, I guess.) And in relation to religion all the arrows of “history” point in one direction.

I used to enjoy reading TNC; I don’t any more. What was once a supple mind, open to a range of experiences, willing to treat even people whose opinions are deeply alien to his own as people while never weakening his own hard-earned convictions, has been for the past year or more retreating into a ever-narrowing sphere of sympathy. More and more people are excluded from this sphere, and therefore from compassion and even basic fairness. I don’t think TNC is even trying any more to understand those who are unlike him. And that’s a real shame, because he used to be one of the best.

respect

Ariane Sherine, who launched the Atheist Bus campaign in the UK a few years back, has written a piece for New Humanist magazine suggesting that the time has come for atheist polemic to become kinder. This is a development devoutly (and not-so-devoutly) to be welcomed. And for what it’s worth it fits very much with my sense that the particular cultural moment associated with the Four Horsemen (etc) is ending. The perceptual tide has turned, and the tone of caustic contempt that marked the atheist bestsellers of the last decade has started to look awkward and dated and dismissive of human complexity, rather than fresh and bold. From the atheist side as well as on the centre ground of unimpassioned unbelief, there’s a tentative sense that more interesting conversations between belief and unbelief might be available, if belief were not labelled in advance as being utterly unworthy of human respect.

One can, of course, and perhaps even should, question Rorty’s account of the various ways in which people are socialized into assuming the existence of non-contingent patterns. After all, it is also possible for one’s socialization to pull the other way – away from a recognition of pattern rather than towards it. I know of no more powerful illustration of this point than the concluding pages of V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a memoir of his first visit to his ancestral homeland. “The world is illusion, the Hindus say,” and Naipaul reflects that while he was in India he had come close to the “total Indian negation”: during the year that he lived on the subcontinent it had very nearly “become the basis of thought and feeling.” But, back in Europe, he can no longer find that “basis,” no longer share that “negation” – yet he is not sure whether he has recovered the proper orientation to his life or lost it: “And already … in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me. I felt it as something true which I could never adequately express and never seize again.” The possibility that people born and educated in the West in our time might be culturally formed in such a way that contingency is what they “feel in their bones” — so that a belief in the world as illusion, or in the providence of a just God, is at most a mere “concept” — is one that people like Rorty never take seriously, even if their theory obliges them to an acknowledgment of it.

— That’s me, from Looking Before and After. For some reason I’ve been thinking lately about this issue.

credulous skeptics

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do. Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

— I wrote this four years ago and still think it’s a true and important point. Just sayin’.

If debating the Enlightenment has become tedious, one reason is that it has produced so many exercises in what old-fashioned religious believers still describe as apologetics – the defence of a pre-existing system of belief. Some of the many recent defences of the Enlightenment are better argued than others. What all of them have in common is that they aim to silence any doubt as to the truth of the creed. Mixing large doses of soothing moral uplift with hectoring attacks on those who wilfully turn their backs on the light, these secular sermons lack the flashes of humour and scepticism that redeem more traditional types of preaching.

Adamant certainty is the unvarying tone. Yet beneath the insistent didacticism of these apologists there is more than a hint of panic that the world has not yet accepted the rationalist verities that have been so often preached before. If the Enlightenment really does embody humanity’s most essential hopes, why do so many human beings persistently refuse to sign up to it?

If you want to be a New Atheist, first and foremost, you need to possess an unrelenting desire to help. The desire may seem at times cruel, but you have to start focusing on a higher good: the goal here is to get the cannibals to put down their wafer and wine glass. It’s not for your wellness, but for the good of mankind. As Georgetown University professor John Haught wrote in his diagnosis of the New Atheists, ‘To know with such certitude that religion is evil, one must first have already surrendered one’s heart and mind to what is unconditionally good.’ The New Atheists may wrap themselves in torn one-liners and haggard scientism, but beneath their cynical swaddle there lies a charming Perfectionism. Charming insofar as it is usually in the body of admittedly sinning and struggling men—if you want to be a New Atheist, you’re going to be a man—so the Perfectionist tendencies will be transporting you from a particularly devilish here to a right-minded necessary there. ‘Religion must die,’ Maher argues, ‘for mankind to live.’ Their descriptions of religion may be flat-footed, but it’s all for an endgame that surpasses their previous personal struggles. They are not converting you to their model lives (every New Atheist will happily tell you of wayward days with hookers or Hezekiah), nor to their model educations (every New Atheist parlays a populist revolution). Rather, they are converting you—as swiftly as possible, as dramatically as possible—to their ontology of the now. Apocalypse is coming, and although the New Atheists name the source and form of this apocalypse differently, if you want to be a New Atheist, you had better pull on your Oneida pants and start shoveling in an Adventist diet, because these are some millennial folk. ‘The irony of religion,’ Maher remarks at the end of Religulous, ‘is because of its power to divert man to destructive forces the world actually could come to an end.’

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