William Deresiewicz:

No, secularism cannot reassure us that the universe is governed by a benevolent deity, or that the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded, or that our souls will be clasped after death in the bosom of Abraham. But in leaving us to our devices, it does something better, because it does something truer. It forces us into the search: for truth, for beauty, for justice. 

The notion that secularism forces some unspecified “us” into searching for truth, beauty, and justice is a purely religious notion; and a more spectacular example of wishful thinking than any other religion has ever managed to put forth. 

John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong is dead. If he had been an intelligent man, he would have developed more coherent and logical arguments against the Christian faith; if he had been a charitable man, he would have refrained from attempting to destroy the faith of Christians; if he had been an honest man, he would have resigned his orders fifty years or more ago. May God have mercy on his soul.


For decades now, James Wood has been writing about his Christian upbringing, but he has gotten progressively worse at it. For instance, compare his 1996 essay in the London Review of Books with his new piece in the New Yorker. Both essays emerge from the same perspective: a kind of bemusement at the world he was raised in, an attempt (one he knows will have limited success) to explain that world to an uninformed and possibly uninterested audience. But in 1996 he certainly knew what Christians think and believe, whereas in 2020 he seems to have forgotten — and doesn’t seem interested in recollecting, either.

Let me draw my examples from a single paragraph:

Modern Christians in the West like to think of themselves as believers who have left behind any cultic relationship with a usable God. Doubtless not a few of them harbor a special disdain for American Evangelicalism, with its gaudy, prosperous instrumentalism. Certainly, if belief were plotted along a spectrum, at one end might lie the austere indescribability of the Jewish or Islamic God (“Silence is prayer to thee,” Maimonides wrote) and at the other the noisy, all-too-knowable God of charismatic worship, happy to be chatted to and apparently happy to chat back. But it is still a spectrum, and, indeed, any kind of petitionary prayer presumes a God onto whom one is projecting local human attributes. In this sense, you could say that Christianity is essentially a form of idolatry.

The quote from Maimonides is accurate but scarcely to the point, especially as an intended contrast to “chatty” evangelicals, to what one of E. M. Forster’s characters calls “poor little talkative Christianity.” Does Wood think Jews don’t talk to God, and don’t believe He talks back? Does he think Jews don’t petition God? Has he never heard of the Psalms?

He continues,

The difficult, unspeakable Jewish God becomes the incarnated Jesus, a God made flesh, who lived among us, who resembles us. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer blamed Christian anti-Semitism on just this idolatry of the man-God: “Christ the incarnated spirit is the deified sorcerer.” They called this “the spiritualization of magic.” Evangelicals are hardly the only Christian believers to draw this Jesus, the deified sorcerer, near to them. I’m reminded of that whenever I see professional soccer players crossing themselves as they run onto the field, as if God really cared whether Arsenal beats Manchester United.

Again, one has to wonder what Wood is thinking — or rather not thinking. Can he not imagine any other reason for an athlete to pray than to secure victory against his opponents? If he were to ask players why they cross themselves as they come onto the pitch, he would learn that the great majority of them are praying to be protected from injury. Many players pray for everyone on both teams to be so protected. Javier Hernandez, the Mexican striker, kneels and prays on the pitch before each match to thank God for the opportunity to play the game.


And yet it does not occur to Wood that there could be any explanation for praying before an athletic contest other than pleading for conquest. He cannot imagine any reason for drawing near to Jesus other than siphoning some of the power of a sorcerer. But surely there was a time when he knew these words: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”

At one point, early in the essay, Wood writes of his account of his childhood church experiences, “I know how unbalanced this is. I’m sure I should have seen all the human goodness and decency — there was plenty of that around, too.” He writes as though, having not seen the goodness and decency then, he is somehow forbidden to see it now. He just plows ahead with what seems to me a studied incomprehension, an almost desperate determination to put the least charitable, least human, construal on every manifestation of religious belief and practice. I almost want to ask him what he’s afraid of.

Tim Larsen on John Stuart Mill

My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”

However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grote) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.

Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:

Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.

(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”

how could we be convinced?

George Scialabba is one of the best essayists around, but his review of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is not one of his better efforts. It begins thus:

Our hominid ancestors first appeared around six million years ago. They started to use symbols around 150,000 years ago, and the first of the major religions began 5,000 years ago. What are we to make of this? Did humans have souls before then? If not, how did we acquire them? If so, why didn’t God reveal Himself throughout 99.9 percent of humanity’s life span? What was He thinking? And God’s puzzling silence didn’t end with the advent of religion. The God of the Old Testament was fairly communicative, and the gods of the Hindu pantheon made frequent appearances, at least for a while. But since Jesus ascended to heaven (or, if you prefer, since the angel Gabriel finished dictating to Muhammad), transmissions have all but ceased.

This would seem to call for some explanation. As the infidel Tom Paine scoffed: “A revelation which is to be received as true ought to be written on the sun.” The devout Cardinal Newman agreed but thought it had been: “The Visible Church was, at least to her children,” he wrote in 1870, “the light of the world, as conspicuous as the sun in the heavens, and the Creed was written on her forehead.” Unfortunately, the Church’s radiance has dimmed somewhat since then, and many unbelievers have wondered why God can’t write “YES, I EXIST” across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters visible (to each viewer in her own language, of course) everywhere on earth, each night for a week, once a year. Is that too much to ask of an omnipotent, infinitely loving Being?

To which my first reply is: You really haven’t thought this through, have you? Let’s set aside any doubts about the assumption that our hominid ancestors of six million years ago belong naturally in the category “humanity.” Let’s also not ask too many hard questions about what a “major religion” would have looked like among the early symbol-using hominids. (Does Scialabba expect to find prayer books and sacred vestments in the remnants of the Pleistocene? He might as well say that we know those ancestors didn’t war with each other because they had no guns.) Let’s not bring in a Pentecostal or Sufi to address the question of whether transmissions from the Divine “have all but ceased.”

Let’s focus instead on the second paragraph quoted above. I would like to ask Scialabba this: If you looked up one starry evening and saw “YES, I EXIST” — presumably signed “Love, God” or something, because otherwise the point would scarcely be obvious — written across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters, would you immediately start believing in God?

And the answer is: Of course not. You’d think that this was some kind of high-tech prank, or a covert operation of the Koch Brothers. Later, when you discovered that other people had seen the same thing in their own language you’d be more concerned, but you’d doubt that it could be God, because why would God want to reveal Himself or Itself only to the literate? Surely the committed atheist would attribute this sky-writing to some powerful extraterrestrial civilization with a weird sense of humor — the Culture, maybe — before admitting the existence of God on these grounds.

Now, gentle readers, some of you may be saying that I am missing the point, the point being not that God, if there were a God, would reveal His existence to us in precisely this way, but that He would reveal it in some way, in some unmistakable way. But what would that unmistakable way be? What method of communication might avoid the rather obvious drawbacks, the clearly limited power to convince, of fiery skywriting?

I’m not sure it’s even possible to convince everyone that a given being is the Biggest Baddest Being of Them All — who knows what lurks out there in the universes? But even if that were possible it wouldn’t address the God of classical theism. David Bentley Hart puts this point with exemplary precision and clarity in The Experience of God:

To speak of “God” properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism , Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

How might that God impress Himself upon our understanding in unmissable, unambiguous, indisputable ways? I confess that I can think of no way except to write a conviction of His existence on every human heart. And whether that has been done, who can know? It’s not the kind of point on which it would be safe to take anyone’s word for Yes or No.

I’ll end with this. In Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost, an angel named Abdiel asserts that God the Father created every creature, including the angels themselves, through the mediation of the Son. To this Lucifer replies scornfully:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work

Of secondarie hands, by task transferd

From Father to his Son? strange point and new!

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons.

Our puissance is our own, our own right hand

Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try

Who is our equal: then thou shalt behold

Whether by supplication we intend

Address, and to begirt th’ Almighty Throne

Beseeching or besieging.

“Created by someone else? I don’t recall being created by someone else. We must be self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power. I am my own maker.”

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.

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.


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.’