James Wood faults new atheism on specious literary grounds

James Wood is a professor of English at Harvard who writes on literature for the New Yorker.   I very much like his literary criticism, but for some reason he’s obsessed with attacking New Atheism (see here and here, with his response to my criticisms here).  His usual plaint is that the New Atheists provide only a cartoon characterization of faith, seeing it as a form of either Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, and ignore the nuances of other beliefs. (“Nuances” is another word that, when you see it, you should run, for faitheism or apologetics are in the offing.)  Although I’m not equipped to psychoanalyze Wood, I do note that while he admits he’s now an atheist, he grew up as a Biblical literalist.  I’ve often found that if you scratch an atheist who argues for the virtues of faith, you find someone who used to hold a faith.

Wood’s latest piece in the Guardian, “The New Atheism,” is a 3.5-page essay criticizing the New Atheists for their lack of nuance—nuance demonstrated in the works of great authors like Dostoyevsky and Virginia Woolf, who wrote about the complicated effects on the mind of religious belief. (For a sample of this kind of stuff, read the episode of “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karmazov, available free online).  Wood writes with erudition and sensitivity about great literature (his appreciation of the aesthetics of literature, and the way it moves us—rather than the masturbatory games of postmodernism—is one reason I like his criticism), but he completely misunderstands the goals of New Atheism.  Or, if he doesn’t misunderstand them, he nevertheless faults the New Atheists for being polemicists insensitive to the subtleties of faith.  He has several accusations, but they boil down to one theme:  “New Atheists should be sensitive literary critics like me.”  He has three beefs:

  • The New Atheists have a simplistic characterization of faith.  It’s really much more complicated than we think!:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. . .

The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy. Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism. The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities.

As I’ve said before, Wood doesn’t get out enough.  He runs in rarified academic circles, rife with well-fed and liberal believers, and doesn’t realize how deeply fundamentalist much of America really is.  As I’ve mentioned before, 81% of Americans believe in heaven, 78% in angels, 70% in Satan, and 70% in hell.   Why else would there be so much support in America for evangelical Christian politicians like Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann? So yes, dispelling those ridiculous beliefs is a major goal of New Atheism.  A further goal is to point out how moderate religions enable those beliefs by giving succor to superstition in general. Neither Harris nor Dawkins nor Hitchens have neglected the non-fundamentalist forms of faith.

The overweening question of New Atheism is this: is there any evidential basis for believing in God? If not, why should we do it? That question is valid whether you’re talking about a Unitarian, a Catholic, or a Baptist.  Granted, some faiths are more pernicious than others. But if we’re to promote rationality and evidence as a basis for living our lives and building our world, then all faiths are pernicious in promoting irrationality and fuzzy thinking. As far as possible, any social movement should be based on palpable fact.  But Wood doesn’t seem much interested in the question of whether God exists. Rather, he claims this:

  • Many religious people don’t care whether there’s any truth behind their beliefs.  Wood says this:

Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door. . .

Yes, and for many more millions of people, belief is critically dependent on stable, creedal propositions. Really, how many Christians in America would remain religious were they to know, absolutely, that Jesus was not the son of God but simply an apocalyptic preacher in the Middle East? How many Muslims would remain Muslim were they to know, absolutely, that an angel didn’t dictate the Qur’an to Mohamed?

Yes, ’tis true that liberal religious people admit that they don’t much care about many religious claims, and go to church for the social benefits, the hymns, and the stained glass.  But how many of those would still go to church if they didn’t believe that there was still some kind of Supernatural Being out there? God is the ultimate creed, and I doubt that most Americans go to church to simply express awe at the cosmos.  And what about the afterlife?  Isn’t that a very important “propositional belief” of faiths like Islam and Catholicism?  How much Catholic practice, for example, would be abandoned were Catholics to realize that there isn’t any afterlife, either in Heaven or Hell?

It is a commonplace of faitheism to claim that many of the faithful don’t really believe what they say they believe.  That claim is not only wrong, but condescending.  Yes, there’s more to faith than belief in the truth of gods, afterlives, and sin, but absent those parts, most of religion—and certainly the most harmful parts—would vanish.  Wood doesn’t realize that the damage done by religion doesn’t come from its social aspects, but from its creedal beliefs, and it is the absolute certainty of those beliefs that drives things like oppression of women, opposition to abortion and condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa, and the instillation of guilt into Catholic children.  Catholicisism, after all, is not one of the “fundamentalist” faiths that, Wood argues, is how New Atheists see religion; yet it is one of the world’s most pernicious faiths.

  • The New Atheists don’t realize that people’s beliefs change or fluctuate, and that people sometimes have doubts.

But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God. If you spend any time asking people what they believe, how they believe, and why they believe the propositions they espouse in church or temple or mosque, you find that there is nothing very straightforward about propositional belief.

He gives two “proofs” for this vacillation; both involve educated people.  Here’s one:

Recently, I spent some time with two Christian believers, both ordained. One is an academic theologian and university chaplain, the other a religious affairs journalist. The academic theologian was walking with me in a university town, and began a sentence, “I believe.” And then he caught himself, and added: “I don’t know what I believe, at the moment.”

Well, professor Wood, I’ll see you one doubting theologian and raise you a million non-doubting Baptists. It’s beyond me how an academic can use anecdotes like this to show that belief is very unstable.  Yes, I’m sure that many believers occasionally have doubts—how could they not if they believe in such tripe?—but, by and large, the beliefs that New Atheists attack are stable, at least over the short term.

The bulk of Wood’s piece is then devoted to showing how various authors of fiction have portrayed the complications and doubts of not only faith, but of atheism.  One reads of Coetzee, Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, and of Jens Jacobsen, who, in his novel Niels Lynhe depicts an atheist who keeps wondering if there might be a God after all.  It’s all very enlightening, and a good summary of how fiction depicts the nuances of religion, but what is its relevance to New Atheism?  We’re not worried about fictional characters, but real ones: Muslims who throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, mitred despots who oppose vaccinating girls with HPV, garden-variety Catholics and Baptists who torture their children with thoughts of hell.

What is Wood’s big indictment of the New Atheists? It’s this: unlike novelists, New Athiests don’t “want to see both sides of a theological argument.”

Why don’t we? Because if there is no evidence for a God, then there are no theological arguments because there’s no theology.  It’s like seeing both sides of an argument about the behavior of leprechauns.

In the end, Wood describes a YouTube clip (below) in which Richard Dawkins discusses the truth of miracles with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Archbishop Williams waffles on what he believes.  It’s a wonderful vignette depicting the hypocrisy of liberal faith, but Wood argues that Williams, although he comes off the worst, should not be ignored:

The scene is amusing because both men are so obviously arguing past each other, and are so obviously arguing about language and the role of metaphor. Dawkins comes off as the victor, because he has the easier task, and holds the literalist high ground: either the resurrection happened or it didn’t; either these words mean something or they do not. Williams seems awkwardly trapped between a need to turn his words into metaphor and a desire to retain some element of literal content . . .

Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection. And Williams insists that such literalism misses the target, and instead has recourse to the metaphor of “event”, of a “space” opening up in history, an indefinably miraculous aberration. One feels sympathy for both sides – and perhaps simultaneously a plague on both their houses – because Dawkins seems so bullishly literal, and Williams so softly evasive. Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God’s presence in the world, God’s intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.

Of course Dawkins is dead to metaphor here, because he’s interested in the literal truth of things like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus.  Are they real or not? If they are just metaphors, then key parts of Christianity are fairy stories, and that would drive away millions of believers.  Williams won’t commit because he knows this.  Whether Jesus is really is a metaphor here is like asking whether electrons, DNA, and the AIDS virus are metaphors.

Woods seems singularly uninterested in the vital question of whether there are empirical truths behind religious beliefs.  He claims that both Dawkins and Williams would benefit from reading Melville:

Both men could find themselves in Moby-Dick. For in that novel, Melville explores precisely the question that hovers over the Dawkins-Williams exchange. Can God be literally described, or are we condemned to hurl millions of metaphoric approximations at him, in an attempt to describe him?

Which of course leaves out the crucial question of whether “him” exists in the first place.

While Wood may be preoccupied with how Woolf and Dostoyevsky describe the complications of faith, he doesn’t notice that nobody has ever killed somebody else, mutilated their genitals, or tossed acid in their faces in the name of The Brothers Karamazov or To the Lighthouse. There are other books of fiction that inspire such acts.

114 Comments

  1. Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Contemplating urbane varieties of faith as ornamental accoutrements for the sake of literary erudition seems to be a privileged non-sequitur. So what if Flannery O’Connor employed the Thomist notion?

    • moseszd
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I keep having thoughts similar to this…

  2. SAM
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    ” Many religious people don’t care whether there’s any truth behind their beliefs.”- That is exactly what a couple of my friends told me when we were discussing religion.

    According to my friends it is ok for the believers to say that what ever they believe and it is very intolerant of me to ask for evidence.

    • Claimthehighground
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.

  3. Gayle Stone
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    James Wood has not “shook it yet” and still has some of that BELIEF in something that is unknown. He just can’t admit to himself that all the religious infrastructure built in the last 2,000 years is a waste land. I still stand by what Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1821 to “encourage a hope that the human mind will someday get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2,000 years ago.”

  4. Sandi Hj
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Very liberal Christians who live deep in evangelical country will insist that most Christians don’t believe in a literal hell, or all the other things, even knowing that must censor their every statement for fear of being driven from their community. Wood seems to be intentionally blinding himself in just this way. In the USA, at least, nuance is not part of mainstream religious thought.

  5. Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    See, I would have not problems with religious metaphors if the people practicing them realized that they were metaphors, like Woods claims. They could go to church on Sunday, act out they religious play, get all edified, then head home and leave it all behind them. They don’t, though. And people lying to themselves and others to continue these beliefs is just holey delusional.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      The question remains: metaphor for *what*? Every self-proclaimed expert on the bible disagrees with most others as to what any particular biblical story is a metaphor for.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

        Analogies are like sandwhiches in that I’m making one now.

  6. Myron
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Fine, let’s metaphorize all theological doctrines—but then we have to declare them literally false first.

  7. Tulse
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m not the first to ask this, but if religious beliefs are metaphors, what are they metaphors for?

    • Microraptor
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Ditto- I’ve had a lot of discussions with liberal theists who try to claim that such and such part of the bible was only a metaphor and I made a mistake by interpreting it literally, but I have yet to meet one willing to explain what Noah’s flood or the Exodus was supposed to be a metaphor for or how we were supposed to identify which parts of the bible were supposed to be metaphoric and which were literal.

      I certainly haven’t meet any LTs willing to admit that those passages were taught as being the literal truth for most of Christianity’s history and are still widely regarded as such today.

      • Tim
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        I’d like to know how many liberal theists teach their children bible stories and tell them at the very beginning that the stories aren’t true. I also wonder how a liberal theist explains the “morals” of Issac and Abraham or Joshua and the battle of Jericho.

        • Microraptor
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

          They didn’t exactly teach us that the stories were true at the liberal Presbyterian church my mom dragged me to when I was a kid, but they certainly didn’t teach us that they weren’t true.

          And the “moral” of Issac and Abraham was “put your faith in God because he’ll take care of you and everything will always turn out okay.” They kinda ignored stories like Joshua at Jericho or Elisha and the children.

          • Tim
            Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            True, they tend to leave out the part about god being a psychotic megomaniac for asking Abraham commit to offing his son. As far as Joshua is concerned, we did learn a charming little song to celebrate Joshua’s massacre.

            • Tim
              Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

              …megalomaniac…

          • Sajanas
            Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

            And they also ignore the story later in the Bible where God tells someone to sacrifice his daughter, and he does, and is not interrupted at the last minute.

            But yeah, I had the experience where my parents would tell me that Noah and Genesis were ‘just stories’ if I asked, but they never said that before I heard them, cause I probably wouldn’t have bothered, or treated them the same way as Greek myths.

        • Tyro
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

          Or how many will say that it’s a metaphor and didn’t really happen when talking to sceptics, but treat it as literal truth when talking to other religionists.

  8. Peter Beattie
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    And if Wood had listened more carefully, he would have heard (and seen) that it is the Archbishop who says that the virgin birth of Jesus is “true or not”. What’s more, RD explicitly says that he loves poetic language but that that wasn’t the point. So Wood, the brilliant literary critic, seems here to be a little challenged in the comprehension department.

    And as to religious use of symbolic language: well, of course it’s symbolic. But as Dawkins rightly implies, it’s symbolic of religion’s struggle against reality.

    • Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you’re right. Wood isn’t seeing what’s really happening in that exchange. He’s simply projecting his own bias.

      This is one of my favorite Fawkins clips. I love it when the archbishop actually concedes that you can’t score any truth points by “doing a bit of poetry.”

      • Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Who the crap is Fawkins?

        • Papalinton
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          The F is next to the D on the keyboard. No review/edit button.

          • Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

            I know. That was me making light of my own typo.
            :)

            • Papalinton
              Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, I know. But I just ‘felt’ the urge.

  9. Steven Carr
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Religious leaders might believe in metaphors, but they want real dollars in their tax-exempt religions, not metaphorical dollars.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Why shouldn’t dollars fall from heaven onto televangelists as did manna on the Israelites? Or was that metaphorical manna?

      Also, nowadays why is it “Israelis” instead of “Israelites”?

  10. Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    [subscribing]

  11. bric
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Wood’s gloss on Mrs Ramsey’s mention of ‘the Lord’s hands’ seems quite unsupported by the text – she goes on to muse ‘What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that.’

  12. Rob
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Theologists: Robe or suit? Cumberbund? Bow tie or cravat?

    Atheist: Show us the emperor already.

    • Microraptor
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Actually, I think the Atheist response is “Feeling a little chilly, your Majesty?”

      • Rob
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        No, that’s after they show us the emperor.

        The deist / philosopher’s god that they try to counter with is the one without the clothes.

    • Chris Booth
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Rob: Excellent. It nutshells the whole thing very neatly.

  13. Steve Smith
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    James Wood’s Guardian Piece about the clash between atheism and religious fundamentalism … called “The New Atheism“; more on that piece tomorrow

    In the spirit of finding something good to say about a well-written essay built around very poor arguments, I really like Wood’s <Moby Dick metaphor, except for the glaring problem of applying it to both theist and atheist antagonists.

    The theists’ White Whale is God, who has Himself crippled their intellects, and for Whom their unhinged and self-defeating search is the cause of their intellectual self-destruction.

    But the atheists’ White Whale isn’t God, but belief in God, as Wood acknowledges and apparently agrees: “Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have broader projects, perhaps – for them, the removal of our religious blinkers will result in a proper appreciation of the natural world, and of science’s ability to describe and decode it. I [am] in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists …”

    It’s a fair question whether hunting religion round perdition’s flames is a doomed or worthwhile quest, and Wood’s criticism would be much more interesting if he addressed this question rather than pretend it is God Himself with Whom atheists grapple.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      That is a whale lot of argument, but I will not harpoon its massive weight.

      [In other words, well done!]

      • Claimthehighground
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Stop blubbering.

      • Steve Smith
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        Credit Melville: “crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale … in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils … God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”

    • sasqwatch
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      James Wood’s Guardian Piece… called “The New Atheism“; more on that piece tomorrow

      “moron” was misspelt.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      It appears that Wood, who criticizes Dawkins about his alleged poor grasp of the metaphor, suffers from a glaring incomprehension of metaphor.

      • Claimthehighground
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Time y\to read a little of Joseph Campbell’s work.

  14. CDubya
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    When I was a youngster I used to anthropomorphize animals and I distinctly remember doing so with a cuckoo’s host family while watching a documentary about them wondering how the conversation would go between a bird that realized its nest had been parasitized and one that did not. This reminded me of that for some reason.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      I apologise to grass I step on sometimes. Not on purpose, I’ve just misplaced automated politeness.

      • Filippo
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        To go to the opposite extreme, I once read, in the “Metropolitan Diary” (I think that’s the name)column of the N.Y. Times, a pedestrian’s observation of/reflection on a driver at a red light. No one was in front, behind or around the driver. He was alone at the light. Apparently he was in such a habit of blowing his horn at cars in front of him when the light turns green that when the light turned green in this instance he blew his horn. (Perhaps at the invisible FSM in front of him?)

  15. Penman
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    “rarEfied”

    • Posted September 4, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      It is acceptable either way.

      • Penman
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Beg to differ.

        From Garner’s Modern American Usage (2nd edition):

        “rarefy: …The word is often misspelled rarify.”

        Garner’s is the authoritative source for current usage. (I’m a college composition teacher, so I have to keep up with this stuff.)

        Garner even has a handy rating scale for noting when a usage is in the middle of undergoing a change–and he does not assign the spelling of “rarefy” a place on that scale. So it’s not even debatable.

        “Rarify” is incorrect.

        • Robert
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          A quick google came up with plenty of sources claiming both are ok, many of which cite the OED.

        • MadScientist
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          Which is correct: recognize or recognise? It’s a silly argument really; it is all still understandable. Language follows the old rule “mutatis mutandis” and insisting on “The One True Spelling” would suggest that a person has no idea of the development of the English language. Anyone who has read Chaucer would know that spelling has varied so much that some words are no longer recognizable by Joe Ordinary. So as much as we may loathe change, it will happen.

        • Filippo
          Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          Well, then, ought one reasonably expect Garner to similarly insist on “rarEty,” instead of the “rarity” reflected by my three doorstop dictionaries?

          What’s your take on this one: “quixotic”?

          In on-line audio, I’ve heard several, including Hitchens, pronounce it “qwip-zah-tic,” or “kwik-suh-tic” or some such pronunciation.

          Seems to me it should be pronounced “kee-oh-tic,” as in Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” (ki-ho-ti,” “ke-Ho-te”).

          Is Garner the “First Cause” of linguistics? Is it Garners all the way down?

  16. R.W.
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    For me, there are few things in life more frightening than the specter of an ivy league academic whose grasp of everyday reality is orders of magnitude weaker than that of a small town shoe maker.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Re: the shoemaker’s grasp of reality.

      I like wearing cowboy boots. Of course I have my own perspective on boot aesthetics. Someone occasionally compliments them. Surely not because it is I who is wearing them. They would be no less worthy of compliment had I never existed. And certainly it is not my mere ownership of them which is being complimented. It’s possible that, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I may occasionally make a good aesthetic bootware choice. But what is worthy of compliment is the bootmaker’s skill! And I try to make sure to mention that whenever a compliment is uttered. It’s a lot easier to wear a pair of boots than it is to make them. Consider the Elgin Marbles. Are they noteworthy because Elgin was a “lord”? Because “Lord” Elgin once stole, er, uh “owned”/had possession of them? Same with “ownership” of a Kentucky Derby winner or Lamborghini or Rembrandt, as if ownership and creativity/accomplishment were interchangeable.

  17. GR Jay
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    A Facebook friend posted this recently: An awesome post by a really fine mind. http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2011/09/adam-and-eve-and-ted-and-alice.html

    I don’t know if you were aware of this article, which seems to have been instigated by a third-party quote of you. This guy is so full of himself that not only does he launch his argument based on his incorrect assumptions about you, but he also feels the need for 14 footnotes which basically all say “ain’t I clever?”.

  18. Tyro
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    As Tulse & Myron said here, and JAC and others have asked before, if these are metaphors then what are they metaphors for?

    JAC used the example of electrons: “Williams won’t commit because he knows this. Whether Jesus is really is a metaphor here is like asking whether electrons, DNA, and the AIDS virus are metaphors.”

    I have discussed electrons and DNA with religious people before and they seem almost pathologically fixated on the metaphors. DNA is a “blueprint” or a “recipe”, so when they hear about epigenetics and non-coding genes they think they’ve blown the lid off evolution. The same thing holds with electrons described as “waves” or “particles” which again are metaphors meant to make mathematical entities seem more understandable. Unfortunately they think that this is the literal truth and when they learn of “wave/particle duality” they think it’s a genuine paradox which undermines all of physics.

    If you look, you’ll see this with Creationists, IDiots and even some so-called liberal theologians. They are fixated on the metaphors and even though the reality is readily available and even though it should be clear that they are metaphors, they insist on attacking only the metaphors (eg: “survival of the fittest” is a tautology, oh noes Darwin wuz rong!)

    It’s more than a little irritating that we’re accused of being deaf to metaphor when no theologian will reveal what they are metaphors for. And at the same time, apologists are demonstrably deaf to metaphors when reality is readily available.

    So yeah, even though JAC is right and the majority of people do not think these are metaphors, I’m happy to discuss this with people who think the resurrection is just a metaphor. Provided they can say clearly and coherently what it is a metaphor for!

    • Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      You’re waaaaaaaay overthinking it.

      All it is is a metaphor for, “Will you please stop making me look like a childish idiot who can’t tell make-believe from reality!”

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Microraptor
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        Help, help! I’m being repressed!

      • Claimthehighground
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Cut him a little slack. Tyro actually made some valid points and was invested in them.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Metaphor is a great curtain. Just pay no attention to that man behind it.

      “survival of the fittest” is a tautology, oh noes Darwin wuz rong!

      “Put that philosophy down carefully! It is a blunt and dull subject, and letting it loose among reality will leave you no feet to stand on.”

      • Kharamatha
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

        I’ve been perturbed by that for a decade. The problem with a tautology is that it is trivial and repetitive.
        It cannot be a tautology if it isn’t logically valid. If it is not, it also is not a tautology.

        No thing that is a tautology is also and in the same interpretation false.
        It isn’t a matter of probability, or improbability – being false directly MAKES it not a tautology.

        Tautologies are tautological. Non-tautological clauses are not tautologies.

        What am I supposed to think? That the most survivey DON’T survive the mostest?

        • Kharamatha
          Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:48 am | Permalink

          Wait, “interpretation”? Was that really the word I had in mind?

    • Marella
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      Noah’s Ark is a metaphor for how violent and psychopathic god is, Jesus’ death is a metaphor for how worthless human beings are, Adam and Eve are a metaphor for how miserable life is, and how it’s Satan’s and women’s fault. These metaphors lead to the conclusion that we are all worthless but women are more worthless than men, thus life is miserable and god is going to smite us for sure. Have I missed any?

      • Kevin
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Job is a metaphor for what a sadistic asshole Yahweh is.

        Jonah is a metaphor for what a sadistic asshole Yahweh is.

        Lot is a metaphor for what a sadistic asshole Yahweh is.

        Jephthah is a metaphor for what a sadistic asshole Yahweh is (why didn’t he pull an “Abraham” on Jephthah?).

        Elijah and the bears is a metaphor for …

        Do I need to continue?

    • Dan L.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I thought the bit about metaphors was telling. Dawkins got famous by crafting the “selfish gene” metaphor and then had to spend most of his career reminding people that it is a metaphor. And then Wood accuses him of being too literal? My guess is that if anyone has a good perspective on the benefits and drawbacks of a compelling metaphor, it’s Richard Dawkins.

  19. Marta
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    “New Athiests don’t “want to see both sides of a theological argument.”

    How do I think about this? That one side of the argument is true-ish if I’m willing to consider metaphor, nuance, and my cat’s rubber duck, and the other side is false?

  20. 386sx
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    James Wood said: Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection. And Williams insists that such literalism misses the target, and instead has recourse to the metaphor of “event”, of a “space” opening up in history, an indefinably miraculous aberration.

    Williams wasn’t talking about any metaphor. He meant the literal birth and resurrection and other Jesus miracles. In fact he stated near the beginning of the video that he believed they literally happened. The “space” and “event” stuff was Williams trying to explain why God’s interfering with nature wasn’t actually God’s interfering with nature.

    James Wood said: Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God’s presence in the world, God’s intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.

    What contra Williams? Williams doesn’t think God’s intervention is metaphorical. Whatchoo talkin bout Willis! :P

  21. Umkomasia
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    It makes me laugh to hear someone accuse Dawkins of not understanding metaphors. He is a genius at metaphore. The blind watchmaker, the selfish gene, a river out of Eden, unweaving the rainbow … He has made a successful career of it. If anything he is almost too good at it.

  22. saintstephen
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    James Woods: The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy.

    If writing was Texas Hold-Em Poker, this line would be known as a “tell”.

    Woods is the parasite. Woods is the pustulating boil on the face of truth. Have some integrity, Mr. Woods, and quit dealing drugs to the ignorant.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      I can’t decide whether he’s dealing to the ignorant (assuaging their uncritical belief by asserting that yes, the New Militant Stalinist Nazi Atheists are evil) or making a ridiculous attempt to convince the non-ignorant that there is something special about religion.

      • saintstephen
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Taking down New Atheism has become a rather lucrative cottage industry for writers, because I believe accommodationism is the first step people take when they begin moving away from belief in God.

        In my own journey away from religion, attempting to straddle the “middle ground” was my very first reaction to the online comments of committed atheists like Matt Dillahunty. It’s a natural reaction — albeit an ignorant one, and as further evidence my own younger brother has just entered this stage himself. He has recently asserted that I am just as much an “evangelist” as any religious fundamentalist, and that my “faith” in science is identical to religious faith.

        He’s quite wrong, of course, and I keep not-so-gently reminding him that faith is belief without evidence. Some day he’ll understand the clear distinction, but in the meantime he’s a royal pain in the ass, just like James Woods.

        • Chris Granger
          Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

          James Wood is the royal pain in the ass being discussed. James Woods is the actor. I’m not sure if he’s a royal pain in the ass or not.

          • saintstephen
            Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

            LOL My bad!

            I like James Woods!
            ;)

          • Kharamatha
            Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:51 am | Permalink

            Ooh, a piece of candy!

            Ooh, a piece of candy!

  23. Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I should certainly hope that scientists and others, anybody, really, who are responsible for researching and creating life-saving, life-improving technology would be “dead to metaphor.” Does Woods really think this is a weakness? Would he be satisfied to receive “metaphorical” medicine from his GP?

    There is a time and place for poetry. Most often, however, honesty is the best policy. Why should that be such a controversial position?!

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Wood should read what a great and deep thinker, scientist, humanist and well known accommodationist, says on such things:

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” [Einstein's razor, paraphrased.]

    Here atheists note that religion is the practice of taking unvalidated or invalidated claims as fact, and that there are empirical and social problems associated with such malpractice.

    This is not particular to religion by any means. At the Large Hadron Collider years of construction, billions of euros and thousand of people gathers to make use of the simple theoretical observation that E = mc^2. (Again a product of the keen mind above. No, I am not referring to Woods!)

    That religion can be similarly simplified is merely another couple of orders of magnitude beyond what LHC particle physics and similar practices extend on everyday nature and individual behavior.

    In the other end we have standard cosmology, that constrain universal behavior with a simple model indeed.

    Religion is mundane. Of course, what else could it be!? Except for its believers and supporters unwarranted exceptionalism.

    And here we return to the problems mentioned in the beginning, of “taking unvalidated or invalidated claims as fact”. Repeat and rinse.

  25. Greg Esres
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    “I’ve often found that if you scratch an atheist who argues for the virtues of faith, you find someone who used to hold a faith.”

    And you’ll also find someone who is still a bit ashamed of his lack of faith and wants religious people to think well of him.

    To me, an important step in maturity is to become proud of one’s atheism.

  26. KP
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “…specious literary grounds” is exactly what I thought when I skimmed this yesterday as you primed us for today’s post. I was like, “dude, WHAT is your point???”

  27. Joey Frantz
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    The whole “it’s a metaphor thing” is a pathetic retreat, because the supposed metaphor in question doesn’t apply well to anything. How is the Big Bang akin to the creation of the Earth ex nihilo by a human-like mind who disapproves of homosexuality? How is the world akin to a war of pawns between God and Satan?

    When they pull the “it’s a metaphor” retreat, apologists for religion just show how little they appreciate a truly good metaphor.

    • Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point. They are poor, uncreative, unuseful metaphors, if (as others have alluded to) they are intelligible at all.

      But it is to be expected that theists will have to take refuge in the harbor of metaphor. If only they understood that it is a move of one in retreat.

  28. Reinard
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    People like Wood want theology to be a Gordian Knot for theists and atheist alike to struggle at and pull one way and another for eternity. They get upset when the New Atheist come along with their sword and slice the knot in twain by asking “But isn’t this all bullshit?”

    • Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Tyro
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      See, now there’s a good use of metaphor.

  29. Alex
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Spelling police report:

    1) Catholicisism
    2) Athiest (one instance)

    sorry

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      Also…shouldn’t “mitred despots who oppose vaccinating girls with HPV” be “…vaccinating girls against HPV?”

      (everyone’s a proofreader…)

      (Actually, both girls and boys should be so vaccinated.)

    • Dan L.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Spelling police report:

      1) Catholicisism
      2) Athiest (one instance)

      Spelling police, grammar sheriffs, and assorted pedants please see:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muphry%27s_law

      sorry

      Well, you probably should be. :)

  30. Tumara Baap
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    What does James Wood think of the nuances of the Voodoo faith? Why expend so much verbiage on the nuances, or lack thereof, of the beliefs of Christians who were considered “voodoo” by the intelligentsia of Rome and Alexandria thousands of years ago, much less by the physicists and biologists of today.

    Drivel of Wood’s type is what one ends up with having exhausted all other means to defend faith… that atheists and evangelicals share a common extremist thread. Anyone familiar with Dawkins knows that the most egregious of the superstitions get mention because a sizable number do believe it, and showcases one of the myriad ways religion is so toxic to our species. But even if no mention were made of any of the excesses of faith, the other 99% of Dawkins case presentation still handily thrashes a God hypothesis – in any way, shape, or form.

    • Invigilator
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Very Serious People do not practice Voodoo. They are Christians (or sometimes Jews). There is no need to pay any attention to any other religion, except occasionally to demonize Islam.

  31. Sili
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often found that if you scratch an atheist who argues for the virtues of faith, you find someone who used to hold a faith.

    Funny that. If you scratch an atheist who decries the virtues of faith, you’ll find someone who grew up with a faith, too.

    In fact, scratch most atheists, and you’ll find they used to believe.

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Sili, agreed. The quoted sentence is logically wrong, especially assuming the American experience. Even in places like Europe, people who have been atheists all their life still have been exposed to the religious history in their countries and keep cultural attachments to it.

      There is still something about that quote that rings true for me, though. At one end of the spectrum, some atheists long for the rewards they got from their religion, as apparently does James Wood. Others have not broken the bond imposed on them that respect must always be granted to religious believers and their leaders, thus accommodationists and their ilk.

      Finally we have the denizens of ‘blogs’ like this one, where much effort is put into writing, reading and commenting on religion. I suspect, for me at least, one of the reasons we do so is that religion still tugs at us and needs to be actively resisted with the help of a like-minded community.

      • Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        I’ll disagree with the hypothesis in your last paragraph. I was firmly and happily atheist for some time before I discovered the online atheist scene.

        I would guess that, while what you suggest may be the case for some, many, many others feel that it is a contribution, meant for others to see, think about, and perhaps be influenced by to take that final step in the right direction. Or simply because we like communicating with like-minded individuals. And probably a dash of SIWOTI.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted September 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          ditto

  32. MadScientist
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The problem seems to be that Wood bases his claims on (a) the occasional anecdote, (b) personal non-critical belief, and (c) works of fiction. It is no wonder that Wood has such a bizarre notion of (a) religion and (b) ‘new’ atheists. I wonder if Wood had ever considered the nuanced but profound social implications of Harry Potter.

  33. Egbert
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    James Woods and his ilk might be better understood as ‘moderates’ in their thinking. If new atheism represents liberalism (as I currently suspect) it means there are two different types of thinking at work.

    James Woods doesn’t get ‘new atheism’ because it isn’t about arguing over beliefs (old atheism), it’s done with that, it’s condemning religion as immoral and unjustified, and promotes the alternatives of freedom and equality.

    Moderates aren’t liberals, but think they are. They think they’re tolerant and respectful but they are in fact as delusional as religionists. Their appeals are to authority and not reason.

    • Joey Frantz
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      There’s a certain sense in which moderates (on religious issues) are more tolerant, which is that they think religious faith is intellectually acceptable. Hard-line atheists tend to disagree.

      The problem here, as in many debates, is the use of the word “tolerant” as a normative buzzword. We should remember that we must tolerate some things and not tolerate others. Hating gays and despising anti-gay rhetoric are both examples of intolerance, but we tend to obscure this fact. We tend to get all hyped up about what “is tolerant” and “is intolerant” as though the goal of moral discourse was to simply determine what’s the tolerant thing to do.

      The real question is, what should we tolerate? Moderates think that getting along and respecting our beliefs about ultimate reality are more important than the use of reason to determine truth. As long as Muslims and Christians and atheists can go to work and respect each other, it’s no problem in their eyes whether God actually exists or not.

      To this end, folks like Wood erect a smokescreen to try to make the truth less clear. In this respect I also disagree that they use appeal to authority. Moderates, in my view, are more apt to kick up some dirt and hope the truth about religion gets lost in the haze.

      • Posted September 5, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

        Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

        — Sir Karl Popper (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994), The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4

        /@

  34. Papalinton
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    “Why don’t we? Because if there is no evidence for a God, then there are no theological arguments because there’s no theology. It’s like seeing both sides of an argument about the behavior of leprechauns.”

    And christians know that. Indeed without god, the Bible has as much relevance in explaining the natural world as the book of Alchemy, or Astrology.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, rpg communities regularly argue about the behaviour of e.g. leprechauns, and it’s actually more entertaining than this.

      • Sajanas
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        That’s true, but those people aren’t necessarily coming from a situation where their parents forced them to play their game in a particular way once a week, or be damned for all time. People are passionate about a lot of things, but the ways religions operate have distinct real world ramifications because most of them thing their stuff is *real*.

  35. Marella
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    “Both sides of the theological argument”, he’s kidding right? Theological arguments don’t have two sides, like dodecahedrons or tetracontakaihexagons they have many many sides. In fact they seem to have as many sides as people who claim to believe in gods, which is why atheists ignore them, there’s too many to count, much less address.

    • Papalinton
      Posted September 4, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      I seem to have reduced religion to a simple metaphor: It’s a “Facade, all front, no back and sides”.

      • Microraptor
        Posted September 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Or to paraphrase Patton Oswalt, religion tells us about how great the sky cake is, but atheists know that the cake is a lie.

  36. Jeffy Joe
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Mr. (Dr.?) Wood should try a little experiment. He should publish an article in a national paper with clear statements such as “claims about the divinity of Jesus are fraudulent,” “human morals do not come from a supernatural being,” “no one will ever see their dead loved ones again,” etc. Since people don’t actually believe these things, he should get a really nice response from the public.

    • Sili
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Since people don’t actually believe these things, he should get a really nice response from the public.

      But not any from True Christians™, of course.

      But plenty of people saying they Not All Like That, to quote Dan Savage.

  37. Posted September 4, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    The ‘new atheism’ is a label for several different conversations of thought relating to theism and atheism in society. Given all the different possible ground the label tries to cover, it’s no wonder so many complain about it coming up short in any given area. With so many goalposts to aim for (and some that continually shift), it seems a little unfair to just keep pointing out all the goalposts that were missed, rather than where goals had been scored. The way some people talk about the ‘new atheists’ it seems like Dawkins et al. are ignorant fools who were lucky to get through preschool.

    Interestingly, though, the religious practice that’s most rallied against by the ‘new atheists’ isn’t the religious practice that’s defended by its detractors. Jerry is spot on here, when people talk about a grilled cheese sandwich with the virgin mary printed on it, that’s as every bit a claim of religion as the Archbishop’s claim to metaphor in some sense of God. Critique one and miss the other, and suffer nor not taking into account that the other is True Religion in different peoples eyes…

  38. Kharamatha
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    “The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities.”

    I have heard that this man is smart, so I will admit the possibility that he is having a bad day or two – but this really isn’t very intelligent.

    Ideally they would be the same entity. Would he purposefully argue against a strawgod? That’s either silly and moronic, or crudely dishonest. That is a statement of a lesser thinker or a kind of scum.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      I assume that the context is the interaction between these “new atheists” and the religious fundamentalists.

      Because I can’t take the alternative seriously.

  39. sailor1031
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    “Both men could find themselves in Moby-Dick. For in that novel, Melville explores precisely the question that hovers over the Dawkins-Williams exchange. Can God be literally described, or are we condemned to hurl millions of metaphoric approximations at him, in an attempt to describe him?”

    Silly me, I thought it was just a not-very-good 19th Century novel about whaling…….

    With regard to Wood; what he fails to realize, as do all who make his argument, is that in fact many of us are highly conversant with “metaphorical” religion – having come from that background ourselves. Furthermore, in College many of us became interested in buddhism, hinduism and other non-christian religions – so we actually knew quite a bit about those too!

    The obstacle in all of this, that cannot be overcome, is twofold:
    One: orthodox christianity insists on the literal truth of the “baby-jesus grows up, becomes god, sacrifices himself to save the world from sin, gets brought back to life” story – it must because if these events didn’t happen it has nothing.

    Two: if it is not truth but only metaphor, then it can mean anything I, you or they say so actually means (again) nothing!

  40. Invigilator
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    “Silly me, I thought it was just a not-very-good 19th Century novel about whaling…….”

    That is pretty silly, all right. Whether you like it or not, calling Moby Dick a novel about whaling is like calling Crime and Punishment a detective novel — a superficially accurate but utterly inadequate description.

    • sailor1031
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      I see you took English Lit. in HS quite seriously.

      • Invigilator
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Because I read it in HS means it’s not a good book?

  41. Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    He surely doesn’t get out enough. A good friend of mine just reported that nearly half (n=36) of her Logic class at Indiana University made a point of identifying themselves as creationists in their introductions. Creationists self-identified in their first interactions with classmates.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 5, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Outing yourself as an under-educated, self-absorbed ninny will not get them as far in college as it did when they were home-schooled.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

        Depends on the college, and I’m not referring just to private sectarian schools, either. Many PC liberal arts departments bend over so far to ‘respect’ all traditions that truth is squashed.

  42. Microraptor
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Jonathan Wells and Kurt Wise probably disagree with that.

  43. Diane G.
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. . .

    Precisely because the former present the most immediate political threat. (I’d add the RCC to the threat as well.)

    But as soon as any of the other faiths call attention to themselves for their loony beliefs or practices, they’re happily pilloried too.

  44. Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    It really irks me when some religious believers say that they “doubt” their faith sometimes. We should come to understand that there are actually two kinds of doubt. One is emotional, the other is intellectual.

    In my experience, when Christians say that they doubt their faith sometimes, what they’re really saying is that they are having some sort of (usually negative) emotional response to their faith. The way they overcome that emotional doubt is to substitute it with some other emotion. Like faith, or more accurately, the feeling of certainty.

    This is especially true since the Christian will use the word “sometimes”. This is because our emotions change over the course of the day or couple of months. We get many of the same emotions over and over again.

    When we talk about the intellectual kind of doubt, it’s the beginning of a process that we are using to learn more about something. In the case of intellectual doubt, it is basically the equivalent of curiosity. If you cannot substitute “doubt” with “curiosity” in a sentence, then you’re probably talking about the emotional sort of doubt.

    Are Christians really “curious” about their faith sometimes? That question makes no sense.

  45. DicePlayGod
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    “God is not just a metaphor.”

    It seems clear that this is a claim of actual fact. It also seems clear that all religions make similar claims of fact. It further seems clear that if religions don’t have facts to back up their other teachings, then they would have to work really, really hard to justify the other teachings. Why, if your stories are not literally true, are your stories any better than any other set of stories that are also not literally true?

    It seems to me that Wood wants to have it both ways: fact when it suits him, metaphor when the “facts” are literally false. He wants to assert a claim that isn’t subject to fact-check, which seems to me the central problem that gnu atheism wants to address.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] essay about The New Atheism. (I did a post on James Wood’s article a few days ago, and Jerry Coyne has also addressed it to some good effect.) James Wood even explains: But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating [...]

  2. [...] James Wood faults new atheism on dumb literary grounds (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) [...]

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