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.