There’s a pretty dreadful piece by Tim Padgett in the latest online Time Magazine (I’m not sure about the print version) called “Having faith: what both Hitchens and fundamentalists don’t get about religion.” It’s an attack on both fundamentalist Christianity and Christopher Hitchens, who stands for all New Atheists, and they’re guilty of the same faults. Guess what they are? Narrow-mindedness and intolerance, of course—the usual trope about “fundamentalist atheists”. But along the way, Padgett (and I can’t find much information online about who he is) manages to proffer a lot of distorted, shopworn clichés and misstatements about both religion and atheism. Here are a few:
Islam respects Christianity. Padgett, who is correct in decrying the blanket vilification of American Muslims by American Christians (and by the Florida Family Association), nevertheless throws this in:
Every imam I know here in Miami rejects the idea [of putting the U.S. under shari'a law]. “Muslims are only 6 million out of 300 million in this country,” one reminds me. “We rely on U.S. law to protect our rights as a minority.” They’re also a minority who wish Christians well at Christmas: the Koran reverently mentions Jesus and the Virgin Mary almost 60 times.
Yes, American Muslims have a right to worship, and of course many aren’t into jihad. But just remember what happens in many places when Islam is no longer a minority but gets the upper hand. More important, it’s simply stupid to pretend that the Qur’an preaches friendship to Christians (or Jews). As everyone knows who has even glanced at the sacred document of Islam, it’s loaded to the gunwales with verses inciting followers to kill unbelievers, those who diss Allah, and Christians and Jews. Here’s a very small sample:
(5:72) They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. … Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers.
(9:29) – Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
(9:30) The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah “; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah .” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?
“People of the book,” of course, are Christians and Jews. If you want to see a lot more along these lines, go here: there are dozens of such statements in the Qur’an. Padgett, of course, would respond that only extremist Muslims take the Qur’an literally, but if he’s citing that document as evidence of Islamic/Christian amity, he should be fair.
New Atheists like Richard Dawkins are “angry atheists” and “fundamentalists”. Padgett uses these terms several times, as here:
That’s also one of the best ways to answer Hitchens as well as other angry atheists like Richard Dawkins and quite a few members of my own hypersecular profession. It’s a fairly widely accepted maxim that atheist fundamentalists, as I call them, can be just as intolerant as religious fundamentalists.
Sometimes atheists do get angry when talking about religion, but most of the time they’re pretty calm. I haven’t ever seen Sam Harris lose his temper, and Dan Dennett is a kindly and usually placid man. When people mean “angry” in this context, they simply mean that atheists are criticizing religion. The assumption, which is flat wrong, is that one can’t do that without losing one’s temper. It is the criticism of religion itself that is regarded as “anger.” And as for “fundamentalist” atheists, well, see Grayling’s eloquent refutation of that term here.
Christians either don’t literally believe in critical parts of the Bible (e.g., the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus) or wouldn’t care if they were shown to be wrong. In other words, people don’t take the bedrock assertions of Christianity literally. It’s not about the real truth of those claims, it’s about how good the claims make them feel. It’s all about the redemptive power of the story. And we’re not talking about fundamentalists here, but just regular believers. Padgett says:
And the problem they share is that both [atheists and fundamentalists] take religion way too literally. Just as Christian fundamentalists insist on a literal reading of the Bible, angry atheists tend to insist that belief in God qualifies you as a raving creationist. . .
Here’s what they [the "angry atheists"] refuse to get: Yes, Christians believe that Jesus’ nativity was a virgin birth and that he rose from the dead on Easter. But if you were to show most Christians incontrovertible scientific proof that those miracles didn’t occur, they would shrug — because their faith means more to them than that. Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, an agnostic says to his Catholic friend, “You can’t seriously believe it all … I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things simply because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
I’m willing to bet it’s how most believers believe. Before Hitchens died at 62 from esophageal cancer, he made a point of declaring he was certain no heaven awaited him. But that swipe at the faithful always misses the point. Most of us don’t believe in God because we think it’s a ticket to heaven. Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover).
- 81% of Americans believe in Heaven
- 75% of Americans believe in angels
- 70% of Americans believe in Satan
- 69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)
- 78% of Americans think that Jesus rose from the dead
- 81% of Americans believe that Jesus was the son of God who came to Earth and died for our sins.
- 52% of Americans surveyed in 1999 thought that Jesus will return during the next millennium.
- And as for most people not believing in religion as a ticket to the afterlife, well, 82% of Americans believe in that afterlife.
Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover). That does make us open to the possibility of the hereafter — but more important, it gives us purposeful inspiration to make the here and now better.
With all due respect to the memory of Christopher Hitchens, making the here and now better would be difficult without religion. But it’s also hard enough without the un-Christian antics of people like David Caton. As Christmas ought to remind us.
Excuse me, but I think making the here and now better would be much easier without religion. Or so recent studies have told us. Religious societies are dysfunctional societies.
Here’s a graph I made from Greg Paul’s (2009) survey of 15 countries correlating the religiosity of a society (i.e., the proportion of inhabitants who absolutely believe in God) with how successful that society is. Success was quantified using Paul’s “successful society scale”, or SSS, which ranks societies on a scale from 1 (least successful) to 10 (most successful), incorporating a number of sociological indices of functionality including incidence of crime, venereal disease, corruption, infant mortality, alcohol consumption, poverty, and so on). You can download Paul’s paper at the link below.
Among the First World countries surveyed, the US, at 2.9, has the least successful society, and, more important, Paul found a strong negative correlation between societal “success” and religiosity. (The Darwin figure at the upper left is just meant to show that those successful countries are also the ones whose inhabitants more frequently embrace the idea of evolution). Here’s the correlation (which is still significant with the US omitted), and the least-squares regression line:
A more recent study by Solt et al (2011) showed that both among countries and across years in the U.S., religiosity is negatively correlated with income inequality: the more inequality, the more religious the country or, in the U.S., the more religiosity in that year. Solt et al. also showed that income inequality appears to be causal here: a time-series analysis of data in the U.S. showed that changes in income inequality in one year affected religiosity in subsequent years, but not vice versa.
And of course there’s Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which shows a dramatic decrease in violence not only in the last several thousand years, but even in the last two centuries. And all the while religion has been on the wane, especially in Europe. Not strong evidence that religion sustains a good world!
All the data show that societies that are less religious are better places to live. You can argue that this might reflect either the discarding of sky-fathers in countries that take care of their residents, or the pernicious effect of religion on societal health—I think both operate—but it doesn’t matter. What it does show is that, contra Padgett, you don’t need God to be good. In fact, the best societies are those that reject God.
What world a world without God look like? Sweden and Denmark, I think. Imagine no religion. . . . .
Paul, G. 2009. The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evol. Psychol. 7:398-441.
Solt, F., P. Habel, and J. T. Grant. 2011. Economic inequality, relative power and religiosity. Social Science Quarterly 92:447-465.