As I noted yesterday, philosopher Anthony Grayling has published a new humanist and anti-religious book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. This book (indeed, even its title) is guaranteed to raise the ire of those British faitheists and goddycoddlers, who, even in a largely secular nation such as England, come out of the woodwork to tout the benefits of religion.
The latest termite is, unsurprisingly, Peter Hitchens, the bête noire of his late atheist brother. Writing in The Spectator, Hitchens is far less charitable than was Bryan Appleyard—indeed, Hitchens is positively splenetic about Grayling’s book. In his review, “A C Grayling vs God,” Hitchens tries to make the following points:
The book is mean:
This work is full of negative. petti-fogging narrowness, devoid of sympathy for opponents, empty of generosity or modesty, immune to poetry or mystery. Seeking enjoyment in its pages is like trying to quench your thirst with dry biscuits. The rudest thing that I can say about it is that it is pretty much the same as all the other anti-God books. Like Scandinavian crime series on TV, these volumes trundle off the production lines every few months, asserting their authors’ enlightenment and emitting a nasty undertone of spite and intolerance.
Not nearly as much intolerance as the faithful show! And, of course, New Atheist books have sold well (only to the choir? I think not). Further, judging by comments on the internet, they’ve had a tremendous influence in turning people against religion.
Nowhere in Hitchens’s review does he engage the New Atheist arguments against faith, but prefers to emit bilious noises and tout the “poetry and mystery” of religion. (What about the “poetry and mystery” of the ancient Greek or Norse Gods?)
I can’t judge how Grayling’s text differs from other New Atheist books—my copy hasn’t yet arrived—but I suspect that it’s much heavier on secular philosophy as a replacement for religion. And the other New Atheist books were quite different from each other. While some of the arguments in the books of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins were similar, the points they covered did not overlap substantively and their styles were very different. And Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell, did not resemble these at all: it was about the psychological and evolutionary origins of faith.
Grayling beats a dead horse: Christianity is on the way out anyway:
But the philosophers are complacent about such orthodoxies. They prefer to rail against the tottering remnants of Western Christianity, a dying force if ever there was one. The writers who take part in this assault do sometimes make rude remarks about Islam, and often make righteous references to Islam’s role in terrorism. But it is in Christian countries that they publish, and it is Christian advantages which they aim to remove or reduce — Christian state schools, Christian church privileges in law and custom, the primacy of Christianity in culture.
One would think that Hitchens had never visited America, where Christianity is not only alive and well, but invidious and dangerous. It intrudes itself into the public schools and into government, and indoctrinates children with fear and sexual repression. Is Hitchens ignorant of what the Catholic church does in Ireland and Africa? If he thinks that the remnants of Western Christianity are tottering, he should go to sub-Saharan Africa or South America.
And Hitchens is simply misleading when he argues that the books concentrate on Christianity alone. Harris’s book is largely about Islam, which plays no small role in The God Delusion and God is Not Great. And so what if the authors live and publish in Christian countries (are the books not published in Israel)? If they aren’t published in Islamic countries, it’s not the fault of the authors.
Arguments against the truth of religious claims are unconvincing:
Like almost all atheists, he tries (and fails) to show that his belief is not a belief, but an obligatory default position. This ungenerous view damages him. As he rightly says: ‘One mark of intelligence is an ability to live with as yet unanswered questions.’ True, but one way of avoiding having to do this is to pretend that questions have been answered, when they have not been. While wholly satisfied with his own supposed proofs that God is not necessary for an understanding of the cosmos, he seems unaware that these formulae are as unconvincing to believers as ontological proofs of God’s existence are to atheists.
Religion, he says, is ‘exactly the same kind of thing as astrology’; religious believers are repeatedly equated with those who believe in fairies, goblins and dragons. This is no more use in serious discussion than jibes about Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is a closing of the mind. Why does he close it?
So a refusal to believe in gods, then, is itself a belief? What Hitchens doesn’t get here is that we don’t have a definitive disproof of the existence of gods—science and reason can never do that, especially for deistic gods—but we do have an absence of evidence for gods, when, according to theistic lights, there should be evidence. Everyone pretty much sees that absence of evidence, for even theologians grapple with the question of why God is hidden.
At bottom, the evidence for God comes down to two things—revelation and indoctrination. And those are far less compelling to any rational person than is the disproof of the ontological argument, which is simply a stupid concatenation of words that sounds good for about five minutes. And how many religious people even know of the ontological argument? I’d wager less than 3% of American Christians. Their faith is based not on these slippery lucubrations of theologians, but on revelation and what their parents or preachers told them.
Nothing angers the faithful more than equating religion to Santa or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s because they know in their hearts that the analogy is pretty good. After all, Christians unanimously reject other gods, both living and dead, for lack of evidence: that’s the basis of John Loftus’s “Outsider Test for Faith.” The serious discussion can be summarized in three words: lack of evidence.
Atheism isn’t like “non-stamp” collecting.
‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.
But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.
At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery. There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.
The difference between stamp collecting and religion is that the former is a private activity, with no effect on anyone else.
If Hitchens doesn’t see the difference, he’s a moron.