A couple of days ago I published a review in The New Republic of Robert Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God. Although Wright claims that he doesn’t believe in God, the book was a very strange attempt to give people “evidence” for divinity in the world, with that divinity manifested as a “transcendent” force that pulls humanity towards ever-greater morality. (The increasing morality, which constituted the “evolution of God,” is, says Wright, a byproduct of increasing interaction between peoples, which required them to change their theologies in a manner that made them more inclusive.)
Wright’s effort was intended, I think, to give solace to people longing for affirmation of God’s existence (or its euphemism, what Wright slyly calls “a transcendent source of meaning”): a way to let them know that there was still a divine purpose guiding the world, even if those vociferous and pesky atheists have attacked the notion of God as a bearded old man who answers prayers. I called The Evolution of God “chicken soup for the brain” — a way to show people who believe in God how they can still feel smart.
One of my friends, who saw Wright on television in conversation with Bill Moyers, allowed that Wright may have been affected by his Southern Baptist upbringing, so that, although he says he’s “not qualified” to pass judgment on God’s existence, the scent of faith still clings to him. Many faitheists have had a devoutly religious upbringing, and cannot bear to admit that what they wasted all those years on is complete bunko.
Today Wright has a bizarre essay in The New York Times online confirming that his upbringing produced his faitheistic belief that, whether or not God exists, religion is good for you.
Wright notes that despite rejecting his Baptist upbringing, he still is plagued by guilt and the longing for a sky-father to expiate it:
Which raises the question: If I no longer believe in a personal God, looking down and judging me, why do I still feel guilt over my wrongdoings and shortcomings? Why do I still want some father figure (a God, ideally, though a resurrected version of my dad would do) to pat me on the shoulder and tell me I’ve done O.K. and can now go play golf for a millennium or so? Is godlessness not, in fact, as some born-again atheists seem to promise, a path to happiness? And, anyway, where did this need for forgiveness and affirmation come from?
He suggest natural selection as one explanation, since it may have built the sense of conscience into the human psyche as a way of promoting harmonious societies. Religion then came along to codify that conscience as an awareness of sin, but also as a way of giving absolution for that sin. But this isn’t enough for Wright — he wants to think that, even if the traditional God doesn’t exist — the sin-and-absolution cycle is good:
But why, now that El Paso and Christianity are both in the rear view mirror, do I still feel that I could use a born-again experience? Why, if I don’t believe in heaven, do I still want something you could call salvation? . . . The sense I got back in El Paso was that salvation wasn’t just about taking the bath and believing in Christ. Sure, that was the technical pre-requisite for getting to heaven. But a thoroughgoing sense of salvation — a sense of being a truly good Christian — depended on, for example, pursuing a “calling,” finding the career path that allows you to do the most good for the world. . . Besides, it’s the sense of sin, the sense of human frailty, the deep Calvinist suspicion of yourself, that can keep the self-dramatization in check. Salvation, at the most abstract level, is the sense that you’re on the right side of the moral law, and the sense of sin is what keeps you not-quite-sure that you are.
There you have it. Yes, you may be ridden with guilt about masturbating, having sex while unmarried, or not having gone to Mass, but it’s all good. Religious belief helps us find meaningful jobs! And religion keeps you moral! What better statement of faitheism could there be?
Of course, there’s not the slightest evidence that the religious guilt/absolution cycle keeps us in line or makes us good. (Atheists also seem to have no trouble finding their “calling.”) In fact, as I argue in my essay, there’s plenty of reasons to think the opposite — that those who reject God are just as moral as the faithful. I’ve never seen any of the religion-defenders respond to this statement, though they continue to harp wearyingly on the need for faith as a wellspring of morality.
And, in the end, Wright can’t help claiming once again that religiously based morality is evidence for that “transcendent source of meaning,” his code language for “God.” (If you don’t think they’re equivalent, read how some reviewers interpreted the book.)
You can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis. In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a moral order “out there.” I even think it’s fair to suspect that there’s a purpose unfolding on this planet, leaving aside the much tougher question of what’s behind the purpose.
But, for my money, there’s nothing quite like the idea that what’s behind that purpose is something that can approve or disapprove of you. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps your life mattering, even when it’s only a feeling, and no longer a belief.
I ask Wright: if there’s nothing to justify “faith,” but if there’s still “transcendent meaning” out there, where does that “meaning” come from? Who’s running the show?
After I read The Evolution of God, I was puzzled at the attention it got from intellectuals like Bill Moyers, Andrew Sullivan, and now the New York Times. His book is deeply confused; you don’t have to know much theology to see that his description of religion is tendentious at best; and his argument that the moral advance of society is evidence for God is simply wrong (there are plenty of alternative explanations for that advance). But I am slowly realizing that faitheism runs deep, very deep. Even atheist-intellectuals want to pat the faithful on the head: there’s a lot of mileage to be gained by attacking the “new atheists,” even if you share their feelings about God. It makes you look so nice, so friendly and inclusive. Indeed, some of the positive reviews of The Evolution of God have come from those who say that Wright’s arguments give believers “relief and intellectual ballast” against atheism.
I’m sorry, but if you’re an atheist it is simply condescending to tell people that their mistaken beliefs — beliefs with which you don’t agree — are just fine because, after all, even if you’re not going to heaven and God doesn’t hear your prayers, it’s good for you and society that you continue to hold these mistaken beliefs. It’s even more condescending — and cynical — for someone like Wright, who doesn’t accept God, to tell people that there’s “scientific evidence” for a “transcendent source of meaning” out there. If that’s not God, what is it?
Finally, I’d like just one of these religion-coddlers to grapple honestly with the observation that, as the atheist bus slogan says,”You can be good without God.”** Entire countries like Sweden and Denmark are atheistic and yet moral — indeed, more moral than the religion-ridden U.S. These countries, and many like them, are not dysfunctional, despite the claim that we desperately need religion to shore up our society. Don’t the smoothly-functioning societies of Sweden, France, and Denmark tell us that we don’t need religion?
**Apropos of this, the Indiana atheists just won their case in federal court to have this “controversial” (though undeniably true) slogan put on Bloomington buses.