The New Yorker takes a swipe at everyone

This week’s New Yorker has a piece by James Wood“God in the Quad” — that considers the “new atheists” and several books by their critics, most prominently Terry Eagleton. (You’ll need a New Yorker subscription to access more than the summary.)  Both sides take a drubbing here, though I have to say that Eagleton (who is quasi-religious) and the faitheists get the worst of it.

Wood goes after the atheists because:

a.  Their own beliefs are “religious”:

.  . resurgent atheism [is] marked by its own kind of Biblical literalism, hostility to faith in a personal God, a deep belief in scientific rationality and progress, and, typically, a committed liberal politics.

How this constitutes “religion” is beyond me. Certainly the “new atheists” don’t have an unquestioned certainty in their ideas, nor a belief in some supernatural force.

b.  They offer “an inadequate account of the varieties of religious experience” and address forms of faith that are not universal:

For the new atheists, as for many contemporary American Christians, faith is assumed to be blind — an irrational closing of the eyes to evidence and reason, a leap of faith into an infinite idiocy.  The new atheists do not speak to the millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism, and who aren’t inclined to submit to the mad mullahs and the fanatical ministers.

Yes, but they do speak to the billions of people who believe in a personal god who engages with the world.

c. They are dogmatic:

What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadow.

Well, what are some examples of the “intolerant certainty”? (Wood gives none.) And what, exactly, is so bad about it being noon and sunny and all? More often atheists are accused of having a bleak world view, of demolishing religion but replacing it with nothing positive.  Well, at least Wood gets our humanism right, though he apparently sees it as a failing.

Although these are serious charges, Wood fails to provide any examples of the dogmatism and intolerance of the new atheists, or of the “inadequacies” of their discussion of faith.  His arguments against us, then, are merely assertions, unsupported with evidence.

In contrast, Wood provides many quotes from theologians and believers like Eagleton, hanging them with their own words. Indeed, his critique of this side is far more trenchant.  The believers (and their running-dog faitheists) are accused of:

a. Ignoring the fact that the faith of many religious people hinges critically on the truth of religious claims. Religion isn’t just a philosophical exercise.

Of course, the truth claims of religious beliefs are precisely what the new atheists so loudly dispute.  If all Eagleton can now say to them is that their lives are the “poorer” for not responding to a moving “political and historical” allegory, he is just being finely sentimental. He might as well have written a book about Anton Chekhov or Walter Benjamin.

b. Claiming that, despite dismissing the need for evidence, they somehow know the nature of God:

[Eagleton says} God “hates burn offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds — gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes.” Well, how convenient. Quite apart from the awkward fact that the God of the Hebrew Bible clearly enjoys the right kind of burn offerings (after the Flood, Noah’s smelled particularly agreeable to Him), one wonders how Eagleton can possibly know that his spectral and not-of-this-world God is also an unneurotic aesthete who may regret His creation, and dislikes the Stars and Stripes.

c.  Espousing a faith so rarefied that hardly anybody else shares it. (This is something I’ve been harping on for ages.)

It is no good for Eagleton to turn on [John] Rawls and say, in effect, “But I don’t mean your kind of belief in God, or even your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal. There is really no such thing as what you call ‘the supremacy of the divine will,’ because God doesn’t ‘exist’ as an entity in the world.” Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way.  They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.

YAY! Win!

But what does Wood see as the solution to a debate whose antipodes are both inadequate?  Simply this:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

In other words, we need to express sadness that there is no God. That will make the atheists acceptable to the believers (NOT!).  In this synthesis, Wood sees the atheists being less afraid “to credit the immense allure of religious tradition,” but who among us has ever done that? On the contrary, most atheists freely admit that religions and their traditions have considerable allure.  But admitting that is not the same as saying that religious beliefs are facts.  And on that point the gulf is unbridgeable.  That is why Wood’s solution, like that of Steve Gould’s NOMA, fails miserably.

82 Comments

  1. ivy privy
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    … and, typically, a committed liberal politics.

    He and Robert Wright should get together and see if they can come up with a clear, consistent answer on that one.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty

    Cattle effluence. I am open to new, reliable evidence that would move me from my atheism. The failure of the religious to provide such evidence does not prove that I am dogmatic.

    • Mike
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Not to mention the “intolerant certainty” that each religion believes the others are necessarily wrong.

      • articulett
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

        Exactly!

  3. Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    In other words, we need to express sadness that there is no God.

    I really don’t get this point. There’s nothing sad about the notion there is no God, the universe is grand enough as is. This to me is the whole point of “new atheism”, that those who are atheists can live fulfilling and complete lives without needing anything resembling a deity.

    It’s a new age, it’s time for a new way of thinking. I’m getting sick of people arguing (creationists are especially guilty of this) that the God-shaped hole we have has to be filled with something akin to God. Surely now is the time to move towards a post-religious mindset in the same way that cosmology went from Cartesian to relativistic. A paradigm shift in thinking, a whole new ethos instead of this post-Christian band-aid solution we have now.

    Otherwise it seems to me that we are going to have to keep answering over that god-shaped chalk outline which they want us to mourn. God is dead, God remains dead, it’s time to get on with our lives…

    • Sam
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Whether the nonexistence of a deity is sad or not depends quite a bit on the qualities of the deity, I would imagine. Which is perhaps why Christians prefer to believe in a deity of love rather than the deity actually described in the Bible.

    • gsw
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 1:54 am | Permalink

      I agree, it sounds a little like Freud’s penis-envy.
      This ranting that a-theists are really theists denying their “god shaped hole” (sounds obscene) and “must have a religion”.
      Well, I am willing to have atheism defined as a religion if it means I don’t have to pay tax.

    • Christopher Petroni
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      I am very sad that there is no God willing to furnish me with an endless supply of beer and strippers.

      • Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        If you start worshipping Bill Gates, maybe he’ll deliver 😉

  4. Wes
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

    This sounds like he’s echoing Giberson’s charge that the only “real” atheists are those who share Sartre’s existential angst over the nonexistence of god. But what about moving past the angst and seeing the nonexistence of god as something we should be joyful about? There is no overbearing cosmic overlord ready to damn us to eternal hell for not believing in him. That’s great!

  5. newenglandbob
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Wood, Wright and Mooney should talk. Three black holes might implode.

  6. Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I can sort of understand Wood’s point, although I agree with Jerry that its an unworkable solution.
    The rhetoric of Dawkins is fine if you have reached a certain stage of thinking about religion – perhaps a 4 or 5 on Dawkins scale. If not then it can be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a (religious) nut.
    However, while a more agnostic friendly figure might arguably be more useful in getting through to the more committed religious crowd (some of them, at least), we still need a Dawkins to talk to the 4 and 5s.

    • Buford
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      You’re right.

      We need Kindergarten teachers for the strong believers and Grade School teachers after that. Then Middle school and High school teachers and even college undergraduate Instructors before we can expect them to follow Dawkins’ Post-Grad courses.

      There’s a reason they teach American History differently in the 2nd grade than they do to High School Juniors.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      That’s fine if your goal is to reform or change.
      Dawkins has consistently said that this is not his primary goal.

      You appear to be conflating the age-old dichotomy between political expediency & pulling no truth punches.

      • Posted August 28, 2009 at 1:18 am | Permalink

        Not at all.
        What exactly do you think Dawkins goal is? I would have thought that bringing a large number of people to the acceptance of scientific naturalism would be THE if not one of his priorities.

  7. Mike Barnes
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    The whine continues long after the engines are dead.

    The writer’s problem: were he to accept the atheist case (on his quoted evidence, he has nothing of substance to say against it), he’d have zero to write about, it’s already been said.

    Atheism has some wonderful writers. The only mileage left (or should that be column inches?) is to take a position that suggests atheism requires more wisdom or tact than Dawkins, Myers, Harris, Hitchens and Coyne et al. have brought, and are bringing, to it. Which is plainly rubbish.

    In the future, such anti-atheists should answer the age-old question, ‘Where’s the beef?’

  8. ennui
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I would write a clever rejoinder, but I’m just too sad. I’m sad that there is no evidence for god or an afterlife, leprechauns, demons, pixies or yetis. Sad, too, that science is our only functioning epistemology, and that we have to work intersubjectively, and read and question and think about stuff in order to make a reasonable model of reality. I want my Santa and my
    Easter bunnah and my Halloween ghosts!

    I want to go back, I’m so sad. Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill? I don’t want to remember anything. Nothing. Oh, the sadness! I’m more than willing to sacrifice my liberty and intellectual honesty to get rid of this awful existential sadness. I want to feel objectively important and loved and purposive and special. Mommy! Tell me the story again how the Matrix makes the steak juicy and delicious! Reality is just too gristly and sad.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      I love it. Some people don’t want to be brought into the 21st century and would rather live in the 12th century. They have a feeling of….ennui.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      I’m sad too. I’m so sad that I couldn’t write this reply.

    • Buford
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Careful- you’ll be considered for a Templeton…

    • foxfire
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Darn it ennui, you forgot the unicorns and dragons (not the mean dragons, but rather the Puffs of dragonworld). And the elves.

      • ennui
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        …not to mention beer volcanoes and whatever it is that Tarvu® promises…

      • Don
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:39 am | Permalink

        Elves: aren’t they the ones that have intercourse with the fairies in the bottom of the garden?

  9. Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    The one criticism of the “new atheists” that Wood makes which I think is somewhat valid is that Dawkins (and specifically Dawkins) does sometimes talk as if “it’s always noon”. He is so careful when speaking of evolution to say that it is not an unbroken line of progress, but then when he talks about the triumph of human reason over petty sectarian delusions, he sometimes gets a bit head-in-the-clouds-y.

    But you know what? Dawkins is a friggin’ poet too, not just a scientist, and poets are supposed to have their heads in the clouds a little bit. That’s why we love ‘im, ain’t it?

    And I don’t think this “criticism” applies to the “new atheists” in general, just to Dawkins. And contrary to what theists seem to think about us, we don’t actually worship Dawkins… heh…

    So, couching it in more guarded terms, it’s a fair cop: One of the most prominent figures among the “new atheists”, in expressing his unflappable optimism and perpetual sense of wonder, every now and then comes across as a teensy bit over the top. Okay, okay, we plead guilty!

  10. Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    The charge of dogmatism is common amongst the critics of “New Atheism,” and it is as tired as it is ubiquitous. About what exactly are all these atheists dogmatic? When have they refused to yield in light of genuine evidence?
    It looks more like some out there are just tired of seeing one side unfailingly win in this particular debate of ideas. They can’t side with those who are so clearly wrong, so instead they attempt to generate a poor, makeshift criticism in an effort to take down a few notches those damned atheists who are always so frustratingly right. That’s just resentment, and resentment is an ugly, ugly thing.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Quite.
      I’d like to see JUST ONE example of this oft mentioned dogmatism!

  11. Posted August 27, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    They offer “an inadequate account of the varieties of religious experience” and address forms of faith that are not universal

    There are universal forms of faith? That’s news to me…

    • Buford
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      That’s the problem, of course.

      Eagleton writes about what HE sees as the universal aspects.

      Wood disagrees about what is universal.

      I expect that agreement about what constitutes universal values will also be something “whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.”

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        …When in fact, what they consider to be universal is that in which nobody at all believes!

  12. Posted August 27, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    On the contrary, most atheists freely admit that religions and their traditions have considerable allure.

    Yes, but a lot don’t seem to really understand it, often acting like the moment a religious claim is shown to be inadequately supported, people should just give it up. Well, it doesn’t work that way, which should be very obvious by now.

    Religions at least address the longings and hopes that people have. Not truthfully, but pseudo-answers to the “soul’s longings” are “better than nothing” for a lot of people.

    I believe it was Nearly Normal Jimmy in Another Roadside Attraction who said that science gives man what he needs, magic gives him what he wants.

    Unfortunately, of course, magic gives us nothing at all, but I think that statement does capture the attraction of magic/religion.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  13. Tulse
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    What Wood fails to realize is that most atheists start off as religious, and so all his claims that we don’t understand or appreciate features of religious belief are simply wrong. I was born into a Catholic family, had many years of Catholic instruction (including parochial school up to high school), and even spent a few weeks at a monastery and another at a seminary. So my atheism is “theologically engaged”, and I do understand the “immense allure of religious tradition”, having experienced it myself. The suggestion that most atheists are unaware of these aspects of religion is just false, as practically no atheist is born into an atheist household.

    Of course, even if his claim were true, it doesn’t at all speak to the question of whether the religious beliefs questioned by atheists are false. And this is what particularly pisses me off about the accommodationists — their arguments are essentially about politeness rather than truth.

    • Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Well, I wouldn’t say “practically no atheist is born into an atheist household”, but most people I grew up with in the US south were religious. I was more religious than most and only gave it up gradually and reluctantly, growing more “theologically liberal” until I realised that I just didn’t believe any of it anymore.

      But yes: the accomodationists piss me off, too. Let’s have some straight talk and clear thinking, and sort this crap out. It’s not that hard, really.

      • Buford
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        I seem to be a very rare type. I wasn’t born to athiests but I also wasn’t indoctrinated in any way, for or against.

        My mother was religiuos/spiritual and my father was absent. I was given no religious instruction but was free to explore and question as I wished.

        I briefly attended a church to see what it was all about, but by age 12 it seemed to be a waste of time.

        But nothing like a de-conversion or escape…

      • hempenstein
        Posted August 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Ray – Your comments touch on something I’ve been thinking of – did your giving up religion for good coincide with moving away from your hometown? I wonder if a lot of people don’t stick to religion as a means of keeping up appearances or something along that line.

        I know that for me, as a kid, I was never able to see the point of sitting in church. Once away from home and the hometown, it was easy to chuck the whole mess, and never felt drawn back to it in the least. I also never considered inflicting the torture on my kids yet kept a more neutral stance on the whole issue. As it developed, my daughter went to a handful of different church services in the age 10-16 timeframe. That was enough for her. But interestingly, she now knows more religious factoids than I do (and is happy to hurl them at anyone who challenges her faithlessness).

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      “as practically no atheist is born into an atheist household.”
      Obviously you are from a theocracy.

      Here in Australia, for example, atheism is the norm amongst my friends, colleagues and family.

      • Posted August 28, 2009 at 2:39 am | Permalink

        In the community I grew up around in Australia, “new age” spirituality was quite predominant and the brand of Christianity that served as the background noise of society was a very liberal protestant version.

  14. valdemar
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Er, who is this James Wood? Not the aggressive actor chappie? Perhaps Dawkins knows who he is, and fears his incisive intellect… No, maybe not.

    Anyway, good to see someone nail Eagleton for the tosser he is. The faithiests are gutless and dishonest in failing to engage with the obvious fact that religious is a harmless personal eccentricity unless its a political force, whereupon it becomes a menace.

  15. Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “and, typically, a committed liberal politics.”

    Now that’s interesting because some of the most energetic haters of the “new” atheists – such as Eagleton – like to claim they are mostly neocons.

    • Buford
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Well, that’s just their continued poor reasoning. “If (s)he’s against my religion, (s)he must be against my politics, too.”

      • mrleeward
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Eagleton is very much a self-professed Marxist – not remotely a neocon.

        This is mentioned in the Wood piece too.

    • Posted August 28, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      mrleeward – I know – my phrasing was unintentionally ambiguous – I meant some of the most energetic haters of the “new” atheists – such as Eagleton – like to claim they-the-“new”-athests are mostly neocons. Eagleton has claimed exactly that.

      • mrleeward
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Ahh yes, you’re right, he has. I can never quite decide whether that’s an interesting datum requiring explanation, or just so much obfuscatory straw-manning (if that’s a word).

  16. Posted August 27, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty”

    …and here we have evidence of yet another person attacking Dawkins without having actually read him. This would be funny if it were not so irritating.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 27, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps he has read Dawkins, but is deliberately stirring the pot in order to increase traffic for his true clients: the advertisers.

  17. Posted August 27, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much and wish you more of Excellence

  18. articulett
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Disappointed belief?

    I’m disappointed that I wasted so much of my life trying to make sense out of nonsense.

    I’m also disappointed that so many people have the god mind virus.

    I’m not disappointed that I found science and reason in my quest to figure out the right rubric for living “happily ever after”. Maybe I’m disappointed that there is eternal afterlife, but in some moments, that seems far worse than plain old death.

    And what the hell does Woods mean by “the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins”? What is wrong with Dawkins’ atheism? I suspect that Wood’s complete lack of examples has more to do with a lack of evidence for his bizarre claims rather than anything actually wrong with Dawkins and the “new atheists”.

    So often the labels the faitheists use sound very little like the atheists I know and very much like the critics themselves and/or perhaps the straw man “new atheists” that exist only in their head.

    Can anyone say “confirmation bias”?

    It seems like James Woods imagines himself some sot of diplomat or peacekeeper like Mooney. No one is stopping him from kissing as much theist ass as he wants, but does he really imagine he’s some sort of role model others should follow??

    No thanks. I choose my own role models, and I like the ones that he finds “overweening”.

  19. mrleeward
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    If I started out thinking that Wood’s article was more right than wrong, the general tenor of the comments here confirms that belief. (If that’s not too loaded a word).

    The fact is, Dawkins et al are contemptuous, are they not, of religious belief – and contempt hardly seems to the most useful attitude to take when asking the question, how is it that our particular species of mammal has erected such a vast and awesome superstructure of belief?

    It’s all very well for Dawkins to claim that he’s not a dogmatist, that he’s open to new facts with the potential to alter theories: the scientific method. But when you express concern, as he did, that reading Harry Potter is bad for children, you are marching at least in parallel to fundamentalists.

    I think Wood put it rather finely when he said that “abolishing the category of the religious robs non-believers of some surplus of the inexpressible; it forbids the contrails of uncertainty to enter our lives”

    • gsw
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      If someone claimed that, because you do not collect stamps, you are a dogmatic a-philatelist, who no doubt actually collects invisible stamps from the country of hell (with pictures of the devil on them) and wanted to give you 100 lashes for the heinous crime of actually burning a sae, you too might show a little contempt.
      Fortunately for all a-philatelist of this world the philatelists never had the necessary majority to make it obligatory.

    • articulett
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Is Dawkins et. al. contemptuous? Or does he treat religion the same way religious people treat other cults and superstitions? Why shouldn’t he.

      Moreover, it’s the religious people who call Dawkins a liar in order to promote their own lies about how life on earth came to be. I think it’s far MORE contemptuous to imagine yourself in on “supernatural secrets” that science can’t access or test. Find me one example where an atheist sounds contemptuous, and I’ll quote you at least 10 known theists who sound far more contemptuous.

      • mrleeward
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Articulett,

        He certainly is contemptuous, hardly a controversial point. Why shouldn’t he? Well, that is rather the point of the Wood piece.

        As for quoting theists who sound contemptuous, well of course you could! That’s not really the point: Wood is asking for an atheism that is, to coin a phrase, more broad-church that Dawkins’ dogmatic version.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        No, he is not contemptuous, nor is he dogmatic.

        Look up the definition of these words – you don’t understand them.

      • articulett
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Acutally whether Dawkins is contemptuous or not IS a controversial point. Every time I ask for a quote of something he said that is contemptuous or arrogant or shrill, I get a paraphrase of what someone thinks he said. I’ve never read or heard an actual contemptuous phrase from him. I don’t find him contemptuous at all. I think people imagine that he’s contemptuous when he treats religion the same way religionists treat other superstitions. People have certainly done this to me… and to Jerry as well. It’s a defensive reaction because people aren’t used to hearing faith criticized. But faith is not a means of knowledge and deserves no more respect than any other superstition or belief or opinon.

        I have read quite a bit of Dawkins and I’ve met the guy; I find him honest, funny, and brillian–eager to share his knowledge with anyone who is interested, but on guard against “liars for Jesus”.

        Don’t confuse his dismissal of “woo” for contempt. It’s what all rational people do when “woo” believers try to bully them into showing deference or respect for silly beliefs.

        Many of us feel contempt, however, for those who elevate liars and malign those who tell the truth. Creationists do this to Dawkins.

        I’m sorry mrleeward, but I think your opinion of Dawkins exists more as a straw man in your head; I don’t think there is a real basis for calling Dawkins contemptuous. Of course, if you provide actual “contemptuous” quotes from him, I might change my mind. But every time I’ve asked people to provide such, they decline.

  20. Ed B
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    JoFrhwld and m d posted good comments over at RD.net, which I’d like to conflate here:

    1. If Woods uses religion to negatively describe atheism on account of strongly-held beliefs and a desire to convert people at all costs, this hardly casts religion itself in a good light, does it?

    2. However, assuming 1. is true – i.e. that atheism is in fact a religion – Woods’ argument falls apart (or, more unkindly: disappears up its own arse). For if atheism is a religion like any other, then what, precisely, is he waffling on about?

    • gsw
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Quite, ‘cos then he actually has to respect us ….

  21. MadScientist
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I’m not even disappointed that there’s no god. I’m glad there’s no god because many religions rant about this abysmal cruel creature which they claim to be all-powerful all-knowing and loving (huh – maybe for a sadist and masochist). Imagine how horrible the world would be if there *were* a god.

    I’m angry that so many people believe such nonsense and that children around the world grow up believing lies about some sky fairy.

    Now where can I get a copy of the Atheist Dogmatic Manifesto? You can’t have dogma without an institutional organization actively promoting it.

    Hey, can we get Wood and Collins together? That should be hilarious – the two would tear into eachother about the other having stupid superstitious beliefs rather than the One True Religion. Then again they might just snicker and whine for hours about those evil godless people.

  22. babel
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I think the vitriol might be unwarranted in Wood’s case. There are a few things I don’t agree with, like his view on NOMA or the dogmatism of the ‘New Atheists.’ But he does have a few good points.
    As atheists, we should show more understanding for the millions of normal, reasonable and decent people around the world who are drawn to religion, even if we don’t share their need for the supernatural. We can empathize with the sentiment, if not with the reasoning behind it, because we are all susceptible to superstition and prone to mistaking our fantasies for reality.
    Religion has been around for way too long to be quickly shed away. To be sure, we have to call them on their bullshit. But the cause will be lost at the outset if we act like god-obsessed angry Jacobines who have no tolerance for any deviations in thought and belief.
    Yes, the cliched potshots at ‘New Atheists’ are tiresome and unfair, but so is stereotyping anyone who shows even a shred of sympathy for religion as brainwashed and stupid.
    We need a dialogue not a shout fest.

    • Buford
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Actually, we need a variety of approaches that match the variety of belivers. And we have them.

      We have people to match Ken Ham’s strident insistence and we have moderates who try to have a reasonable debate with like-minded believers.

      It’s as silly to wish that any particular athiest choose a different type of response as it is to expect any believer to do so.

      As usual, all of the people in the middle want the athiests to change but never ask for any corresponding change for the other side.

      You speak of the ’cause being lost.’ Causes that no one is passionate about are the first to die.

      • articulett
        Posted August 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        I agree.

        Also, I find that no matter how gently you let someone know that you don’t share their faith–they are likely to find you “shrill”, “strident”, and “arrogant”. It’s easier for them to do that rather then look at the faulty foundation on which they’ve built a worldveiw.

        Many times I feel bullied into assent by silence or deference.

        I know that the people doing this to others, would never allow some other religion or superstition to be inflicted upon them in the same manner.

        If people were private with their beliefs as they wish other cults would be, this would never be a problem. But every “woo” thinks their “woo” is true and that the people who believe their “woo” are the best people. Myself, I think rationalists are generally the smartest, brightest, funniest, and most moral of folks. I’d presume everyone was a rationalist if they didn’t open their mouths and betray their delusions.

      • babel
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Yes, I agree that there should be different approaches, which on the whole end up shifting the centre to our side. But we shouldn’t alienate those who are practically on our side. This what I was really trying to say.

  23. Kyle
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I agree with this analysis of the essay but it is particularly painful to me since I so admire Wood’s other work. (There is currently no better literary critic out there– his book, How Fiction Works is excellent.)

    My initial gut reaction was to defend Wood from you Philistines (joke, don’t kill me). It has been instructive to see my own “side” as the opposition.

    We should never, of course, try to accommodate religion but perhaps we should re-examine our rhetorical methods. From a practical standpoint, we need to quit preaching to the choir and learn how more effectively persuade potential allies.

    • Steven Sullivan
      Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad someone else actually had a clue who Woods is.

      Though from what I understand, he himself is atheist. (Apparently the *right* kind of atheist, in his scheme of things.)

  24. Leigh Jackson
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Gould wanted religious folk to accept scientific knowledge – lock, stock and two smoking barrels. The difference between religious beliefs and empirical facts was largely what NOMA was about. He thought that they were distinct but complementary. A religious belief for Gould, by definition, was not an empirical fact.

    He placed ethical values and spiritual meaning within the magisterium of religion, adjacent to the empirical magisterium of science. Faith-based non-empirical entities like souls, outside the purview of science, also belonged to the province of religion.

    What Gould would not allow was a pick-and-mix religio-scientific approach: cherry-picking science to try to rationalise or provide faux “scientific evidence” for non-empirical beliefs. (Cf. Ruse.)

    If religious people in general behaved in accordance with Gould’s view, then there would indeed be little conflict between science and religion.

    The trouble is that a great many religious folk either reject outright what they don’t like, or try to ameliorate or tweak or use science for religious ends.

    • articulett
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, religion belongs in the same “magisteria” as myth, superstition, opinion, belief, ideals, etc. Leave objective reality to science.

      If religionists are claiming that something (god) exists in or interacts with the real physical world, he has entered into the scientific magisteria, and I shall shoo him out.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:56 am | Permalink

        Like Gould, I would shoo out anyone attempting to justify their religious beliefs by sleight of science. For example, I see no difference between Deepak Chopra’s and Francis Collins’ fatuous attachment of their personal religious faith to quantum mechanics.

  25. James Wood
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    As the author of the piece under discussion, might I comment on the commentary? Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time –i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly,I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.
    The remarkable claim is made that I offer no evidence of this contempt for the history of belief; I would have thought that comparing the history of religious belief to John Cleese hitting his car in “Fawlty Towers” (Dawkins’s example of HADD, and the one I cite) is a very good example of that contempt — one can hear the High Table guffaw (“those absurd religionists!”). Dawkins is an essentially 19th-century figure; he sounds amazingly like Huxley, or the Russell of “Why I am not a Christian.” This was a text that made an enormous impact on me — when I was fifteen, or so. But one returns to it and finds it grating and oddly juvenile.
    On the other hand, as I made clear, I have little time for the priests, the theologians, and the theorists. Nevertheless, it does seem to me more intellectually interesting to examine the nature of religious belief than simply to go on and on about what an enormous illusion it is. I KNOW it is an illusion, and so does everyone else on this website. So, let’s find something more interesting to say about this illusion, shall we? We are not always fighting the fundamentalists (who aren’t persuadable anyway, alas).
    James Wood

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed.

      Quite the opposite. Dawkins has said more than once that he loves all the old churches and he would love to see them as museums. He also loves church music and has stated that several times.

      Beyond that statement, I see a very different Richard Dawkins than you describe James Wood. Maybe because I have read all his books and much other material that he produced, so I see him as a calm, respectful, knowledgeable, reasoned person.

      What should we focus on other than the illusions? The religious peoples tendency to try to control thoughts and freedoms of others? That they stick their noses in where they don’t belong? That they try to rape our educational systems? That they are misogynists and child abusers? Please.

      • James Wood
        Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Religionists as rapists, misogynists and child-abusers — I think you have made my point about “contempt” for me much better than I could have.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        And you, sir, are in denial of reality.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:32 am | Permalink

        James,

        Do you have in mind any particular writers or books that attempt, for want of a better phrase, the third way between overly-contemptuous atheism and the incoherent defences offered by the likes of Eagleton? It does sometime seem we’ve made hardly any progress since “Varieties of Religious Experience”.

        Almost what worries me most about Dawkins in particular is that his disregard for superstition and magical thinking caused him to publicly wonder whether allowing children to read books about wizards wasn’t a terrible error. Pursue that line of thought, and the whole of literature crashes down.

      • Posted September 10, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Lee Ward,

        You didn’t ask me, but I’d say that André Comte-Sponville is probably your guy.

        Personally, I don’t have a problem with contemptuous atheism. I don’t like overly contemptuous atheism, but Richard Dawkins is, to my mind, just contemptuous enough.

  26. Stan Pak
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Lee Ward wrote:

    Almost what worries me most about Dawkins in particular is that his disregard for superstition and magical thinking caused him to publicly wonder whether allowing children to read books about wizards wasn’t a terrible error. Pursue that line of thought, and the whole of literature crashes down.

    This view looks to me like a caricature of Dawkins. You may be beating straw man here, sir. Dawkins is not against literary fiction, fairies, wizards and similar figures. He is usually pointing that perceiving similar fictional characters as real entities can be (and usually is) dangerous. Especially in case of religious fiction. I am sure that he was using wizards and fairies as useful analogy as he used to do to ridicule religion. Please provide proper reference here…

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for providing reference.

        In the Telegraph Dawkins does not say anything that he especially despise wizards etc. I looked especially for quotes of Dawkins and not a commentary.

        Here what he says:

        “I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.

        and

        Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”.

        and

        “I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,

        […]whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.

        I have omitted quotes about religion and focused only of wizards and fairies. Other ones were just irrelevant. So please tell me now where he specifically condemns fiction and more specifically fairy-tales (of Harry Potter in this context)?
        He does condemn religion for sure but no one teaches that wizard or fairy are real but teaching that a cracker is God and is real is quite popular, isn’t? Is there any difference between these two?

        Certainly all that stuff (Harry Potter stories) can be in some aspects anti-scientific. But this is not the same as claiming that he said “whether allowing children to read books about wizards wasn’t a terrible error.” He just basically says that he would like to see some research on that subject and does not know what to think about that. He does not say that the children should be barred from Harry Potter and fiction.

        Claiming differently would be just an error, sir. You were beating a straw man, sir.

      • Sonic
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

        Too funny — the Telegraph quoted Dawkins: “I haven’t read Harry Potter,” and their headline reads, “Harry Potter fails to cast spell over Professor Richard Dawkins”.

        But seriously, I see this difference between Harry Potter and religion — I’m only going to start worrying about Harry Potter when a significant fraction of the voting public says, “You can’t be moral without Harry Potter,” and believing in the existence of Harry Potter becomes a requirement for public office.

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      I’m not claiming that Dawkins wants to ban fantastic fiction. That would be ridiculous. I’m suggesting that merely to wonder aloud, as he did, that fiction may be anti-scientific or might have a pernicious effect suggests, to me at least, that Dawkins, in all other respects a clear and persuasive writer, seems to suffer a major failure of the imagination when it comes to things outside of science.

      Since the creative imagination is one of the most startling adaptations of the human animal, it always strikes me as strange that Dawkins bemoans the various cathedrals and other monuments to religious art, when he could be using them as evidence for one of the most intractable problems in evolution: what is creativity? And is it related to what we might call a religious impulse.

      I just don’t understand why Dawkins doesn’t show any interest in these questions. Maybe you can help?

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        Is it something outrageous to say that some fiction works can be un- or anti-scientific? This can be just a fact. Many fiction books can be well un- or anti-scientific (like Bible or Quoran certainly are). He may also wonder if there is some bad effect of these books. Is it wrong indeed if someone is asking such questions? But he clearly says that he would be interested in knowing answers on these questions. And he does not claim to know the answers too. He does not say that reading these books would be an error. He actually encourages (not in these citations) people to read books very carefully and not just uncritically treat fiction as reality.

        Creativity is one thing and following blindly dogma is another. They are not the same and there is no much connection between these two. Human creativity can be augmented by passion and people were/are passionate about religion. They are passionate about many things (like love or science for example), and the art follows that. Art also follows money. Dawkins certainly does not express lack interest in those subjects and he was saying about that in his book “God Delusion”.

        BTW it is a red herring. The issue is not what Dawkins thinks about creativity or imagination, but if people treat fiction as reality and he wonders how does that matter in case of popular fiction works for children. And your claim was that he condemns Harry-Potter-like fiction is a fiction here. He even said that he loved Pullman’s books of fiction. Please read his words and books and do not misquote him.

  27. Terry Deacon
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Was Marx right? An opiate? Yes. Without question. A source of delusion and addiction. Yes. Do addicts act irrationally? Will they go to any lengths to insure that their supply is always available (by trying to destroy even the possibility of doubt)? Yes, often. Is such an opiate always bad news? No. It just needs to be very carefully regulated and used sparingly. I am as thankful for its existence, as I am for the poppy-evolved form. The latter has rendered more than one person that I loved sufficiently insensate that their otherwise cruel deaths would not be a form of torture. For this I have been thankful. The lack of connection with the world that it brought was a gift. A gift! Who among you would tell a child dying of leukemia that their comforting belief that “a better place” awaited them, was simply a lie? How many follow the telling of a tale of magic, fairies and happily-ever-after to a 4 year old with a lecture on the falsity of this make-believe? It is not the opium that is the problem, but the addiction. This opiate exists because of some curious features of our mental, emotional and social evolution. It has its strong and nearly universal effects because of this evolution. To understand its addictive qualities we need to explore this origin and its mechanism of action more carefully–as we would any drug that we see as potentially useful in the easing of suffering whether physical or psychical. Considering the delusional features of faitheism only, and assuming that they alone are the source of addictability is unlikely to get at the root of the problem. Indeed, evidence suggests that it can make matters worse, by mobilizing the addicts. I listen to this athiest call for circling the wagons, and it makes me think of our failed drug laws. There is much work to be done to understanding this phenomenon, but I don’t see much light coming from the atheist/faithiest debate.

  28. gsw
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    @Terry Deacon
    You make some goods points, and I tend to agree with you overall.
    My only argument with your logic is the necessity of a god in all this. I have met people who believe that all life is energy, connected somehow on a cosmic level, and that this energy cannot die. When the body dies, the cosmic energy returns to the fold, perhaps to be born again later, perhaps not.
    No laws, no rulings, no mercy and compassion reserved for the priests, no laws relegating 50% of the population to second class citizenship. Just your cosmic energy communing with the universe.
    Some of us a-theists don’t really care about religion per se. But we sure hate the way it claims to speak for a god who, of course, is always mandating whatever the priests want to do and forbidding anything they find uncomfortable.

    • Terry Deacon
      Posted September 4, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      God? Didn’t actually mention that hypothesis. Energy, first law of thermodynamics, reincarnation, cosmic consciousness, … whatever medicine works. Just please be sure that when you claim that it’s OK to take it away from someone else, your purpose is not self-serving and blind to the role it plays in their life and what will come of the withdrawal.

  29. Bill Hallinan
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I read the article carefully. It was clear Woods was criticizing the critics of the “New Atheism”. However, if one did not catch the aside, “As the nonbeliving son . . “, at the beginning of the article, then the wry sense of irony Woods employed may have been lost. Try rereading the piece keeping in mind Woods is dismantling a series of recent critiques against atheism. It is enjoyable to read him work.


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] The New Yorker takes a swipe at everyone This week’s New Yorker has a piece by James Wood — “God in the Quad” — that considers the […] […]

  2. […] a day, I put up an analysis of Wood’s piece on this website; my main point was that he espoused a middle-of-the-roadism that would satisfy […]

  3. […] is a well known literary critic, based at Harvard, who writes for The New Yorker.  A while back I criticized one of those articles, which was a critique of both the “new atheists” and the faithful.  I was distressed […]

  4. […] York Times: Haiti and theodicy An op-ed in today’s New York Times by, of all people, our old friend James Wood,  discusses the problems withusing natural disasters as a springboard for ruminating about […]

  5. […] can have their Terry Eagleton, though. Because none of these are remotely persuasive arguments for the existence of a god or God […]

  6. […] at Harvard, is a superb literary critic but, as we’ve seen on this site, likes to take an occasional swipe at atheism [see also here].)  Wood, apparently a nonbeliever, is undergoing a mid-life crisis: he’s […]

  7. […] 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 […]

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