James Wood replies

In the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, James Wood, an eminent literary critic based at Harvard, wrote an article (“God in the Quad”) taking to task not only the “new atheists,” but also several of their critics, most notably Terry Eagleton.

Within 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 neither atheists, faitheists, nor the faithful.  As Wood concluded:

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.

Now Dr. Wood has kindly written a post on this website defending his position.  It was a comment following my analysis (and several people have replied there), but I thought I’d put it above the fold for discussion.  Here’s what he has to say:

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

I’ve already had my say about Wood’s New Yorker piece, and would prefer to have the readers here have their say.  I will add just one statement as well as a response I got from someone else.  Religion is more than just an “enormous illusion.”  It is an enormous illusion that has the potential to do — and is doing — substantial harm to our world. Because of religion, women are being oppressed, people are getting stoned to death for adultery, HIV-infected people in Africa are being urged to abstain from condoms, people are killing each other over trivial differences in “sacred” works of fiction, and our own country was, in effect, a theocracy.  In America we’re still dealing with the remnants of medieval theology in questions about abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia.  Our world may well end in a paroxysm of religious conflict.  Many of the faithful don’t just hold their beliefs privately, but insist on inflicting them on others. This situation, and its attendant irrationality,  is what motivates the “new atheists,” and this motivation is precisely what Wood ignores. Instead, he cavils about subtle points of theology — and cathedrals.

I went to Harvard, and am not keen on Harvard-bashing.  Still, Wood’s “critique” smacks of an ivory-tower disconnect from the harsh realities of the world — and from real faith as it is lived and practiced.  Instead of dealing with these, he wants to score debating points, and to assert a smug moral superiority over both atheists and the faithful. Such is the New Yorker style.  After reading Wood’s response, a friend in the humanities, who is far more economical with prose than I, sent me this:

James Wood is a very smart literary critic.  In fact, believe it or not, there’s none smarter.  Still, there are some things he doesn’t understand.  Dawkins’s harsh view of religion isn’t warmed-over Victorianism or juvenile contempt for cathedrals.  It has to do with the effects, here and now, of literal religious belief on the conduct of nations and groups.

Wood inhabits a world of books, plus all of the cultural influences that go to make books interesting. Fine!  But meanwhile, our very existence is threatened by screwball religionists (including the Christians and Jews who want a war with Iran). To say that those of us who are alarmed about this fact don’t appreciate Chartres and Notre Dame is, to put it mildly, dilettantish.

120 Comments

  1. Mike Barnes
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Given his supposed atheism, this is posing of the highest order.

    The real threat is never idle. Taken from the BBC news last Friday:

    1. Rajesh Mirchandani reported on the kidnapping of a young girl by a convicted sex offender in California.
    Mr Mirchandani described the offender:

    We know that he was a very religious man.

    2. An item was on the wholesale torture of dissidents in Iran. A victim, ‘Reza’, was quoted:

    They put my trousers down, they threatened to rape me… they said that I don’t believe in god.

  2. mk
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I believe your friend’s comment deserves an “Oh… snap!”

    ;^}

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted September 3, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Can you further explain this cryptic remark, please?

  3. Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Because of religion, women are being oppressed, people are getting stoned to death for adultery, HIV-infected people in Africa are being urged to abstain from condoms, people are killing each other over small differences in interpreting works of fiction, and our own country almost became a theocracy

    For some of these, it’s not clear whether religion is the cause (as implied) of the problem or a tool used in justification.

    The evidence that religion is actually causal (for, say, wars between two groups) is quite thin. You’d have to posit that those two same groups, in the absence of religion (but still in the presence of all other potential causes of conflict), would not go to war. This seems (just to me?) to be unlikely. At the very least, it’s difficult to disentangle religion from other causes of conflict (resources, race, etc.) since they’re often correlated.

    • Flaffer
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Double-edged swords cut both ways. If you are saying that religion cannot be part of the cause of all kinds of bad things because that entails that if religion was absent then the wars would not occur, well, then there are NO causes of war! Why? Because to posit ANY cause, the counterfactual must occur without the antecedent (the caused war). And this sort of reasoning does not work without some gnarly metaphysical commitments to modal necessity of causation (i.e., any event e caused by f entails that it is necessary that f causes e. But with war or any complex event, the state can be arrived at in many ways (e.g., WWWI has different causes then WWWII, but they were both caused).

      One may note in the first sentence in the above paragraph, I used “part of the cause” to imply that religion is not the ONLY or necessarily even the proximal cause of all wars or any other state of affairs that religion “causes”. The point is semantical but important: to say that “a causes b” can be taken to be constitutive (i.e., a and only a caused b) or more loosely. A looser example is “Me hitting the baseball into the window caused the window to break”. Of course “Me hitting the baseball” is itself a series of other events (I pick up a bat, I swing the bat in such-and-such a way, etc.). If we use a more sophisticated notion of “causes”, it seems undeniable that “religion causes bad things” is true. It is part of a whole series of events that obtain which cause such things as war and oppression and suffering.

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      I significantly agree, and am not above the suspicion that attacks on religion are really aimed at reducing the power of the lower classes, but I do think it’s fair to say that religion tends to conserve past beliefs and values, and to react against new possibilities.

      The clear-cut case being creationism (including ID, of course), which, it is true, may appeal to human psychological predispositions, but which almost certainly could not exist (aside from a few cranks anyhow) without being an inheritance from religion. And the killings over the Muhammed cartoons are another clear-cut case.

      Wars? Well, don’t ignore how religion is frequently used to whip up support for a war, jihad being a well known “justification” in the Islamic world. It’s used in this country for that purpose, though not nearly so heavily as in some other countries. While it’s truly impossible to disentangle war from other crucially causal factors, I think we have enough evidence of how religion is used to heighten hatreds and to invest one’s own cause with piety that we don’t have to doubt that it is a causal factor.

      So yes, it’s naive to blame religion alone for that list. However, it’s not like we know nothing about religion as a cause of ills, and indeed, sometimes of good.

      That religion is no “first cause” is obvious, because religions are inventions of humans for various purposes.

      Glen Davidson
      http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Too big for my one measly post to even begin.

        Yes… and I would guess too uncertain for anyone to truly get a handle on this point. Unless one defines “delusion” loosely, it isn’t useful to assume that this is the type of error that religion contains.

        So, all harm comes down to ‘faulty thinking’, therefore it’s faulty thinking causes harm, and not religion.

        When you’ve got tired of such unilluminating circularity, try looking at the specifics again.

        I’ll use the same specifics I used later in this thread. Two types of faulty thought, with opposite consequences:
        1)”God wants us to forbid stem cell research because it is murder”.
        2)”God wants us to use stem cell research to help take care of one another’s health”.
        Obviously, both of these claims are equally incorrect… but one imputes to God the believer’s own unthinking prejudice – the other imputes to God the an ethic that the believer recognizes as positive.

        In the former case, the believer’s mistake about God is less essential than his mistake about stem cell research. If he believes it is equivalent to murder, then he will likely want it forbidden whether or not there is a God.

        Not all faults in thinking are religious ones, and not all of religiously faulty ideas are harmful.

        Therefore, it is the faulty thinking, not the religion causing the harm.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        But the faulty thinking here is:

        God wants us to…

        That is the heart of the matter; the rest is unnecessary commentary.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Bob, you’re *so* unpredictable! How do you manage?

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        And, no – as I showed in the “commentary” that isn’t the faulty thinking that caused the harm in question, in at least this example. But I guess since the correct answer wasn’t part of the “heart of the matter” it’s ok to ignore it. 🙂

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        I still do not agree. Both are driven by an irrational belief. Neither case demonstrates clear thinking and both cases can be harmful. Doing the right thing for a wrong reason is toxic.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        To a consequentialist, doing the right thing for *any* reason is good… but that’s a bit more of a complex topic. At issue is whether this “toxicity” of which you speak actually causes some specific harm which religion as a whole is accused of.

        A side question is whether or not it can truly be said that this person does the right thing for the wrong reason. It may be that he has reflected on the question and decided what is morally right and is doing so for that reason, and also believing as he does that God would want what is morally right, reasoning that God “wants” it. If that’s the case, the wrong belief is entirely incidental, and not the reason for the right action.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Now you are just speculating all over the place. I can’t even see the goalposts now, they are moved to the next municipality.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        The question as I understood it from Coyne’s post is whether religion, understood generally, causes harm or whether religion is indirectly caught up in harm that is actually caused by other types of poor thinking. I’ve given a specific example that shows how it can be incidental and expressed doubt that it can actually be shown that religion – understood on a general level – actually causes any of the real harms that Coyne has suggested. You haven’t answered by showing that there are cases where these specific, real harms are caused – but that’s the goalpost. If they seem to you to have moved it may be that you have moved away from it instead.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        No, that is not my understanding of Jerry Coyne’s post at all. He states that he has had his say and “…would prefer to have the readers here have their say”. He did not ask the question you stated, so I did not answer it. There are numerous example of real harm caused and Jerry stated several of them above. You can argue by yourself as you make up new goals.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        He did not ask the question you stated, so I did not answer it.

        He wasn’t humble and reflective enough to *ask* that question… instead he *raised* that question by flatly assuming the truth of his accusation that religion was the primary cause of the harms he listed. His exact words:

        Religion is more than just an “enormous illusion.” It is an enormous illusion that has the potential to do – and is doing — substantial harm to our world. Because of religion, women are being oppressed, people are getting stoned to death for adultery, HIV-infected people in Africa are being urged to abstain from condoms, people are killing each other over trivial differences in “sacred” works of fiction, and our own country was, in effect, a theocracy. In America we’re still dealing with the remnants of medieval theology in questions about abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia. Our world may well end in a paroxysm of religious conflict.

        I chose to use stem-cell research as a counter-example because 1) it was on the list and 2) it’s a relatively local and clearcut example – you don’t have to write a 20 page dissertation to disentangle the various angles necessary to answer the question that was raised.

        The other elements on the list are also examples of abject stupidity, cruelty, and cultural horror. And I’m sure we could look at them one by one… but it is possible to lose the forest for the trees. The general point I am making is that it is stupidity expressed in religious terms that is the cause of the harm – this is a simple position that follows from my own observations. The first is that people who are not engaged in evil types of stupidity but who are religious do not cause the types of harm he mentioned. The second observation is that people who could otherwise be characterized at most as nominal believers – not following the tenets of the religion they claim to follow at all, but who are are ignorant or cruel – do cause the types of harm mentioned.

        Those two observations are highly suggestive to me that religion is not the cause of those ills.

        So, anyway – the goal posts remain where they were when “religion” was claimed to be responsible for these specific ills – show that religion is actually an important cause of them. Approach them or not at your leisure.

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      When I was younger, I would have found convincing the viewpoint that religion is “the” … or even “a” cause … of the ills mentioned.

      I have come to the somewhat unscientific conclusion that the particular types of ills most commonly associated with religion by its somewhat unscientific accusers can trace their causes back primarily to ignorance… and often to religious ignorance.

      However the type of ignorance in question isn’t rooted in religion, per se – just as political ignorance isn’t rooted in politics. At least not under my observations.

      Certainly politics is done better (if not more electorally successfully) by those who eschew political ignorance. It seems reasonable that religion would be done better (if not more popularly) by those who eschew religious ignorance.

      If religion is done better by those who eschew religious ignorance then it is hard to justify a belief that religion is itself the cause of religious ignorance. And, if I am correct that religious ignorance is the harmful quantity, then religion cannot rightfully be blamed for the harm that results. Any more than politics can be blamed for the harm that results from political ignorance.

      I think that this is a fundamental disagreement between the overweening and oblivious patronizers and the accomodationists (also knownby the overweening and oblivious patronizers as “fatheists”). Is religion a relatively harmless red herring, where ignorance is the real enemy… or is religion itself the enemy.

      Certainly the patronizers see religion itself as the enemy. And I think what alarms those who disagree is not just this, but the fact that the patronizers are so willing to bastardize science, putting it in service of the war on religion in a way that serves science, philosophy, and religion poorly.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I do not agree with your premises and your assumptions, but dio not have time to delve into it now. The word is faitheist by the way.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        You say,

        if I am correct that religious ignorance is the harmful quantity, then religion cannot rightfully be blamed for the harm that results.

        thus sidestepping the essentially delusionary nature of ALL religion, even the most ‘knowledgeable’.

        Or perhaps you’d like to give an example of a religious belief that isn’t delusionary?

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        “delusionary nature”

        … I’ll pass. I’ve tried to follow the sociology, psychology and neurology of religion as well as a layperson is able to, but I haven’t yet seen any scientific consensus that the essence of religion is “delusion”.

        I will agree with you on another level that most religions require some beliefs that are philosophically unjustifiable and proceed from there. Hopefully that will address your concerns.

        If and only if the particular types of philosophically unjustifiable beliefs that are required in order to be religious are those that are harmful in the ways that Coyne seems to be concerned with here, then it is fair to say that religion causes those ills.

        My point above is that only a subset of unjustifiable beliefs and practices (that I characterize as “ignorance”) are actually responsible for the harms, and none of them are required in order to be considered religious.

        Therefore, it isn’t something inescapable about religion that is problematic. It is faulty thinking that is sometimes, but not always, found amongst the religious that is problematic. This is my position.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t yet seen any scientific consensus that the essence of religion is “delusion”.

        Ah, but this question is exactly what underlies much of the debate here, and across science blogs. Too big for my one measly post to even begin.

        However, you say

        it isn’t something inescapable about religion that is problematic. It is faulty thinking that is sometimes, but not always, found amongst the religious that is problematic.

        So, all harm comes down to ‘faulty thinking’, therefore it’s faulty thinking causes harm, and not religion.

        When you’ve got tired of such unilluminating circularity, try looking at the specifics again.

        PS A tip. Specifics are reality based.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        Oops, Mike – I used the wrong reply button – my response to your last is in the nested thread above.

  4. Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Yet another one who mistakenly confuses Dawkins with that well known fundamentalist atheist Richard Strawkins.
    I think Strawkins himself really ought to do something about this confusion. His constant calls to raze cathedrals to the ground, take christian children into care and feed praying grannies to the lions, is getting a bit much.

    • Mike
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      I was about to say very much the same thing. Woods and others are very fond of putting such thoughts into Richard’s mouth, whereas almost any long written or spoken discursion from RD inevitably covers his admiration for many of the artistic/musical/architectural out-growths of religious expression.

  5. Matthew
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I’ll start by owning up to not having read his piece, only the comment here (I’ve got a thesis to submit; I’ve bookmarked his article). But at least reading his comment, I take him to be making the following point: it’s bad science to simply say that religion causes all of the problems that occur under its banner. Once you’ve done even a smidgen of epidemiology, you realize how difficult it is to infer causation. Yes, men opress women and appeal to religion to justify doing so (for example). I’m not terribly confident, though, that if all those men stopped believing they’d all of a sudden become feminists. People often do bad things and will find whatever is near to hand justify that behaviour.

    Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t point out the ludicrousness of appealing to religious authority to justify that behaviour. Nor to trying to get less people to believe in angels and transubstantiation. But I suspect that at least part of the motivation of those criticizing New Atheists for their rhetoric is the thought that their causal hypotheses are naive and usually taken to be more than hypotheses but incontrovertible fact. (Just take the first comment: do we really want to say that sex offenders were caused to molest children because of their religious beliefs? I mean, come on. As scientists we should be a bit more sophisticated about the causation of behaviour. That kind of view of psychology is identical to the one presupposed by those who say that if you’re an atheist you must be a nihilist who robs and rapes.)

    • Matthew
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Sorry. I don’t think I’ve made it all clear how I got that from what he said. It’s the stuff about being grating and juvenile. I take the direct causal link between religion and immoral behaviour that some New Atheists at times seem to presuppose is juvenile. Yes, a society’s degree of religiosity correlates highly with crime rates for example. But religiosity highly correlates with inequality as well. So maybe inequality is a common cause.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Matthew

        My quoting the news in that way doesn’t entail religion being the ultimate or underlying or ‘real’ cause of such actions. But religion is surely functioning to justify and excuse them (from one person’s head, to generally in society).

        However,

        I’m not terribly confident, though, that if all those men stopped believing they’d all of a sudden become feminists.

        is a straw man. No-one thinks this for a second, apart from theists or faitheists trying to make some mud stick.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Matt,

        Religion is very effective excuse to do bad things claiming that all this is for greater good. If someone dislike women he can easily shift motives and responsibility of his actions to religion and he will be mostly excused by other religious.
        No one is thinking that removing religion will make bad people good. That would be childish proposition. As Steve Weinberg said: “Bad people will do bad things, and good people will do good things. To do bad things by good people it needs religion”. Removing religion makes doing bad things much more difficult.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      “it’s bad science to simply say that religion causes all of the problems that occur under its banner.”

      So we are not to take the faithful at their word that they oppose stem-cell research because their religion tells them its murder? That they oppose HPV vaccines because their religion tells them it would promote immoral promiscuity? That they oppose same-sex marriage because their religion tells them it is an abomination?

      It seems patronizing in the extreme not to take believers at their word about the relationship between their beliefs and their actions.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        So we are not to take the faithful at their word that they oppose stem-cell research because their religion tells them its murder?

        So we are not to take the faithful at their word that they support stem-cell research because their religion tells them that we should do whatever we can to heal the sick?

        Wait! how can both questions be correctly premised on seemingly contradictory statements about what the faithful say?

        The answer is that the faithful are not a homogenous group that all say one thing or another.

        What group of people might make the former statement?

        Morons who are religious.

        What group of people might make the latter statement?

        Nice folk who are religious.

        It turns out the distinction is important.

    • Andrew Alexander
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Stan Pak,

      Here is Freeman Dyson’s Reply to Steven Weinberg:

      “ Weinberg’s statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: “And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion.” The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” he said, “I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.[33]

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things

        That would be nice.
        Unfortunately the reality denies that. It is not small fraction at all. Just 3 (of many) examples of observations:

        Over 2 million procedures female genital mutilation (FGM) is performed every year

        Millions of people die of AIDS because they are effectively discouraged from use of condoms.

        There is no day where we hear in press or tv about violence motivated by religion worldwide.

        How about abuses of women in Arab countries?

        BTW. Where are those bad persons who do good for religious motives?

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Where are those bad persons who do good for religious motives?

        There are about 6 of them, out of the total world population of 7 billion. They are hiding.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        I will just point that case of female genital mutilation (FGM) is especially demolishing for Freeman Dyson’s faulty logic. Precisely for 3 reasons:

        1. The deed (FGM) is utterly evil. It is painful, life-threatening, debilitating for whole life. It is comparable to amputation of penis’ without anesthesia in male. So we have our “bad thing” here.

        2. People doing this are parents loving (mostly) their children and thinking that they are doing good thing to their children. So here are our “good people”.

        3. The only single motive for those parents is religion. An illusion.

        We have 2 millions mutilated children every year by good people done for only religious reasons. And this is only one thing of many that can be clearly addressed to religion.
        2M of 50% of population of 163M new born every year that makes 2.5% of all women in the world. Well, is it a “small fraction” indeed? And the only reason is sticking to “illusion” which by some faitheists is perceived as benign phenomena.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        I would have said that FGM was one of the weakest examples since it is a tribal/cultural practice only loosely associated with some Islamic sects, obligatory in very few, forbidden by most, and practiced by tribal Africans and western Asians of three different religions – the holy books of none of which command it.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        smijer:

        You just basically try to say that motive for FGM is not religion (Islam) and therefore my case is weak. Does it really make much difference if it is Islam or different kind of local superstition or mix of both? I doubt that deeply.

        Local/tribal superstitions are qualitatively not different than Islam or other mainstream religions. Islam or Christianity are nothing but tribal superstitions which just have got to be widely popular through centuries. These parents are doing this things to their children not because it [FGM] is just popular but because of the contents of their beliefs. These beliefs are not products of rational thinking but rather indications of certain particular dogma. It does not matter if it is “pure” Islam dogma or Christian dogma or local/tribal dogma.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Not the contents of their religious beliefs – which are Islam, Judaism, or Christianity alternatively – rather the contents of their local custom. I know of no “superstition” associated with it. Local mores are more to blame.

        Of course, if you think about it the same way you think about religion, one could deduce from this that morals are evil and poison everything…

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        smijer:

        In literal sense of “religion” you are right that FGM is mostly a result of some local customs and is even condemned (at least oficially) by major religions of today. But the people doing that believe that this custom is part of their religion too (like christmas tree or Santa in the West). Just look here at “Causes” section of this WHO document:
        http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/
        Besides this “custom” can have roots in some ancient and once forgotten beliefs that provided firmer “reasons” for that practice. From the above document you can clearly see that there are some strong particular beliefs behind it whether dictated by some social or heavenly norm.

        It does not much matter if the source of dogma is particular belief system (set of beliefs) we call “religion” or it is coming from tradition or your government, social circle, sect etc. This is not much point of what Weinberg was saying. He used word “religion” but I am sure he would use “dogma” here as well (if the context of his words were dogmatism and not religion).

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        Stan, I think you & I are in essential agreement. Here:

        It does not much matter if the source of dogma is particular belief system (set of beliefs) we call “religion” or it is coming from tradition or your government, social circle, sect etc. This is not much point of what Weinberg was saying. He used word “religion” but I am sure he would use “dogma” here as well (if the context of his words were dogmatism and not religion).

        I’ll again suggest that the word we are looking for is “mores”, and that some qualifier to indicate that they are harmful is in order. “Dogma” may be the wrong word because it is specialized to the catholic religion.

        But yes, irrational and harmful ideas are largely the cause of harm. Religion isn’t defined as “irrational and harmful ideas”. It is defined as supernaturalistic thinking – which I agree is irrational and can sometimes be harmful.

        The biggest point is what deserves a visit from the axe: the twigs of religion indiscriminate of its ethical content, or the root of irrational and harmful thinking in general?

        It would appear that you & I agree it is the latter rather than the former.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

        smijer:

        One of meaning of “dogma”
        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dogma :

        An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true. (emphasis added – SP)

        Source of the “dogma” does not matter much for the argument (and case of FGM I was using). It can be a church, leader, scripture, organization, your role model, dream etc. It is the attachment to that idea that causes people to think it is absolutely true without reasons or evidence (or even thinking about that subject) which matters. In case of “mores” the source of authority is tradition – and it is equally fallacious.
        I use word “dogma” in the sense as in the quote. Religion and mores are just instances of dogmas which differ in source of authority.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        Stan, I’ll revoke my quibble over dogma as an essentially religious term and substitute a quibble over whether the mores in question qualify for that term given their status as customary behavior rather than the result of customary belief about truth-claims. I may be mistaken but I don’t think that there is any truth claim behind FGM comparable, for instance, to the claims that vaccines will sterilize. My understanding is that is done just because it is valued as a good thing by the practitioners.

        But yeah – I think we’re getting on the same essential wavelength now – getting closer to the real root of the harm.

        I think that’s important. Ordinary Christians in the U.S. know that religion doesn’t cause them to do all sorts of nefarious things. If we insist that it does in spite of the fact that they go about their ordinary lives doing ordinary things like everyone else, they’ll just think we are stupid.

        And more importantly, of course, you solve problems by addressing the underlying causes, not attacking blindly anything we associate with the ills.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        smijer:

        You said:

        […] Ordinary Christians in the U.S. know that religion doesn’t cause them to do all sorts of nefarious things. If we insist that it does in spite of the fact that they go about their ordinary lives doing ordinary things like everyone else, they’ll just think we are stupid.

        You use qualificator “ordinary” for Christians – who you actually mean as “ordinary”? If you are “true” believer in Scripture you are obliged to do some nefarious things like: killing apostates, your children (for cursing you), homosexuals, leaving families to follow Jesus, etc. You just follow the Scottsman fallacy by saying that “ordinary” people (I presume that you mean “majority” by that) are not motivated by religion to do bad things. (the others who do bad things are not “true” christians enough).
        Majority of people (regardless if they are religious or not) does not bad things precisely against prescriptions written in Scripture(s). They have more rational reasons to not to do that, i.e. they can be afraid of the policemen or repercussions, or they can just have bad feeling about doing so, etc.

        If a person does stick to his/her opinion which has been proven to be false (to reasonable extent) and does not accept evidence that contradicts such belief – yes – he/she qualifies to be named stupid.

        I personally think that religious people are not born stupid. They were unfortunately brought up into the stupidity from the childhood. They are under influence of this delusion and they just cannot see it through because their thinking has been effectively blinded on evidence and (sometimes) logic. They even are aware that this is plain nonsense (I know such persons), but they prefer to stick to it for emotional reasons and they see their dogmatism as a virtue because they were told this as a child. They are proud to be stupid. Truth has not much value for them.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Stan Pak

        I’ve been trying too but every time you spot what you think are smijer’s goalposts they evaporate into religious mist.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        Stan – far be it from me to invoke the no true scotsman fallacy. But, you know – straw man Christianity based on what an atheist who probably hasn’t read the Bible thinks scripture obliges Christians to do – that’s not much better.

        Fact is, I live and work in the Bible belt and observe the diversity of Christian belief, attitude and behavior. In fact, my wife speaks in tongues and wouldn’t harm a fly. Generalizations about the hook-nosed Christians with horns just don’t cut it in real life.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        smijer –

        I’ve been reading (mostly lurking) on science blogs for a few months and based on what I’ve seen I take some exception to

        far be it from me to invoke the no true scotsman fallacy. But, you know – straw man Christianity based on what an atheist who probably hasn’t read the Bible thinks scripture obliges Christians to do – that’s not much better

        In my long experience most Christians know a good less about the bible and its provenance than most atheists here.

        There’s also a difference between quoting the bible (which most Christians do without thinking) and reading it.

        To return to the comment subject (finally) it’s why James Woods comes across as such a plonker. Woods assumes other atheists are like him, just striking a pose. Whereas many of us realise this is about very real issues in a world that uses god to santify many, or most, of its evils.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        In my long experience most Christians know a good less about the bible and its provenance than most atheists here.

        I don’t know about most atheists here, but I’m one of those atheists who knows substantially more about the Bible than most Christians who haven’t done time in seminary. The guys here strike me as dilletantes… maybe fans of Skeptic’s Annotated, but unfamiliar with scripture as it is interpreted by the church. Maybe I’m wrong about them… I was just responding to the ludicrous notion that “true” Christians are “obligated by scripture” to stone apostates, homosexuals, etc… Clearly, the guys in the pews every Sunday are ahead of that guy…. Going so far as to suggest that I’m using the NTS fallacy when he is the one claiming that the millions of faithful who attend church every Sunday are not “true” Christians because they don’t feel obligated to do bad shit. Like I said, my wife speaks in tongues… tell me she ain’t a “true” Christian.

        Anyway.. I’m not here to defend James Wood.. My interest in the conversation stops and ends with identifying the real causes behind the ills Jerry mentioned in his post and attributes to “religion”.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        You do not get it.

        I do not intend to call you or others like you by names. I just wanted to explain why religious qualify (in certain areas of their beliefs) to be named stupid. I did not draw religious as hooke-nosed with horns. You did that. It is your strawman.

        It is not important if “bible says so” or person that reads just have chosen particular interpretation. There were and are wars on interpretation of certain holy texts. It does not matter for the core of argument. Ultimately everything (all our actions) is based on interpretation. What matters is the relation to claims of truth. You just do not follow my points.

        It is perfectly possible to hold certain “harmless” dogmas and be rational in other things (like shopping, finances, etc.). Problem starts not when these dogmas are just subject of someone’s personal hobby but when they affect life of others.

        I am addressing problem of bringing children to believe unquestionably that dogmas are absolutely true or authorities are source of ultimate truth. We are humans and (especially as children) we are prone to bad thinking, suggestions of figures of authority, parents and teachers – we suck the information we just have given. And if we do not have other information (best in form of evidence) at hand we treat even bad information as tentative truth. This not particularly bad strategy but if you are taught that in the process of reconciliation of different points of view and facts you may disregard evidence and the source authority has monopoly on truth – your thinking capabilities are effectively neutralized and blinded. From this point you just perceive any claim as mere “opinion” regardless its baking in evidence. If this is injected early in life it is very difficult for the person to change it.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Sorry if I over-reacted to your over-generalizations about religion.

        However, it isn’t that I don’t get it or don’t follow your points. It’s that I’m in full agreement with you that children shouldn’t be taught to treat dogma as authority. I’m not going to argue with you about the things we agree on.

        I agree that this is bad, and that it is one thing that many religious people do. Not because they believe in the supernatural – not because they read a “holy” book – not because they speak in tongues. Because they don’t know a better way to think. As we’ve discussed people think poorly in a variety of contexts, not limited to religion.

        Poor thinking should be addressed by teaching better thinking.

        Religion will survive, thrive, improve, fall, become more reactionary, become more marginalized, further diversify, further consolidate, or *whatever else* in the fallout of the process of getting people to think better.

        And, honestly, I don’t care what becomes of it. Religion is auxiliary to the problem.

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        This nonsense is totally blown out of the water by the actual statistics.
        Ask yourself as to the rate of compulsory infant genital mutilation that is demanded by the world’s religions.
        You must include male infants as well as female.
        In the most popular delusional cults (Abrahamic faiths) the rate is near to 100%!!!

        This one crime alone lends a absolute lie to the ultimate phrase above.
        If one is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, 100% of good people are led by their religion to commit child abuse.

        Let’s not hear of Dyson’s ignorant lie again, thank you.

  6. Thanny
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Maybe he should take the time to read both Dawkins and Hitchens. It’s clear he hasn’t read anything but second-hand accounts or blurbs, because he’s completely misrepresenting the positions of both on the historical and cultural impact of religion.

    In other words, he’s beating on straw men just like the apologists, and consequently his complaints about “new atheism” are no more justified than those from religious quarters.

  7. Andrew Alexander
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I really like reading the New Yorker for their long-form piece, but I did read the recent James Woods essay.

    James Woods is the type of atheist that is logical and intelligent, and thus gives me hope that I could convince him to be a Christian.

    Your two cents on the matter is the very tired and wrong argument that religion does enormous damage. We could have a long debate about whether not religous beliefs are good or bad for society. However, the enormous fallacy in this argument is much more mechanical, and is just an operation of logic.

    You say that religion is to blame for many monstrosities. You also say that religion is an illusion, made up by people for some reason or another. If these two ideas need to be held simultaneously, and you can not use them at different times to prove different things, then they are incompatible. Because religion was made up by people, and religion is responsible for horrible things, then by operation of logic, people are responsible for horrible things. If A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C.

    It turns out that people are the root cause of evil. Not a surprise to me, but probably earth shattering for you.

    Andrew

    • Jer
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I think you will find that no atheist takes issue with the statement “people are the root cause of injustice in the world”, if only because they have no one else to blame it on.

      The problem we tend to have is believers who want to shove the responsibility for the world’s injustice off to entities that don’t exist. Its only once people stop looking to gods for the cause of the problems in the world and start looking at each other – including political structures like religions – that we can start solving problems like injustice.

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Not earth shattering at all. Do you raelly think you scored a “gotcha!” with this? Let’s look at your logic again:

      Because religion was made up by people, and religion is responsible for horrible things, then by operation of logic, people are responsible for horrible things.

      Seems reasonable to me. But the conclusion to draw from this is not that atheists have an inconsistent position.

      Assuming that we as human beings all want to reduce the number of horrible things happening, your logic leads us to two possible courses of action:
      1. Encourage religion to stop causing horrible things to happen.
      2. Encourage people to stop making up religion.

      Number (1) is near impossible, as you’d be arguing with people who think God wants these horrible things to happen. How can you argue with that? Especially when you don’t even believe in God? So number (2) is what atheists (“New” or otherwise) try to achieve, for instance by pointing out that religion is made up.

      So, thanks for pointing out that what atheists are doing is actually entirely rational.

      • Andrew Alexander
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Option #3 is to encourage people to not do horrible things. This is easily the most rational and direct way, but your forgot to mention it.

        Your welcome.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Option #3 is to encourage people to not do horrible things. This is easily the most rational and direct way, but your forgot to mention it.

        Sure, this might work on people who already acknowledge that religion is made up. Possibly even for people who think it’s mostly made up.

        However, your option still fails in a similar way as option (1): You won’t convince people who believe that God told them to do it, or that God tells them that what they’re doing isn’t really horrible, but is in fact The Right Thing To Do. In that case, option (2) is still a completely viable option.

        Oh, and it’s “You’re welcome”.

    • Darek
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Because religion was made up by people, and religion is responsible for horrible things, then by operation of logic, people are responsible for horrible things. If A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C.

      Well, because religion was made by people and people are responsible for horrible things, doesn’t that make religion a horrible thing if people are its root? Saying B causes C in this context is the same thing as saying A causes C. You’ve sold the store, thanks.

      James Woods is the type of atheist that is logical and intelligent, and thus gives me hope that I could convince him to be a Christian.

      Yeah… good luck with that.

  8. Jer
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    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 …

    I think I’m offended by this. Because you see I love astrology. I love the history of it, the myths that the Greeks and the Romans and the Babylonians and the Mayans and others came up with about the various sky gods and images that they found. The fascinating calendars and cycles that led to modern astronomy. All of it, I love it.

    In much the same way, I actually love the mythology of the Bible – Old and New Testament – and the mythology of the Hindu religion and mythology of religions in general. It’s all great fun – even the horrible bits about genocides and wars and horrible things that the various gods do. Because its myth and it tells you wonderful things about the psychological conditions of the people who came up with these stories and justifications and rationales for the world they lived in pre-scientific method.

    The problem that I have with religion is exactly the same one I have with astrology – it only occurs when people actually believe that their made up system of mythology is something divinely inspired or physically real. Then the problems occur. So to me astrology and religion are exactly the same – beautiful in the same ways and terrifying in the same ways.

  9. Tom
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Andrew

    People do bad things – not earthshattering for anyone here I expect.

    But do you honestly believe that people’s attitudes and behaviour is fixed from birth? that their culture and environment has _no_ impact? If you don’t, do you think religious belief might have an effect?

  10. Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I’m guessing Wood’s reason for dismissing Dawkins’ public claim to “cultural Christian” must have been too wordy for a New Yorker piece.

    In the end, that Wood clearly didn’t intend to be taken very seriously (critiquing the tone of an argument!) in the piece under discussion gives me the all the excuse I need to continue reading his excellent book reviews.

  11. newenglandbob
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I already called out Wood in the other thread and said similar things that Jerry and his colleague said. Wood’s response shows he has his head in the sand and denies reality. He should stick to literary criticism and let others deal with reality.

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      I found it telling that Wood latched on to the “contempt” in your last few sentences. He did not address the fact that all these questions relate to current events (like the Ryan report, or the antics of the TBOE). Nor did he acknowledge your substantial points about Dawkins’ often expressed fondness of churches and church music. This doesn’t make a good first impression on me.

  12. Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    If there could only be an international concession that religion is cultural mythology. There really is nothing left to “engage” with once this has been established.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Actually no, because astrology has been established as cultural mythology and it still rears its stupid head all over the place.

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I spoke to a woman the other day and she mentioned being an advocate of astrology. She said, “It’s a science you know.”

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Face palm!

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Yep, I’m also fantasizing about a code blue concession.

  13. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I am, quite frankly, a bit shocked that James Wood should have used the Fawlty Towers example to show Dawkins’ contempt for religion. It’s just used as a humourous example of HADD, along with the example of the man who tripped over his (clearly guilty) shoelace and destroyed some priceless Qing vases. At other places Dawkins shows great respect for the artistic products (for example, Bach’s St Matthew Passion) of religion, and I think that Dawkins, along with Hitchens – who goes out of his way to point out his respect for the beauty of the holy places of others, in contrast to the Taliban, who didn’t, in the case of the Bamiyan Buddhas – would be greatly troubled if the cathedrals of Europe were razed to the ground.

    After having made a pilgrimage to see some of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in England, the indelible impression was left with me that these, despite their grace and beauty, were also memorials to great wealth, power, privilege and injustice. There may be some point in trying to understand religious beliefs, rather than simply to point out that they are just illusory. One of the problems with doing this is that when you do it you appear to take them seriously, and lend them greater credibility than they deserve. Sometimes it is important just to point out the obvious, that, however intricate and profound religious beliefs may appear, they are, after all, illusions, very often dangerous ones, and that these illusions underlie much of the injustice that has been, and still is being, done. If it seems jejune to point this out, perhaps a few words of Ibn Warraq (Why I am not a Muslim) are apt here: “I shall set out the arguments to show the absurdities of the legend [of the flood], even though it may seem that I am belaboring the obvious. I wish more people would belabor the obvious, and more often.” (133)

    If Dawkins is, as James Woods suggests, a curiously 19th century figure, it is perhaps because contemporary events make it clear that we did not learn the lessons then, and need more urgently to learn them now. If James Woods doesn’t think so, perhaps he should look around.

  14. Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    What’s being ignored by many “New Atheists” is that religion is often the way that the disenfranchised and/or lower classes deal with the world, organize, and many times do some good (and often do otherwise). Arguably (see Max Weber), Puritans with their values are causal for how capitalism arose.

    The civil rights struggle is well known to have been based heavily in black churches. Of course theoretically it could have been different, but it’s not at all easy to show how it could have been practically so, given the context.

    You can complain all you wish about “legacies” of religion afflicting us, but that doesn’t actually tell us that those values aren’t simply those that the non-bourgeois would tend to have anyway. I know that the bourgeoisie think they’re right because they have control, yet that is not a demonstrable truth.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Of course God’s will is often used to rationalize disenfranchisement. There is no better way to perpetuate disenfranchisement of the disempowered than to claim that it’s God’s will. Likewise, there is no better way to rationalize disenfranchisement among the disempowered than to excuse it on the premise of God’s will.

    • Mike Barnes
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Glen

      I’m sure what you say is right about black churches in the Civil Rights era. But other evidence goes against your point.

      The 19th Century in the UK was filled with bourgeois anguish about religion failing among the masses and the poor. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, titled his account of preaching among the poor, ‘In Darkest England’ (a slightly racist play on then current African exploration by whites).

      For many of the poor in 19th C England it was community organisations they turned to: from drinking clubs to working class associations to unions. These left few records and no churches. This kind of secular belief system – solidarity in the face of poverty – is something you’re perhaps overlooking.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      Come now. Are you arguing that the ends justifies the means? Depending on the context, the means can include: irrationality, lying, sophistry, etc.

      That’s sorta like saying one can’t criticize theft without recognizing the disenfranchised frequently resort to theft in order to provide for themselves when other methods fail. Well, that’s a great argument for changing the circumstances that require theft, but it in no way suggests that theft should be appreciated on any level.

  15. Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I finally read Wood’s review. Reading about it for so long, I expected Crayola-scribbled glossolalia of infantile stupidity… or something. But Wood is bang-on about the tendency of “new atheism” to drastically oversimplify its nemesis. [I did say “tendency.” It’s too bad he lumps Sam Harris in with Dawkins–two very different birds, IMHO.]

    Oddly, though Wood faults Dawkins for subscribing to the cartoonish YHWH-as-CEO model, he then faults Eagleton for not being invested in such a model, and for being insufficiently Christocentric.

    I agree with you that Wood’s essay glaringly omits the Architeuthis in the living room (props to P.Z.): the insane, enormously evil, world-warping behavior of lots and lots and lots of religious people. Any thoughtful religious person (I swear it’s not an oxymoron) who doesn’t think to himself almost daily, “I can totally see why X hates religion” has to be in a monastery or Himalayan cave.

    I’m also with ya on the ivory-tower stuff… I love it when intellectuals act all concerned with “the actual faith that people live their lives by” and then spend countless column-inches on Aquinas, Maimonides, Pasolini, Wittgenstein, Rawls, et al. Sure he’s discussing the first two to help give us a handle on Eagleton’s ideas, but the only place it leads him is to the facile implication that attempts to re-imagine the sacred amount only to “dialectical chicanery.”

    Unlike Wood, I can’t wish a plague on both houses. I love ’em both, even though they routinely vex the hell out of me.

  16. Adrian Griffis
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I have not read the particular Dawkins comment that Wood references, but it occurs to me, in general, that religious people often confuse the relationship between criticism and contempt. To treat people respectfully, we are not required to completely avoid criticizing them. Surely part of growing up should be to learn to deal with criticism gracefully. If Dawkins was simply criticizing Christian beliefs beliefs, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear Christians complaining that he is showing them contempt. Faith is all about showing ones loyalty through belief, and to one who believes that faith is a virtue, it is easy to confuse criticism with contempt. It would only surprises a little more if an athiest who listened a lot to Christian complaints over criticism occasionally stumbled and confused criticism with contempt. After all, if we are genuinely trying to engage Christians in discussion, we ought to open ourselves to feeling sympathy for them, and sympathy, while admirable, can sometimes lead us astray.

    The real question is, what was Dawkins saying? Was he really showing Christians contempt, or was he using an amusing analogy to highlight the absurdity of some aspect of Christian doctrine?

    Adrian

    • David Ratnasabapathy
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Adrian:

      Surely not contempt! Dawkins’ position, it seems to me, is that everyone, when exposed to the facts, can see the rationality of atheism. That’s not contempt, that’s respect.

      Contempt is for the liars, the charlatans who will loudly claim the protection of God while locking their doors at night.

  17. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    We are not always fighting the fundamentalists

    Clearly this man is not a biologist.

  18. Sili
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I think I should go back and read the original piece, but the Wood of this comment charms me. He sounds like a good chap. Just a tad misinformed – naïve perhaps.

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

    This, though, I’ve never noticed. Please direct me to where Dawkypoo disparages our cultural heritage. Christmas carols may not be high art, but I assumed they were just an example of his ‘accomodationism’.

    Personally, I adore Bach – hell, I love Poulenc’s Gloria and oodles of other church music.

  19. Posted September 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

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

    I admire James Wood’s reviews, but that claim (as several people have noted) is really, to be blunt, tone-deaf. Dawkins always sounds no such thing. He is energetic and eloquent in his passion for poetry and other aesthetic pleasures. I think he (like all sane people) would mind enormously if the cathedrals of Europe were razed – and that’s not just my hunch, it’s rooted in the fact that he does talk about aesthetic enthusiasm. He’s not a robot – and if Wood is going to say harsh things about him in public, then he really ought to know that.

  20. Stuart
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Wood might want to re-consider his diction: Illusion vs. Delusion

  21. Posted September 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Furthermore…

    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?

    Well it may be more interesting, but what is more interesting is not the only criterion, is it. (And actually not everyone on this website does know it is an illusion – several claim that it isn’t.) One reason atheists think it’s worth being vocal (and even repetitive) is the fact that in many places atheism is taboo, to put it mildly. Things that are taboo are kept that way by being unfamiliar, unknown, sinister, surrounded by horrors. Making atheism more public and Normal is one way to overcome that.

  22. Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I read James Wood’s New Yorker essay with great pleasure. He hits many nails on the head. The last paragraph is particularly eloquent. Re JC’s complaint that Wood should side more squarely with Dawkins & Co. because of the harm done by religion: I suspect somebody at some pro-religion blog has made the opposite point–that he should side more squarely with religion because of the way people like Paul Farmer and Jimmy Carter are inspired by Christianity. Sure, his article would be more complete if he’d thrown in a sentence decrying religious bad guys and admiring religious good guys…but it’s fine with me that he took the mixed truth as common knowledge.

    • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      You mean the Jimmy Carter who left the Southern Baptist because of their refusal to recognize female equality?

      • Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Right, that one. The scientist-ex-president-pastor who talks about being inspired by The Prince of Peace, travels around the world overseeing elections, and writes passionate books about injustice in the middle east.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 3, 2009 at 3:07 am | Permalink

      Sorry Jean, I don’t buy it. Sure, some Christians do good things. Good for Paul Farmer and President Carter. The point is that religion in general today is taking a pretty dangerous line. Rememeber, that when Harris and Dawkins wrote their first takes on this, some kind of a theoocracy was in the making in the US. An illusion? Maybe, but it seemed more and more possible. And now, with Islam insisting, at the point of the sword, that it be given respect – yes, that is a religion out of the ninth century claiming absolute respect for its inhuman principles – do you really think a couple of nice religious guys is enough to warrant backpedaling on criticism of religion? I don’t. In fact, I’m all for turning up the volume. I have nothing but contempt for religion, and not as much respect for Cathedrals as Wood. I’m not disposed to cut religion some slack, until religion recognises that it’s only one voice amongst others, and that not the most intelligent or reasonable one. When they’ve got that point, and stop speaking as though they already rule the world, then perhaps it’ll be time to say, ‘That’s a nice little faith you’ve got there. I hope it makes the dark more comfortable.’ But not until then. The truth isn’t mixed enough.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        “do you really think a couple of nice religious guys is enough to warrant backpedaling on criticism of religion”

        I just can’t agree with you that Paul Farmer and Jimmy Carter are the exception that proves the rule (or some such). The list could go on, and on, and on. So could the list of religious malfeasance…so net score unclear. That means it’s unfair to accuse James Wood of an “ivory tower disconnect” from the world just because his essay is not about the bad (or good) done by religion. With a net score that’s unclear, it’s not incumbent on him to align himself more with religion critics. Just because you think there’s no God doesn’t automatically make you a critic of the whole institution. (It’s interesting how many atheist psychologists there are who see religion as a positive force. They can all be written off as “faithiests” but they come by their views honestly…and based on empirical research!)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 5, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        It’s interesting how many atheist psychologists there are who see religion as a positive force. They can all be written off as “faithiests” [sic!] but they come by their views honestly…and based on empirical research!

        Testing religion on negative or positive effects isn’t faitheism, which is “belief in belief”. And the jury is out on whether religion has positive or negative effects on all psychological states. You are welcome to cite any references, which you seem to have forgotten.

        What is clear is that it has a lot of negative effects on many of those states. See for example fundamentalism.

  23. Posted September 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Jerry said –

    This situation, and its attendant irrationality, is what motivates the “new atheists,” and this motivation is precisely what Wood ignores.

    Quite. This was my point about atheism being taboo. Wood seems to think atheist ‘contempt’ (as he calls it) is unmotivated and random, as if Dawkins and Hitchens were irritable about religion just for the hell of it. But ‘new’ atheists have reasons for being irritable on the subject. It’s a tad superficial to ignore that aspect of the matter.

  24. Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Wood wrote

    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.

    I dunno about Hitchens, but I’ve read ever book Dawkins has published and many of his articles, and I can’t recall ever reading anything that would suggest that. In “The God Delusion” Dawkins was pretty careful to specify just what he was objecting to b way of religion, and Wood misrepresents it in that paragraph.

  25. Posted September 2, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Here is my simplistic take: I dismiss astrology without studying the more detailed and nuanced aspects of it.

    It is a “oh, no evidence…move on” sort of thing for me.

    It seems as if the default should be “ok, you’ll be taken seriously when there is evidence for it”.

  26. Veronica Abbass
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Jean Kazez

    “people like Paul Farmer and Jimmy Carter are inspired by Christianity.”

    Are you saying that Jimmy Carter behaves this way because he is a Christian and he would not behave this way if he were not a Christian?

    • Posted September 4, 2009 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      Could be. If you watch Jonathan Demme’s film “Man from Plains” that’s the impression you get. Of course, it doesn’t follow that amazing things are only done by Christians.

  27. Posted September 3, 2009 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Has he read The God Delusion or heard Dawkins talk on the matter? When he says things like this:

    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.

    It seems like he’s taking the characterture of Dawkins and mistaking it for the real person.

    • Mike Barnes
      Posted September 3, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      smijer –

      I opened comments with a BBC news story about sex offender Philip Garrido, who kidnapped a girl in California (and may be guilty of much else).

      People who knew Garrido said he became increasingly fanatic about his religious beliefs in recent years, sometimes breaking out into song and claiming that God spoke to him through a box.

      You countered that this was not his Christianity that caused the harm, it was his faulty thinking.

      Garrido isn’t a true Christian?

      Garrido registered a corporation called Gods Desire at his home address… Garrido would talk about quitting the printing business to preach full time and gave the impression he was setting up a church

      How can we ever tell the difference?

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:12 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t claim that Garrido was not a “true Christian”. I would claim that it was something other than Christianity that prompted him to commit the evil acts in question – especially considering that those particular acts are forbidden by Christianity. From your description of him, it may be schizophrenia that is the culprit.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        Mike Barnes:

        smijer has a fixation on ‘something else, not religion’ is the problem and nothing, including evidence, will sway him from that.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        including evidence

        Try me.. it would spice up the conversation.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        Your nonsense has already been picked apart by several people here who gave examples. Just because you are blind to it, your fixation is a dead carcass. When one runs around with a hammer like you do, everything looks like a nail. Quoting scripture on this website is never evidence. One might as well quote “Through the Looking Glass” or any other fiction.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Bob, I recommend you look up “evidence” in a dictionary somewhere and get back with me. Might also look up “hand-waving”. Compare to such comments as “you’re speculating all over the place”, and “the heart of the matter is… the rest is useless commentary”. I think you’ll find that the latter expression better characterizes the majority of responses to me on this thread.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Hammer. Nail. Denial.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Case in point.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 5, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

        I would claim that it was something other than Christianity that prompted him to commit the evil acts in question – especially considering that those particular acts are forbidden by Christianity. From your description of him, it may be schizophrenia that is the culprit.

        Whether religion forbids the acts in question isn’t relevant, only the claims of support the person has. Somehow his sickness has been receptive to religious claims.

        This is not uncommon for schizophrenia AFAIU, while atheism seems to be very uncommon as a claim for motivation. The problem you have is to explain how this is.

      • Posted September 5, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        This is not uncommon for schizophrenia AFAIU, while atheism seems to be very uncommon as a claim for motivation. The problem you have is to explain how this is.

        That’s pretty speculative… I won’t make an official guess, but when creating justification for a decision, it only makes sense to me that you go to where there is content. Atheism is more or less content-free, so a content-laden system like theism is a better choice.

        While “claimed” motivation is interesting, for purposes of this discussion the important point is that psychosis was the reason for the act, rather than religious belief.

  28. Mike Barnes
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    smijer –

    But isn’t the problem that Christianity accepts sinners who commit ‘evil acts’ every day, as long as they accept an imaginary Jesus.

    Christianity depends on such ‘evil acts’ forbidden by its rules, otherwise it couldn’t offer forgiveness:

    Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid.

    That’s George Sodini, who shot dead three women in Pittsburg.

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Mike… I think your understanding of Christian theology/soteriology is somewhat impoverished.

      If the problem were what you suggest, then 1) most Christians would believe exactly that or something close to it, 2) few Christians would actually try to live up to the moral standards of their own religion, let alone larger society.

      Since we see neither of these things, thankfully we can answer your question in the negative without delving into Christian theology. If you do wish to explore it in more depth, however, Paul was the major proponent of a doctrine similar to the one expressed in your comment, and you can get a glimpse of Paul’s own view from Galatians 5, especially starting in verse 13.

      • Mike Barnes
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        smijer –

        The trouble with your very evanescent Christianity is that practically no ordinary Christian would share it. To paraphrase Regis Debray, it

        can never link up with the actual facts of this Christian, here and now…

        By the fact that you reject every concrete embodiment of Christianity from your theoretical circle of pure forms, you are actually expelling yourself from the reality of history. The wheel always comes full circle: the Christian is always right.

        PS As I’m sure you know, the earliest copy of Galatians dates from 200 CE. What Paul may or may not have thought about anything is pretty unknowable 15 centuries after he dictated it, and that’s damned accurate by biblical standards.

      • Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        Mike, I was the one appealing to the actions, beliefs and scriptures of real Christians rather than a simplistic generalization of Christian soteriology. I’m guessing that between the two characterizations, it is yours that is unreflective of the bulk of practicing Christians.

        The provenance of Galatians is not disputed, nor is the essential wording confused much in the various mss. It isn’t as though I am arguing from the pericope of the adulteress to the character of Jesus. Paul’s view on the free versus the libertine are uncontroversial.

  29. newenglandbob
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    (CNN) — A Muslim teenager from Ohio says her father threatened to kill her because she converted to Christianity.

    Rifqa Bary, 17, ran away from her family in Columbus, Ohio, in July and took refuge in the central Florida home of the Rev. Blake Lorenz with the Global Revolution Church in Orlando.

    The teen heard of the pastor and his church through a prayer group on Facebook. The girl’s parents reported her missing to Columbus police, who found her two weeks later in Florida through cell phone records.

    The teenager, in a sworn affidavit, claims her father, Mohamed Bary, 47, was pressured by the mosque the family attends in Ohio to “deal with the situation.” In the court filing, Rifqa Bary stated her father said, “If you have this Jesus in your heart, you are dead to me!” The teenager claims her father added, “I will kill you!”

    Read the rest HERE.

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Rifqa Bary’s case isn’t as clear-cut as CNN, WorldNetDaily, and the Pentecostal groups that are up in arms about her make it out to be. Certainly, no matter what the facts are, the situation is very unfortunate.

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Sorry about that link – to the post in question instead of the comments. This is one of several from Bartholomew on the subject.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      We’ll see what the courts say and not a blog opinion.

  30. Scott
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    “To say that those of us who are alarmed about this fact don’t appreciate Chartres and Notre Dame is, to put it mildly, dilettantish.”

    Nonsense. This is the epistemic equivalent of having trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time.

  31. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Well, there, I’ve sprung $4.99 an got access to the article. It’s hard writing about something when you only have a few quotes to go by. But when you come right down to the real thing, it’s hard to know what to say. I find it troubling, for example, that Dr. Wood continues to use Eagleton’s composite ‘Ditchkins,’ a literary fumble that permits him to say anything and nothing about his two chief adversaries. Nor am I convinced that he has given sufficient grounds for the claims that he makes about Dawkins or Hitchens and their intolerant certainty and contempt for some of the products of religion, including the fact that we come at the end of a long history of religious believing which is our history too.

    For instance, the reference to Fawlty Towers in relation to Dawkins’ explanation of HADD is simply a misunderstanding. HADD has, according to most cognitive theories of religion, a great deal to do with the development of supernatural or numinous agents. This is not just a shot in the dark. This is a part of the cognitive theory of religion that is being developed by people like Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, Todd Tremlin, etc. Justin Barrett, for instance, doesn’t think this detracts from the truth or the value of religious belief. So far as he is concerned, we haven’t been HADD! But he does think it is an important aspect of belief formation, and after you’ve read Rudolph Otto and Friedrich Schleiermacher, you’ll understand why. But to suggest that Dawkins’ humourous example is an expression of contempt for the cultural products of religion is simply wrong, and it is hard to see how a literary critic should have misunderstood this.

    But there is a more serious problem at the heart of Dr. Wood’s analysis. First of all, he acknowledges the wraith-like character of Eagleton’s God, a being so diaphanous that, not only could it not support fundamentalist belief, it could not even speak for those millions “whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism.” His example here is John Rawls’ form of believing: not a fundamentalist or a literalist, nor perhaps given to their embodied certainties, but still a form of belief which, as Dr. Wood says, “is surely as propositional as it is performative.” Now, here’s the problem. The distance between Rawls’ propositional belief and the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism is not far. In fact, the distance is so short, that very liberal believers will recognise when you have cut the link between them, and they will respond with alarm, as Bishop Jenkins public responded when he spoke of the resurrection as ‘a conjuring trick with bones.’ And he said something like this every Easter while he was at Durham, because that is what he believed. And every Easter people responded in the same way, with horror and denunciation.

    It is not clear where literalism begins and ends here. Eric Reitan, in his recent book, Is God a Delusion?, argues that true religion is very uncommon. Most religious people are idolatrous, that is, not really religious at all. They simply misunderstand. Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God, is all about the near universality of idolatry. Most people do not understand true religion. They do not understand that religion is about silence, and as soon as, like Rawls, you want more than silence, you want to be able to pray to God for help, you lapse into idolatry. But where along the continuum from the interfering biblical God through the personal Christian God to the silence do we find real religion? If it’s only when we lapse into the silence of ineffable transcendence, then almost every person taken to be religious is an idolater, and many who are not taken to be religious at all, practising their secular meditation, are perhaps closer to God than those who pray most strenuously.

    What Dr. Wood doesn’t say clearly enough, but what really seems to be troubling him, is that people like Dawkins do not see the tragedy of life. That’s what he means, I think, when he says that it’s always sunshine in Dawkins’ world. This is not only a reference to Dawkins’ optimistic humanism. Dr. Wood doesn’t think he takes life seriously enough. And because he doesn’t take life seriously enough, Dawkins misses out on the allure that religion has for so many, because it speaks to the brokenness of their worlds, what Dr. Wood speaks of, right at the end of his article, in very religious terms, as ‘the fallen world.’ He thinks atheists should disappointed that religious belief is not compelling. A ‘theologically engaged atheism’ would be so. But why would an atheism be theologically engaged? I think, for example of Tzvetan Todorov’s image of the ‘imperfect garden’, an image that captures at once both the brokenness of the world, and yet the richness of it, and the possibility of hope within it. Perhaps this captures more poignantly something of the tragedy of life that Dr. Wood experiences, but with a greater sense that despite the pain, the struggle, the desperate unhappiness, there is something that we can be doing to provide more hope for those who are caught up in the web of life, with a greater sense of possibility than belief in a god could do. For as Rawls’ recognised, it is not possible to wish there to be a God to help, if that God could not save so many millions from Hitler. And that is why Rawls saw something that Dr. Wood seems to have missed, that “the idea of the supremacy of the divine will is also hideous and evil.”

    This is not just a recoil from belief, but a rejection of it. But it is more than that. It is the claim that there is something very dangerous in this belief. If the idea itself is hideous and evil, what can the belief not do?

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      “And because he doesn’t take life seriously enough, Dawkins misses out on the allure that religion has for so many, because it speaks to the brokenness of their worlds”

      (according to Wood)

      The trouble with that of course is that religion doesn’t speak to the brokenness of our worlds. Yes life is tragic and horrible but no religion does not speak to that! Religion talks baby talk to that.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I know, but I think that’s what is at issue in Wood’s piece, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. But it’s not only baby talk that religion talks. It’s deceptive, deceitful talk. That is, I think, what makes it, according to Rawls, so hideous and evil. And this is what makes it so dangerous.

        I think a bit more attention needs to be paid to the fact that, based on the defences of religion that have been on offer – from Reitan, Armstrong, Eagleton and, I suspect Ward, and others – most “religious” people are deeply implicated in idolatry. True religion is different, and therein lies an accusation. Most of the Old Testament, for example, is about the failure of people to worship God alone, preferring to ‘whore’ after other gods. The violence that arises out of this failure to worship the true God is staggering. Moreover, because it implies an incredibly narrow margin of error, it requires, in return, an unbelievable level of submission. The totalitarian possibilities of this fact should be obvious. That is what people like Armstrong and Reitan, for example, completely miss, they are so rapt by the wonder of transcendence.

        We should opt for a human seriousness instead, because that’s all we get in any case. And because it’s human, truly human, even if immanently transcendent with wonder and beauty, no one gets to order anyone else around, or to speak of true religion or real faith. It’s the intolerant certainty of claims to real transcendence that trouble me. I suspect it troubled Rawls as well. He was right to be troubled.

    • Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I know you know. I was just – er – venting.

  32. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

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

    Wood always sounds as if he wouldn’t mid raping two-year old children. Therefore I disagree with him about a great many things.

    Gosh, it’s so easy to construct a ridiculous strawman. I’ll have to try it more often.

  33. Michael K Gray
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

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

    He narrowly avoids a charge of lying outright about Dawkin’s opinions on ecclesiastical architecture by weaselly prefixing it with “sounds as if”.

    Dawkins (& Hitchens) have both iterated their liking of fine ecclesiatical furniture.
    If he cannot get this correct, then I can only assume that he has not studied his target in even a cursory manner.

    Shame on him.

  34. Posted September 3, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    The whole passage is really annoying – because grossly unfair.

    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.

    It starts out by saying he dislikes Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s tone, then claims Dawkins always sounds as if he would like to see cathedrals raised, then ends up with a flourish suggesting that he loves literature and music and they don’t. Wood can’t possibly be unaware of Hitchens’s extensive literary reviewing, which is eclectic, brilliant, eloquent, and highly appreciative. It’s just asinine (and, as I say, grossly unfair) to pretend that Hitchens, unlike him, does not love literature.

    No stone is too random, too beside the point, too absurd, too plain untrue to throw at an atheist, it appears.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 4, 2009 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Ah, but, there, Ophelia, you have hit upon the master stroke of Wood’s analysis. Religion, we are supposed to think, enables us to express the inexpressible. As Wood says in the original article:

      Abolishing the category of the religious robs non-believers of some surplus of the inexpressible; it forbids the contrails of uncertainty to pass over our lives.

      And then he goes on with the bit about “intolerable certainty”. There is a deep misunderstanding in Wood’s analysis. He thinks we need religion to give us an overplus of meaning, to take life really seriously. There’s only one problem. Wood is no more likely to leave room for religion, except as a literary artifice, than is Dawkins or Hitchens.

      Wood’s piece, in other words, is a nice little bit of nostalgia. We’d miss religion, if it weren’t there. Well, even Hitchens says as much. But I think it very likely that, in the absence of religion, we’d find ways to leave the sense, as Wordsworth at his best can do, of some overplus of meaning, without resorting to fictions. All the symbolism will still be there, though it won’t (let us hope) lead people to church of a Sunday morning.

      Wood’s problem is a kind of cultural angst. He’s afraid we’ll lose something if religion goes. I wonder why, since he doesn’t believe a word of it, he can’t see the imaginative possibilities of a world without gods.

  35. arugula
    Posted September 4, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    This post prompted my first ever comment here. It becomes easy to spot someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Wood writes of Dawkins and Hitchens’ “contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism”. This is a straw man. If he has any respect for his own position, the author would avoid such blatantly nonsensical statements. What specific “religious belief” is distinct from “fundamentalism”? And what makes the former (which is vague) preferable to the latter (which is equally vague)? And in what real world scenario can the two be convincingly divorced (if they are indeed distinct)? If “fundamentalism” means scriptural literalism, does Wood really think this is the target of Dawkins and Hitchens’ vitriol? It isn’t. Faith is the target – faith as a truth-seeking tool, and the socio-political repercussions of such an unholy pact. In this battle of ideas, we are not fighting against “fundamentalism”, but against the reverence given to faith.

    It’s notable that Hitchens and Dawkins have often decried the notion of destroying religious buildings and artifacts. So when Woods describes Dawkins “as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed”, nobody should be surprised. Someone ought to redirect Mr. Wood’s attention to the New Atheists’ real target: faith. Frankly, none of this is very complicated.

  36. aratina
    Posted September 4, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t get is how Wood can think for a moment that encouraging belief in the illusory (as if it were real) is good for humanity? It isn’t! How small-minded to think that great works of art, song, architecture, etc. would not have been featured in a secular society. Religion is pervasive in culture because it was the highest authority for so long. Culture is independent of theism. The crumbling of one need not take the other down (witness the Dark Ages: the lowest point of Western culture and the highest point of Western theism).


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] is a dispute among atheists; some think that we dismiss religion just “out of hand” without confronting its more nuanced forms: Now Dr. Wood has kindly written a post on this website defending his position. It was a comment […]

  2. […] Wood kindly responded on this site, defending his own atheism but getting deeper into the mire by saying things like this: […]

  3. […] 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 reading the […]

  4. […] 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, […]

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