James Wood disses atheism again

I’ve subscribed to The New Yorker for many years, and devour each issue within a few days after it arrives, often reading every article.  And yet the magazine has two features that irritate me.  The most important is that there are far too many pieces that don’t say very much, but say it in very good English. The meaty articles of yore have largely disappeared, replaced with pop-culture stuff or simply pieces that read well but leave one unsatisifed.  Less important, but still annoying, is the magazine’s occasional critiques of atheism and its soft-pedaling of religion.  The editors know very well that any hard-core questioning of faith won’t go down well with its readers.

Both of these annoyances are in view in James Wood’s critique of atheism in the latest issue, “Is that all there is? Secularism and its discontents.” (Wood, an English professor at Harvard, is a superb literary critic but, as we’ve seen on this site, likes to take an occasional swipe at atheism [see also here].)  Wood, apparently a nonbeliever, is undergoing a mid-life crisis: he’s reading the obituaries of his contemporaries and is beset day and night with the Big Questions of cosmic purpose and meaning. (Wood includes among these, “How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose?” and ” Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”).

Wood doesn’t fathom that for many of us those questions don’t matter, because we know that there is no cosmic purpose and meaning to our life, only the meaning we impute to it ourself.

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral. . .

Note that this paragraph sounds good, in typical New Yorker style, but says very little except that Wood is having an existential crisis.  Religion does not assume that the Big Questions are invalid: many religious people consider that those questions are unanswered, and their faith is a constant quest for answers.  And even if the faithful considered them answered, why does that make them invalid?

As for atheists, we consider the questions invalid because we have answered them: they are meaningless things to ask, akin to asking “what is the purpose of a pebble”?  The universe is a physical system without teleological purpose or god-imputed meaning.

Wood then tarts up his short essay with erudite references to Virginia Woolf, Max Weber, and Charles Taylor before he gets to the ostensible subject of the piece, a review of the book The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, edited by George Levine. He doesn’t much like the book, apparently because it uses the word “secular” in two ways:

One problem is that it’s not always clear what Levine and his contributors mean by secularism. Some of the time, I think they mean just atheism or practical agnosticism (i.e., living without appeal to, or belief in, supernatural agency). Such a life is, of course, civically compatible with the continued existence of organized religion. More often, the working definition here is of secularism as a historical force ultimately triumphant and victorious: a vision of the future as an overcoming of religion.

What, exactly, is the point of saying that atheism is “civically compatible” with organized religion? That’s just plain dumb.  Yes, atheists live in a society full of religious people. That statement is nothing other than a fatuous attempt to say that atheism and religion are compatible.  And do the notions of secularism as non-religion or as a social movement bent on overcoming religion differ in any important way?

And then there’s this, which is the last paragraph of his piece:

Another difficulty is that, whether or not people did feel full or enchanted in centuries past, religion cannot be identified with the promise of fullness or enchantment. Both Christianity and Islam harshly challenge the self with an insistence on submission, sacrifice, and kenosis—an emptying out of the self, an exchange of the wrong kind of fullness for the right kind of humility—and Buddhism seeks to undermine the very idea of the sovereign, unified self. Revolutionary asceticism, which is what these religions in different ways embody, could be said to be hellbent on disenchantment.

Classic New Yorker style: saying something in nice words that is either meaningless or wrong. Does Wood not see that both Christianity and Islam reward  submission with promises of paradise? If so, why does he say that “religion cannot be identified with the promise of fullness or enchantment”? And Buddhism, while emphasizing one’s liberation from the shackles of ego, can hardly be said to be disenchanting.  Rather, it’s fulfilling, a way to find peace in in this world.  As for kenosis: well, that’s just a big word that doesn’t belong here.

As far as I can see, this paragraph either says nothing or is wrong. It’s hard to tell. But that’s what happens when the New Yorker confuses florid writing with good thinking.

h/t: IA

76 Comments

  1. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Somebody remind me: how does an afterlife of singing hymns to Jesus while eternally fondling his intestines give this life here-and-now meaning or purpose?

    Or, sure. Go ahead and substitute your favorite version of eternity, the Elysian Fields, whatever. How, exactly, does that change the equation? What is it about life after death that gives meaning to life before death?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • daveau
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Exactly. It is precisely because there is no life after death, that what I have now has very special meaning.

      • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        This. Religious people have it precisely backwards. I can’t get my head around how they think our lives mean less in the absence of an afterlife! If I have 2 billion in the bank, $1,000 ain’t gonna mean that much to me. But it does mean quite a lot to me, because I sure as hell don’t have 2 billion in the bank.

        • astrosmash
          Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          nicely done! I’m gonna use that…

      • Martin
        Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        That’s really well put. Unfortunately, I think some religious thinkers actually do understand this – for example, by their willingness to destroy the planet because they see it as nothing more than a temporary stop on the way to eternal life. Or by the way they don’t feel the need to accept anyone who doesn’t believe in their god(s). It’s a cynical and stupid justification to just be a jerk to people.

        • steve oberski
          Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          But why is it that cancer patients who rely on religion to cope with their terminal illnesses are more likely to use intensive life-prolonging care ?

          It like they don’t actually believe in an afterlife no matter what they publicly profess.

          And their willingness to destroy the planet could be a zero-sum strategy based on the same non-belief.

          • Marella
            Posted August 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            Remember that while there is the hope of heaven there is also the fear of hell. I assume they’re not sure which one they’re going to end up in. Just what you need to comfort you in extremis.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Well, for the ickier versions of xianity, this life serves as a test to see if you’re cool enough to hang out with the big guy during the rest of eternity.

      What an awesome purpose, huh?

      • Dominic
        Posted August 12, 2011 at 3:36 am | Permalink

        An awesome porpoise? Where?!

    • Stan Pak
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Yuk! Singing hymns to the Leader. It reminds me about Nazi Germany…

    • Posted September 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Ignoring your needlessly crass and misguided notion of Christian eschatological hope, an answer to your final question is that, first of all, the purpose of “life after death” is not to give meaning to life before death. I can only speak from the Christian tradition, but Scripture says nothing about imbuing our life with meaning. Your question is largely irrelevant. The question that ought to be wrestled with is, “Will there ever be justice for those who are oppressed?” You say no because you have been trained to imagine that there cannot be a future radically different from the present. Christians say yes because they are being trained to imagine that there can.

  2. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Just anutter old guy feelin’ his mortality and self-medicating with literary, spiritual pablum.

    He’s prob got depression — needs meds.

  3. Mark Plus
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I tell christians who threaten me with hell that the prospect of going there shouldn’t terrify anyone; at least eternal punishment in hell would demonstrate that your earthly life had “meaning” after all.

  4. Brian
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    There is a species of believer who seem to believe for no reason so much as they are psychologically incapable of confronting the idea of a universe that is entirely indifferent to their existence. And from this post Wood seems to be one of these (though he is apparently not a believer as such).

    He writes:

    “Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”

    Of course it can be. And further, what’s so bad about that? Your life isn’t irrelevant to you, your family, or your friends. Isn’t that enough? Does “the cosmos” really need to take a deep interest in the vagaries of you existence for you to feel content?

    I really wonder where this psychological pose comes from…to me it comes off as a childish solipsism.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      It is an absolutist argument of the sort that is common in religion. If God/afterlife/purpose/morality is not perfect/infinite/absolute, then it doesn’t count for anything at all. My response to that is: I have $5 in my pocket. It is not enough to feed me for eternity. But it is enough to buy me lunch today, and that is certainly better than nothing.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Brian, this is so well said! Thank you.

      • astrosmash
        Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Yeah…I noticed that too. Would have taken me alot longer to have said it anywhere as nicely

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Your life isn’t irrelevant to you, your family, or your friends. Isn’t that enough?

      It’s rather insulting, in fact, the way he dismisses those people and their connections to him as meaningless unless the universe itself personally cares about them.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      There is a species of believer who seem to believe for no reason so much as they are psychologically incapable of confronting the idea of a universe that is entirely indifferent to their existence.

      True, but don’t be too hard on those folks. Depending on one’s predispositions, mortality in an uncaring universe can be either a relief — as is the case with me — or utterly terrifying. Since our very close friend Nicole died suddenly last December, my wife has said to me on more than one occasion, “I’m just going to start believing in an afterlife, it’s too depressing otherwise.”

      (Of course she won’t really, because as I believe Bertrand Russell pointed out, you can’t really make yourself believe something you know to be false, or at the very least it’s very tricky. But my point is that many very reasonable and rational people nonetheless are pretty unhappy with the idea of an uncaring universe. So let’s not be too hard on ’em… sure, they ought to grow up and discard their comforting delusions to the same bin they left Santa Claus, but let’s not begrudge them for wishing it were true, even if folks like you and me — but not my wife — don’t wish it were true.)

    • Harry
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Brian. That comment belongs in a book of quotations. Lucid, true and eloquent.

    • Jeff Engel
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Well said. _Of course_ our lives aren’t significant on a cosmic scale. Think what a tiny, sad little cosmos it would be if any of us could make that kind of difference!

      But it’s hardly an appropriate scale to judge meaning in our lives. We ought to take the meaning of a single human life on a human scale. Do you have fun? Do you have the pursuits that satisfy your pride, curiosity, conscience? Do you make things better for family, friends, students, neighbors? Is the future a better place for more people than not, for having had you in the present?

      Those are the sorts of existential questions for which a human life ought to be an answer.

    • steve oberski
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      To be fair, it’s his friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist that actually asks this.

      But presumably Wood is sympathetic to the question and considers it to have merit.

    • Marella
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      How could 80kg of matter on planet Earth or anywhere else, possibly have significance in a galaxy billions of light years away? If he really feels that he needs that kind of impact, then like many of his generation, his parents and teachers must have told him far too often how ‘special’ he was, as a result he is deluded. He needs a dose of ‘the total perspective vortex’.

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Both Christianity and Islam harshly challenge the self with an insistence on submission, sacrifice, and kenosis—an emptying out of the self, an exchange of the wrong kind of fullness for the right kind of humility

    Oh, the right kind of humility – is that the kind where the very Creator of the Universe cares about little old you and answers your prayers, and possibly even alters his divine plan to accommodate them? Because it’s hard to get more humble than that.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Oh, but it can!

      You see, said Creator of the Universe created all these innumerable billions of galaxies just so he could create the Earth, just so he could create Humans, just so he could incarnate himself as a human sacrifice to save a small handful of humans from his own wrath, paving the way for him to keep said handful eternally happy.

      Now that’s humble!

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Harry
        Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Ben, the sound you’re hearing in the distance is the applause from someone in the gods. I admire your posts and I hope you’ll get around to writing that book some day. Signed An Avid Reader of WEIT.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      And all the while ignoring the horrific suffering being experienced by, say, starving babies in Somalia. Yes. That’s oh, so humble.

  6. Insightful Ape
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    The truth is no match for wishful thinking in many people’s minds.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      The very attractive thing about wishful thinking is that it’s a lot easier to alter than the truth.

  7. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Well now, it is inescapable that intelligent, articulate apologists for religion (or vaguer forms of mysticism) end up producing elegant vacuity, because ultimately, that’s all they’ve got. Another example is Theodore Dalrymple in BMJ (you’ll only get an excerpt if you aren’t on a medical school faculty) with an essay called “Challenging the Medical Materialists.” It’s complete gobbledygook, but in essence, he claims that if you believe the nonsense that evolution and neuroscience have anything to tell us about “the inescapable problems of human existence” all you have to do is read The Varieties of Religious Experience and you will see that you have been a fool. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether visions of God are generated by processes in the brain, since “The origins, psychological or otherwise, of an opinion (James makes reference to autointoxication, the fashionable theory that one’s psyche might be adversely affected by the retained products of the digestive system) have nothing whatever to do with their truth or falsity.” But these aren’t testable opinions — they are truth claims based on direct experience, and obviously the mechanism by which that experience is created is relevant to judging its ontological status.

    All they have is obfuscatory nonsense, so what else do you expect to encounter?

  8. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I agree. David Remnick has had a bitch of a time stripping the New Yorker of the awful Tina Brown influence. But he does succeed in some ways. The August 8 edition contains two not-at-all-mealy-mouthed pieces which, each in its own way, are anti-religious and/or atheistic:
    Shouts & Murmurs, by Paul Simms, “God’s Blog,” which sort of critiques creation (via Comments to “God”); and Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Answer Man,” about his discovery of an ancient poem by a guy named Lucretius.

  9. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    …confuses florid writing with good thinking.

    This has become standard operating procedure in the humanities. The game seems to be one of trying to show how much you’ve read or “learned” by cramming as many ideas or as much terminology as you can into whatever you’re writing. Nevermind whether any of it supports an actual point, or whether your argument is actually insightful or, at a minimum, meaningful.

    Breaking my promise not to go off on musical tangents, here is an example of such writing that was pretty much universally “oohed” and “aahed” by my colleagues. I took it down here.

    • daveau
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I knew it wouldn’t last! You have no willpower. 😉

      • Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Well, in my defense, it’s not quite so much a tangent as those other ones. Also, I haven’t had any cookies or doughnuts for a few days.

        • daveau
          Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          It’s a apt comparison. Here, have a doughnut.

          • daveau
            Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            Sure, I know my indefinite articles…

  10. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    James Wood should check out the Facebook group Grief Beyond Belief, if not for his own benefit, then at least so his article can be more informed about how non-believers deal with mortality and loss.

  11. Tulse
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Why is it comforting to have some other being determine the meaning of your life? Would Wood’s existential crisis be resolved if he discovered that humans were created by aliens as a food source? What kind of life-meaning is worth having except meaning that you determine?

  12. Kevin
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    “How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose?”

    Answers:
    1. Design does not equal metaphysical purpose. Stop conflating the two.
    2. The appearance of design is not the same as design. We see “design” in everything from an odd arrangements of rock and char marks on grilled cheese sandwiches. Thing is, everywhere we look the universe looks exactly as it would if it weren’t designed. Else there would be sister planets within easy distance of us populated with people who look like us and speak English (the Star Trek universe).
    3. ‘Metaphysical purpose’ is just theist code for the desire of a retention of coherent consciousness after death. Sorry, you’re going to have to come up with something a little stronger than ‘argument from wishful thinking’ in order to make that real. There’s no evidence that you get an after-death apartment, nor that your behavior prior to death qualifies you for a kitchen upgrade.

    “Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”

    A: Yes. In grand scheme of things, that’s exactly the case. Sorry, again this is asking the after-death “purpose” question in a different way.

    In 5 billion years, the Earth gets burned up in the maw of the sun as it goes red giant. Humans and all life forms will have long since been extinguished from the planet — and perhaps everywhere else (unless our physics gets a LOT better). When that happens, the universe will yawn.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t purpose to this life, or to the human enterprise for the finite time of our existence. The purpose of the individual human is to help perpetuate the species by being a good parent (including the ‘it takes a village’ style parent), good member of the community, and careful steward of the Earth’s finite resources.

    If you can’t find individual meaning and purpose within the context of those goals, you can stare at your navel for hours on end, bemoaning your existence.

    Or, you can stop feeling sorry for yourself and get up and start living. You don’t have much time left. Do you want to be on your death bed, regretting bad choices and a wasted existence? Or do you want to believe in fairy stories in order to give you “comfort”, even though you know they’re all myths and lies?

  13. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    At first I thought this might be about James Woods, the actor. In an interview I saw once about the movie, Contact, he commented that science and religion are mankind’s “two great paths to knowledge”, so it seemed plausible that this might be about him.

  14. Joe
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Who wrote this?
    “In principle, natural selection is simple. It is neither a “law” nor a “mechanism.” ”

    “…the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection.”

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Aaack!!! That’s exactly the kind of silly thoughtlessness I was referring to in my comment upthread.

      These writers just blurt out any old thing, without first having constructed a logical and consistent scaffolding over which to drape their argument.

      He had forgotten entirely about the first point as he wrote the second.

  15. cthellis
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Well then, you should read Playboy. You know… for the articles:

  16. s.wallerstein
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you’ve outgrown the New Yorker.

  17. Penman
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, Sam Harris addresses this question at the very start of his new Ask Sam Harris Anything video:

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/ask-sam-harris-anything-2/

  18. TomZ
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The writer’s simply not trying. There is awe and wonder in the facts of the universe. If you aren’t inspired and awe-struck by the following, you might not have a pulse.

    1. You were born from a supernova, and your body is as old as the universe itself.
    2. There is a direct connection from your cells, back 5,000 million years (that’s a million years 5,000 times) to the first organized cell on earth.
    3. Don’t feel connected to the vast void of the universe? Then just look up at night. The photons that left the surface of those far away stars crossed that void and are now interacting with the neurons in your brain, you are literally touching something from the surface of that star, and you can process exactly what that is. It took light-years to get there, and you can appreciate it in 1 simple, fleeting nano-second. You can do this every night of your life, and pass that awe to your children for them to appreciate, build upon that knowledge, and make the world a more educated and better place.

    Yeah, there’s no awe or wonder or meaning in any of that, it’s stupid because of the definition of the word secularism. So let’s ignore these facts that our evolved brains have worked to achieve and simply say we can’t answer questions of meaning.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      There is awe and wonder in the facts of the universe. If you aren’t inspired and awe-struck by the following, you might not have a pulse.

      Boom-de-yada!

  19. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    The questions that start off the piece aren’t real questions but rather expressions of discomfort or disappointment. They aren’t “theological questions” (as Wood states) looking for explanations and we’d be foolish to try to answer them as if they were. When the Steelers lose the Super Bowl and a Steelers fan says “How could the Steelers lose the Super Bowl?” he’s not asking for an explanation, he’s expressing his discomfort with the fact that they lost. ““How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang?” is the same thing. A groan, but not a question.

  20. llwddythlw
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I read the article carefully, but I’m unable to say what was its main point. However, it did lead me to look at Levine’s book on Amazon, which led me to try to find the chapter by Philip Kitcher which in turn led me back to Eric MacDonald’s site, so it was a good bit of exercise in cyberspace. I still don’t feel the need to question the absence of design or metaphysical purpose to the universe, so my answer to the question contained in the title of the article is “yes”.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I think all posts eventually lead to Eric MacDonald.

      It’s like the “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”, only with rational thought.

      • Posted August 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Mmm… Bacon…

        Sorry? What were you saying?

        /@

  21. Linda Jean
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    your opinion, right? no hard facts here. whats the point??

    • Jeff Engel
      Posted August 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      If you reread carefully, you’ll find Jerry makes arguments in the post.

    • Posted August 11, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Why does a response to an opinion piece require hard facts?

      And what’s the point of what? Responding to the piece? My guess would be because Prof Coyne felt like it.

      Really though – what’s the point of your response? It’s entirely free of content but smacks of barely-concealed contempt.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      What’s the point of your comment?

  22. Flakko
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    “But that’s what happens when the New Yorker confuses florid writing with good thinking.”

    And isn’t that exactly what imputes legitimacy to CS Lewis and all of the other “sophisticated” theologians and their arguments? Flowery writing that says nothing or rehashes centuries old dictums. That’s all they got.

  23. MadScientist
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    I stopped subscribing to The New Yorker 12+ years ago. I’ve browsed a copy on a magazine stand now and then but never found a good enough reason to buy the copy.
    Maybe I’m just getting old and I think the quality of the essays have gone down, or maybe I’ve just outgrown it.

  24. Posted August 12, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you said:

    And do the notions of secularism as non-religion or as a social movement bent on overcoming religion differ in any important way?

    I think that may depend on what you take “overcoming religion” to mean.

    If you take it to mean that religion should no longer have an influence in public policy, or any special privileges, no. (And this is the meaning that most secularists would take, I think.)

    But if you take it to mean that religion should have no place in society – that you sought its eradication, rather than just hoping it will wither over time — well, yes.

    I don’t think that’s a view held by many secularists, atheists or (even?) antitheists. But I think it’s a view that religionists – and accommodationists? – often think that we hold!

    /@

  25. vel
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I’m sad for people like Wood since they must believe in an imaginary friend so their lives are “cosmically irrelevant”. I happily don’t need such childish nonsense to make my life relevant. It may not be “cosmic” but I’m quite relevant to my husband and him to me.

  26. Helena Constantine
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Coyne has been doing a good job defending himself against the sophisticated theologians, but this is where he falls down.

    Coyne clearly does not know, and has no way of imaging, what is meant by Kenosis (and mystical experience in general). I am sure he could describe the biochemistry of it, but the kind of insight that the true mystic experiences–the understanding, the joy–its further beyond his understanding than calculus is beyond mine. As he says in one of the linked articles, he reads novels and finds himself moved without understanding why. What the mystic gets is understanding of that kind, but more so. When I was in grad school one of my housemates (a pre-med student), had found some list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, and he so he read them. No doubt he enjoyed them and could have discussed them intelligently on some level, but they meant nothing to him, and there was no hope of his ever understanding that.

    “Does Wood not see that both Christianity and Islam reward submission with promises of paradise?”

    When Coyne says this, he’s thinking about 72 virgins, or a peasant cockaigne like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have, where the believer gets to enjoy magnified earthly pleasure.

    But heaven isn’t like that. Its an academy where the believer studies the word of god with greater powers than possible in life, so that he can gain insight, knowledge and understanding, and he do so without limit since those things are infinite. Of course its only an inference from limited human capacity for those things that infinite forms of them must exist (a variation or case of the ontological argument). But there is a part of human experience that Coyne doesn’t have much direct access to, and its neither meaningless nor wrong. He just thinks it doesn’t exist because he can’t see it. The blind can’t experience paintings. That doesn’t mean they don;t exist or that art isn’t a profound source of beauty and meaning.

    • Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but I have indeed read about kenosis and know what it is. Just because it’s a mystical experience, however, doesn’t mean it conveys a reality about the universe beyond the subject experience of the mystic. It certainly says nothing about cosmic purpose or ultimate meaning.

      And how on earth do YOU know what heaven is like? Do you have some magical connection to God that makes your understanding of heaven better than that of 99% of the believers in the world?

      Of course I believe that art is a profound source of beauty and meaning, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a source of knowledge about the world.

      Finally, are you at all aware that I post about art and literature, and in a positive fashion, all the time? It really is both pretentious and insulting for you to tell me that I don’t have access to the part of human experience represented by art or literature.

    • s. wallerstein
      Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Helen:

      You know, I came to this blog because I disliked Coyne and I had the same impression of him that you apparently do: a high IQ person with no understanding how we poetic people see and feel the world.

      That just isn’t true.

      Coyne has a very high IQ. He makes mistakes like all of us do, but he is not some kind of high power computer with legs and hair, incapable of appreciating Greek tragedy, Mozart or good jazz, about which he knows a lot.

      Besides that, he has a normal capacity for empathy, for understanding what people who are different than he is experience.

      So I think that you are wrong. I never thought that I’d end up defending Coyne, but I like to give credit where credit is due.

    • gillt
      Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      The blind can’t experience paintings.

      Braille Paintings for the Blind: winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

      http://challenge.bfi.org/application_summary/1020

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      But heaven isn’t like that. Its an academy where the believer studies the word of god with greater powers than possible in life, so that he can gain insight, knowledge and understanding, and he do so without limit since those things are infinite.

      Why is your version of a magical afterlife any more valid than anyone else’s?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      “But heaven isn’t like that. Its an academy where the believer studies the word of god with greater powers than possible in life, so that he can gain insight, knowledge and understanding, and he do so without limit since those things are infinite”

      And how do you know this?

  27. Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”

    You can’t answer this question normally. When believers or even questioning non-believers ask this question, the only proper response is “Are you really that arrogant?”.

  28. truthspeaker
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    “Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”

    Yes, it can.

    Deal with it.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      With the exception of our family and friends, the natural world — people, objects, everything we can determine to exist in it — quite clearly cares not at all about any of us. Everyone (save the severely mentally disturbed) KNOWS this. In response to this recognition, some people accept a belief, originally developed and handed down by people unknown, that there is a supernatural spirit personality — an all powerful, all-knowing one, albeit one whose existence cannot be discerned empirically — who cares deeply for them individually … and some people don’t. That’s what the distinction between the religious and non-religious boils down to.

  29. Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    In his article, Wood says,

    In that enormous book [A Secular Age}, [Charles] Taylor, a practicing Catholic, presents a narrative in which secularism is an achievement, but also a predicament: modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual ‘fullness’ that his ancestors experienced.”

    Charles Taylor name is familiar to me; he is a Canadian and there is a Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. However, it is this entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia that surprised and shocked me:

    “[Charles Taylor’s] continuing efforts to break down the traditional barriers between scientific and spiritual approaches to knowledge and understanding were recognized in his receipt of the world’s most lucrative academic award. In 2007 he received the $1.7 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.”

    http://tinyurl.com/3rht6rx

    • Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I posted my comment too quickly. There should be opening quotation marks before “In that enormous book and the

    • Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      I posted my comment too quickly. There should be opening quotation marks before “In that enormous book

  30. Kafkaesque
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    You got it right, Mr. Coyne!

  31. Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    It would seem that Wood is quarreling over emotivism based on some experiential plight. What is more interesting is the fact that an atheist can subscribe to a form of transcendence beyond the physicality of humanities current material state; of course, without adhering to the monotheism of theological discourse. Science dictates this utilizing Newton’s 4th law of thermodynamics; making humanity infinite beings by definition without forms of religiosity.

    Nice piece.

  32. Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I’ve just come across your piece about the article I wrote last year in The New Yorker, and I find it rather mystifying. You write that I seem not to have cared much for the book I was reviewing (The Joy of Secularism), but the paragraph you quote as the “last of the piece” is in fact the fifth paragraph of a piece that is 4500 words. You also call it a “short” piece: is it possible that you read only the first page online? On the contrary, I greatly liked George Levine’s book, and praised essays by Philip Kitcher (a non-believer), by Bruce Robbins (a militant non-believer), the primatologist Frans de Waal (non-believer), and the historian Robert J. Richards. I’m also quite hard on the Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor. Please look again at this long and fairly complicated piece on the New Yorker website.

    As to the issues you raise in your brief commentary, I repeat again that I do not believe in God, and have no intention of believing in God. It is tiresome that when you write about me, the readers who comment on your blog (their hearts are in the right places, but where are their minds?) always follow – or rather, willfully misread — your lead and start writing about me as a soft-minded believer in search of easy consolations.

    I am not a believer. The friend I was quoting at the start of the piece is not a believer either. It is precisely because she is not a believer that I was interested in hearing her say that sometimes she finds herself awake at night, thinking “Is this all there is? Just living and dying, and being replaced by someone else who will live and die like me?” You and the people who comment on your blog seem to think this self-evidently a risible question. But it should be clear from the piece I wrote that the power of this question is not that it is answerable but that it is rhetorical. In other words, it expects no answer: it represents a moment of painful curiosity. Despair, perhaps, the kind of despair that visits you in the night and is gone in the morning. What is advanced by aparrently mocking this as an “existential crisis”? Do atheists never have these?

    It is one of the least likable things about a certain strand of atheism that it seems to laugh at such questions. Virignia Woolf was an atheist, too, or at least an agnostic, and that is why I quoted from that beautiful passage in “To the Lighthouse,” in which she asks why life is so short and so full of pain. One can believe in no God at all, and still ask, in both wonder and some sadness: “what is the point of it all?” This is because we are not pebbles, nor even cows or dogs (despite our obvious animalism), but thinking human beings, with questing consciousnesses.

    I think you mistake the import of this rhetorical question. It doesn’t mean, “why is life so pointless, I am asking this because only with God does life have any point.” Like my friend, like you presumably, I get up every day and give my life the meaning it has – with work, and children, and parents, and love and sex and food and so on. I take my philosopher friend to mean something like the following: “given that I don’t believe in God, and will never believe in God, is the meaning I give to life – work, kids, love, sex and so on – truly significant? Given that I will die at 70 or 80, and that in a few decades my life will be forgotten and irrelevant, is there not something strange about the transience and irrelevance of millennia of human history, human struggle, human endeavour?” Of course, this question – about the ephemerality of human occupation, about why we are here on earth and how we should live – has been (rhetorically or non-rhetorically) asked by writers and philosophers over the centuries, within many different belief-systems, ranging from classical skepticism to standard monotheism, from outright atheism to puzzled agnosticism, from Epicurus to Tolstoy. It is not a peculiar or simple-minded or necessarily religious question; it is a metaphysical question.

    The philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose work you probably know, and who is of course not a believer, puts it like this: he concedes that many atheistic scientists are irritated by the “what is the point of it all?” question, because “the universe revealed by chemistry and physics, however beautiful and awe-inspiring, is meaningless, in the radical sense that it is incapable of meaning. That is, natural science, as most commonly understood, presents the world and our existence as something to which the religious impulse has no application.” Nagel – in his book “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament” — calls this the “default or zero position” of secular atheism; he also calls it “affectless atheism” or “hardheaded atheism.”

    He goes on to say that it is a seductive position, but that he himself finds it evasive: “It requires that we leave the largest question unanswered – in fact, that we leave it unasked, because there is no such question. But there it is: It is the question ‘What am I doing here?’ and it doesn’t go away when science replaces a religious worldview.” (ibid, p.9)

    All I was trying to do, by posing my friend’s question in the way I did in that piece was to agree that this question “doesn’t go away”; and to point out that such questions may as easily occur to non-believers as to believers. (Because of course, many religious believers, who struggle with doubt and pain and perplexity, also struggle with the possibility of pointlessness.) I do agree with you that this kind of question has a religiously “leading” quality to it, so that it seems to invite the answer – “just believe in God, and your life will suddenly have purpose.” But try to imagine the question, if one can, without that leading quality. I have never believed in the religious answer to that question, and am happy to affirm this. I’ve never believed in that answer, because to posit an afterlife, a second life, another life, is obviously evasive: it merely brings up the same questions in the afterlife — what is the point of it all, in eternity?

    Still, just because the question can only be answered in the negative, doesn’t make the question not worth pondering. At the very least, it does seem rather strange that we are here on this earth, at this complex stage of our evolution, and quite possibly unique in this enormous galaxy. Or put it this way: if you look at evolution and at the history of human progress, existence seems to act as if it has a teleology, a goal, a forward movement. (It is the old philosophical question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”, a question that even Big Bang theory has not QUITE fully answered.) And yet in some enormous, cosmic sense, existence has no overarching metaphysical teleology at all, and will end when the sun burns out. This seems to many humans – emphasis on “seems” — strange and somewhat paradoxical. (See the Richards piece about Darwin’s rather similar contradictions and bewilderments, in the book I reviewed.) And yet that seems to be the paradox we must live with. Now, you can be completely unfazed by that paradox if you like (Nagel’s affectless atheism), or you can take delight in it, or you can be perturbed or even terrified by it. But to imply, as you and your readers seem to, that even to point it out is an example of mental imbecility, seems amazingly narrow-minded to me. Literature is built on such questions – agonized, amazed, despairing, comic, burlesqued, and yes, foolish.

    I like your atheism and I like the atheistic spirit I sense in you: I spent many hard years as a teenager doing daily combat, as an atheist, with my believing (and scientific! My father was a zoologist) parents, so I enjoy this pugilistic stance. But I do beg you to read the whole piece before you launch into a hasty critique of it on your blog.

    — James Wood


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