This Spectator piece by Douglas Murray, “Atheists vs. Dawkins” (with the subtitle, “My fellow atheists, it’s time we admitted that religion has some points in its favour”), is now six days old, but deserves a brief comment.
The word “Dawkins” in a title always makes me wary, for he, though perhaps the world’s most prominent atheist, is only one of many people who believe likewise (e.g., me), and using his name is meant only to raise the hackles of faitheists and atheist-butters. And, sure enough, Murray begins his piece by mentioning a debate in which he and Dawkins (on the same side) contested Rowan Williams and Tariq Ramadan.
Sometimes a perfectly good argument can be stretched too far. I heard the resulting snapping noise last week in Cambridge during a debate with Richard Dawkins. We were meant to be on the same side at the Union. But over some months the motion hardened and eventually became ‘This House believes religion should have no place in the 21st century.’ While an atheist myself, it seems to me that claiming that religion should disappear is not just an overstatement but a seismic mistake. So I joined Rowan Williams and my close enemy Tariq Ramadan in trying to explain to Dawkins and co where they might have gone wrong.
You can guess where “Dawkins and co” have gone wrong, can’t you?:
The more I listened to Dawkins and his colleagues, the more the nature of what has gone wrong with their argument seemed clear. Religion was portrayed as a force of unremitting awfulness, a poisoned root from which no good fruit could grow. It seems to me the work not of a thinker but of any balanced observer to notice that this is not the case. In their insistence to the contrary, a new — if mercifully non-violent — dogma has emerged. And the argument has stalled.
These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.
No truth in it? Well, no literal truth, but maybe we can find metaphorical truth—IF the stories are meant to be metaphors. (Of course they weren’t, which means are task then becomes to concoct plausible metaphors.) And metaphor is what Murray means:
It is all very well to point out — as Dawkins did again the other night — that Adam did not exist. But to think that this discovery makes not just the story of Eden but the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless is to rather startlingly miss a point. You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist, yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves.
This is, pardon my French, complete bullshit. If Adam and Eve did not exist, and there was no Original Sin caused by human action, and the Primal Couple was just a metaphor, it means that if Jesus really was crucified and resurrected, he died for a metaphor.
And what is that metaphor? Who knows? What, exactly, is the “truth” in the Adam-and-Eve story? Good luck with that, for those Evangelical Christians who doubt the historicity of Adam and Eve have been arguing for years about what it might mean as a metaphor. A fictional Primal Couple completely turns the Christian narrative on its head, for a metaphorical Adam and Eve means that humans are sinful not through their own choices and nature, but because God made them that way. And in that case, why did Jesus have to die, for God could simply have made us good? If Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves, then what is that profound meaning?
Well, theologians have thought of many meanings, but all of them come from secular reason rather than faith, for you can’t privilege one over the other when making up stories. (By the way, if Murray, as an avowed atheist, also thinks that Jesus wasn’t divine, crucified, and resurrected, then the entire story becomes a meaningless fairy tale, no more “profound” than the polytheistic Greek or Norse religions. Why doesn’t Murray see profundity in the stories of Zeus and Thor?)
If one wants to extract profound meaning from life without having to puzzle over fairy stories, may I suggest to Murray that one consider classical, secular philosophy? There isn’t any interpretation needed: it’s all there in black and white. I argue that if you have to construe “profound truths” from silly stories, you are doing it by imposing upon them some lesson about life that you’ve learned not from religion, but from secular reason, experience, and philosophy.
I, for one, find no credible ‘profound truth’ in a metaphorical Adam and Eve. We’re born with some selfish tendencies? Evolution tells us that! And there’s nobody to expiate them, so the resurrection story is ludicrous.
As for the “worth” of religion, yes, I admit there is some, but I will not admit that there is more “worth” than we would have if humans never invented God-worship in the first place. Does religion do more for the United States than socialism and atheism do for Scandinavia? I don’t think so.
Yes, religion meets some human needs, but those needs can be met without the trappings of superstition—and those trappings are why religion poisons so many things. Imagine no religion. Imagine no marginalizing of women, no terrorizing children with thoughts of hell, no murders based on who was Mohamed’s successor, no creationism, no Holocaust, no Israeli-Palestinian wars, and no discrimination against gays.
Scandinavia has all of the good stuff and none of the bad, and so can we. (I will admit that Chartres and Ste. Chapelle are lovely buildings, but I’d gladly live without them if I could dispense with the history of religion.) Murray disagrees:
But it is while high on destruction that one ought most to consider whether what you are pulling down is as wholly valueless as you might temporarily have to pretend it is, and whether you have anything remotely as good to put in its place
. . . But I think we should be frank. There are things which atheists miss.
For example, my fellow atheist opponents the other night portrayed the future — if we could only shrug off religion — as a wonderful sunlit upland, where reasonable people would make reasonable decisions in a reasonable world. Is it not at least equally likely that if you keep telling people that they lead meaningless lives in a meaningless universe you might just find yourself with — at best — a vacuous life and a hollow culture? My first exhibit in submission involves turning on a television.
I proffer the same answer: Scandinavia. Their culture is not vacuous, the peoples’ lives not vacuous.
Or is Murray proposing that atheists adopt Alain de Botton’s atheist churches as a substitute, a suggestion that always fills me with profound ennui? Murray does, in fact, suggest philosophy (and poetry!) as a substitute for faith, but dismisses the substitution:
Religion, whether you believe it to be literally true or not, provided people, and provides people still, with a place to ask questions we must ask. Why are we here? How should we live? How can we be good? Atheists often argue that these questions can be equally answered by reading poetry or studying philosophy. Perhaps, but how many people who would once have gathered in a place of worship now meet on philosophy courses? Oughtn’t poetry books to be selling by the millions by now?
Yes, certainly we should allow people to derive untestable and contradictory answers from belief in a nonexistent God and membership in churches whose dogma os based on fictional scripture. But don’t expect that to provide good answers. Try secularism instead. I doubt that all the citizens of Denmark and Sweden are profoundly acquainted with modern philosophy, but I suspect that they are no less happy with their lives than are Americans, and find just as much meaning in existence. Religion doesn’t provide Americans with answers to these questions so much as dull the pain of a dysfunctional society.
In the end, Murray proposes a deal, which turns out to be a devil’s bargain. The first part is okay:
First, religions must give up the aspiration to intervene in secular law in the democratic state. In particular they must give up any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith. In much of the world the Christian churches have already done this. Of course there are other religions and places where this separation has not been so nearly achieved. But the concession is vital, not least because the ability to dictate politics or law is the ability that most rightly concerns the non-religious about religions.
But not so much the second:
But non-believers like me should make a concession as well. We should concede that, when it comes to discussions of ideas, morality and meaning, religion does have a place. Rather than dismissing it as some mere relict of our past, we should acknowledge that religion has an important contribution to our present and future discussion. We may not agree with the foundational claims, but we might at least agree not always and only to deride, laugh at and dismiss as meaningless something which searches sincerely for meaning.
Nope, I refuse to concede that. Morality, meaning, and ideas are addressed much better with secular reason than with religion. Again, are the largely atheistic citizens of Scandinavia and Northern Europe bereft of morality and meaning and ideas since they abjured religion? I don’t think so. In the end, a search for meaning based on fictitious foundations only impedes one from finding the best way to live. The pervasive discrimination against gays, for example, comes wholly from faith.
I claim the right to mock and dismiss those organizations that sincerely search for meaning so long as their search is conditioned by claims about reality that are palpably false.