The New Statesman, like other British publications including the Guardian, has recently decided to solicit some pushback against New Atheism (NA). It includes the latest trope in critiques of NA: they decry it on the grounds that we don’t suggest ways to meet the human needs satisfied by religion. Most of the anti-NA pieces never tout the successes of the NA “movement,” especially the mainstreaming of atheism, which has allowed many people, including some preachers, to openly declare their disbelief; nor do those pieces often deal with two important points: 1) if the tenets of religion are untrue, how valid is it to base one’s existence, morality, and behavior on lies?; and 2) do the benefits of religion outweigh its problems? The latter is a hard calculus; Dennett thinks that religion’s effect on society may be generally good (at least that’s my take on his view), while I think that we can have all the benefits of religion, and none of its problems, by creating secular societies, and thus would be better off without it.
As for whether atheism can fill that notorious “God-shaped hole,” well, it obviously can. Look at Sweden and Denmark—indeed, much of northern Europe—where atheism is common. And yet the inhabitants are not casting about wildly for something to replace faith. To some extent the state has met those needs, by providing health care, help for the sick and aged, social services, unemployment, maternity/paternity leave, and so on. And people’s “needs” to engage with other humans seem to have been met in those countries as well. As for the “need” to think that you’ll live on after death, well, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to replace such a lie, and it would be impossible to do so anyway.
At any rate, it’s my opinion that as religion wanes—and I think that’s inevitable—those ‘needs’ will be met by secular organizations and practices. Any attempts to set them up in advance, as in Alain de Botton’s prescriptions below, are artificial and will be ineffectual. My view is that we should first cut out the cancer of religion, and then administer what plastic surgery we can to the holes that remain.
At any rate, in a piece called “After God: What can atheists learn from believers?“, the New Statesmen has collected five notables who criticize NA and have published mini-essays on why faith is okay. You need to read this yourself rather than just the summaries I give below, but here’s a brief guidelines to the beefs of the faithful and faitheists.
First, part of the invidious introduction by Alan Derbyshire:
Today’s New Atheists –Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens principal among them – are the heirs of Bentham, rather than Coleridge. For them, religion – or the great monotheistic faiths, at any rate – are bundles of beliefs (about the existence of a supernatural being, the origins of the universe and so on) whose claims to truth don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. And once the falsity of those beliefs has been established, they imply, there is nothing much left to say.
The New Atheists remind one of Edward Gibbon, who said of a visit to the cathedral at Chartres: “I paused only to dart a look at the stately pile of superstition and passed on.” They glance at the stately pile of story and myth bequeathed to humanity by religion and quickly move on, pausing only to ask of the benighted millions who continue to profess one faith or another that they keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t demand that they be heard in the public square.
Lately, however, we have begun to hear from atheists or non-believers who strike a rather different, less belligerent tone. These “New, New Atheists”, to borrow the physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s phrase, are the inheritors of Coleridge. They separate their atheism from their secularism and argue that a secular state need not demand of the religious that they put their most cherished beliefs to one side when they enter public debate; only that they shouldn’t expect those beliefs to be accepted without scepticism.
They treat religious stories differently, too – as a treasure trove to be plundered, in the case of Alain de Botton, or, in the case of the self-described “after-religionist” Richard Holloway, as myths that continue to speak to the human condition.
And then the “new, new atheists”:
Alain de Botton, “We have too often secularised badly.” If you’ve read de Botton, you’ll already know what he’s saying. We need to replace with secular alternatives the accoutrements of religion that one finds in church; to wit: “New priests,” “new gospels,” and “new churches.”
For the new priests, he suggests psychotherapists, although he admits their deficiencies. And of course they’re not free, something he doesn’t mention!
For “new gospels,” he suggests using great secular books, poems, and music, but adds that this hasn’t worked because of academia: “Universities are entirely uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom – a source that can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence, from a tyrannical employer to a fatal lesion on our liver.” In other words, we’re not moralistic and didactic enough. I agree that we need to expose students to a diversity of areas: philosophy, literature, art, and so on, but I don’t know if our job is to show students how these help them live a better life. They can find that out themselves if they’re taught properly. I’m a professor, not a priest.
For “new churches” de Botton suggests, for instance, that art museums need to be more moralistic and didactic as well: they should mount exhibits in a way that fosters “consolation, meaning, community, and redemption.” That seems smarmy to me, for it really means that art curators function as moralists. In fact, de Botton’s whole program smacks of condescension and moralism. And whose moralism will be reflected in the exhibits?
Francis Spufford: “The world cannot be disenchanted.” His message is that religion is here to stay, that New Atheists are guilty of scientism, and that we should distinguish between religions that are bad and those that are not so bad (as if we don’t already!). This is a boring and shopworn piece, as we’ve come to expect from Spufford. Some quotes:
It is reassuring, in a way, to find this ancient continuity at work in the sensibility of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne. It kind of makes up for their willed ignorance of all the emotional and intellectual structures of faith (as opposed to the will-o’-the-wisp “popery” in their heads). Dawkins may be showing indifference to every word ever written about the differences between polytheism and monotheism when he declares that Yahweh is the same as Odin, and that all he wants “is one god less” – but he is also keeping up a 400-year-old campaign against idolatry. That distant sound you hear is Oliver Cromwell applauding.
However, the project is impossible – as impossible for the New Atheists as for every previous builder of a purified New Jerusalem. Direct, unmediated apprehension of truth is not available, except in the effortful special case of science. That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned. We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.
I think our recent, tentative turn away from the burning simplicities of The God Delusion (and the like) represents a recognition of this. Alain de Botton’s discovery in religion of virtues and beauties that an atheist might want is an anti-puritan move, a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture. I don’t expect the puritan call will lose its appeal to the young and the zealous, but maybe we are entering a phase of greater tolerance in which, having abandoned the impossible task of trying to abolish religion, atheists might be able to apply themselves to the rather more useful task of distinguishing between kinds that want to damn you and kinds that don’t.
Jim Al-Khalili, “Believing in a god is fine by me.” Khalili, the new head of the Humanist Association, has actually written a decent piece. And in stark contrast to people like Spufford, he argues that NA is winning. His argument is now that atheism is “mainstream” (well, Jim, we have a long way to go in the U.S.), we can afford to be more charitable to the faithful by taking a “softer approach.” Some quotes:
Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you. If you firmly believe this as an ontological truth, then it is rather pointless having a theological debate about it. But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass – that society dissolves without faith into a hedonistic, anarchic, amoral, self-gratifying decadence. This is not only nonsense, but intellectually lazy.
We still have a long way to go if we are to rid the world of the bigoted attitudes held and injustices carried out in the name of religion. But the tide is turning. I would argue that to be an atheist in Britain today is so mainstream that we can afford to become less strident in our criticism and more tolerant of those with a faith. I say this not because I am less committed to my secular views or because I have weaker conviction than others, but because I believe we are winning the argument. We should not have to defend our atheism any longer.
. . .Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive. . . we can often be more effective in getting our message across with a softer approach. The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.
I am well aware that some other atheists would call me an accommodationist. However, this patronising term needs to be replaced, so I have thought long and hard in search of an alternative – a more appropriate one to define my brand of atheism – until I realised it has been under my nose all the time: it is called being a humanist.
Karen Armstrong, “The biblical God is a starter kit.” This is the usual feel-good nonsense that Armstrong is famous for producing. Her thesis is that you can’t understand religion unless you’re religious: “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it,” she argues. Armstrong sees religion as a useful guide to life and not at all dependent on truth claims:
Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they “believed” in it but because they learned to behave – ritually and ethically – in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes.
. . . Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life. Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work.
The Trinity was not a “mystery” because it was irrational mumbo-jumbo. It was an “initiation” (musterion), which introduced Greek-speaking early Christians to a new way of thinking about the divine, a meditative exercise in which the mind swung in a disciplined way from what you thought you knew about God to the ineffable reality. . . Trinity was, therefore, an activity rather than a metaphysical truth in which one credulously “believed”. It is probably because most western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd.
. . . If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it. In the modern period, however, we have turned faith into a head-trip.
“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
What a bunch of nonsense! We’re suppose to commit ourselves to faith, in the complete absence of evidence, so that we can find something that makes sense of our world? As biologist Will Provine said, we might as well “check our brains at the church house door.” What makes Armstrong think that religion is a better guide to making sense of the world, or helping us live, than is secular reason and humanism? And the stuff about religion not resting on epistemic claims is total nonsense. Maybe for people like Armstrong it does, but what about those many Americans and Muslims who are young-earth creationists, or, for Christians, think that Jesus was resurrected and you can’t go to heaven unless you accept him as a savior?
No thank you, Ms. Armstrong: I’d rather retain my reason and figure out ways to live that don’t depend on the flawed morality of faith. Are Catholicism and Islam good “practical disciplines in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart”? Forgive me if I abjure those “disciplines.” Those “new capacities” include marginalizing women and gays, as well as policing our sex lives and instilling guilt and fear in children.
Armstrong, is, in effect, a secular humanist who for some reason must affix the language of faith to her nonbelief. She is intellectually disingenuous, and I’m really puzzled why she’s so popular.
Richard Holloway, “The word to grasp her is myth”. While admitting that religion makes no epistemic sense—that neither natural nor revealed theology gives good evidence for a god—Holloway nevertheless thinks that somehow atheism is deficient in lacking myths. (Note that Holloway was the bishop of Edinburgh until 2000, but admits below that there probably isn’t a god.)
A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us. All these sacred texts are creations of the human imagination, works of art crafted by us to convey meaning through story.
So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales and thereby deprive themselves of a rich resource for exploring the heights and depths of the human condition. The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.
The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition. That is why, among all the true believers in church this Easter, there will be thousands of others who are there because they need, yet again, to express the hope that good need not always be defeated by evil.
This is the statement of someone who can’t completely rid himself of his faith. All of us hope that evil can be dispelled, and many secularists work towards it (viz., Doctors without Borders). I’m not sure what “myths” Holloway thinks we need as secularists, or whether we really need any myths to sustain our existence.
This is a general problem with all of those who invoke a “God-shaped hole.” Very often they fail to lay out the “essential human needs” they see as filled by religion, and almost always fail to show that many of those needs can be met in a secular society. Of course we can’t promise that prayer will work, or that there will be an afterlife, but I can’t bring myself to humor such nonsense. If people want to believe them, fine, but when they start monkeying about with my society based on such fictions, I have a right to criticize them. I don’t hate religious people in general, but I do despise many of their ideas—particularly the ones, like hatred of gays and condoms—that are irrational and infringe on the freedom of others. And those things, too, will stay with us so long as religion (contra Armstrong) rests on truth claims and arguments about what God “wants.”
As for filling those God-shaped holes, I feel, as I said above, that this will happen naturally as religion goes away, like a hole in the beach eventually fills with water. I think it’s a mistake to first propose secular replacements for religion and then expect people, on that basis, to give up their faith. What would be their motivation?
We should keep the heat on the false ideas of faith—and that includes “militants” like Dawkins as well as “softies” like Al-Khalili—and, as faith wanes, people will find other things to replace it. After all, many readers of this site were once religious, and have “tried out religion” in the way Armstrong suggests. But that bicycle didn’t work for them. Indeed, many of us have found that “we have no need of that hypothesis,” and can nevertheless have fulfilled lives without it.