Adam Gopnik’s accommodationism gets it from both ends

In a recent New Yorker piece, “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?” (free online), Adam Gopnik tried his hand at a bit of accommodationism, arguing two things. First,  he said, nobody still believes in a hands-on, old-man-in-the-sky God who works miracles, and the New Atheists’ critique of such beliefs is misguided. That’s a familiar argument: we see all religionists as fundamentalists.

Well, as I pointed out in my analysis of Gopnik’s article, many religions are fundamentalists about important things, with large majorities of Americans believing in stuff like heaven, a personal God, Satan, angels, and hell. I’m an academic, and so, like Gopnik, don’t mix much with the average religious person, but even I know that few Americans accept a deistic, ground-of-being God—a Deus absconditus. 

Second, Gopnik argues, in a very strange passage, that both atheists and believer are united in a love of the numinous, and of ritual. Weirdly enough, Gopnik found my own religion in cats! That is supposed to make me similar to religious believers (my exercised emphasis):

But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

. . . If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

Well, it’s a huge stretch to equate ailurophilia and LOLcats (does Gopnik think I believe that LOLcats are really thinking what the captions say?) with belief in God. And New Republic editor Isaac Chotiner, in a further analysis of Gopnik’s piece at his site, “Religious believers have a lot more common with atheists than they realized,” isn’t having it:

This comparison is, at best, strained. For starters, to say that my love for my cat is not based on reason is quite different from the belief that God exists. The latter is objectively false, or perhaps very, very unlikely. The former is a matter of feelings. Of course people’s feelings are irrational; but not all feelings involve making claims about reality. I can have the feeling that being around my family is uncomfortable. I can also have the feeling that the government is out to get me. Only one of them can be labeled true or false.

Indeed. The commonality of believers and atheists based on their both having emotions is a specious commonality, for it’s a commonality among all humans. It does not betoken some comity between believers and athiests. Chotiner continues:

The second odd thing about these passages, and the argument that non-believers are irrational, is that I don’t quite see what Gopnik intends for us to make of them, even if we accept their worth. For example, suppose I divide the world up into men who hate women and men who believe in feminism and female equality. And then let’s say that I can prove that even the more enlightened men exhibit sexist behaviors. What does this have to do with the merits of sexism? Nothing, of course. Sexism is still wrong. If atheists exhibit all the signs of belief that believers do, as Gopnik argues, this tells us next to nothing about the validity of belief. (It also, as Coyne points out, tends to strengthen the idea that there is something ingrained or genetic about faith, which, again, does not tell us anything about its validity.)

This homes right in on what’s missing in Gopnik’s piece: his failure to address straight on the validity of religious claims. He says he had his own son bar mitzvahed (Gopnik is Jewish by tradition), but says nothing about the existence of Yahweh.

In the end, Chotiner says that Gopnik misses even more: the true commonality between atheists and believers—their acceptance of science:

Even believers, then, live their lives according to science and reason 99% of the time. It’s only regarding that other 1% of things–which concerns issues like the creation of the universe, or faith in a supernatural power–that many believers depart from the scientific consensus. I imagine most religious people are as rigid about a belief in gravity as the average atheist, so why is the atheist scolded for rigid scientism when he or she also believes in the areas of science that conflict with religion?

I yearn to read a piece that, rather than scolding atheists for being scientifically minded, actually noted that we are all scientifically minded. And hooray for us.

And hooray for Chotiner, and especially The New Republic for its newfound emphasis on secularism!

Meanwhile, at his blog at the New York Times, Ross Douthat also takes on Gopnik in a piece called “Among the believers.” Douthat’s take, which, ironically, resembles mine, is that, contra Gopnik, many believers do accept a theistic, interventionist God. It’s refreshing, to me at least, to see a Christian admit that so explicitly. Douthat, for instance, claims that David Bentley Hart is no watery deist, but a defender of traditional Christian dogma:

Okay, but hang on a minute. Is this what Hart actually believes about God — that he “communicates with no one and causes nothing,” that he has no interest in bacon or seraphs or any other created thing? Well, no, actually Hart is a (capital-O) Orthodox theologian with (small-o) orthodox beliefs about not-insignificant matters like the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, among other cases where Christians believe that God has very directly communicated with his creatures, and intervened directly in the time and space that he sustains. Hart’s view of God, in other words, is maximalist in its conception and expansive in its potential implications, which include most of the things (angels, miracles, etc.) that Gopnik has already insisted that the modern “we” must pre-emptively dismiss.

And the same would go for an awful lot of the “ayes” whom Gopnik implies have replaced the old-time religion with a more abstract, post-personal God. Of course there are believers whose conception of divinity is functionally deistic, liberal religious intellectuals for whom apophatic faith substitutes for revelation rather than enriching it, and probably Gopnik’s social circle includes more examples of this type than it does of Hart’s more traditional sort. But make a list of prominent Christian scholars and philosophers and theologians (to say nothing of apologists and popularizers … artists and novelists … or, God help us, journalists), and you’ll find that plenty of the names — from Charles Taylor to Alvin Plantinga, Alasdair McIntyre to N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams to Joseph Ratzinger — do actually believe in all that Nicene Creed business, believe that the God of philosophy can still care about Phil and Ross and Adam, and share Hart’s view that religion can be intellectually rigorous without making prayer empty and miracles impossible.

Do read the Nicene Creed to see all the tangible and empirical claims it makes. I often use it in my talks on theology to show that its adherents are professing belief in a whole panoply of empirical claims about God, Jesus, Mary, and their actions.

Douthat’s piece is too long to analyze in depth, but the upshot is that not only many believers, but also many famous Church fathers and modern theologians,espouse things that Gopnik claims are no longer accepted.  And believers do that not as a retreat from the advances of science (here I can’t completely agree with Douthat), but simply because it’s theological tradition:

If Hart’s God is a vast irrelevancy or a senile dinner guest, in other words, then so is the God of Aquinas and Augustine and Anselm (and, as Hart would be quick to point out, the God of various Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and pre-Christian philosophers as well). If his argument is an implicit surrender to secularism, then the real surrender happened ages back. But it seems passing strange to suggest that the greatest thinkers of the age of faith were actually just engaged in a pre-emptive retreat from an atheism that hadn’t even taken shape. Did the “long, withdrawing roar” really begin — and more than that, end — with the Summa Theologica? It’s an argument, I suppose: The Angelic doctor as John Shelby Spong. But it can’t really be the one Gopnik intends to make.

Here I’d argue that Douthat isn’t completely correct. For Aquinas, Augustine, and their ilk believed in literal truths of the Bible (the Garden of Eden, Original Sin, the Resurrection) that only recently have been seen by many theologians as complete metaphors rather than literal truths. It’s a fact that theologians like Augustine saw stories like those in Genesis as narratives that could be read on two levels—metaphorical and literal; but the primacy always went to the literal interpretation, which could not be questioned.

Many religionists still adhere to some Biblical literalism (I like to say that every believer is a literalist about some things), but it’s also the case that people like Spong, Haught, and Armstrong are removing religion from the realm of empiricism to immunize it against disproof. They would never admit that of course, but it’s bloody obvious.

In the meantime, I’m chuffed because one of my heroes, while retweeting Chotiner’s excellent piece, also mentions Professor Ceiling Cat:

Picture 1


  1. gbjames
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink


  2. francis
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink


  3. eric
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Even believers, then, live their lives according to science and reason 99% of the time. It’s only regarding that other 1% of things

    Amount of time has little to do with the impact of that time. Consider that I will spend an estimated 0.00001% of my adult life in a voting booth, making votes. Even if that is the only time I behave irrationally, my irrationailty could have a big impact on my own and other people’s lives.

    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      How many of us would be happy with even as much as 1% crunchy frog in our chocolates?


    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      That’s true, but I don’t think Chotiner is claiming the irrational part of theists’ lives is insignificant or that its impact is insignificant.

      My take is that he’s chiding Goonik for looking at the truly insignificant ways in which atheists can be irrational and concluding that irrationality is not just unavoidable but, heck, it’s great! Let’s all get our irrationality on! It’s what brings us together.

      He’s saying that if Gopnik wants to highlight a commonality between atheists and theists, how about the vast areas of scientifically verified reality we both agree on? Gravity, chemistry, medicine, etc. There’s a lot more rational overlap than there is irrational overlap. Rationality brings us together more than irrationality does.

  4. eric
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Err..casting votes. The only people who make votes are Chicagoans. 🙂

  5. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    “ndeed. The commonality of believers and atheists based on their both having emotions is a specious commonality, for it’s a commonality among all humans. It does not betoken some comity between believers and athiests.”

    Devil’s advocate: identifying a commonality between men & women would be specious also because it applies to all people? Point well made on the comparison with sexist views though.

    • eric
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      If it applies to all people and its irrelevant to the subject you’re discussing, then it’s a specious comparison.

      Here’s an example. Let’s pretend you and I are arguing over whether men & women have very different or very similar personalities. You say: “both men and women have opposable thumbs! See? We are the same!” That’s a pretty specious comparison.

      Likewise, it is pretty specious to say “atheists and theists both have emotions! See? They are in the same theological boat!” What does “having emotions” have to do with the rationality or philosophical justifiability of ones’ theological position?

      • Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        It’s relevant within a common variety of religious thinking which holds that Jesus gives us our emotions, and those who reject Jesus are soulless automatons.

        Granted, it’s not a particularly coherent position, as it’s generally assumed that we reject Jesus because we hate him or because we love sin or the like…but, then again, reason never was a particularly strong suit amongst religious minds.



    • Kevin
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      It is very useful to point out just how much of a day is actually ‘secular’ to a believer. Most people get their latte in the morning, read their smart device, emails, go to work, pick up kids, sip some wine…etc. It goes on and on and they devote how much of their life to actually believing?

      That is something worth pointing out that believes mostly act just like atheists. And it drives the fundies mad because they hate all the progressive-liberal Christians who might believe in the demons inside murderers and gramdma’s ghost looking down from above but only go to church on Sundays or maybe Easter/Xmas, at best.

  6. Richard Olson
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

  7. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    But there is celebrating Rites and celebrating tradition.

    My immediate family is godless, but we still have a Christmas Tree, give each other gifts, and serve turkey on my wife’s mother’s grand Doulton plate, because it is a family celebration and tradition. In the UK there is a lot less Religion around at Christmas, thank goodness.

    I’m always a little bothered by the idea of atheist ‘Rituals’ and ‘churches’ because I see that as the slope into ‘searching for the transcendent’, dogma, Rites and all that malarky. Nothing necessarily wrong with that if that’s what you want, but why choose to add a layer of woo around your ideas?

    • gbjames
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like my house, although we don’t use your mother-in-law’s grand Doulton plate.

      Agreed about the layer of woo-ritual, too.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      It’s when the search for transcendent meaning slides over first into imaginary beings and then into negative evaluations of good things in life that it gets us into trouble.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted February 26, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        Doesn’t the slide from transcendent to transient meaning call into question the notion of value as anything other than mere subjective feeling?

        A feeling of what’s good is merely personal. I don’t see how one can reason to an objective or absolute source of value. Our feelings and notions are determined, after all, by factors beyond the control of our conscious mind.

        • Johan Mathiesen
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Except that all values are subjective. Ethics is a subset of aesthetics. There are no objective values. Value are statistical averages; that’s why we vote on them.

  8. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Critical historical analysis finds religious to secular exchange rooted in the eleventh century for western intellectuals-or before 200 BCE for classical philosophers. A long time past. What we have today is a great mass of people, who have not yet achieved some sort of reason based cosmology, needing leaders and spokesmen. Among our billions we find many takers. Full acceptance of testable knowledge will happen when this great mass of people become receptive to a fundamentally different understanding. This will likely take centuries. If one imagines an historical plot of conversion to science by percent of population he sees a curve of low slope, incredibly low. One also sees this curve has steepened significantly since the seventeenth century. Predictions of future gains are extremely hazardous. Quality of life is the probable operand and that operand is greatly influenced by acceptance of scientific reason.

  9. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Hello Jerry,

    This is mainly to say hello. I’ll confess that when I read Gopnik’s piece, I didn’t know who you were and your name skipped my attention; but I’ve been watching through the videos from the 2012 conference on “moving naturalism forward,” and ran into you there and particularly liked what you said about free will and was A) sorry you disappeared after that (at least for awhile; I haven’t finished the series); and B) I thought you were far too nice in dealing with the compatibilists; and I thought Steven Weinberg’s (sp?) dismissal of you—and Sam Harris—was uncalled for. In fact, I have a lot to say about the personality dynamics of the workshop, that I won’t go into here.

    I was quite surprised at the strength of the compatibilists in general. I’m not an academic philosopher (or academic anything), and from reading the compatibilists’ arguments, I didn’t expect to find many at all. I knew about Dan Demmett, but I’ve always found his argument for free will an essentially religious argument. I’d dismissed him as a closet believer, and I’m still suspect of his comprehension. But that there were so many strong believers at the conference surprised me.

    Oops, I have a grandson wanting lunch. I’ll get to Gopnik later. Let me just say that I find the importance of all this ferment about atheism, the public debates, the people “coming out,” the New Atheists, interesting, not because I think the logic of atheism with its new publicity will win new adherents, but because the new exposure makes it easier for people to think that all their friends or people they’d like to be like are atheists, so they’ll become one too. I think people adopt beliefs primarily after their perception of what others believe, not from the logic of belief.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      There’s some experimental evidence that what we do (first) we become (later), and what we see other people doing (first) we do (later). So forming rational beliefs tends to follow behaviour rather than cause it – contrary to what almost everybody thinks. Group behaviours (ritual, creeds, special diets, clothing etc.) then consolidate group identity. I do wonder if the very public and frequent activities of worship in Islam do strengthen belief, rather than the ‘truth’ of Islam showing the need for devotions.

      So, yes, more people ‘doing’ not going to church/synagogue/mosque/temple, not praying, not professing beliefs, is and important social signal for people not doing belief in god(s).

  10. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite.

    But, just as surely, most ayes don’t believe in something like what the Naturalist would call all other gods except one-in them they don’t search for transcendence and epiphany, they don’t practice some ritual and…..what does live some rite mean, btw?

  11. Kevin
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Oooh, a call out from Fry…most epic. I love his charm, sincere passion, and piercing intelligence.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Seconded! (And you’ve characterized Fry most aptly.)

    • Chris
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      Stephen Fry is an absolute legend. He somehow manages to represent Englishness (and to an extent Britishness) in it’s entirety. And then some. Manic depressive*? Doesn’t matter. Gay*? Who cares. Most of our national heroes and treasures are, um, not exactly every man/woman on the street. We really like nature’s eccentrics.

      He’s also very heavily followed on Tw*tter. There may be a lot of extra traffic in the near future.

      * Yes, I know that these aren’t anything that one should be judged on, but a lot of people still do.

  12. Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The example of the Nicene creed is one of my favorites too: Of “beliefs” adopted with no consequence attached. “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen…” etc.

    It’s a profession of faith. It serves two purposes. It exposes that many people think it is important to actually make professions; to be seen as “wearing the ribbon” to use a Seinfeld reference. What do they believe? They Believe that public professions of faith should be made, because that is what they DO. Beliefs are in actions.

    Secondly, not in the reciters’ interest, but it serves for the Church a way of implanting a litany of “beliefs” that become what I call “cultivated buttons” for the Church, or others, to tug upon when they actually DO want action from you.

    The creeds, the rituals, the daily reminders that you are a member of the faith (see that identity building there? YOU ARE . It’s all about strengthening one’s identification with the tribe so that you’ll fight for it.

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I could never rid myself of the feeling of being at the heart of a Borg collective when the RC congregation would recite the creed.

      I’m no longer part of the collective thankfully.

      • Posted February 25, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        I, too, am long gone. Per my moniker here.

      • Pali
        Posted February 25, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Yes! One of the death knells for my religious upbringing was being ten, sitting in church, and suddenly realizing that the congregation praying together sounded almost exactly like the Borg. Glad I’m not the only one who noticed that.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Gene Roddenberry worked in mysterious ways.

  13. stuartcoyle
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    There is one crucial difference that Gopnick missed between religionists and cat lovers: cats exist.

  14. Vicki
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    A gay bar might not be the best place to find bisexuals (I’m too old and boring for the bar scene), but we do exist. I suppose Gopnik has as “good” a reason for denying that, or at least claiming that we are as rare as hens’ teeth, because he is good at sticking his fingers in his ears and then pretending that we’re all monosexual, as for denying that anyone is really an atheist.

    Which is to say, no reason at all, it just suits his prejudices.

    • Posted February 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      On quite a few occasions, when asked what I do, I mention that I study networks – especially the sexual and drug-using networks of heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals and trisexuals.

      When the inevitable weird glance follows at the last term I used, I clarify with: “those are the folks that will tri anything.”

  15. keith jameson
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    My father was an Anglican parson and I was kneeling before him during a service he was conducting when I was seventeen years old. During the Nicene Creed I thought ‘I can’t say this any longer, it’s not true’. After I told him our relationship became rancorous but it made me compellingly interested in how such a good, intelligent man could be so misguided. I read widely but that simply handed me on a plate to the seduction of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and all of Richard’s books that followed. I continue to read here but rarely comment because I type at a snail’s pace.

  16. Posted February 26, 2014 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    To the Stephen Fry Fan-Club

    Sorry to throw a shoe into your machinery but those who watch his ‘knowledge program’ Q.I. should be able to recognise about one howler in every two programs. The program QI. features as guests actors and comics so that Stephen can astonish them with his (researcher’s) travel-guide kind of knowledge.

    And what’s more, Stephen Fry did a badly researched program upon the invention of printing that seemed to have made every mistake in the book. It seems that European printing was the result of the exploitation of theology for commercial gain. Even the first presses were adaptations from a common press designed to make copper bowls. Those bowls were set-up in grand churches facing holy relics, where they were thought to accumulate some holy rays. The bowls could be bought and taken home where they emitted rays in the dining room. And so printing was not part of the Renaissance, but was an early theological device to promulgate religious books, until early printers fell to selling the printed works of intellectuals such as Cicero. I have made a study of the use of early printing presses, and they are to be found in the crypts of cathedrals such as Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. And so printing was like the ‘development’ of the internet by the US military, which was subsequently found to have other uses.

    Stephen Fry is an actor, and has that actor’s ability for cerebral mimicry. And he is not English but of Jewish heritage, and that Jewish immigration has done so much to temper the dry and disputatious character of the British. But still, he is a great personality and hugely entertaining.

    • lanceleuven
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      “The program QI. features as guests actors and comics so that Stephen can astonish them with his (researcher’s) travel-guide kind of knowledge”

      Isn’t that a bit mean-spirited? For a start, if the info was only ‘travel-guide kind’ the programme wouldn’t work because it would be widely known and therefore not ‘quite interesting’. Secondly ‘Stephen can astonish them with his (researcher’s)…knowledge.’ That isn’t the way it comes across to me. For a start he reads the info from a card. He also refers to them as the QI elves. Lastly, they even did an episode that focused on how our body of knowledge shifts and how that undermines the facts given on QI and makes them provisional. As such they began the episode by awarding the contestants points based upon how many times they’d been on and therefore how many points they were likely to have been unfairly awarded/penalised for. And besides, isn’t it good to have a programme that tickles the intellect, despite imprefectly, rather than more mindless reality show drivel?

    • Chris
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Re: Para 1. The whole point of the show is that he’s supplied with most of the content by the producers and researchers, and that the panels are only there to get the answers interestingly wrong.

      However, you’ll also find out that he is also a very quick as well as erudite chap (forays into language, literature, music, travel that aren’t researched). Having seen his “spoken word” equivalent he is a raconteur of note.

      Re: Para 2. I wouldn’t necessarily blame him fully for fronting an inaccurate documentary, if that’s the case, but fair enough.

      Re: Para 3. What the hell has that got to do with anything? We are a mongrel nation, folks are English with roots and influences from around the world. Immigrant Jews (and Fry is most definitely not an immigrant FFS) are just a small part of a massive immigrant history – only an Orthodox minority segregate themselves away from the rest of us.

    • MP
      Posted February 26, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      I think Stephen Fry would be surprised to find that he’s not English. By your accounting this websites host is not American. Stephen Fry won a scholarship to Cambridge University so you may be overestimating his capacity for cerebral mimicry.

      • Posted February 26, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Ah, the misunderstandings !

        The ‘Travel-Guide’ knowledge of QI is such that I would have thought that any contributor to WEIT should know most of the answers. I do. But, yes, it does tickle the intellect to the level that I grumble at the reliable mistakes.

        In answer to the earlier point of his very Englishness, I made the point that his charm and abilities as a raconteur are probably owed to his Jewish ancestry, as it was with England’s last great raconteur, Peter Ustinov. (The Brits, as you know, form a dry and disputatious nation)

        And finally, winning a scholarship to Cambridge suggests a darker activity. He was briefly at a Private School. Oxbridge scholarships were largely reserved for Public School, and demanded ‘O’-Level Latin, hardly taught outside Private School, and a letter from the House Master… from your Private School. Those schools, housing 7% of the children, held nearly all the closed scholarships to Oxbridge, and without that background, just sitting the entrance exam was hardly possible to State Schools kids until the system of selection was disrupted under P.M. Thatcher. But Mr Fry may possibly have passed the Cambridge entrance without the usual strings being pulled. And in that case it would be down to his flamboyant surface erudition, displayed in the interview process.
        Fifty years ago I had my fill of Private School closed-scholars. One told me that astrology was the major science studied at university. Another said that American scientists responsible for the moon landing must have studied The Classics (Greek and Latin) because there is nothing new since the great classical authors! They uniformly believed that the universe was made of mysterious substances with spiritual dimensions, and were disbelieving when I drew from memory the Periodic Table.
        In person, Stephen Fry is a shy and self-effacing person, acutely aware of the shortcomings of an excellent short-term memory.

    • lutin
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      “Stephen Fry is an actor”

      Stephen Fry is also an extremely successful author (both fiction and non-fiction).

      • Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:12 am | Permalink

        « Stephen Fry has published books… »

        Haven’t we all, dear boy? Haven’t we all. 😉 But did you get past page three of his ‘The Liar’, or his ‘Moab Was my Washpot’? Neither did I.

        I am not impressed with the present worship of ‘Slebs’, nor the attribution of great things to normal people. Especially out of neglect of people who are deserving of our attention in the onward fight for human progress and understanding. I worked for years in theatre, TV and the arts. There are those who have contributed greatly to showbiz; the late Stephen J Cannell, and the late Harold Ramis, who died last week.
        But almost every day on this site you can read an opening essay of extraordinary intellectual vigour. It may only represent a small candle moving through the dark mountains of superstition and ideology, illuminating a way for others to follow. The entertainments industry is just a novelty when compared to the unacknowledged heroism of those who draw upon their intellect to give their time and their lives to dispelling the eternal darkness of human folly.

        • Johan Mathiesen
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          In defense of Stephen Fry (whom I’ve never watched), and not to dismiss Jerry Coyne, but Stephen Fry, most likely, has a much larger audience than Jerry; so it’s welcoming when our celebrities exhibit rationalism. You may not pay much attention ‘Slebs, but many people do, and it’s important to reach them, too.

          Furthermore, it’s worth noting that it’s not reasoned argument which sways most people’s thinking but rather their perception of what others are thinking; and when celebrities come out in favor of naturalism, it legitimizes it in many people’s minds.

        • Lutin
          Posted March 1, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          “Haven’t we all, dear boy?”


          “But did you get past page three of his ‘The Liar’, or his ‘Moab Was my Washpot’? Neither did I.”

          Yeah I did. You should probably read more than 3 pages of a book before judging it. Those books really aren’t that long.

  17. mrclaw69
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Gopnik’s just disgorging the usual dreck we’ve heard before from desperate creationists:

    – ‘If you take pleasure in music then you’re religious’
    – ‘If you like a piece of art then you’re religious’
    – ‘If you care about another human or animal then you’re religious’
    – ‘If you find a sunset beautiful then you’re religious’
    – ‘If you dare to decorate a tree then you’re religious’

    Etc, etc, etc.

    It appears to him that the only *true* atheist or rationalist is some sort of alien-brain who sits apart from society in sterile, white, maths-cube enjoying no relationships with other sentient creatures and taking no joy in anything whatsoever.

    It’s the most preposterous straw man.

  18. James Walker
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    I’m also a university professor and don’t encounter a lot of ordinary people in my working life, but my family is predominantly Catholic and lower-middle-class to working-class. The ones who still believe (as opposed to going through the motions to satisfy their parents or spouse) do in fact believe in a personal deity who watches over them and intervenes in human affairs for our/their benefit (and some actually claim he (yes, he) talks to them). They wouldn’t understand or recognize any of the Sophisticated Theologians’ non-anthropomorphic conceptions of a deity. In fact, they’d probably laugh at them.

    Re Stephen Fry: a few years ago at London’s Gay Pride we got pushed up close to each other by the crowd in Old Compton Street and I got to shake his hand 🙂

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