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: