A NYT writer yearning for religion who doesn’t need evidence for God

It always amazes me when someone who seems smart and savvy suddenly evinces a soppy yearning for religion. Then the inevitable path: the ditching of skepticism and, ultimately, the dissing of atheism. Such a person is Timothy Egan of the New York Times, described as “a contributing opinion writer and the author of the forthcoming A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, from which this essay is adapted.”

The essay is the article in today’s NYT (click on screenshot below). If you check on Egan’s bio, however, you’ll see that he has a background of solid writing, including several history books (not about religion) and a share of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Yet he’s “in search of a faith”, which I take to mean “in search of something you can believe in, even if there’s no evidence for it.”

Read and see for yourself how standards of rigor and thought go out the window when a journalist is in search of a faith.


Egan apparently walked the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome and then Apulia (on Italy’s boot heel), the embarkation port for those bound for the Holy Land.  Why? One site gives some background:

Moved by his mother’s death and his Irish Catholic family’s complicated history with the church, Timothy Egan decided to follow in the footsteps of centuries of seekers to force a reckoning with his own beliefs. He embarked on a thousand-mile pilgrimage through the theological cradle of Christianity, exploring one of the biggest stories of our time: the collapse of religion in the world that it created. . . A thrilling journey, a family story, and a revealing history, A Pilgrimage to Eternity looks for our future in its search for God.

And so Egan sets off on foot, along this route (and stopping at Rome):

His rationale:

We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life. That’s one reason 200 million people worldwide a year make some form of religious pilgrimage.

In the vacuous tumult of the Trump era, I was looking for something durable: a stiff shot of no-nonsense spirituality. I’m a skeptic by profession, an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture and upbringing — lapsed but listening, like half of all Americans of my family’s faith.

But I was no longer comfortable in the squishy middle; it was too easy. I’d come to believe that an agnostic, as the Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “is just an atheist without any balls.”

I happen to agree with Colbert, for, at least in my book (and others may disagree), I see most “agnostics” as atheists who won’t admit that they lack belief in a God, which in the end is just atheism.  Egan’s problem is that he is “not comfortable” without religion, even if the beliefs of his natal faith are ridiculous and unevidenced. And so he hikes a long way, retracing the steps of his faith-ridden predecessors.

Now there’s nothing wrong with retracing ancient pilgrimage routes. I myself went to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the end of a famous pilgrimage route, just to soak up the history and see the Cathedral. It might be enlightening to read about these routes and see who is still walking them. But Egan was there for more. He wanted desperately to reconnect with the Numinous. And so he has to bad-mouth atheism:


  1. yazikus
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Well that is disappointing. Egan wrote one of my favorite books – The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America. (Would highly recommend!).

    I sort of get it though – I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy as a young adult and liked all of the history, music, iconography, monastics, etc. But after years of trying – God still hadn’t shown themselves to me.

  2. Matt
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith:

    (A)gnosticism is not an independent position or a middle way between theism and atheism, because it classifies according to different criteria. Theism and atheism separate those who believe in a god from those who do not. Agnosticism separates those who believe that reason cannot penetrate the supernatural realm from those who defend the capability of reason to affirm or deny the truth of theistic belief.

    The self-proclaimed agnostic must still designate whether he does or does not believe in a god—and, in so doing, he commits himself to theism or he commits himself to atheism. But he does commit himself. Agnosticism is not the escape clause that it is commonly thought to be.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      When god invented the word he gave it two different meanings, each of them equally correct. The trickster enjoys the confusion that results.

    • Geoff Toscano
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      That rather articulately expresses what I’ve been thinking for a long time.

  3. Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Just one more intelligent person who had the bad luck to be born with the God Gene that feels the need to justify it to everyone else. Perhaps someday we’ll have a cure for this congenital defect.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      The God Gene. Ah, a new deity, Gene.

  4. Mark Joseph
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “But I cannot help doing this great wrong toward Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous.” W. K. Clifford

    Egan is playing into the hands of every charlatan and social powermonger who ever lived, handing them a tool for control, simply because he is either too stupid or too lazy to learn about “The Magic of Reality.”

    • JoshP
      Posted October 21, 2019 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      I wonder why the word “credulus” is not explained in Miriam Webster online dictionary.

  5. Jenny Haniver
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I so damed tired of sacralization of religious self-abnegation. What’s so holy about St. Catherine of Siena licking pus off lepers? If somebody who has material benefits sheds them to live among the poor or become a mendicant, how is that holy? What makes those monks holy because they renounce the world, live in silence and spend their time praying to a nonexistent entity?

    I’m also so damned tired of the sacralization of pathological mental states that in the absence of a declared religious basis are considered mental illnesses.

  6. Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I’ve posted this here before, and I’m posting it again: a response from Hitchens to exactly this kind of nonsense.

    Hitch is debating two religious apologists as well as the moderator, who attacks him throughout the debate and repeatedly cuts him off.

    Here, (should start around 51 minutes), the moderator is saying that Hitch says religion is the enemy of culture, and he asks Jonathon Kirsch if religion and culture are compatible.

    Kirsch: I was reminded of a trip my wife and I took to Paris, we saw the Pantheon, which is a church which was desacrilized after the French Revolution. It is a sterile church. You can go to Notre Dame or Sacré-Cœur which are old medieval churches and they’re very beautiful places. We go into our art museums which we praise as the highest art of the classical world. Their original purpose was what our Bible calls idols.

    This is our culture – religion is our culture. It provides the stuff of our culture. And to repudiate that — our cultural legacy — is precisely the same as the Taliban going out an dynamiting Buddhist statues in Afghanistan: it’s vandalism!

    Hitch responds bluntly —

    Silly point. Very very silly point…. Extremely silly point.

    The (so-called) moderator ridicules Hitchens for being so blunt, so Hitchens continues with a calmly delivered archetypal Hitchslap:

    Sacré-Cœur, by the way, was built-in the late nineteenth century. It’s not medieval at all. It was built to celebrate the defeat of Republicanism in France. It expresses the sectarianism of the French Catholic Church, and its historical alignment with the antisemites, the army and the elite.

    You can go and worship there if you like, if that’s the kind of culture to you like.

    Well something got demolished there, and it wasn’t the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur!

    • rickflick
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for reviving Hitch’s bluntness on this issue. What a refreshing voice it still is.

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Much as I love Hitchens, he really didn’t counter the main point. He scoffed and then found a technical flaw in the other guy’s argument. The main point was silly though.

      • Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        I thought he did counter Kirsch’s point in two ways: he gave an example of how religion is incompatible with culture & civilisation, and implicated Kirsch as effectively being complicit in it by automatically giving the church a free pass; and in a practical sense, demonstrated that he — an atheist and supposedly hostile to religion — knew more about the subject than Kirsch in this case.

  7. boggy
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Denis Diderot is my hero. He it was who said
    ‘Mankind will never be free until the last king is the entrails of the last priest’.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      I think you inadvertently omitted the word “strangled”; that’s an important word. 🙂

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know about that — it could be another kind of Transubstantiation of the species.

    • tomh
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      That quote is often misattributed to Diderot, though it appeared much earlier in the Testament of the atheist-priest Jean Meslier, who wrote, “I would like to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.” Meslier didn’t claim it as his own, though, saying he heard it from a common man in his parish.

      Diderot had the same idea in the last two lines of a poem, “And its hands would weave the entrails of the priest,
      For the lack of a cord with which to strangle kings.”

  8. Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Timothy Egan went to Gonzaga Preparatory School, a Jesuit institution.

    Give me the boy and I will show you the man.

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      I really enjoyed his first book, The Good Rain.

  9. Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    ” As for atheism being empty because it doesn’t tell a story, well, that’s because atheism is the rejection of stories, not the confection of comforting fiction. It’s not the business of atheists to replace religious fiction with areligious fiction. ”

    I have a small objection here. Atheism need not be the rejection of stories, as much as the proper reframing of stories.

    I would assert that all fiction that isn’t religious scripture or based on it ( like those horrid Left Behind books) is atheistic, even that which contains gods.

    There is nothing contrary to atheism to find meaning and inspiration is fiction.

    What I see in Egan is a yearning for belief and he’s realized this yearning is incompatible with skepticism, which is why he feels he needs to attack people like Hitchens.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Is that the way you find g*d? Traveling around Italy visiting churches and reading a book by Hitch. Is he an agnostic searching for his balls or a Catholic searching for his faith? I wonder how do all the other doubters who cannot afford the plane ticket do it. It’s good to know as a committed atheist, I do not have to make the trip.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      “Is he an agnostic searching for his balls or a Catholic searching for his faith?”

      🙂 🙂 🙂

      You, sir, owe me a new keyboard.


    • A C Harper
      Posted October 21, 2019 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      To mangle a quote from Robert M Pirsig:

      “The only spirituality you can find in the miles of a pilgrimage is the spirituality you bring along with you.”

      Or perhaps “I walked the Via Francigena and all I got was this T shirt.” Judicious Google search will find many such T shirts…

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Sheeee-it, when I’m feelin’ a “malnutrition of the soul,” I just break out my Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson sides.

    • yazikus
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I’m not usually a fan of country music, but I quite enjoy Marin Morris’ My Church.

    • Kurt L Helf
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Nice! I also love Mavis Staples. In particular her coolaboration with Wilco in what I choose to interpret to be an anthem for the Isolated Atheist:

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        I love Mavis Staples. I’d as soon listen to her growl through a field phone as hear most other singers from the stage at Carnegie Hall.

        Legend has it, first time Bob Dylan heard Mavis sing live, he proposed marriage to her on the spot. She turned him down, but the two were an item of sorts for a while.

  12. Mark R.
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    We are spiritual beings.

    Says who? Define what that means please. I hate it when religious people (or apologists as the case may be) assert this kind of numinous bullshit and continue with their argument as if it’s an established fact that humans are spiritual beings. He might as well begin by saying “We are imaginative beings”.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Could such insulting allegations be actionable, I wonder.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        Probably only if he accuses you by name. 😉


  13. rickflick
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    “Moved by his mother’s death and his Irish Catholic family’s complicated history with the church…”

    I can see where he’s coming from. There’s a very emotional issue at the root of his quest. The loss of his mother and his religious culture is nothing to sneeze at. The problem is, he feels he has to discard reason to satisfy these needs.

    “…a stiff shot of no-nonsense spirituality.”

    So oxymoronic as to induce guffaws.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always approved of Irish-American-style wakes. When the time comes, I’ve made plans for my people to throw one for me. There’s a stack of hundreds, a play-list of songs, and some directions sitting in an envelope in the office safe.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        That sounds wonderful. If I attend, will I get one of those C-Notes (I’ll bring a decent wine)?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Does the envelope contain a list of people to be sent a “if you come, we have pepper spray” dis-invitation?

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      He has a penchant for quests. When his dad died he was moved to retrace Theodore Winthrop’s travels in Washington territory, culminating in Egan’s excellent book The Good Rain, a paean to nature.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        He has a penchant for quests.

        Sounds like he’s found an effective schtick for getting his foreign travel and vacation expenditure to be tax-deductible.

  14. Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Take a look at the John Wisdom/Antony Flew comments on the Invisible Gardener parable!

  15. Timothy Reichert
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Atheism doesn’t provide stories because atheism isn’t really a thing. But philosophical skepticism is a thing. And it provides great stories. Plato’s “Allegory Of The Cave” is the most interesting and enlightening story ever told. Still gives me goosebumps.

    There is evidence that humans crave and need stories. But there’s no evidence that those stories need to be religious.

    • A C Harper
      Posted October 21, 2019 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I’d argue that the way in which we think (predictive processing) and the world we find ourselves in predisposes us to seek out order, structure, explanations, regularities and so on to swiftly predict our immediate future and take appropriate action.

      There’s potentially a huge fitness benefit in doing so, irrespective of whether of not our beliefs are true. They only have to be effective. Perhaps some people have a higher ‘discerning order’ drive than others?

  16. Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Re Hitchens on mystery: The mystery to me is how anyone can watch a bird build a nest or a spider spin a web or, for that matter, Earl Scruggs play a banjo, and still say there are no mysteries left.

    Re “atheist” and “agnostic”: we might do well to do away with both and just go with “God denier.”

    • GBJames
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      I prefer you call me a God-damned denier!

      • Posted October 20, 2019 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        “I prefer you call me a God-damned denier!”

        I’m down with that–as long as I don’t have to invent new pronouns whenever I refer to you.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 21, 2019 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Or you could call us “objective evidence respecters” — you know, if (like Jonah and the Whale and Noah and the Ark) you wanted to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” . 🙂

      • Posted October 21, 2019 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Ah, shades of Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne! That old 78 was a favorite of my mom’s, as Der Bingle used to cut through her back yard on Boone Ave. in Spokane on his way to Gonzaga U.

        Re objective vs subjective evidence, however, you should know by now that I wouldn’t consider respecting either to the exclusion of the other to be “positive.”

        Finally, with our host gone I can only hope that this gets posted, as all of my comments have to “await moderation.” Not sure whether this is because Jerry considers my comments dangerous or just so insightful that he wants to make sure he doesn’t miss one, but either way I’m flattered.

      • Jenny Hoffman
        Posted October 22, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m an OER (think Kristen Whig’s Target lady pronunciation)!

      • rickflick
        Posted October 22, 2019 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Accentuating the positive can lead to an unbalanced solution. I normally aim for a bodily pH of between 7.2 and 7.4.

  17. Curt Nelson
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    “We are spiritual beings”

    I’m tired of hearing that false factoid laid out for us to reckon with. We’re highly suggestible, pattern seekers with too much gray matter for our own good.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Mark R already said it (#12).

  18. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    He embarked on a thousand-mile pilgrimage through the theological cradle of Christianity

    I thought all the important theology took place in the Levant. There has been a lot of commentary since, but literally nothing new.
    OK – caveat on that last point : the Dead Sea Scrolls, relatively new (1948-56), found in the Levant, mostly pre-dating the alleged period of the alleged “Christ”, but likely to be relatively informative of the theology of the time, and significantly divergent from the commentaries written from Milan to Hippo via Nicea. I think the commentary writers of Rome are still trying to work their way out of the bind this evidence leaves them in. Oh, look, no sympathy under this rock. Nor this one … I could go on.

  19. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    That map niggles me. How did Egan manage to set off from both the Great St Bernard *and* the Col de Montgenevre?


    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      When you’re a spiritual being, you can do that sort of thing.

  20. grasshopper
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    “We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life. That’s one reason 200 million people worldwide a year make some form of religious pilgrimage.”

    Unlike now where ‘the plague of modern life’ compels us to fatten our souls at Lourdes or Mecca, souls during the ‘modern life’ of a thousand years ago must have been brimming with spiritual cholesterol. (Even nostalgia was better in the olden days.)

    “Malnutrition of the soul”, an apt utterance illustrating the effects of ignorexia verbosa.

    But it all makes sense, really, because souls exist, right?

  21. Posted October 21, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Amazing that these “hungry” people so often start with something that might be familiar, rather than finding something that might be true or at least more interesting.

    (Mind you, attempting Hajj as a non-Muslim is likely dangerous or impossible, but I imagine there are lots of Buddhist or Hindu or Native American pilgrimages one can do!)

  22. Natalie Angier
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I am an atheist. I’ve written about my atheism for The New York Times and elsewhere. I honestly don’t know how I manage it, seeing that — I don’t have balls!

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted October 22, 2019 at 2:08 am | Permalink


  23. Andrew
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    At least the comments section on the article are encouraging. Egan gets a lot of pushback about his religious flavored driveling.

  24. KD
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Religion is a passionate commitment to a frame of reference.

    We should not be surprised that it turns out that the evidence for the existence of God is no different than the evidence that the prime meridian passes through Greenwich England. Further, if the prime meridian doesn’t exist, it is clear that longitude doesn’t exist, and we couldn’t express locations with coordinates.

    God is a central piece of an ancient frame, like the keystone in a Roman Arch. I can appreciate the work of Aquinas, the same way I can appreciate a Gothic Cathedral, even though I sense that its time has past.

    This is not to say that monotheism is the only frame of reference or the best (that is a different question), but its more a question like the choice of law in a disputed contract signed in California concerning assets in Minnesota and Nebraska with a choice of law provision stating NJ (but none of the disputants want NJ law). What matters is not the evidence, its the decision.

    Yes, science has come along and shown much of the fairy tales in the good book are not good natural history explanations, but so what. Greenwich England isn’t really the center of the Earth either.

  25. KD
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    The truth of a religion is much closer to the truth of a painting or sculpture than it will ever be to the truth of a scientific theory or an empirical fact.

    Now, can art express truth? Because if truth has any relation to religion, it would be because religion expresses some kind of truth, because logical analysis of religious doctrines shows them to be a series of logical contradictions.

    People don’t need evidence to be moved by Beethoven or to be moved by well choreographed liturgy. Religion is fundamentally performative. [Which is why belief or non-belief in God doesn’t ultimately matter.]

    [And to those who don’t acknowledge that a poem or a piece of music can’t express a truth are obviously coming from a non-religious perspective. . . I’m not try to construct some apologetic, I’m trying to describe the phenomenon of religion in human societies and relate it to cultural aesthetics, which it fundamentally is.]

    • GBJames
      Posted October 22, 2019 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      For some definitions of “truth”, I suppose.

  26. Lee
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    “What Egan has done here is construct a watertight enclosure for God that cannot be breached by reason or evidence.”

    There is a precedent for such a watertight structure:

    “And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly;”

    Fear and treble, all who have ears to hear.


  27. Lee
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    … gag- I meant “tremble”, not “treble”. My hands are trembling too much…

  28. jenny Hoffman
    Posted October 22, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I grew as an agnostic in a non-religious family. I am an atheist and detest laws etc, that impinge on my or anybody’s rights, because of a “father in the sky”. But, I also, as a social worker, understand the need people have for comfort. I like myth and fantasy and don’t count anything out really, at least emotionally. I’ve separated it nicely with my intellectual belief, that is, atheism and my emotional beliefs, that is, Flying Spaghetti Monster and/or Ceiling Cat (jury is still out) and the hope that somehow I will see those I’ve lost! I have fun with that but also advocate passionately to get religion out of government/laws/schools! He is just someone I wouldn’t read, as he’s finding his religious roots or, rather, going back to them!

    • rickflick
      Posted October 22, 2019 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Ceiling Cat (jury is still out)! Seems to me you’re risking infernal darnation.

      • Jenny Hoffman
        Posted October 24, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Tee Hee, but I don’t believe in anything that’s darned – must be damned!

  29. Posted October 22, 2019 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I find his shot at the French cheap.

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