The Church of the Non-Believers
By Gary Wolf
MY FRIENDS, I MUST ASK YOU AN IMPORTANT QUESTION TODAY: Where do you stand on God?
It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.
This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.
The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.
Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.
Richard Dawkins, the leading light of the New Atheism movement, lives and works in a large brick house just 20 minutes away from the Shelley memorial. Dawkins, formerly a fellow at New College, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. He is 65 years old, and the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, dates from well back in the last century.
Dawkins is perfectly aware that atheism is an ancient doctrine and that little of what he has to say is likely to change the terms of this stereotyped debate. But he continues to go at it. His true interlocutors are not the Christians he confronts directly but the wavering nonbelievers or quasi believers among his listeners people like me, potential New Atheists who might be inspired by his example.
"I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism," Dawkins says, after we get settled in one of the high-ceilinged, ground-floor rooms. He asks me to keep an eye on his bike, which sits just behind him, on the other side of a window overlooking the street. "The number of nonreligious people in the US is something nearer to 30 million than 20 million," he says. "That's more than all the Jews in the world put together. I think we're in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people had the courage to come out. I think that's the case with atheists. They are more numerous than anybody realizes."
Dawkins looks forward to the day when the first US politician is honest about being an atheist. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists," he says. "Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."
When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins' analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.
For the New Atheists, the problem is not any specific doctrine, but religion in general. Or, as Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers."
The New Atheist insight is that one might start anywhere with an intellectual argument, with a visceral rejection of Islamic or Christian fundamentalism, with political disgust and then, by relentless and logical steps, renounce every supernatural crutch.
AS I TEST OUT the New Atheist arguments, I realize that the problem with logic is that it doesn't quicken the blood sufficiently even my own. But if logic by itself won't do the trick, how about the threat of apocalypse? The apocalyptic argument for atheism is the province of Sam Harris, who released a book two years ago called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
This autumn, Harris has a new book out, Letter to a Christian Nation. In it, he demonstrates the behavior he believes atheists should adopt when talking with Christians. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you," he writes, addressing his imaginary opponent, "dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God."
We discuss what it might look like, this world without God. "There would be a religion of reason," Harris says. "We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously a lot more seriously than most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it's in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer, but we would have prayer without bullshit."
I do call it prayer. Here is the atheist prayer: that our reason will subjugate our superstition, that our intelligence will check our illusions, that we will be able to hold at bay the evil temptation of faith.
THE NEXT MORNING, I seek to cleanse my intellectual conscience among the freethinkers. The Center for Inquiry is also a storied landmark. True, it is not as striking as the Angelus Temple, being only a bland, low structure at the far end of Hollywood Boulevard, miles away from the tourists. But this building is the West Coast branch of one of the greatest anti-supernatural organizations in the world. My favorite thing about the Center for Inquiry is that it is affiliated with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, founded 30 years ago by Isaac Asimov, Paul Kurtz, and Carl Sagan and dedicated to spreading misery among every species of quack.
I have become a connoisseur of atheist groups there are scores of them, mostly local, linked into a few larger networks. There are some tensions, as is normal in the claustrophobia of powerless subcultures, but relations among the different branches of the movement are mostly friendly. Typical atheists are hardly the rabble-rousing evangelists that Dawkins or Harris might like. They are an older, peaceable, quietly frustrated lot, who meet partly out of idealism and partly out of loneliness. Here in Los Angeles, every fourth Sunday at 11 am, there is a meeting of Atheists United. More than 50 people have shown up today, which is a very good turnout for atheism. Many are approaching retirement age. The speaker this morning, a younger activist named Clark Adams, encourages them with the idea that their numbers are growing. Look at South Park, Adams urges. Look at Howard Stern. Look at Penn & Teller. These are signs of an infidel upsurge.
Still, Adams admits some marketing concerns. Atheists are predominant among the "upper 5 percent," he says. "Where we're lagging is among the lower 95 percent."
This is a true problem, and it goes beyond the difficulty of selling your ideas among those to whom you so openly condescend. The sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that the rise and fall of religions can be understood in economic terms. Believers sacrifice time and money in exchange for both spiritual and material benefits. In other words, religion is rational, but it is governed by the rationality of trade rather than of argument. Stark's theory is academically controversial, but here, in the Sunday morning meeting of Atheists United, it seems obvious that the narrow reasonableness of Adams can hardly be effective with the deal on offer at the Angelus Temple.
So is atheism true?
There's good evidence from research by anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran that a grab bag of cognitive predispositions makes us natural believers. We hear leaves rustle and we imagine that some airy being flutters up there; we see a corpse and continue to fear the judgment and influence of the person it once was. Remarkable progress has been made in understanding why faith is congenial to human nature and of course that still says nothing about whether it is true. Harris is typically severe in his rejection of the idea that evolutionary history somehow justifies faith. There is, he writes, "nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors." Like rape, Harris says, religion may be a vestige of our primitive nature that we must simply overcome.
A variety of rebuttals to atheism have been tried over the years. Religious fundamentalists stand on their canonized texts and refuse to budge. The wisdom of this approach strategically, at least is evident when you see the awkward positions nonfundamentalists find themselves in. The most active defender of faith among scientists right now is Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. His most recent book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In defiance of the title, Collins never attempts to show that science offers evidence for belief. Rather, he argues only that nothing in science prohibits belief. Unsolved problems in diverse fields, along with a skepticism about knowledge in general, are used to demonstrate that a deity might not be impossible. The problem with this, for defenders of faith, is that they've implicitly accepted science as the arbiter of what is real. This leaves the atheists with the upper hand.
That's because when secular investigations take the lead, sacred doctrines collapse. There's barely a field of modern research cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed. Even the lowly humanities, which began the demolition job more than 200 years ago with textual criticism of the Bible, continue to make things difficult for believers through careful analysis of the historical origins of religious texts. While Collins and his fellow reconcilers can defend the notion of faith in the abstract, as soon as they get down to doctrine, the secular professors show up with their corrosive arguments. When it comes to concrete examples of exactly what we should believe, reason is a slippery slope, and at the bottom well, at the bottom is atheism.
I spend months resisting this slide. I turn to the great Oxford professor of science and religion John Hedley Brooke, who convinces me that, contrary to myth, Darwin did not become an atheist because of evolution. Instead, his growing resistance to Christianity came from his moral criticism of 19th-century doctrine, compounded by the tragedy of his daughter's death. Darwin did not believe that evolution proved there was no God. This is interesting, because the story of Darwin's relationship to Christianity has figured in polemics for and against evolution for more than a century. But in the context of a real struggle with the claims of atheism, an accurate history of Darwin's loss of faith counts for little more than celebrity gossip.
From Brooke, I get pointers on the state of the art in academic theology, particularly those philosophers of religion who write in depth about science, such as Willem Drees and Philip Clayton. There is a certain illicit satisfaction in this scholarly work, which to an atheist is no better than astrology. ("The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a nonsubject," Dawkins has written. "Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.") On the contrary, I find the best of these books to be brilliant, detailed, self-assured. I learn about kenosis, the deliberate decision of God not to disturb the natural order. I learn about panentheism, which says God is both the world and more than the world, and about emergentist theology, which holds that a God might have evolved. There are deep passages surveying theories of knowledge, glossing Kant, Schelling, and Spinoza. I discover a daunting diversity of belief, and of course I'm just beginning. I haven't even gotten started with Islam, or the Vedic texts, or Zoroastrianism. It is all admirable and stimulating and lacks only the real help anybody in my position would need: reasons to believe that specific religious ideas are true. Even the most careful theologians seem to pose the question backward, starting out with their beliefs and clinging to those fragments that science and logic cannot overturn. The most rigorous of them jettison huge portions of doctrine along the way.
If trained theologians can go this far, who am I to defend supernaturalism on their behalf? Why not be an atheist? I've sought aid far and wide, from Echo Park to Harvard, and finally I am almost ready to give in. Only one thing is still bothering me. Were I to declare myself an atheist, what would this mean? Would my life have to change? Would it become my moral obligation to be uncompromising toward fence-sitting friends? That person at dinner, pissing people off with his arrogance, his disrespect, his intellectual scorn would that be me?
Besides, do we really understand all that religion means? Would it be easy to excise it, even assuming it is false? Didn't they try a cult of reason once, in France, at the close of the 18th century, and didn't it turn out to be too ugly even for Robespierre?
THE DOCTOR for these difficulties looks like Santa Claus. His name is Daniel Dennett. He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard.
Among the New Atheists, Dennett holds an exalted but ambiguous place. Like Dawkins and Harris, he is an evangelizing nonbeliever. He has campaigned in writing on behalf of the Brights and has written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In it, the blasting rhetoric of Dawkins and Harris is absent, replaced by provocative, often humorous examples and thought experiments. But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school. After all, he argues, "if you have to hoodwink or blindfold your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct."
When I arrive at the farm, I find him in the midst of a difficult task. He has been asked by the President's Council on Bioethics to write an essay reflecting on human dignity. In grappling with these issues, Dennett knows that he can't rely on faith or scripture. He will not say that life begins when an embryo is ensouled by God. He will not say that hospitals must not invite the indigent to sell their bodies for medical experiments because humans are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ethical problems must be solved by reason, not arbitrary rules. And yet, on the other hand, Dennett knows that reason alone will fail.
We sit in his study, in some creaky chairs, with the deep silence of an August morning around us, and Dennett tells me that he takes very seriously the risk of overreliance on thought. He doesn't want people to lose confidence in what he calls their "default settings," by which he means the conviction that their ethical intuitions are trustworthy. These default settings give us a feeling of security, a belief that our own sacrifices will be reciprocated. "If you shatter this confidence," he says, "then you get into a deep hole. Without trust, everything goes wrong."
Dennett is an advocate of admitting that we simply don't have good reasons for some of the things we believe. Although we must guard our defaults, we still have to admit that they may be somewhat arbitrary. "How else do we protect ourselves?" he asks. "With absolutisms? This means telling lies, and when the lies are exposed, the crash is worse. It's not that science can discover when the body is ensouled. That's nonsense. We are not going to tolerate infanticide. But we're not going to put people in jail for onanism. Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries."
This sounds to me a little like the religion of reason that Harris foresees.
"Yes, there could be a rational religion," Dennett says. "We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things." He understands that this would create constant tension between prohibition and curiosity. But the borders of our sacred beliefs could be well guarded simply by acknowledging that it is pragmatic to refuse to change them.
I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us.
Dennett replies that exceptions can be made. "Philosophers are the ones who refuse to accept the sacred values," he says. For instance, Socrates.
I find this answer supremely odd. The image of an atheist religion whose sacred objects, called defaults, are taboo for all except philosophers this is the material of the cruelest parody. But that's not what Dennett means. In his scenario, the philosophers are not revered authorities but mental risk-takers and scouts. Their adventures invite ridicule, or worse. "Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled," Dennett says. "Socrates drank the hemlock. He knew what he was doing."
With this, I begin to understand what kind of atheist I want to be. Dennett's invocation of Socrates is a reminder that there are certain actors in history who change the world by staging their own defeat. Having been raised under Christianity, we are well schooled in this tactic of belated victory. The world has reversed its judgment on Socrates, as on Jesus and the fanatical John Brown. All critics of fundamental values, even those who have no magical beliefs, will find themselves tempted to retrace this path. Dawkins' tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris' vision of apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy.
Prophecy, I've come to realize, is a complex meme. When prophets provoke real trouble, bring confusion to society by sowing reverberant doubts, spark an active, opposing consensus everywhere that is the sign they've hit a nerve. But what happens when they don't hit a nerve? There are plenty of would-be prophets in the world, vainly peddling their provocative claims. Most of them just end up lecturing to undergraduates, or leading little Christian sects, or getting into Wikipedia edit wars, or boring their friends. An unsuccessful prophet is not a martyr, but a sort of clown.
Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I've decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism is too much for me.
The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.
Contributing editor Gary Wolf (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about emergencywarning technology in issue 13.12.
Edited by betsy, 29 March 2011 - 06:25 PM.