In the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, James Wood, an eminent literary critic based at Harvard, wrote an article (“God in the Quad”) taking to task not only the “new atheists,” but also several of their critics, most notably Terry Eagleton.
Within a day I put up an analysis of Wood’s piece on this website; my main point was that he espoused a middle-of-the-roadism that would satisfy neither atheists, faitheists, nor the faithful. As Wood concluded:
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.
Now Dr. Wood has kindly written a post on this website defending his position. It was a comment following my analysis (and several people have replied there), but I thought I’d put it above the fold for discussion. Here’s what he has to say:
As the author of the piece under discussion, might I comment on the commentary? Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.
The remarkable claim is made that I offer no evidence of this contempt for the history of belief; I would have thought that comparing the history of religious belief to John Cleese hitting his car in “Fawlty Towers” (Dawkins’s example of HADD, and the one I cite) is a very good example of that contempt — one can hear the High Table guffaw (”those absurd religionists!”). Dawkins is an essentially 19th-century figure; he sounds amazingly like Huxley, or the Russell of “Why I am not a Christian.” This was a text that made an enormous impact on me — when I was fifteen, or so. But one returns to it and finds it grating and oddly juvenile.
On the other hand, as I made clear, I have little time for the priests, the theologians, and the theorists. Nevertheless, it does seem to me more intellectually interesting to examine the nature of religious belief than simply to go on and on about what an enormous illusion it is. I KNOW it is an illusion, and so does everyone else on this website. So, let’s find something more interesting to say about this illusion, shall we? We are not always fighting the fundamentalists (who aren’t persuadable anyway, alas).
I’ve already had my say about Wood’s New Yorker piece, and would prefer to have the readers here have their say. I will add just one statement as well as a response I got from someone else. Religion is more than just an “enormous illusion.” It is an enormous illusion that has the potential to do — and is doing — substantial harm to our world. Because of religion, women are being oppressed, people are getting stoned to death for adultery, HIV-infected people in Africa are being urged to abstain from condoms, people are killing each other over trivial differences in “sacred” works of fiction, and our own country was, in effect, a theocracy. In America we’re still dealing with the remnants of medieval theology in questions about abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia. Our world may well end in a paroxysm of religious conflict. Many of the faithful don’t just hold their beliefs privately, but insist on inflicting them on others. This situation, and its attendant irrationality, is what motivates the “new atheists,” and this motivation is precisely what Wood ignores. Instead, he cavils about subtle points of theology — and cathedrals.
I went to Harvard, and am not keen on Harvard-bashing. Still, Wood’s “critique” smacks of an ivory-tower disconnect from the harsh realities of the world — and from real faith as it is lived and practiced. Instead of dealing with these, he wants to score debating points, and to assert a smug moral superiority over both atheists and the faithful. Such is the New Yorker style. After reading Wood’s response, a friend in the humanities, who is far more economical with prose than I, sent me this:
James Wood is a very smart literary critic. In fact, believe it or not, there’s none smarter. Still, there are some things he doesn’t understand. Dawkins’s harsh view of religion isn’t warmed-over Victorianism or juvenile contempt for cathedrals. It has to do with the effects, here and now, of literal religious belief on the conduct of nations and groups.
Wood inhabits a world of books, plus all of the cultural influences that go to make books interesting. Fine! But meanwhile, our very existence is threatened by screwball religionists (including the Christians and Jews who want a war with Iran). To say that those of us who are alarmed about this fact don’t appreciate Chartres and Notre Dame is, to put it mildly, dilettantish.