As atheists become more visible and vocal, the mainstream media, aware of who butters their bread, digs in its heels. This often takes the form of critiques of the New Atheists, decrying them for being “militant,” “shrill,” and “intolerant.” Athough these epithets are annoying, I see big-media attention to atheism as a kind of victory. Attention is being paid.
That’s why I have mixed feelings about Lisa Miller’s latest column in Newsweek. Miller, the magazine’s religion editor, has been a consistent critic of New Atheism and, what’s worse, a fan of Karen Armstrong, showing a fatal susceptibility to wooly-headed apologetics.
This week, Miller tells us that she’s tired of atheist arguments against God, dismissing a debate betweeen Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilkins as “two middle-aged white men talking. ” (Really! Imagine how Miller’s hackles would rise if someone characterized a debate between Margaret Downey and Ann Coulter as “two middle-aged white women talking.”) But before explaining why she wants to “move on” from such debates, Miller gets in a gratuitous lick at the NAs:
Three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities. Together they’ve sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.
Um. . . is it civil to impute to Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens such base motives? (Likewise, is it civil to denigrate them as “middle-aged white men”? ) And how on earth does selling so many books prove that these guys did it for the money? I’m sure that Harris, for one, had no idea how well The End of Faith would sell. My best guess is that the main reason these guys wrote their books is that they wanted to spread their ideas. If an atheist used this kind of argument, she’d be immediately chastised for being shrill and militant.
But what apparently galls Miller the most is about the Three Horsemen is this:
But this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs . . . The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.
What can this mean but that the atheists have won? For here Miller tacitly admits that there are no “rational proofs” of God. So when she says that we should move on, does she mean that we can all agree there’s no rational basis for faith? Not on your life. She thinks that we’ve simply taken the wrong tack: we need to look at faith as poets rather than scientists.
There are other voices out there, and other, possibly more productive ways to frame a conversation about the benefits and potential dangers of religious faith. In 2003 the historian and poet Jennifer Hecht wrote Doubt: A History, an exhaustive survey of atheism. She advises readers to investigate questions of belief like a poet, rather than like a scientist. “It is easier to force yourself to be clear,” she writes, “if you avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.” Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls “paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch.”
When you hear stuff like this, you know that the goal posts have suddenly shifted. In this case they’ve moved from the truth of religion to its “benefits and dangers.” Well, at least Miller admits that you can get some of those benefits by secular means:
This week Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein comes out with Good Without God, a book arguing that people can have everything religion offers—community, transcendence, and, above all, morality—without the supernatural. This seems to me self-evident, yet the larger point is important. We need urgently to talk about these things: ethics, progress, education, science, democracy, tolerance, and justice—and to understand the reasons why religion can (but does not always) hamper their flourishing.
I may be wrong, but haven’t the NAs, especially Sam Harris, been talking about this all along? Harris devotes a fair chunk of his book to the human needs that religion meets, and how they can be met by secular activities like meditation. Dawkins has devoted his pen — and some of his ill-gotten gains! — to showing how we can be good without God. And Hitchens has detailed the numerous ways that faith hinders democracy, tolerance, and justice. What, then, is “the larger point” that we’ve all missed?
Perhaps Miller could devote a few words to explaining why you don’t need faith to be moral, a position that doesn’t seem so “self-evident” to many Americans. Now that would be doing her readers a service! Instead, she feeds them intellectual pablum. But where is the religion editor who does otherwise?