Gertrude Himmelfarb analyzes New Atheism—badly

September 29, 2012 • 11:08 am

The conservative historian Getrude Himmelfarb has a rather lame essay in The Wall Street Journal: “The once-born and the twice-born: the militant quest for certitude among the New Atheists has a peculiarly old-fashioned feel about it.”

It’s a rather rambling piece, most of it devoted to simply recounting William James’s famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), a description of how men and women come to believe in God, largely because of their personal revelations and presumbed encounters with the ineffable.

Himelfarb recounts how James divided believers into two types: the “once-born,” the light-hearted and romantic religionists who make light of suffering and deny the existence of hell, and the “twice-born,” whom Himelfarb describes as:

. . . the “sick souls” and “morbid-minded”—are all too aware of the existence of evil, indeed, of the “experience of evil as something essential.” Where the once-born look upon the “children of wrath” as “unmanly and diseased,” the twice-born look upon the “healthy-minded” as “unspeakably blind and shallow.”

James—and, obviously, Himmelfarb— come down on the side of the twice-born. Why? Because they have a firmer grip on reality. And although this may make them more depressed, it also gives them a saner view of life. Quoting James, she says:

“It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience.” Healthy-mindedness is simply inadequate as a philosophical doctrine “because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

Himmelfarb’s conceit in the article is to see the same dichtomy among New Atheists. She presages this distinction at the beginning of her piece, where she contrasts the Four Horsemen (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris), with the faitheist Alain de Botton, who, though an atheist, thinks that even nonbelievers need some of the trappings of faith: the rituals, the festivals, and even the cathedrals. Thus her distinction:

The “New Atheists” easily fall into the category of the once-born, being as monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism. “Neo-Atheists,” on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism and eager to import into secular society some of the enduring “goods” of traditional religions. Thus, they exhibit more of the character of the twice-born.

Here she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  Atheists don’t fall into those classes so easily. Many of us, while disdaining de Botton’s call for cathedrals and rituals, recognize that religion fulfills some basic human needs, and that it won’t go away unless those needs are met by secular alternatives.

I agree with Philip Kitcher, for instance, that one reason Europe is less religious than the U.S. is because it provides for many of the needs that our society doesn’t, including a more pervasive sense of local community and more mundane things like medical care. It’s well known from the work of Greg Paul that the dysfunctionality of a society (e.g., high murder rates, official corruption, and public drug use, lack of medical care, high suicide and abortion rates, and so on) is positively correlated with its religiosity among a sample Western countries. The sicker the society, the more religious it is. This is also true among America’s fifty states, as shown by Harry Roy.

While these correlations are subject to varying interpretations, the most coherent (and one supported by other data) is that people tend to turn toward religion more fervently when their lives seem not only bad, but incapable of being improved through secular interventions. In that sense I—and probably all Four Horsemen—are “twice-born” atheists. Sam Harris obviously falls in this class, as he always claims that meditation or other forms of secular “spirituality” will help us lead better lives.

Himmelfarb concludes:

In the debate between religion and science, between believers and nonbelievers, the terrible simplifiers on both sides tend to dominate the discourse. Today the contenders have become more aggressive than ever—and more simplistic. This is why William James can speak to us with a special relevance and cogency. And he does so not in an affable spirit of compromise or conciliation but as a hardheaded realist—a twice-born, in short. If he was so appreciative of the varieties of religious experiences, it is because he was so acutely aware of the varieties—and complexities, anomalies and difficulties—of life itself. This may be James’s legacy to us: the idea of the once-born and twice-born that illuminates so many of our controversies, not only about religion but about philosophy, politics, literature and much else.

How lame; how seemingly profound but ultimately empty.

Screw the terrible complexities of life itself: what we’re asking for here, and apparently what Himmelfarb favors, is realism. The twice-born religionists view life through non-rosy spectacles, and both Himmelfarb and I see that as a healthier approach to life.  Why, then, doesn’t she go to the next step and see whether the religiosity that people embrace is realistic, too—whether its tenets are true? That question is not a “terrible simplification”: it’s the first question one must ask oneself before embracing a faith.

Himmelfarb, by embracing a “middle way” (Americans, with their sense of fair play, do so love middle ways and compromises!), falls into the trap endearingly portrayed by xkcd below (more on that comic this weekend): she manages to feel superior to everyone.

Unfortunately, when you add into your notion of “realism” whether there actually is a god, the probability isn’t somewhere in the middle, but much, much closer to the atheist end of the spectrum.  New Atheist’s “militant quest for certitude” (whatever that is) has led to the conclusion that there’s no evidence for God, though of course there’s always a miniscule doubt.  The ones who don’t doubt are the faithful, who have indeed succeeded in their own militant quest for certitude. Sadly, they’re certain about the wrong thing.

Himmelfarb’s thesis in a single cartoon

h/t: Michael

55 thoughts on “Gertrude Himmelfarb analyzes New Atheism—badly

  1. I read William James out of the pragmatist community for his outright stupidity in the will to believe!
    Naturalism is momentous,forced and lively wilst supernaturlaism has no force,being only a superstition.
    Whilst we ever have to eviscerate theism and any scriptures, the real case is how can psychology help us to help the superstitious?

    1. I must admit I had some trouble with understanding your comment ~ the use of words rather than the content

      Skeptic Griggsy quote:-

      “Naturalism is momentous, forced and lively…”

      Did you mean “forceful” there Griggsy?

      Why do you think psychology can help “us” to help the superstitious rather than say…
      ~ a better educational system that promotes rational thinking
      ~ excluding religion from the public sphere?

      1. Cortical defects account for that, I think.
        Please bear with me; some claim I make sense nevertheless. Please post here and at any of m other blogs. I’m having a problem with Word Press in showing them.

  2. She seems to spend the entire essay telling us how awful atheism is in comparison with moderate religion before saying right at the death, that they’re almost certainly right. Utterly ridiculous, the most important and the first thing one must consider with religion is whether or not you think it true.

  3. I agree mostly with Coyne here but how can we dismiss William James so easily? He is one of our greatest philosophers and probably the most free-ranging thinker in American history.

    He was certainly a more subtle thinker than Richard Dawkins.

    1. There are many great thinkers who were captives of their historical moment. How different might the thoughts of Plato, Spinoza, Kant, or James be if they lived today and knew what we know now? Certainly we can find much value in James without having to accept every concern he troubled his great mind over.

      1. Philosophy at its best is about how to frame questions, but concrete investigations need to be done to find answers. Philosophy is generally an armchair activity.

        1. The days are long gone when natural language, let alone the local, self-referential ideology of the humanities, including econ, could contribute anything useful.

          Data, calculus and stats are the language of evidence, empirical reality and prediction.

          These are dead languages.

    2. “how can we dismiss William James so easily? He is one of our greatest philosophers and probably the most free-ranging thinker in American history.”

      The greatness of the philosopher should be determined by the quality of what the philosopher says, rather than judging the quality of what the philosopher says by his greatness.

    3. Like any thinker, James’ ideas should be judged on the basis of whether they are true and useful.

      The idea that personal revelation is behind much of religion is almost certainly true as an anthropological or psychological observation. On the other hand, once you remove James’ Christian bias, it is clear that personal revelation leads people down many different religious paths. The randomness and arbitrariness of the universe is terrifying enough for some people that they find it consoling to believe that they can essentially purchase the support of entities in the spirit world and can avoid the terrifying and random mishaps of their neighbors.

      It seems worth pointing out that this consolation is not just probably false but can also be quite harmful sometimes. Personal revelation can quickly slip into enthusiasm and fanaticism. William James appears to write a defense of unorthodox faith but the problem is that unorthodox faith can sometimes be even worse than the orthodox beliefs it is challenging. For instance, consider the mass delusion when the residents of Muenster became convinced that a Dutch tailor’s apprentice (John of Leiden) was the Messiah. The Catholic Church, for all its faults and corruption, looks slightly better when compared to this raving and delusional nonsense.

  4. The topic of ‘first born’ and ‘twice born’ originated with Francis W. Newman which James referenced in Lectures IV and V. The meaning I read from James’s recounting differs significantly from Himmelfarb’s, but then I find The Varieties of Religious Experience more thought provoking than revelatory.

    Today’s once born Christians, those I know, consider ‘once born’ to be the answer, one which aligns with a secular view, but then, they don’t believe in the existence of God either, only the idea of the mystery.

  5. Just for the record, my response above was directed @ Skeptic Griggsy and his disparaging first line:

    “I read William James out of the pragmatist community for his outright stupidity in the will to believe!”

      1. I think it means ‘to read out’, as in reject James from pragmatism for this reason, as opposed to a statement about simply reading James.

        1. For me it represents one of the fundamental dilemmas in reading. I remember a professor quoting Alfred North Whitehead(?), “The sole purpose of reading is to force the mind to do its own thinking.” James and Dawkins and others make me think.

  6. The phrase “quest for certainty” is both annoying and terribly confused. What could be worse for the scientifically minded or the rational minded, hungry for natural and philosophical truth, than to someday find that the last question had been answered, and that we had achieved certainty about everything? It seems that kind of certainty is exactly what the god seekers aspire to, and pretend they have attained, though one wonders whether any of them completely abolish from their minds the natural doubts they are ashamed to admit. Perhaps it is a kind of envy that leads them to level this misguided accusation of small minded ‘certainty’. The kind of confidence that is afforded to scientists, because of the many hundreds of thousands of contributors laboring billions of hours over centuries to painstakingly accumulate the great body of evidence for the rigorously tested theories that model the real nature of this universe, is something that will always elude those who placate their questioning doubt by plastering it over with a veneer of faith. There is no certainty when it comes to the nature of existence, but faith is its most skillful impostor, while the confidence of empirical evidence is its closest facsimile.

    1. And if Himmelfarb’s co-theists really think certitude is something to be avoided, then they really shouldn’t be theists at all.

      I posted below lampooning this inconsistency.

  7. What I find interesting is that many of the characteristics that she attributes to New Atheism are very nearly the precise opposite of New Atheist’s typical characteristics. It seems improbable that someone could be so mistaken by accident.

    1. “It seems improbable that someone could be so mistaken by accident.”

      It’s an irresistible rhetorical trick to attempt to show that your opponent, rather than merely not possessing claimed attributes, instead possesses the opposite of those attributes. This has the effect of digging a much deeper hole for him to climb out of.

      We do this, for instance, when we point out that the religious not only are less moral than atheists, but also embrace attributes that are profoundly anti-moral, such as eternal torture.

  8. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution by Gertrude Himmelfarb [first edition was 1959] was eviscerated by PZ Myers a few years ago
    [or more correctly by “anon” who sent PZ a long critique of her misrepresentations & misunderstandings]

    HERE is his critique archived on Panda’s Thumb
    The bits in yellow are “anons”

    I urge you all to go & read the whole link, but here is just one old chestnut from Gertrude’s book & I guess she must have kept company with creationists in the 50’s to have had this drivel at her fingertips [I believe the Modern Synthesis was formulated in the period 1936-47 so she really should have known better]:-

    “The eye, as one of the most complex organs, has been the symbol and archetype of [Darwin’s] dilemma. Since the eye is obviously of no use at all except in its final, complete form, how could natural selection have functioned in those initial stages of its evolution when the variations had no possible survival value? No single variation, indeed no single part, being of any use without every other, and natural selection presuming no knowledge of the ultimate end or purpose of the organ, the criterion of utility, or survival, would seem to be irrelevant. And there are other equally provoking examples of organs and processes which seem to defy natural selection. Biochemistry provides the case of chemical synthesis built up in several stages, of which the intermediate substance formed at any one stage is of no value at all, and only the end product, the final elaborate and delicate machinery, is useful—and not only useful but vital to life. How can selection, knowing nothing of the end or final purpose of this process, function when the only test is precisely that end or final purpose?” [Chap. 16, pp. 337-338]

    1. She didn’t need to have been exposed to the modern synthesis. All she needed to do was read and comprehend On The Origin Of Species, Chapter 6 under the heading ‘Organs of extreme perfection and complication’.

      Darwin addressed how evolution could produce something like the eye. Unfortunately he organised his argument in a way that creationist quote miners could take advantage of, which they have gleefully done many times over.

      He explained why the idea of Irreducible Complexity was wrong, over a century before it was trotted out under that label.

  9. I vote for the light-hearted and dance-oriented spiritual type, meself. Cake is always a big plus.

    As Eddie Izzard says: ‘Tea and cake or death?” Hmmm?

    It’s interesting how anyone citing evidence and facts is tagged as “militant.” Can I still get cake, as a militant?

      1. Ed Izzard’s routine then goes on:

        “Tea or cake or death?”
        “I’ll have cake, please.”
        “Sorry, we’re out of cake.”
        “Really? Well, I don’t want death!”

        This is his version the Church of England’s Inquisition. lol

  10. De Botton and Himmelfarb regard the placebo of belief in belief as being the only one available, and religious institutions as the only place where this placebo can be found. However, art in its various forms tugs at our heartstrings without sundering our intellectual honesty while strengthening the ties which bind. The secularized community focus, for example, which I experience in France provides the physical basis from which this placebo is dispensed, via museums, theatres, and community centres. It contributes to sanity and the enjoyment of life without sacrificing depth and substance.

    While Himmelfarb obsesses about the unfairness of insisting complete evidence is required before we can take advantage of the boon of belief in belief, the gnu atheist bus has already left the station.

    A much loved James quote is a sentence he wrote after taking nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’): “There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.” James was a quite a character.

    (btw, ineffable is the adjective, ineffableness/ineffability are the clumsy nouns, stupid I know, but I never forgot when I was corrected in an essay decades ago:

    1. But ineffable (always preceded by the definite article) is also a noun. You can use (m)any (an) adjective as a noun to name a thing that has the corresponding quality. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in the red, out of the blue, the uneducated, the sarcastic, &c., &c.


  11. Once-born: everything is rosy and we ignore the bad stuff
    Twice-born: there’ll be hell to pay for sin

    New atheists are the former and de Botton the latter? srsly? Gnu rhetoric seems to have much more in common with fire and brimstone than Universalism.

    I’ve never read James, but Himmelfarb seems to use “twice-born” as a synonym for “appreciates nuance”, whereas James’ description is of a people who see in black and white. What is going on here?

  12. Heavencolor sounds like she wrote that after hitting the angel dust. I have to laugh at the “terrible simplifiers” – there are religious people who span the range from the extremely simple “goddidit” to the vapid and unctuous “Sophisticated Theology”. “Simple” and “complex” in religion and science are not the same thing at all.

    1. How many times do we have to say this: New Atheists are not ‘militant’. Militants kill people.

      Christians in Central Africa are militant.
      Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan are militant.
      Hindus in Orissa State are militant.
      Buddhists in Burma are militant.

      Atheists are rude about the Pope. If you think that equates to militancy then you need to see a doctor, now.

      1. At ease, soldier! That was sarcasm.

        (Himmelfarb accuses us of certitude, as though it’s something bad, all the while theists claim there certainly is a god. Who’s got an issue w certitude, now?)

  13. “Himmelfarb, by embracing a “middle way” (Americans, with their sense of fair play, do so love middle ways…”

    There’s a famous book from the mid-30’s, Sweden, the Middle Way, which could be taken, fast forwarding to now, as an indication that embracing the middle way doesn’t always encompass accommodationism.

    And the au’s name reminds me that when I was learning Swedish I noted one day on the calendar that it was Kristi Himmelfärds Dag, which I took to be Kristi Himmelfärd’s Day and so asked someone who the hell KH was. Turns out it’s Christ Journey to Heaven day = Ascension Day. They thought it was funny, tho, like with most of my Swedish mis-constructions.

    1. Does this mean that Himmelfarb is just a mis-spelling of Himmelfahrt? I’ll leave you to make up your own jokes.

  14. The once-born and the twice-born

    Himmelfarb is trying to project a theological argument supporting religious perversities onto atheists. It is an unlikely prior, and the observations don’t support it.

    Not that atheists haven’t perversities of their own. We all know them.

    Accommodationists, those who have a belief in belief. Like creationists they embrace the special pleading of religion against secular criticism to the degree that they used to invent detailed cases of criticism of person when atheists criticized the subject of religion.

    Plussers, those who have a non-belief in non-belief. Like Himmelsfarb and Botton they embrace the special pleading of religion against secular morals to the degree that they speculate without statistics in lack of moral or other trappings when atheists display the morals and other trappings of everybody else.

    I’m not in need of religion or humanism to be an atheist. My need stems from simple, if seldom simplistic, observation. I’m a cat atheist, and I can’t be herded.

  15. Himmelfarb is not even worth taking seriously–she is a right-wing dinosaur who hobbies include ranting about how our morals should be more like those of the Victorians. And why am I not surprised that she published her screed in the Wall Street Journal, once dismissed by Gore Vidal as an example of a fascist newspaper? I feel sorry for poor William James, now that he’s become a stick to beat atheists with. Like Freud, his brand of semi-science has been sticking to plague the real thing for a very long time.

    Jerry correctly points out that “Europe is less religious than the U.S. is because it provides for many of the needs that our society doesn’t, including a more pervasive sense of local community and more mundane things like medical care.” And this is of course what a right-wing tool like Himmelfarb would hate. She would much rather have people suffer and cling to religion than have the government provide medical care or anything else. To a fourth-rate thinker like her, such services would be “socialism.” There have been great thinkers who were also right wing, but Himmelfarb is an example of how feeble the intellectuals of the American right have become.

    1. “The sicker the society, the more religious it is.”

      That’s one of those things people claim. Jerry Coyne and Gertrude Himmelfarb both have academic links to Chicago, which is a really good example, according to published demographics, of a notably sick and notably irreligious society. It is, of course, more populous than a number of European countries.

      The idea that people “turn to religion” when things are bad is not really “the most coherent” account of the difference between religious and secular attitudes. History shows that religion is the universal starting point, and it is when times are good and education is effective that we at last turn AWAY FROM religion.

      1. It’s not just a claim, it’s a demonstrated correlation, not just among Western countries but also among the 50 states in the US.

        The notion that religion is the default state, and people turn away from it when things get good, is exactly the same thesis, but in fact religiosity fluctuates (with income inequality, for example) in the US, and income is the causal factor because it follows temporally an increase in income inequality. So yes, people do go back to faith when times get rough.

        Your snarky comment on Chicago is just grautitous and rude.

  16. “‘Neo-Atheists,’ on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism but are far too eager to import into secular society some of the enduring ‘goods’ of traditional religions.”

    FIFY, Blue.


  17. I can sympathise with a pragmatist school of thought, though I would wonder how one can take religious experiences at face value in the wake of 20th century psychology (that William James himself helped to established) as being sufficient reason to doubt the reliability of religious experiences. After all, private experience is useless precisely because it is indistinguishable from the illusion of it.

    I don’t think there’s much between the new atheists and what William James has said – I even remember Dawkins saying something to the effect that God exists as an idea in people’s brains (akin to “God is real since he produces real effects.”) – but the difference is that such a thought would be making a category error. It simply doesn’t matter whether or not we can appreciate the psychological drives behind belief as the questions posed aren’t of that nature.

    For example, if someone argues that God will punish a society through natural disasters because the society allows abortion, looking at the psychological drives of belief is utterly irrelevant. If God doesn’t exist, then acting on the fear of divine punishment is dangerous.

    It’s interesting to me that the arguments against religious belief when it’s applied to society are defended by religious belief as its applied to personal psychology. The arguments, as the WSJ author implicitly attests, don’t discern between either scenario; but it is interesting that it’s defended on psychological grounds when the arguments are wielded against the societal ramifications. It’s not a simplification, nor are the psychological factors being ignored, but that it’s not relevant to the “new atheist” case.

  18. I guess it depends upon the context of our certainty, Jerry. I am *certain* that if any god(s) exist they bear no resemblance to any of those in extant mythology. All of the dead and currently popular gods were made up out of whole cloth and/or bastardized from traveler’s tales whispered in properly reverent tones around the fire by pre-scientific folk. For that matter, how can one even begin to define a god given the reality of Clarke’s third law?

  19. “James—and, obviously, Himmelfarb— come down on the side of the twice-born. Why? Because they have a firmer grip on reality. And although this may make them more depressed, it also gives them a saner view of life.”

    Umm, who says?

    Leaving aside my difficulty in understanding what ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ actually means**, especially when applied to atheists, I doubt whether a depressive view of life is any more ‘real’ than an optimistic view. It just depends on which aspects one prefers to dwell on. I’d rather think about the beauty of a sunset rather than the misery of disease, though obviously both exist.

    (** Of course, in reality, all of us were born precisely once.
    Here, I must quote one of my favourite taglines from the old days of message boards:
    “I have a firm grip on reality. Now I can strangle it”.)

    1. With respect to being born again, I think the idea deserves no deeper dismissal than the bumper sticker:

      Instead of being born again, why not just GROW UP?

  20. James does NOT necessarily prefer the “twice-born” to the “once-born”. He regards both as having limitations!!!
    From the book (Chapter VI “The Sick soul”)

    Please observe, however, that I am not yet pretending finally to JUDGE any of these attitudes. I am only describing their variety. The securest way to the rapturous sorts of happiness of which the twice-born make report has as an historic matter of fact been through a more radical pessimism than anything that we have yet considered. We
    have seen how the lustre and enchantment may be rubbed off from the goods of nature. But there is a pitch of unhappiness so great that the goods of nature may be entirely forgotten, and all sentiment of their
    existence vanish from the mental field. For this extremity of pessimism to be reached, something more is needed than observation of
    life and reflection upon death. The individual must in his own person become the prey of a pathological melancholy. As the healthy-minded enthusiast succeeds in ignoring evil’s very existence, so the subject
    of melancholy is forced in spite of himself to ignore that of all good whatever: for him it may no longer have the least reality.

    Himmelfarb has projected onto James a definite preference which James overtly disavows!!!!

    1. In The Varieties… by James, his lectures IV and V, entitled The Religion of Healthy Mindedness cover his views at the time (1902). I wonder what his view of ‘a religion of healthy mindedness’ would be today. My guess is he would be what Ed Ericson called a religious humanist.

  21. In general, I see James’ distinction between once-born (who ignore human evil) and twice-born (who ignore natural good) and James seems himself to sense this in lecture 8 that there is a third alternative, when he talks about the gradual unification of the self.

    A second indicator (see my post above) that Hemmelfarb has imposed a template of interpretation on James’ that is not James’ own.

    I am tempted to paraphrase James’ third way with Bob Dylan’s line “He not busy being born is busy dying”.

  22. Himmelfarb is a German phrase which can be translated as ‘the color of Heaven’, so it’s hardly surprising she writes this way. (“Which color is your Heaven?”!)

    But why would atheists need religion, or any of its trappings? That sounds like hitting rock Botton to me.

    With few exceptions, I don’t like religious art or music, but I can find art and music which is uplifting, and which has nothing to do with religion. I can also go to places which have nothing to do with religion, and enjoy the feeling I experience when I’m there. My back yard is one such place; my bed is another! A movie theater is yet another.

    La religion? Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypocrisie.

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