Selina O’Grady is an author who had a strict religious upbringing but left it behind to become an atheist. She’s the author of And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus, a book about the growth of religions in general, and of Christianity in particular, as well as the connection between religion and politics.
Over at Five Books, Sophie Roell interviews O’Grady and asks her to choose five popular books on her area of interest—in this case, books that reject the truth claims of religion but still focus on its supposedly valuable role in building community. Here are O’Grady’s choices. Sadly, I haven’t read any of them (if you have, weigh in below). They’re a bit surprising, as four are works of fiction
The Aeneid by Virgil (she recommend’s Robert Fitzgerald’s translation)
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England by Roger Scruton
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
The Children Act, by Ian MacEwan
I’ll leave you to go to the Five Books site and read why O’Grady chose these books, and what we should take from them. What I want to emphasize in today’s Easter Sermon is her incessant message that New Atheists are simply missing the most important aspect of religion: that it’s not about truth, but rather about building and immersing oneself in a community, which she sees as a vital human need. She chasitises New Atheists repeatedly for our failure to recognize this, viz. (questions in bold, O’Grady’s answers in Roman type):
You’ve chosen as your topic the role of religion. I know you’re formerly Catholic but now an atheist. I don’t believe in God either. Once you accept that God doesn’t exist, it does feel a bit like one is living in a world where a lot of other people believe in the tooth fairy. It is just very odd that there are so many people who are living with these beliefs. But religion clearly has enormous power, so there’s more to it than that…
That’s my feeling. The beliefs I can’t believe anymore, but, especially having been a Catholic, I absolutely understand the importance religion has in people’s lives. This is what I feel the New Atheists fail to explain. You can’t just dismiss these ideas, it’s not really the ideas that are important, it’s what religion does. That’s why religion is still so important in people’s lives, because it does something that nothing else does quite as well: it creates meaning, it creates a community. Football can try to do this, the monarchy tries to do it, politicians try to do it. But still, nothing can do it quite as well as religion. The beliefs may seem silly, but it’s not the beliefs that make it important, it’s that community-making. Which of course Durkheim, one of the great founders of the sociology of religion, spotted.
Your second book, which again, I haven’t read but now want to, having read reviews about it, is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. How does this novel fit in?
I’m addressing all these books to the New Atheists. This again shows their failure to understand that they’re too simplistic when they say how appalling religion is. . .
Your final pick is a novel by Ian McEwan, The Children Act.
Ian McEwan is the subtlest of the New Athiests. Most of his novels show that we, as humans, just as we need to live in groups, have a desperate desire to make meaning. Many neo-atheists fail to understand that religion is quite a good way of doing this. Stupid though its beliefs might be, nonetheless it does give us a meaning, which we so desperately need. . .
. . . What McEwan is saying there is that the beliefs are immaterial to the fact that they’ve found a community in what they are doing and they can’t leave it.
I’m not sure exactly what O’Grady is implying with her tut-tutting about the New Atheist blind spot, but it’s nothing that we haven’t heard before. People like Alain de Botton and (more sensibly) Philip Kitcher have written at length that those of us who wish to marginalize religion won’t succeed unless we somehow find a replacement for it. Usually the suggestions, as O’Grady implies, involve some way of replacing the “community” provided by a church with an atheist equivalent. There are, for instance, Sunday Gatherings in many places, where heathens forgather to read passages from Darwin, sing secular songs, or hear nonreligious sermons about the wonders of the godless life and the marvels of science.
I suppose some people enjoy these and benefit from them, but I am not among them. And among the small group of atheists who gathered yesterday at Toscanini’s, none of us had any desire to find a “church substitute,” though several people were engaged in either secular or humanist “causes”, including helping the poor.
I understand a desire for community, especially because humans evolved in small social groups, which likely produced an innate need for interaction with others. It’s nice to know, then, that there is a group who will take care of you by virtue of your belonging to the same church. This seems to be the main reason, for instance, why “megachurches” are drawing members away from smaller churches in the U.S. Those megachurches are almost like social agencies, with many having childcare, all kinds of activities for members, and help with those who are hungry or ill.
Yet I don’t think that atheists need to identify “church substitutes” and instantiate them before we draw more people into nonbelief. For one thing, plenty of Western secular countries, like those in northern Europe, function well without secular gatherings or church substitutes (churches are often used simply in rituals, as places to have weddings or funerals.) Somehow nonbelievers in places like France and Denmark seem to muddle through without belonging to a church, or even having churchy activities.
But this gives a clue as to what I think is really required to efface religion from our planet: a government that takes care of you. It’s well known that those countries that are more socially dysfunctional, lacking government health care, having high rates of incarceration and income inequality, and so on, are those that are most religious. Of course that could be merely a noncausal correlation, but there is other evidence that social dysfunctionality promotes religiosity. For example, in the U.S. the degree of income inequality fluctuates over time, and the degree of religious belief fluctuates in tandem—but a year behind! If income inequality rises, religiosity rises the next year. That implies that if there is a causation, as I think there is, social dysfunction promotes religiosity rather than the other way around. (I don’t have my sources at hand, but you can find them in my 2013 article in Evolution on “Science, religion, and society”; free download here).
So I think O’Grady gets it wrong in two ways by emphasizing the need for local community as the primary driver of religion. First, I think the truth claims of faith are absolutely vital to embracing it. Those communities cohere by a system of common beliefs, and, at least according to surveys, most adherents really do believe in things like the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, the existence of a caring God, and so on. Likewise, followers of gurus like Shri Rajneesh really do think that the guru has godlike powers. Although communities coalesce around such charlatans, the shared belief is critical in holding them together. Without it, the communities won’t last.
Second, if religion goes away when a nation as a whole takes better care of its citizens, as do the countries of Scandinavia (the U.S., despite its relative per capita income, is high on both social dysfunction and religiosity), then what’s important is that you feel someone is looking out for you, not that you have a need for hymns, candles, and stained-glass windows. That is, we need church “substitutes” only to the degree that those substitutes make you feel like your life is under control, and that your basic needs for food, healthcare, and so on will be met.
In the end, religion will disappear when countries develop the same kind of social safety nets that they have in Northern Europe. Or so I think. That will take a long time, but it’s a worthy endeavor, though characterized as “socialism” by conservatives and Republicans. In the meantime, trying to spread reason and pointing out the lack of evidence for religious dictates—as well as the harm that religion does—is also a worthy endeavor, for it has helped loosen the grip of faith. The books of the New Atheists, for instance, have drawn many people away from faith, despite what O’Grady says. There is no reason why we can’t have both long-term and short-term strategies for ridding the world of the virus of faith.
Amen, brothers and sisters. And in lieu of leaving $5 in the collection plate, weigh in below with your reaction to O’Grady’s claim that we’re missing the boat.