If you want to see every shopworn criticism of New Atheism rolled up into one splenetic article, then it’s this one (in Salon, of course): “New atheism’s fatal arrogance: The glaring intellectual laziness of Bill Maher & Richard Dawkins.” The writer is Sean Illing, a graduate student in political science at Louisiana State University, who professes to be an atheist. And, like Maru, this is a box I cannot help but enter. I will try to be brief, but will probably fail.
So what exactly is the intellectual laziness of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins? It is one of Illing’s several accusations leveled at New Athiests, which I’ll summarize below:
1. New Atheists are just too stupid to realize that religion isn’t about truths, but about fictions that make people feel good, and structure their lives. Yes, Illing appears to be a nonbeliever, and sees religion as promulgating untruths, but that doesn’t matter, for those untruths give people meaning. This is a variant on the “Courtier’s Reply” trope, in which believers fault us for not tackling the Most Sophisticated Forms of Theology™ (the so-called “best arguments”). In this case, defenders of faith like Illing simply admit that religious “truth claims” are all bogus, but they don’t really care. In fact, the people who are at fault are not the believers who structure their morality and behavior around those bogus claims, but the atheists who take believers at their word, apparently thinking erroneously that believers really believe. That, says Illnig, is the fatal weakness of Maher and Dawkins (my emphasis):
But there’s something missing in their critiques, something fundamental. For all their eloquence, their arguments are often banal. Regrettably, they’ve shown little interest in understanding the religious compulsion. They talk incessantly about the untruth of religion because they assume truth is what matters most to religious people. And perhaps it does for many, but certainly not all – at least not in the conventional sense of that term. Religious convictions, in many cases, are held not because they’re true but because they’re meaningful, because they’re personally transformative. New Atheists are blind to this brand of belief.
It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence. But what about those who do? If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer? Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed. The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.The problem is that the New Atheists think of God only in epistemological terms. Consequently, they have nothing to say to those who affirm God for existential reasons. New Atheist writers tend to approach religion from the perspective of science: They argue that a particular religion isn’t true or that the empirical claims of religious texts are false. That’s easy to do. The more interesting question is why religions endure in spite of being empirically untrue. There are, of course, millions of fundamentalists for whom God is a literal proposition. Their claims concerning God are empirical and should be treated as such. For many [JAC: How many? Most?], though, God is an existential impulse, a transcendent idea with no referent in reality. This conception of God is untouched – and untouchable – by positivist science; asking if God is true in this sense is like asking how much the number 12 weighs – it’s nonsensical.
Now, really? How many religious people wouldn’t give a hoot if they were told that what they believed was false? Would they say, “I don’t care: I have existential reasons for believing in God.” As I wrote yesterday:
Sadly, the data show that while religion does have these other functions, it’s simply not the case that truth is irrelevant. Even theologians (the honest ones) admit that without an underpinning of beliefs about what’s really true about the universe, religion crumbles. Where would Christianity be if adherents thought that Jesus’s divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection were just a fictitious but convenient framework on which to hang their emotions? Would Mormons wear their sacred underwear if theyknew Joseph Smith was really a con man who fabricated those plates? Do the Sophisticated Critics really believe that if Muslims knew for certain that Muhammed didn’t get the Qur’an from the mouth of God, via an angel, but made it up himself, that Islam would have the sway it does? Get serious.
I challenge Illing to stand on the steps of any mosque in Pakistan or Iran and tell believers that it doesn’t matter whether what they think about Muhammad or the inerrancy of the Qur’an is irrelevant; all that matters is that the beliefs motivate their behavior. I suspect his longevity would be severely reduced. And there are 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet.
Note as well that Illing really does admit that believers must undergird their behavior with acceptance of factual propositions, for he says this:
“Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed.”
I’m not sure what he means by “true in some sense”, but I suspect that the 57% of Americans who think that Jesus was born of a virgin take it as a real fact that Mary was not penetrated by a human male before baby Jesus was born. And I think the 42% of Americans who think that humans were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years are really thinking of actual years and an actual creator God. (By the way, if the facts here aren’t all that important, why do creationists keep trying to get this stuff taught in public schools?)
And what about this?:
The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.
Illing has not thought this through. What is accepted on faith is the religious epistemology: statements about the existence of God and Jesus, Mohammed or Moroni, and the moral codes that stem from the scriptures. They may not look at these propositions too closely, but they believe them, and they undergird the faith of everyone except for the highly rarefied and well-fed theologians who eschew the need for truth.
But really, religion is not treated like fiction. Religious people don’t act like all of scripture is fictional, nor do they act like they don’t care whether scripture is fictional. At least some truths matter. (For Christians, the one non-negotiable is the salvific effect of Jesus’s death and resurrection.) You don’t see people basing their lives and hopes and morality and meanings on things that are palpably untrue, like the Harry Potter series or even The Brothers Karamazov. If you’re a normal person (i.e., not Karen Armstrong or David Bentley Hart), you must accept some fundamental truths about your faith if it’s to inspire you.
Hell, this is kindergarten stuff, realized even by theologians. I’ll give a few quotes, starting with the Bible itself:
But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.—Paul, 1 Cornithians 15:13-14
A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.—Ian Barbour
I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.—John Polkinghorne
Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’ —Karl Giberson & Francis Collins
That’s only a small sample; I have more for Illing if he wants them. And here is what Americans actually believe to be true (percentage of all Americans accepting the propositions below). This is not a small minority of Americans—it’s MOST OF THEM:
A personal God concerned with you 68%
Absolutely certain there is a God 54%
Jesus was the son of God 68%
Jesus was born of a virgin 57%
Jesus was resurrected 65%
Hell and Satan 58%
Survival of soul after death 64%
2. Without the (false) verities of religion, people’s lives will lose meaning.
For [Dostoyevsky’s] part, God was a bridge to self-transcendence, a way of linking the individual to a tradition and a community. The truth of Christ was therefore less important than the living faith made possible by belief in Christ. . .
“I’ve never seen anyone die for the ontological argument,” Camus wrote, but “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others getting killed for ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living.” Today is no different; people continue to kill and die in defense of beliefs that give their lives meaning and shape.
. . . The New Atheists don’t have a satisfactory alternative for such people. They argue that religion is false; that it’s divisive; that it’s unethical; that it makes a virtue of self-deception; that it does more harm than good – and maybe they’re right, but if they don’t understand that, for many, meaning is more important than truth, they’ll never appreciate the vitality of religion. To his credit, Sam Harris’ most recent book, “Waking Up,” grapples with these issues in truly fascinating ways. Indeed, Harris writes insightfully about the necessity of love, meaning and self-transcendence. But he’s a fringe voice in the New Atheist community. Most are too busy disproving religion to consider why it is so persistent, and why something beyond science will have to take its place in a Godless world.
What we see here is the incredibly arrogant and condescending Little People Argument: while rationalists like Illing can easily reject religion’s truths and get along fine without them—he says, “It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people [myself included] find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence”—the Little People can’t. They need their faith! I guess the Little People who populate much of Northern Europe don’t count.
Let us make one thing clear: it is a benefit to humanity to rid it of false beliefs, even if you have nothing to put in their place. Many people in the South structured their lives around the implicit assumption that whites were far superior to blacks, and that a decent society demanded the subjugation of blacks. Did the civil rights movement offer something to replace the need of Southern whites to feel superior? Nope; the movement simply rid society of a false and invidious notion that people were inherently unequal and thus should be treated unequally.
Likewise, New Atheists rid society of the belief that it’s being monitored and tended by a celestial dictator. That alone is a good, for it’s better to see the truth. I don’t see it as an inherent responsibility of atheists to replace religion with something else that gives people meaning, for I think that most people (as they have in atheistic Europe) will find such meaning for themselves, and that it will differ from person to person. I bet if you asked most Swedes how they can possibly find meaning in their lives without religion, they’d just look like you were crazy.
Which brings us to the last point:
3. New Atheists should be faulted for attacking religion without at the same time suggesting replacements for religion.
The New Atheists have an important role to play. Reason needs its champions, too. And religion has to be resisted because there are genuine societal costs. One can draw a straight line between religious dogma and scientific obscurantism or moral stagnation, for example. That’s a real problem. But if religion is ineradicable, we have to find a way to limit its destructive consequences. Satire and criticism are necessary, but they’re not sufficient.
People like Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens make a powerful case for a more humanistic ethics. Harris writes admirably about the need to be more attentive to the present, to the suffering of other human beings. I agree. But if we want to encourage people to care about the right things, we should spend as much time encouraging them to care about the right things as we do criticizing their faith.
Here we see more arrogance—not from the New Atheists but from Illing. Who is he to tell us how to spend our time? In fact, some of us criticize religion, while others, like Phil Kitcher, Chris Stedman and Alain de Botton—spend their time finding the substitutes for religion. Isn’t that just as good as all of us spending our time doing both?
After all, we have the principle of comparative advantage at work: let each of us do what he or she is good at. I am not good at suggesting religion substitutes because I don’t believe that we need formal substitutes, and the evidence from modern Europe supports me. Nor do we have good studies to show a). what will count as a religion substitute for people, and b). whether people really need those things to have a meaningful life. Since I think that religion is on balance a harmful superstition, standing in the way of rational discourse, and as a scientist who’s read theology I can do something about that, that’s what I do. I’m not keen on finding religion substitutes, and neither Illing nor I (nor anyone, I think) is well qualified to tell people what can replace church. As water finds its own level, so will people find their own meaning.
In the end, it’s not the New Atheists who are arrogant. How could we be, if we’re wedded to rationality, doubt, and the use of evidence? Who asks themselves more often questions like, “Could I be wrong?”, or “How would I know if I were wrong?” Hint: it’s not the believers.
No, it’s Illing who’s the arrogant one, for he presumes that he, who sits proudly at the Big People’s Table and can dispense with the need for religion, must preach to all of us that those Little People at the Children’s Table must have their
pabulum faith—or a substitute for it. It is he who doubts the ability of people to live without convenient fictions. I have more faith in humanity than that, and I use the word “faith” as a metaphor.