Well, several readers sent this article to me, expecting or asking me to respond to it. But do I really have to go through this again? Really? In a new piece in Vox featuring an interview of philosopher John Gray by journalist Sean Illing (click on screenshot below), the old criticisms of New Atheism, made by both Gray and Illing (who claim to be agnostics or atheists) are once again recycled. But the interview has nothing new.
The occasion is the publication Gray’s new book, Seven Types of Atheism (click on screenshot of the book). In the interview Illing and Gray fall all over each other in agnostic brotherhood explaining why New Atheism is not only bad tactics, but also a form of bullying as well as a view that is polluted with its own mythology. And they both make the claim that although religion may be something the two men don’t themselves accept, it supplies something essential for people. In other words, Gray and Illing make the Little People Argument, which is both condescending and fails to explain why they are not religious. How do they find meaning and purpose without religion?
I’ve dealt with both Gray and Illing before (see here for posts on Gray, especially this one, and here for a takedown of Illing’s rantings in Salon recycled in this Vox piece), so it really makes me cranky to have to do it again. There are no new points made by either: the two men are simply bawling into the ether and bleating about the dangers of New Atheism. (Remember, neither of them believes in God.)
Gray’s new book; I’ll read it but I can almost guarantee that there’s nothing there that I haven’t seen a bazillion times before.
I’ll try to be brief, though it’s hard. Here are their main arguments:
1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.
From Illing’s intro:
New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience — our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can’t fully understand if you don’t account for that.
My complaint with the New Atheists has always been their insistence on treating God as a purely epistemological question. I don’t think you can make sense of religion if you only see it as a system of beliefs. (Illing)
It is NOT a literary movement, for crying out loud! It’s an intellectual movement that got its start in several prominent books. But let’s move on.
These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world. (Gray)
. . . For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.
Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.
In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means. (Gray)
This canard is so old that it’s too tough to swallow. No New Atheist claims that religion is solely about factual claims. What we argue is that religion, at least of the Abrahamic stripe, rests on factual claims, and those factual claims give it force. The force is of course instantiated in non-factual things like moral strictures and religious acts, but ultimately without beliefs in some facts, religion loses force.
The truth that religions rest at bottom on factual claims is one of the topics in my book Faith Versus Fact, and many theologians and believers explicitly recognize and admit this. It’s even in the Bible! I quote from my earlier critique of Illing from three years ago (does the man ever have new ideas?), in which I gave statements from the Bible as well as from science-friendly religionists:
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 Corinthians 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%
I can’t help but think that when Gray says that theologians recognized Genesis and other stuff in the Bible solely as parables, he’s willfully distorting history. For yes, although some early thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine thought that there was a metaphorical interpretation of many claims in Scripture, those claims, like the existence of Adam and Eve, were also seen as literal truths. And they were seen by most Christians as literal truths until science dispelled many of them.
And what about the resurrection of Jesus? Is that seen as a parable, too? Once you start going down the parable road, there’s no bar to viewing the entire Old and New Testaments as one big parable. This becomes clear when Gray says that Original Sin is merely a metaphor, and implies that everybody already knows that:
To give you an example, I think the Christian idea of original sin has an important truth in it, which is that humans are divided animals. They’re different from any other animal on the planet in that they regret and sometimes even hate the impulses that guide them to act as they do. It’s a key feature of the human animal, captured by this myth of original sin.
We don’t need religion to tell us that humans have good and bad instincts; this is instantiated in all the world’s literature, secular or otherwise. What religion adds to this is, for example, the notion that if you don’t purge yourself of original sin, you’re going to hell rather than heaven. (Yes, Dr. Gray, most Americans think that those are literal places, not metaphorical ideas.) And think of all the nasty baggage that goes along with Catholics’ literal view that they’re born tainted with original sin.
I needn’t go on. Gray and Illing are wish-thinking here, proposing a “sophisticated” view of religion not held by most believers, yet one that the New Atheists rightfully attack. New Atheism isn’t directed, by and large, at Sophisticated Theologians™, but at what most people believe. If you want attacks on Sophisticated Theology™, read Faith versus Fact. (Short take: it’s just more palaver, but gussied up in fancy language. If you want an example of ridiculous arguments pretending to be rational and sophisticated, read some Alvin Plantinga or John Haught.)
2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.
In many cases, the New Atheists are animated by 19th-century myths of various kinds: myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths. So yeah, I’m compelled to attack anyone who is debunking others for their reliance on myths when the debunkers themselves can’t see how their own thinking is shaped by myths. (Gray)
Gray is an anti-progressivist, but the idea that humans haven’t advanced materially or in well being is not a myth—it’s the truth, a truth well documented by Steve Pinker in his last two books. As for “myths of what science can and cannot do”, I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Most of us (Sam Harris is one exception) recognize that science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, and that it has its limits in other ways. But these are not “myths” that in any way correspond to the myths of religion.
Gray also claims that secular humanism is equivalent to a religion:
Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it’s a flight from a genuinely godless world.
. . . But [atheists] are still stuck with core assumptions that come from the monotheistic traditions. The idea, for instance, that humanity has a collective identity is fundamentally a religious notion — that’s how it came to us. We can make secular arguments in defense of this belief, but you can’t simply ignore its historical roots.
Yes you can ignore those “roots”—if they even are roots. First, I’m not so sure that “collective identity” has cultural roots at all, much less religious ones. It may stem from evolution, from a time when we lived in small cohesive bands. We just don’t know, despite Gray’s assurance. Further, every tenet of secular humanism can find some parallel in religious scriptures. The fact that many religious scriptures have some similarities, like the “golden rule”, may in fact reflect secular antecedents: evolutionarily-based morality. To use Gray’s arguments that secular humanism is fundamentally religious is to ignore the different claims of religion that it has absolute truth, that it’s based on the existence of a God, and that our job is to do God’s will as instantiated in religious morality. These notions are fundamentally different from the precepts of secular humanism, which is to help humanity (and other species) survive and flourish. Secular humanists also abjure the idea of an afterlife, an idea inherent in and absolutely essential for many religions. Secular humanism is not in any meaningful sense “religious”, unless you take “religious” to mean “beliefs to which people adhere.”
3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose.
I don’t think that all religions are the same, but I do believe that they’re equivalently untrue in the conventional sense of that term. But it’s obvious that religion contributes something essential to the human condition that we need, and whatever that is, we’ll still need it in a Godless world. This is the thing that atheists dismiss too easily. (Illing)
. . . Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.
In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.
That’s where religion steps in. (Gray)
Well, religion purports to tell us what it all means, but every religion has a different answer. So what’s the true answer? The fact is that religion gives us no real answers about means, values, and purposes, because a). these answers differ among faiths and there’s no way to adjudicate them, and b). religiously-based morality is, with little doubt, much inferior to a secular morality that involves rationality laid atop certain preferences for how we want society to be structured.
As far as “what it all means”, how about an answer from Mr. Natural?
That seems facetious, but it is in fact true in the sense that there’s no external “meaning” that we can clearly divine from religion. We make our own meanings and purposes, and in the end that’s all we can do. To ask whether there’s some “purpose of life” that can be answered by religion is to waste your time looking for your keys, dropped somewhere else, under the streetlight, because that’s where it’s easier to see.
Yes, people can claim to find meaning in their lives through religion, but most of them aren’t really doing that anyway, and those that are doing that are pretty much wasting their time. As most readers noted when I asked how we, as unbelievers, find “purpose”, there was a surfeit answers, but none of them involved God.
Here’s an amusing claim from Gray:
Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can’t really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal — all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.
These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.
Of course religion can be written off as an intellectual error, because it is! That is, the idea that there’s a divine being who gives us meaning and morality is simply insupportable from the facts. Wittgenstein and St. Augustine were clever, but all their fine words cannot substitute for the complete lack of evidence for divine beings. And, absent that, religion predicated on such beings becomes an intellectual error, for one can have discussions about morals and values—and even purpose—without God. An entire tradition of secular ethics proves that. So any discussion based on the existence of God becomes meaningless in the absence of that God—and that’s an intellectual error.
People of yore were religious because they didn’t know any better, and because science hadn’t started dispelling the factual assertions that buttress many faiths. For most of human history, for instance, diseases were imputed to divine wrath—an idea dispelled only in the last two centuries. That, too, was an intellectual error.
4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.
There’s this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can’t address.
. . . .But from the very start, the idea of original sin was caught up with a kind of obsessive interest in and hatred of human sexuality, which poisoned it to the core. At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.
Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times. (Gray)
I often wonder if the Enlightenment skepticism that birthed atheism ultimately leads us to a moral abyss — and by that I don’t mean to imply that people can’t be moral without God, which is one of the stupidest claims I’ve ever heard. What I mean is that science cannot supply moral values, and I’m not sure this is a fact we can really own up to as a civilization, because it requires a conversation about human values that we seem incapable of having. (Illing)
The fact that many people no longer need religion does indeed stem in part from the advances of science. Religion once explained great puzzles of humanity, like where all life came from and why people got sick. The God essential in answering those questions suddenly became superfluous when science provided the real answers.
As for the needs of people not being completely met by science, well of course that’s true. Science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, despite Sam Harris’s assertion to the contrary. Science can’t tell a given person how to live their life, because that depends on the psychological constitution of a person and what their desires are, something that science cannot (yet) address. Science is not the alternative to religion—rationality is. Science is one form of rationality, but not the only form.
The final refutation of Illing’s claim that dispensing with religion is silly and harmful consists one word: Scandinavia.
I could go on, but I grow weary from writing and from addressing the dumb ideas of Illing and Gray over and over again. I’ll just add one more bit. Below Gray brings up the Nazi and Communist tropes, ignoring contemporary godless but well functioning societies like those of northern Europe.
And we see this happening now: Many people believe science can validate our deepest values, and it just so happens that those values are conventionally prevalent in society — they’re fundamentally liberal democratic values.
If the prevailing values are good, then great. If they’re not, though — as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia — then science becomes a handmaiden to the most awful crimes in human history; and almost always, those crimes are committed in defense of some grand project to improve human society.
So I think we just have to accept that science has limitations. All values come from the human animal, and that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean all values are equally good or bad or wise — I think that’s a mistake, too. We have natures, and there are certain constants in human life, and that’s a moral foundation we can build on. (Gray)
I’ll leave you to rebut that for yourself, as I want a snack.