Andrew Sullivan’s latest “The Intelligencer” column in New York Magazine has three subjects: Theresa May, gay jokes (he’s for them), and why atheism, like his Catholicism, is a religion. On December 9, I wrote a critique of Sullivan’s original column about atheism (“America’s new religions“), as well as giving him praise for recognizing the similarity between extreme Leftism and Rightism on one hand and conventional religions on the other. Others, including Steve Pinker and Ezra Klein, also went after Sullivan for his take on atheism, and he tries to answer all of us. I won’t speak for the others, but I will recount—and briefly reply to—Sullivan’s response to me. His words are indented; mine are flush left.
He makes two points. Here’s the first:
Jerry Coyne, for his part, argues that there is nothing in our genes to make us religious. I didn’t elaborate this point, but it’s rooted in the link I provided to a book, God Is Watching You, which is a pioneering work in evolutionary biology, and political science. I’d love to know what Jerry might make of its argument.
I didn’t argue that there is nothing in our genes that incline humans toward faith. I was responding to Sullivan’s claim of “genes that make us religious”, which was this:
It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.
And my response was this:
Note the link in the first sentence, which doesn’t at all show that religion is “in our genes”—whatever that means. We don’t know of any “God genes”, and if by “religion genes” Sullivan means either “we like to look for greater meanings” or even “we have a tendency to accept the delusions of our elders,” well, yes, that’s probably true. But if religion is in our genes, how come so many people don’t express it? Or have those “genes” been selected out of the population of northern Europe?
Yes, of course there are aspects of our personalities and mentation—which are partly evolved and partly socialized, but all involving biology—that may incline us toward religion. One is Pascal Boyer’s notion that we’re evolved to detect agency in nature (it’s supposedly adaptive), and it’s easy to then impute that faculty to a “higher” agency. Or, as Dawkins has suggested, we are evolved to be credulous, because believing what our parents tell us helps us survive and reproduce. Combine these two and you get historically persistent and ubiquitous religiosity.
But that doesn’t mean that there are genes for specifically believing in God. We don’t know of any, nor do we really know of any genes in general that tend to make us religious. All we can do is speculate about why religion took hold, and why it was ubiquitous, which is what Boyer and Dawkins (and Dennett as well) have done. It’s all speculation! I haven’t read God is Watching You, but I’m pretty conversant with the genetics of human behavior, and I’m dubious about whether Dominic Johnson’s book gives strong evidence of genes for religiosity. (And I guess I’ll have to look at that book now, but jeez, how much can a man do?)
At any rate, Sullivan’s claim that religion has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, and so on is hardly evidence for its genetic basis. After all, so has pedophilia, a manifestly maladaptive trait. And the claim that “it’s impossible not to have a religion if you’re a human being” is flatly wrong. I am one such human, and there are many others. Finally, Sullivan doesn’t answer my question about why, if religion is in our genes and ubiquitously expressed, it’s vanishing so rapidly in the West. People can get along fine without religion. And he really needs to admit that neither agnosticism nor atheism (his definitions) are NOT religions. They’re nothing like religions. They are manifestations of skepticism.
And as for that atheism, Sullivan claims that well, it’s still kinda sorta religion:
. . . . He [Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus] then says that equating atheists with believers because of the intensity of their belief system is fundamentally wrong: “Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one … There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us — I am one, Carl Sagan was another — that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence.”
I accept that and respect it. But this is surely a better description of what I’d call agnosticism, which in its more profound expressions, is quite similar to the doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians (my attempt to explain this religion of doubt is in Chapter 5 of my book, The Conservative Soul). Atheism, in contrast, is the positive denial of any God or “godness.” We can debate these definitions ad infinitum, but my diagnosis is directed more at the new Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris atheism than more agnostic varieties, prompted by John Gray’s little masterpiece, which treats these questions at the length and depth they deserve.
This is an argument about semantics, and hardly worth debating. I’ve said repeatedly, as has Dawkins and anyone with a scientific bent, that we can’t be absolutely certain that there’s no God, but the evidence isn’t there at all, so we can be nearly certain: close to 7 on Dawkins’s 7-point scale running from fervent belief to absolute certainty. But I am an atheist, and so is Dawkins, and if you don’t believe because there is no evidence, well, that’s not materially different from being absolutely certain there’s no God because there is no evidence. Those who profess atheistic “certainty” could probably be convinced of gods if there were evidence for Gods. Such folks seem to Sullivan like absolutists because they’re not scientists, and so don’t they don’t think of empirical truth as provisional. Sullivan’s definition of atheism as “positive denial of any God” isn’t that far from the a-Nessie stand of “positive denial of the Loch Ness monster”—which of course is Sullivan’s own stand (if he’s rational). The gap between 6.9 and 7.0 isn’t so large!
As for John Gray’s “little masterpiece,” I’m not inclined to read it. After having a several-year bout with the likes of Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, Karen Armstrong, and others, I don’t want to go another round with an atheist-dissing atheist who’s also an anti-progressivist.
Finally, what about Sullivan’s claim that my “agnostic” near certainty of no God is “quite similar to the “doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians”? Sadly, he’s wrong here, for there’s a huge difference. While liberal Christianity may involve doubt, atheism—or Sullivan’s characterization of “agnosticism”—does not involve faith. Why is a doubt based on lack of evidence anything like accepting a divine and resurrected Jesus or a theistic god?
I’m hoping that, as Sullivan moves toward the center of the political spectrum, he comes to realize that the Vatican is one of the world’s great promulgators of “fake news.” And it’s sad for me to see a man I respect, a man whose mind can be changed about politics, remain so adamant about Jesus and Catholicism.
See you next Friday.*
*Only kidding! I’ll be here all week, folks!