I used to write quite a bit for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but my interest in that has waned—as, I suspect, has theirs in me—as they’ve become ever softer on religion. (As I recall, they even got a theologian to review Faith versus Fact, which is like having the Pope review The God Delusion). Although the UK is far less religious than is the U.S., much British media still shows an unaccountable weakness for religion, perhaps abiding by the paternalistic “Little People’s Argument” that faith, even if unwarranted, is good for society. (I’m talking to you, BBC.)
And that’s the argument made in this execrable piece by Philip Goff in the new TLS (h/t: Michael). Click on the screenshot to read it:
My main research project is trying to work out how consciousness fits into our overall theory of reality. I argue that the traditional approaches of materialism (consciousness can be explained in terms of physical processes in the brain) and dualism (consciousness is separate from the body and brain) face insuperable difficulties. On the basis of this I defend a form of panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. It sounds a bit crazy, but I try to show that it avoids the difficulties faced by its rivals .
Ooookay, well, that’s not propitious, and yes, it does sound a bit crazy. In fact, a whole lot crazy. I’ve criticized Goff’s view of panpsychism (and panpsychism in general) three times on this site (here, here and here), and you can read those posts to see where he goes off the rails.
Further, I’m not sure what “the insuperable difficulties of materialism” are, for there are innumerable pieces of evidence showing that consciousness has a material (and naturalistic) basis. But let’s leave that aside and pass on to Goff’s arguments for why we should be religious even if there’s no evidence for God.
Goff makes two arguments why doubters should be religious. The first is that religious “faith” isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be by atheists. It is, in fact, not “belief without evidence”, as most of us think it is (and as the Bible defines it!), but a form of cheerleading, of hope that something is true without having much confidence that it’s true. It’s like having faith (in the case of Matthew Cobb), that Manchester City will lead the Premier League. Here’s part of Goff’s lucubrations:
Separating “faith” from “belief” also makes sense outside a religious context. Suppose a loved one is seriously ill and the prognosis is not good. You might say to that person, “I have faith that you’re going to live”. This does not necessarily mean that you believe that your loved one will live; you might be entirely realistic about the chances of survival. What you mean is that you are rooting for that possibility: you are personally committing to living in hope that the illness will be overcome. Faith is a matter of hopeful commitment. To take another example, anyone taking a cold hard look at the facts must accept that the odds of humans preventing climate catastrophe do not look great; certainly, it is more likely that we will fail than that we will succeed. Nonetheless, many continue to have faith that our species will rise to the occasion. Again, this is not a matter of believing, against all the evidence, that climate change will be dealt with. It rather means committing to live, and more importantly to act, in the hope of a better outcome. Such leaps of faith are not irrational; they are what give life meaning and significance. It would be a sad world if everyone apportioned their aspirations for the future in the manner of an insurance broker.
This, of course, is connected with the claim that religious people don’t really take as true foundational statements such as “God exists” or “Jesus was the son of God/God sent to Earth to redeem humans”, “Jesus was resurrected,” “there is an afterlife” or “God dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad through Gabriel”. These aren’t beliefs, avers Goff, but simply hopes.
That, of course, is bullshit, and you don’t have to know much about the history or sociology of religion to see that. People were killed for not signing onto these beliefs, and they continue to be killed. And that kind of extermination of those who didn’t have the same “hopeful commitment” as you has been going on for millennia.
This is connected with Goff’s familiar but erroneous claim that, in the old days, believers didn’t really think that religious claims were strictly true, and that that’s a recent change in the nature of religion:
According to conventional wisdom, religions are systems of belief. Religious people are “believers”. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead; Muslims believe that Mohammed was the final prophet; Jews believe that the creator of the universe has a special affection for the children of Israel. These beliefs of the religious are often taken to be unsupported by, or even inconsistent with, available evidence. Indeed, many understand “faith” as a matter of believing without any evidence at all.
However, this belief-orientated – or “doxastic” – conception of religion is not universally accepted. According to the historian of religion Karen Armstrong, the doxastic conception of religion is a relatively recent development, shaped by the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. Armstrong goes so far as to argue that our modern doxastic conception of religion is largely the result of mistranslation. In terms of Christianity, one difficulty with translating the Greek of the New Testament into English is that the English word “faith”, unlike the Greek equivalent “pistis”, does not have a verb form. Hence what should really be the verb “to faith” comes out as “to believe”. When the Bible was first rendered in English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was not a bad translation. The word “bileven” in middle English meant to prize or to hold dear (related to the German “belieben”) and when the King James Bible was published, “believe” was close in meaning to the Greek pistis, which has connotations of engagement and commitment. As one piece of evidence for this, Armstrong offers a line from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (written shortly before the publication of the King James Bible) in which Bertram is urged to “believe not thy distain”; in other words, he is being told not to engage his contempt (in this case for the low-born Helena) and let it take root in his heart.
But as the enlightenment progressed, the word “belief” came to be associated with a cold-blooded intellectual assent to a hypothetical proposition, before eventually coming to have the meaning it has today. The result is that reading the New Testament in modern English one has the impression that Jesus is very much concerned with which hypotheses about reality one accepts. We even learn that salvation depends on it. However, as the philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder has argued in detail, the contexts in which Jesus talks of “faith” make it quite clear that he was concerned with the resilience of the religious commitment of the people around him rather than with their abstract theories of reality; in other words, with “belief” in the sixteenth-century rather than the twenty-first-century sense.
Umm. . . Karen Armstrong’s apophatic theology is hardly the be-all and end-all of religious thought. Yes, if there are dissenters like her, then literalism isn’t “universally” accepted. But it is very widely accepted. Muslims, for example, are mostly Qur’anic literalists, as are many Americans (see these two polls). Here, for instance is a 2014 Pew graph on Americans’ “rooting for God”. 63% of them are rooting VERY HARD. LOL!
A recent Gallup Poll. I guess a lot of Americans are also rooting for Hell and Satan!
A 2013 Harris poll. Americans are rooting hard for EVERYTHING religious! Note, though, that they’re not rooting as hard for Darwin. . .
These data are enough to put paid to Goff’s claim. (The good news is that belief is declining while acceptance of evolution is on the rise. These two trends are, of course, connected.) Would Goff want to venture to, say, Saudi Arabia, and tell Muslims that they don’t really believe that the Qur’an is Allah’s word, or even that Allah really exists? If he wouldn’t do that, why not?
As for the history of religion, just read Aquinas and Augustine and see if you think they didn’t really have a literal belief in the truth claims of Christianity. Of course they did! And they believed in the same way that we construe belief: the Church Fathers, with very, very few exceptions, thought that the whole Jesus story was real, that there were angels, that there was a literal hell, and so on. For them, and the medieval believers, these weren’t just hopes. They were convictions. The firm belief that religious truths were real facts about the Universe is not recent!
I hate to say this, but Goff, in trying to coddle religion, though he may be an atheist, is crossing the border into idiocy.
And then Goff plants himself firmly in Idiotsville. His second claim is that even if we’re pretty sure that there is no God, and that religious truth claims are bogus, we should still believe because, well, it’s good for us. This is, of course, the Little People’s Argument, which is patronizing and condescending.
But suppose you think the arguments for the existence of God fail entirely. Or suppose you think we have very good reason to think that God does not exist, such as is arguably provided by the familiar problem of evil: the difficulty in reconciling God’s existence with the evil and suffering we find in the world. Could you still have some grounds for taking religion seriously? One might think not. Yet there is a philosophical position that combines out and out atheism with a positive commitment to religious practice; this is the view known as “religious fictionalism”.
Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction. In fact, fictionalism is popular in many areas of philosophy. There are, for example, moral fictionalists and mathematical fictionalists, who think that there are pragmatic benefits to using moral/mathematical language even though such discourse fails to correspond to a genuine reality (there are, on these views, no such things as goodness or the number 9, any more than there are dragons or witches). Religious fictionalists merely extend this approach to the statements of religion.
What is the pragmatic benefit for the atheist of using religious language? The religious fictionalist Andrew Eshleman proposes that religious discourse can be understood as mythological, by which he means “a meaning-loaded narrative that has been adopted by a particular community to give expression to and foster a form of life defined by its guiding ideals”. The religious community is bound together across space and time by its stories, rituals, regular meetings and celebration of rites of passage. At a time when globalization has fractured communities and weakened our shared forms of life, there is arguably a real need for institutions that bring people together around a shared moral purpose. The rise of nationalism around much of Europe may, in part, speak to a deep human need for shared structures of meaning.
This is ridiculous, and I’m surprised that the TLS would put such nonsense on their pages. You don’t have to profess belief in Jesus or God or anything divine to have a sense of community. We know this because there are countries that lack religious belief but retain a sense of community, with citizens banding together to take care of each other and build a better society. Exhibit A: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
And seriously, can people really find meaning in their lives while only pretending to pay obeisance to people and tenets that they know aren’t real? How does that work? Maybe other people can worship mythological people and thereby find a sense of community, but I’ve always found it impossible to profess belief in things I don’t think have much of a chance of being true.
Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route. He’s wrong, and I suspect he knows it. As the world loses its faith, it’s getting more moral: exactly the opposite of what you expect if a sense of community must be tied to religious beliefs. This is because religious belief foster not inclusiveness but divisiveness, and much religious “morality” is counterproductive in today’s world. What is productive is an empathic humanism: the kind of ideology that creates the kind of communities that exist in secular places. And yes, France and Germany and Denmark do have citizens with a sense of community. Imagine going to church and saying the Nicene Creed if you’re an atheist! But that’s what Goff would have us do. I suppose he thinks of the Nicene Creed, which repeats “I believe” over and over again, is just like the kind of chants that British soccer fans make at matches. It’s a hope!
Goff’s Big Finish:
If God’s nature cannot be captured in human language, it follows that talk of God as having personal characteristics – such as “wisdom” or “omnipotence” – although perhaps essential for regular practice, is strictly speaking a fiction. The crude literalism at which atheists such as Richard Dawkins take aim has never been the full story of religious faith.
Contemporary society tells us we must choose between secular atheism and dogmatic certainty. Those who find themselves unable to adopt either of these stark options label themselves “spiritual but not religious”. But it is hard to nurture spirituality in isolation, without a community and without a tradition. In fact, the liberal wing of traditional religion provides plenty of opportunity for a non-dogmatic approach to spirituality, one that is consistent with uncertain faith, with non-traditional belief and even with outright atheism.
Which church, then, should we “outright atheists” join? The Unitarian Universalists? The Quakers? Buddhism? That may be fine for some atheists, but I suspect that most of us don’t need it.
As Rebecca Goldstein told me when she read this article and gave me her take (quoted by permission):
The lengths that people will go to say: “Yeah I’m an atheist but isn’t religion rather lovely.”