Blatant atheism in The New Yorker!

November 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

James Wood is a Harvard Professor of English, specializing in literary criticism, a practice he regularly engages in reviewing books for the New Yorker. I like his literary work because he seems an advocate of the outdated but still best form of criticism: “New Criticism”, in which works are taken as they are—as aesthetic expressions—not to be dissected with one literary theory of another. Over the years I’ve written about his work now and again, sometimes taking him to task for being critical of New Atheism. And he’s replied to my criticisms on this website, saying, among other things, the following in response to my critique of one of his articles:

Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.

As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .

At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.

His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study.  And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.

It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?”  And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.

As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:

This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.

You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.

I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business.  But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.

It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”

Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:

Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”

I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”

What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.

Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:

The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.

That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):

We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.

No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?

Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:

Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.

There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.

A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦

But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.

In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!

46 thoughts on “Blatant atheism in The New Yorker!

  1. Strange that Wood thought that of Dawkins, given how often, and in The God Delusion at that, he’s extolled the beauty of the KJV Bible. Hitchens, too, wrote about the beauty of the Parthenon and in god Is Not Great extolled the beauty of religious poetry while denigrating Orwell’s exultation at churches destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. Leave the believers to smash each other’s holy places, in essence! While, as Hitch invoked Sophocles to state, nobody else has to do any desecration and, indeed, non-believers have as much right to enjoy the beauty of the Parthenon or Da Vinci’s religious paintings as anyone else, without subscribing to belief in Athena or Jehovah or Jesus.

    1. Absolutely. Richard has personally expressed to me how much he loves Christmas (much more than I do!) and how important the Judeo-Christian metaphors, similes, and symbolism are to western culture. He’s given presentations on the latter. I just don’t get how so many people get this wrong about Richard Dawkins. Considering the true “Savonarolas” I know in the atheist movement, this misrepresentation of Dawkins’ stance is so simplistic and tiresome.

        1. I don’t want to rub it in, but I went on a CFI cruise and, being bookworms, he and I spent a lot of time in the ship’s library on our computers and talking. 😉
          He’s actually a very private and man and even shy. Being a celebrity is tough; I saw it first-hand.

            1. It was with CFI. I don’t know if they’re still doing them, and of course, Richard is older and had a stroke. I couldn’t afford it either, but I borrowed $$$ and paid it back. 😉

  2. Yup, Wood’s sentence “Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.” is a great one.

    Durham cathedral, the “big stone hoax”, is beautiful, but then so is the castle it stands beside.

  3. …she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,”…

    Therapeutic? Ok, I’ll grant her worship creates something socially or anthropologically “real.” But I’ll still take issue with the implication that we should extol this or value it. Yes, cathedrals are nice. But the people at Jonestown also created a sociological reality with their worship. As did Manson’s followers. As did David Koresh’s. Go back farther, and there are plenty of worship practices that included blood sacrifices (Yahweh’s included). This worship creating reality thing?

    To the extent that her thesis is true, it’s not therapeutic. It’s at best a tool which – like many human tools – we can use for good or evil.

  4. I get the impression that Wood is often writing with his tongue in his cheek…the statement that his surmise is that she isn’t sure what she’s praying to and that this is a perfectly reasonable position isn’t saying–as I read it–that she’s actually being reasonable by withholding any judgment, but that it’s pretty reasonable for someone to think “Just what the heck am I praying to?”

    I also read the last bolded point in your final quote to be quite sarcastic. But I may well be projecting. Sarcasm can be hard to pull off in print, even by excellent writers.

    1. AIUI anthropologists and sociologists intentionally practice ‘standing apart’ from their subjects, the better to conduct a more objective analysis of the behavior they are witnessing. That professional aloofness might come across as a cowardly avoidance of the big questions. But, even in that case, I would wonder why an anthropologist isn’t seeking to understand why her subjects believe something contradicted or at least unsupported by the world around them. If it was some non-religious non-sensical practice, I’m sure she’d ask the “why do they do this?” question.

  5. I didn’t read the articles linked to here but reading this post made me wonder how much people’s evident need for religion is related to the placebo effect. It has long been known that doing something to affect one’s situation has all kinds of beneficial effects, both real and imagined. We also know that we are all subject to the unknown unfoldings of reality. Religion is what one gets by applying the placebo effect to the human condition. People feel better when they practice religion because it is “doing something” about their life’s trajectory. It’s the sugar pill of life.

    I know this is not a new idea. Still, I felt like saying it. Apologies.

  6. Religion is such a deep and complex subject and yet somehow Sam Harris managed to distill a complete refutation of the whole project into a single sentence.

    Whenever I find myself in a debate with someone on the subject of religion, you know the one where people like to state that “surely you can admit that religion has at least brought some good things into this world”, I retort with this Harris quote and it leaves them genuinely stumped.

    I’m sure you all know it but here it is.

    “At its best, religion gives people bad reasons to do good things, where good reasons are available.”

    It’s so complete. God bless Sam Harris for this single sentence takedown of ALL religion. I have yet to hear a tenable refutation of this powerful refutation. Distilled into a single sentence. Brilliance.

      1. Some might say it only covers the moral aspect of religion but it is easily convertible to the other aspects.

        At its best, religion gives people bad ways to deal with death, where good ways are available.

        At its best, religion gives people bad reasons to form community bonds, where good reasons are available.

        At its best, religion gives people bad reasons to find meaning and purpose in life, where good reasons are available.

        Can you suggest what it might leave out for some?

        1. I was not trying to argue for religion. I was just remarking that it was a nice sentence but, like most such sentences, it doesn’t do justice to a complex subject. I have no problem at all with your “At its best” claims. Such sentences are at best things that make us non-believers smile. They aren’t effective at convincing believers to give up their religion.

    1. Sam also perfectly encapsulated “Faith” with is well known sentence:

      “It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”

      Also, I believe that Sam’s infamous section in his debate with William L. Crag is the single best, most concentrated and effective take down of Christianity.

      (Search the video “Sam Harris Demolishes Christianity.”).

      Of course Christians and their apologists will object to everything Harris argues in that 10 minutes “We have arguments against that!” But any of us looking in to the arguments know they fail miserably. The point being Harris does such a wonderful job of clearly putting the problems of Christianity on the table, and turning the screws tight.

        1. Jerry,

          If you google search ““Sam Harris Demolishes Christianity” the video should be top of search results. It’s an 11 minute excerpt from the Craig debate where Sam takes on Christian morality specifically.

          (I didn’t link to the video because I didn’t want to embed it).

  7. Good on you for being a New Criticism fan. Some of the clearest, most elegant writing in English is in Cleanth Brooks’ collection of essays, The Well-Wrought Urn, that I’ve always regarded as attaining, in Brooks’ lapidary prose, the highest level of intellectual depth and integrity possible in literary criticism. The Brooks-to-Derrida devolution mirrors the trajectory that took us from Bach to 70s disco …

  8. “She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them.”

    Sorry, but no.

    Story time: I was a devout Evangelical Christian as a teenager. One day, my parents’ beloved cat was diagnosed with cancer and given only a short time to live. Trusting in Jesus’ words, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer,” I prayed with every bit of faith I could muster for God to cure the cat, both for her sake and to demonstrate God’s power to my skeptical parents. I felt really good! This was going to work! God was real to me!

    … And then the kitty died. (Mercifully, she died in her sleep, so we didn’t have to euthanize her.)

    I was absolutely devastated. I had trusted God! What went wrong?!?! How could God do this to me? Was it all my fault, for not having enough faith? Why, God, why?

    This incident was one of the reasons why I eventually gave up my faith and am now an atheist.

    TL;DR: It’s all well and good to wax lyrical about the therapeutic power of imagination and prayer, but for people who desperately want and need a tangible, real-life result, such words ring painfully hollow.

  9. I had to chuckle when I read about Luhrmann’s use of the phrase “real-making”. Why she feels it necessary to come up with this is beyond me since there’s been a perfectly useful phrase around since long before I was a small child… “make-believe”.

    1. Exactly my reaction when I first read that phrase. Damn near snorted my frontal lobes all over my desk. Needlessly made up pseudo-profound phrases like that are a dead give away that ahead lies woo.

  10. “Real-making” sounds like making stuff up.

    “It works” sounds like a double shot of whiskey. Very effective.

  11. …in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.

    Rather like gender and race. I do really like that bit about the mundane deity. I will remember that.

  12. The moment one says that their conception of God is not of the guy-in-the-sky variety,who “has a plan,” and intervenes is human affairs, they’ve disconnected from what’s relevant to conversations about religion. It is precisely because people believe the nonsense about a personal god that religion is a problem.

    1. It’s as if they’re claiming belief in a religion without all the really stupid stuff. So what’s left? A social club where someone gives speeches on Sunday mornings and that has nice picnics on Sunday afternoons? (Rearrange the details for each religion.)

    2. Religion is anything they define it as in order to defend their delusion – which, of course, isn’t any kind of defense at all. It’s only a silly game played in lieu of evidence for their delusion.

    1. Santa works even better than god – kids get actual physical stuff! (Sometimes even when they haven’t been good, too.)

  13. I absolutely loath the type of mush-minded thinking about religion that seems to pervade Luhrmann’s thesis. For all the reasons Jerry gets in to.

    The worst…the VERY WORST…exponent of strategically turning religious belief in to jello that can not be pinned to a wall is the Christian Apologist Alister Mcgrath.

    Never in history has any human managed to speak more words, with so little specific content or commitment to specifics. Listening to him “defend” the claims of Christianity is like watching a Squid retreat in a cloud of ink.

    When he has engaged in conversation with Dawkins and Hitchens you can see them being driven mad by the inability to pin his views down on anything at all.

    1. A lot of McGrath’s books have ‘science’ or something similar in the title, and often get put into the science shelves of bookshops.

      Whenever I visit my local Waterstone’s, I take great pleasure in relocating McGrath’s books (and similar) to the New Age area. Once I managed to cart them off into Fiction.

  14. The reason that we shrink from calling out religion as the hoax we (secretly)think it to be is because there are people we love and respect who believe and will not be argued out of their belief. They might though find our intransigence alienating enough to break off relations.

  15. The older I get, the more I recoil from the entire concept of ‘worship’. It basically entails putting away any notion of self-worth or dignity, and abasing oneself before a superior entity in the hope of receiving
    forgiveness and absolution for one’s supposed faults, and favourable treatment for one’s desires.

    It’s bad enough when people engage in this activity towards real human beings. It’s even worse when the object of the process is wholly imaginary. And worst of all is when it’s forced upon children. I repudiate the whole thing.

    1. I also find worship quite undignified. My sympathies lie with the rebellious Prometheus, who got tortured by the gods for benefiting humans. Yet he received no temples from them, as Lucian pointed out.

      1. “I also find worship quite undignified.”

        Speaking of short sentences that capture an idea very nicely, that is certainly one. In my early teens, I went to church with a friend’s family just because he was my friend. I liked the get-togethers and the singing but little else. I never at any time believed in God. After 6 months of this, I grew up enough to realize that I shouldn’t be doing this. Your sentence is not something I would have said out loud at that age but it is certainly what I was thinking.

        1. “Your sentence is not something I would have said out loud at that age but it is certainly what I was thinking.”

          Same here, regarding not speaking out loud. As a teen I remember that the pastor (a most decent and congenial fellow) had a tendency to employ the locution, “Do this (“this” IIRC being fulfilling the requests offered in the pastoral prayer), and we will give you all the praise, honor and glory . . . .” Or words closely to-that-effect. Sitting in the pew, I thought to the effect that we believers were not in a great position to negotiate the matter.

    2. I think there must be a Freudian or some other kind of masochism going on there. Subjugation conceivably could take away responsibility for living an independent life and for self realization. “He” does all the thinking for you. Somebody must have written about that.

  16. And we are supposed to respect this kind of thinking? Remove the context of religion from this, and thereby the cover of expected automatic respect, and what is revealed is wishful adherence to a made up model of reality for the purpose of being able to make oneself feel better. A made up model that the worshiper holds to in spite of being awash in evidence contrary to it every day of their lives.

    Obviously, in any other context this would be considered unhealthy delusion. Yet here this anthro-apologist celebrates it as wonderful, beautiful, profound. No. It is mundane delusion. It isn’t pretty, it’s sad.

  17. James Wood: “As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone . . . .”

    Fine, as long as you are no less inclined to dislike the tone of religiosos who until the last couple of decades or so have had carte blanche in negatively bloviating about atheists. I gather that you would have no less a problem with that good Christian Theodore Roosevelt’s tone in his referring to Thomas Paine as “that filthy little atheist” (and who to my mind should be in TR’s place on Mount Rushmore).

  18. I wonder if Lurhmann was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”, where belief causes gods to come into existence and a fading belief causes them to fade away?

    Fiction inspiring an anthropological study?

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