About two weeks ago I dissected an interview at Vox in which Sean Illing talked to John Gray about Gray’s new book,
Fifty Shades Seven Types of Atheism, and both interviewer and interviewee embraced each other in their hatred of New Atheism. Their mutual beefs (both are atheists but are “atheist-butters”) include these four:
1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.
2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.
3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose.
4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.
You can see my response to these canards (an insult to ducks) at the link above.
The New Yorker, which like Vox is a left-wing website that dislikes New Atheism, recently published an article that is a combination of a review of Gray’s book (along with some history taken from Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s new book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life) along with the New Yorker‘s usual overwritten bloviating on the topic of atheism. You can read the article by clicking on the screenshot below:
The potted history of atheism won’t tell you much you don’t know (e.g., “In God we Trust” was added to currency only in the 1950s), but may interest those not involved with atheism. But much of the article is an uncritical presentation of Gray’s ideas, which include a critique of New Atheism and a denial of progressivism. One gets the strong idea that author Casey Cep, identified as “a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland”, is a big booster of Gray’s ideas. (Cep also appears to have no expertise in religiosity and its denial.) Her long and uncritical exposition of Gray’s ideas begins, of course, with a shot over the bow of New Atheism, demonstrating where Cep’s allegiance lies:
[Gray’s book] is also a refreshing look beyond the so-called “new atheists” who have lately dominated the conversation surrounding unbelief. Gray does not brook what he describes as their “tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion,” and, in contrast to Moore and Kramnick, who believe that new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have generated an “Atheist Awakening,” Gray dismisses them in a single chapter. “New atheists have directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part,” he writes. By Gray’s account, they ignore polytheism and animism almost entirely, while insisting on reading verses of Genesis or lines of the Nicene Creed as if they were primitive scientific theories. Not all monotheists are literalists, and, for many of us, both now and throughout history, the Garden of Eden is not a faulty hypothesis about evolution but a rich symbolic story about good and evil.
Here again we have a Sophisticated Believer asserting that he is representative of most believers in not being a literalist and in not accepting that Abrahamic religions are based on factual assertions. Try telling a Catholic that Jesus wasn’t divine or can’t forgive your sins; try telling a Southern Baptist that Adam and Eve are lovely symbols of good and evil; try telling a Muslim that Muhammad’s “night flight” from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the steed Buraq is just a lovely but a false story, or that the Qur’an wasn’t really dictated to Muhammad by an angel in a cave. I’d love for Gray to go to, say, Tehran and give a lecture about how the Qu’ran is a “rich symbolic story about good and evil.” Well, actually, I wouldn’t, because he’d be dead within a day or so.
As I’ve shown repeatedly on this site, and in my book Faith Versus Fact, a huge fraction of believers in both the UK and US take things like the existence of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, angels, Jesus’s resurrection, and so on as literal truths. Granted, not all religionists take the whole Bible or Qur’an literally (though a higher proportion of Muslims than of Christians are literalists) but, as I’ve said in one of my few bon mots, “Some believers are literalists about everything, but every believer is a literalist about something.”
You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus existed, was divine, and was crucified and resurrected. And so on and so on and so on. As the Bible says, in fact, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In claiming that religion has very little to do with literal (i.e., “scientific”) truth, Gray and Cep are simply ignoring how religion works, and how, at bottom, it depends on literal adherence to at least a few supernatural assertions. It is not a “small segment” of religionists who have some literal beliefs in the supernatural!
Another claim of both Gray—and by extension, Cep—is that atheism doesn’t offer a solid ground for morality. Here’s Cep osculating Gray:
Gray’s larger complaint is that the new atheists fail to offer a more coherent moral vision than the one they want to replace. The strategy they champion, scientific ethics, has been tried before, with a notable lack of success. Auguste Comte and his fellow nineteenth-century positivists envisioned a Grand Pontiff of Humanity who would preside alongside scientist-priests; unfortunately, scientists at the time were practicing phrenology. Later on, evolutionary humanists and monists replaced God’s order with “scientific” anthropologies, then constructed racial hierarchies and put white Europeans on top. Today, the voguish version of science as religion is transhumanism, which claims that technology will overcome human limitations both physical and mental, perhaps through bioengineering or artificial intelligence or cyborgs that can carry around the contents of our brains. Gray is not sanguine about such developments, should they ever occur, because we already have a model of the mayhem that takes place when some mortals are granted godlike powers: “Anyone who wants a glimpse of what a post-human future might be like should read Homer.”
Umm. . . . the only New Atheist who champions scientific ethics, as far as I know, is Sam Harris, who claims there are empirically determinable “right” and “wrong” statements. I disagree with him, though I think most versions of morality do rely on a consequentialist view of what constitutes greater or lesser “well being.” But defining “well being” is slippery, and in some cases the currency of morality might not be “well being.” In the end, I maintain, as do other New Atheists, that morality is grounded on what kind of world you prefer, which is a subjective judgment. As for transhumanism, that’s irrelevant.
True, consequentialists know that empirical data does play a role in secular ethics (as oppose to the divine fiat of religious ethics). But really, isn’t it better to base your morals on how they affect people’s lives rather than on propitiating the dictates of a God who, to even Gray, doesn’t exist? In the end, why does having a God in your sights give you a better morality than relying on reason and preference? After all Plato showed with the Euthyphro argument that even religious morality has an extrabiblical (i.e., nonreligious) philosophy behind it.
Cep goes on:
On the whole, Gray is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and what others regard as novel or promising he often sees as derivative or just plain dumb. He argues, for instance, that secular humanism is really monotheism in disguise, where humankind is God and salvation can be achieved through our own efforts rather than through divine intervention. Unlike the linguist—and new atheist—Steven Pinker, Gray regards the idea that the world is getting better as self-evidently silly. “The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics,” he points out. Religions are still thriving, as are wars between them, and secular regimes have wrought as much, if not more, havoc under the auspices of Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism, and Maoism.
Secular humanism is the philosophy that humans can find moral and material fulfillment without the need for gods. In what respect is that “monotheism” in disguise? Does it put humanity as a sacred and numinous object, like God? No way! There’s a big difference between saying we have to help ourselves on one hand, and saying on the other that we need the intervention of a being for which there’s no evidence. Gray should know this, and Cep, as a supposedly savvy New Yorker writer, should know that difference even better. But she falls for Gray’s “sophistication”, offering not a word of critique.
As for the statement that it’s “self-evidently silly”, to say the world is getting better, that statement itself is arrant nonsense. Clearly we’re materially better than we were a few centuries ago (would Gray like to live as a medieval peasant with infected teeth?), and you can see the evidence for that in Pinker’s last two books. And we’ve improved not just materially (here I count “health and well-being” as material goods), but also morally. Attitudes towards gays, women, minorities, children, and other once-oppressed groups have changed much for the better. Slavery is no longer tenable, and we have much more concern about the welfare of animals.
Finally, I needn’t address the canard (a word that’s an offense to ducks) that “secular regimes” are fraught with “havoc.” From Nazism to Bolshevism, the state simply replaced God with Dear Leaders, and Nazism wasn’t even atheistic. Perhaps Gray and Cep should be pointed toward Scandinavia to see that “secular regimes” in the modern world, so long as they’re democratic, need not be bastions of immorality or oppression.
Cep goes on to note that Gray’s version of “good” atheists include those atheists who (like him) have no faith in humanity, as well as “apophatic atheists” who simply shut up about their unbelief and, indeed, accept some kind of numinous philosophy like pantheism.
At the end, Cep alludes to the specious claim that all of us, atheists and nonbelievers alike, are similar in having faith. We’re all brothers and sisters under the skin!
Still, as Gray might have predicted, it is difficult, in this particular political moment, to believe that the circle of rights is expanding for atheists or for anyone else. Moore and Kramnick, who have written a thorough and useful history of the legal and political status of atheists in America, unsurprisingly believe that such work is salvific—that understanding the bias against atheists in the past can help end it in the future. Gray holds no such hope, and yet his book offers a way forward. In it, he helps us understand how those who do not believe in God, or, for that matter, those who do, have oriented themselves in the universe. Faith, after all, drove the Puritans to Plymouth Rock but then led them to execute three of their Quaker neighbors; it inspired American slavers but also American abolitionists; and, whatever else atheism is accused of doing in this country, it sustained the scientific curiosity and profound pacifism of the two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, and the art and activism of Lorraine Hansberry. All of us, nihilists included, believe something—many things, in fact, about ourselves, the cosmos, and one another. In the end, the most interesting thing about a conscience is how it answers, not whom it answers to. ♦
This conflates “faith” as “a belief in a proposition not well supported by evidence”, with “optimism” (the Puritans) and “confidence based on data and reason” (i.e. Linus Pauling, the abolitionists). Saying that Jesus was resurrected does not lie on the same playing field as the statement that “Slaves are better off not being slaves.” “Belief” can be based on wish-thinking, as it is in religion, or on data and experience, as it is in science and many other areas. Those simply aren’t equivalent ways of determining what’s true, or equally valid supports for what you believe.
And the last sentence is classic New Yorker nonsense: a nice-sounding Deepity that, if taken seriously, dismisses religion as of no importance whatsoever—after Cep and Gray have just told us why religion remains important.