I’m sure Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, is a very nice person, but she’s put herself in the line of fire when the New York Times hired her to osculate the rump of religion once a week in their opinion section. I’ve beefed about this osculation before, and it’s continued this week with her anodyne column on the pandemic, which ends with an outright lie (or delusion; take your pick). The thing about these nice, liberal clergy who publish in mainstream media is that you’re so taken in by their niceness—though I find her boring and predictable—that they manage to slip in some outrageous stuff about religion before you know it.
Well, Jesus wept, and you might too if you read her piece. But you can read it only if you’re a NYT subscriber, so there is no link. (If you want to subscribe, go here.) I receive each column in an email because I’m a masochist.
Here is her thesis:
a. The pandemic should be over now. But it isn’t and Pastor Harrison and her family, like many, have “had it.” She’s fatigued. She doesn’t like the emotional roller coaster of the last 18 months, which reminds her of the emotional roller coast that the captive Israelites had in Egypt, who were freed (yay!) and then had to wander in the desert for decades (boo!). No matter that that entire story is pure fiction.
b. We may not know how the pandemic will end, but we should simply trust in God, for all will be well. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is coming back!
After her boilerplate kvetching about how she and her family have suffered during the pandemic, and yet the uncertainty is still not over, she looks heavenward and finds solace. This is her ending:
. . . . But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.
It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?
Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.
Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.
In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.
So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.
Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.
This is the kind of thing you read in an evangelical tract, not in the New York Times!
And what makes Pastor Warren think that her church has the right answer, or that any church has the right answer? Many faiths don’t promise us that the divine being will “defeat death”: give us eternal life. No, we do not know how the story ends, except in a heat death of the Earth five billion years from now. The Bible is a work of human confection, Jesus was not the Son of God, and he ain’t coming back. There is no Promised land of Heaven.
Yes, I’m an antitheist, because, really, look at the pabulum that Warren is dishing into our bowls: “God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story.” First of all, that’s not even logical. Yes, God has told us that in the end everything will be fine when Jesus (aka God) returns. But that doesn’t mean we can trust him for everything else! Remember, Jesus (who is God in human form) promised before he died that he’d return before some of those who watched the Crucifixion passed away. In other words, he said, “Hey, folks, I’ll be back within 80 years”. That was a lie! God lied!
And, after all, didn’t God allow the virus to ravage all of humanity, killing 4.6 million people already? And believe me, they weren’t all sinners. How is that supposed to engender trust?
All Warren is saying here—in fancy words and in the pages of the Paper of Record—is that we can lean on the promise of Jesus in hard times to make things right. I think Marx had a quotation about that, with the famous part (usually taken out of context) put in bold by moi:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
I remain baffled why the NYT purveys delusions like Warren’s to their readers.
UPDATE: I found this on FB, and you can verify the quote here.
As John McWhorter begins his biweekly “Newsletter” for the New York Times (and there are some newsletters by others that look good), we also see the onset of one that promises to be much more dire. Author Tish Harrison Warren, according to her online bio, is truly washed in the blood in the lamb, and with bona fides like these, why wouldn’t the NYT hire her to to write every Sunday about “matters of faith in public live and private discourse”?
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year, and the forthcoming Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep (IVP 2021). She has worked in ministry settings for over a decade as a campus minister with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, as an associate rector, with addicts and those in poverty through various churches and non-profit organizations, and, most recently, as the writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a monthly columnist with Christianity Today, and her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, The Point Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project and a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
What you have to ask yourself is this: do you really want to read about matters of faith from a true believer? Aren’t there tons of websites that already contain such stuff?
Well, the first sample is below. Read and weep—have a pack of hankies on hand.
I can find nothing substantive in this newsletter, nor do I think that liberal religionists will, either. These are the points Warren makes:
a. The priest’s first words in each week’s sermon are about God, not the congregation or “a mention of the weather or how nice everyone looks this week”. She finds that strange. I don’t.
Each Sunday in my Anglican church in Austin, Texas, the priest leading the service takes his or her place in front of the congregation and begins by saying the opening acclamation, usually, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
What has surprised me since I first attended an Anglican service just over a decade ago is that we begin not with welcoming anyone in the pews but with a direct announcement about God.
. . . Part of why I find this moment strange is that I’m habituated by my daily life and our broader culture to focus on the “horizontal” or immanent, aspects of life — those things we can observe and measure without reference to God, mystery or transcendence. This can affect my spiritual life, flattening faith into solely the stuff of relationships, life hacks, sociology or politics.
But each week, as a church, the first words we say publicly directly address the “vertical,” transcendent dimension of life. We do not have just an urbane, abstracted conversation about religion, but we speak as if God’s presence is relevant — the orienting fact of our gathering.
b. Faith intersects with the secular world. (SURPRISE!)
Karl Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, is credited with saying that Christians must live our lives with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Barth, who was a leader of a group of Christians in Germany resisting Hitler, understood that faith is not a pious, protective bubble shielding us from the urgent needs of the world. It is the very impetus that leads us into active engagement with society. People of faith must immerse ourselves in messy questions of how to live faithfully in a particular moment with particular headlines calling for particular attention and particular responses.
c. We need to keep discussing faith and the secular world even when religion is on the wane.
Membership in a house of worship has declined steadily in the United States over the past eight decades and, according to a Gallup poll, dropped below 50 percent this year.
So we must ask: Is faith worth discussing anymore? In the vast world of subjects that one could read about, from architecture to Zumba, why make space for a newsletter about faith and spiritual practice?
The answer to her last two questions are, respectively, “no” and “no good reason.”
But Warren has a reason, though I doubt it applies widely to NYT readers. It’s because those who are already religious want to read about religion, and they need religion to answer The Big Questions:
As a pastor, I see again and again that in defining moments of people’s lives — the birth of children, struggles in marriage, deep loss and disappointment, moral crossroads, facing death — they talk about God and the spiritual life. In these most tender moments, even those who aren’t sure what exactly they believe cannot avoid big questions of meaning: who we are, what we are here for, why we believe what we believe, why beauty and horror exist.
These questions bubble up in all of us, often unbidden. Even when we hum through a mundane week — not consciously thinking about God or life’s meaning or death — we are still motivated in our depths by ultimate questions and assumptions about what’s right and wrong, what’s true or false and what makes for a good life.
Clearly, and literally, this column is meant to preach to the choir. And just as clearly, Warren’s column is meant to emphasize our need to reach out to the divine, though any secularist with two neurons to rub together knows that we make our own meaning, and we can ponder what’s true and false and how to live without invoking gods. In fact, it’s better not to invoke a deity for which there’s no evidence when trying to find “meaning” or discern truth. Has Warren ever heard of secular humanism?
The rest is palaver, words without meaning, except to tell you to expect more of the same:
This newsletter, like our opening acclamation, acknowledges the presence of God in the world, believing that God, faith and spirituality remain a relevant part of our public and private lives. In it, I will talk about the habits and practices that shape our lives, the beliefs that drive our imaginations, the commitments that guide our souls.
So here’s my opening acclamation. Let’s discuss our deepest questions, longings and loves and the rituals and habits that form who we are and the way we walk through the world, week in and week out.
I have a better idea: let’s not.
Now I’m sure that Pastor Warren is a nice lady, but that doesn’t mean that her lucubrations deserve column inches in the Times every Sunday. Nor do I have to say, “This column is a valuable addition to media discourse.” Rather, I ask myself WHY ARE THEY PUBLISHING THIS STUFF? The Times is increasingly osculating not just faith, but also woo like dowsing and astrology. What explains this? I have no answer.
Wouldn’t it be better—wouldn’t it go ahead of the curve—to have a weekly (or at least a semi-regular) column on secularism and nonbelief? There are plenty of people who could write such a piece, and they wouldn’t have to purvey mindless platitudes to do so.
But, Ceiling Cat help me, I have subscribed. I feel like I’ve just bought a hair shirt or a cilice that will cause me constant irritation.
The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.
But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat. There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.
To the Editor:
On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.
To the Editor:
Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.
First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,”which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.
Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.
It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.
Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass. The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
There are some posts I’m compelled to write even though I know that they’ll make me angry, take a lot of time, and won’t stimulate my brain in the least, for they involve religious arguments that have long been refuted. This is one of those posts.
I’m always puzzled when people who show reasonably high intelligence confess that they’re religious—even deeply religious. These people include Andrew Sullivan, NIH head Francis Collins, and NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Though I usually disagree with Douthat and his conservative views, at least they’re based on data, however misinterpreted. But his deep faith (pious Catholicism), which he displays in embarassing detail in his new NYT essay, is beyond my ken. For here Douthat not only advances some of the common and unconvincing arguments for God (many taken from Intelligent Design), but also makes many of them, and says that they’re based on science itself.
But none of his claims will convince the skeptic. Further, Douthat fails to deal with arguments against God—especially the argument from physical evil (tsunamis,childhood cancers, and so on). He doesn’t answer the question of where God came from, nor how we decide what beliefs about God are are true in the face of conflicting faith claims—though he does mention these issues. He punts on the question about why he’s a Catholic instead of a Jew or a Muslim. Is this just his preference, or are there facts about the world that vindicate Catholicism? Douthat doesn’t say.
As I began to write this summary and critique of his arguments, I felt more and more that even very smart people are willing to accept dubious claims if it makes them feel good. In other words, they lack well-tuned organs of skepticism and are ridden with confirmation bias. If you have other answers (e.g., God gives us answers to questions we can’t solve—another of Douthat’s “reasons”), weigh in below. And I remind readers of Michael Shermer’s relevant book, Why People Believe Weird Things.
But first click below to read and weep:
In this long piece, Douthat makes five arguments for God that I’ll summarize and discuss briefly. But first lays out his claim: that, in fact, believing in God, especially these days, is the most parsimonious thing to do. Atheism is less parsimonious than faith. And, even though science has advanced and explained via naturalism a lot of things once imputed to God, Douthat sees these advances as simply confirming God’s existence even more strongly.
A couple of introductory quotes. He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy, or, if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe, and then you’re home free. Douthat doesn’t like those reasons, though, as he’s a true believer:
But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.
The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?
In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture.
. . . there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.
Dennett gets bashed a couple of times, and I hope he’ll respond. But after recounting several reasons why medieval people believed in God, and claiming that they’re still good reasons (e.g., our consciousness, which allows us to observe ourselves from the outside, leads us to believe that we’re clearly made in the image of the Creator—which isn’t an argument at all), Douthat moves on to how modernity has only buttressed the case for a divine being. I find five reasons in his essay.
1.) The fine-tuned universe proves God. Here we have this argument again, which physicists have refuted repeatedly. And even if Douthat’s answer be true—the multiverse leads some universes to be suitable for human life—that is an argument against God, not for him. For if God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life? Here’s Douthat:
The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
In other words, the multiverse explains why the laws of physics in our universe, though not in others, allow life to exist.
Are you kidding me? That’s an argument for God? The multiverse hypothesis posits not that the laws of physics are calibrated for life, but that they differ among universes, and in at least one universe (ours) those laws allow life to exist. (This, of course, assumes that the laws of physics really are “fine tuned” for life, and life couldn’t exist under any variants of those laws—a claim which itself is dubious.) Now we can’t test whether a multiverse exists, but if it does, and the laws of physics vary among them, then the “fine tuned universe” is in fact an argument against God and for naturalism.
2.) The “hard problem” of consciousness proves God. Oy gewalt, my kishkes are already in knots.
Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.
This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
What “leap of faith” is he talking about? I suspect it’s that naturalism hasn’t yet explained consciousness (or other stuff), and therefore God is a more parsimonious explanation. But, as Hitchens noted, that still leaves you with all the work ahead of you, for what explains the pre-existence of such a complex God? How did such a god get here? Saying he always existed is not an answer, for one could say that the multiverse always existed, or that single universes pop in and out of existence because “‘nothing’ is unstable”. And if God’s main aim was to create humans to worship and obey him, what was he doing before he made the Earth. And why use evolution to get to hominins rather than poof them into existence? After all, the Bible explicitly contradicts evolution.
Here Douthat simply offers the Argument from Ignorance: because there are hard problems that we can’t explain, we should default to the God Theory. You’d think that, observing the history of science and seeing that one argument for God after another has fallen in the face of naturalism (evolution, for instance, replaced the most convincing argument humanity ever had for God: creationism), Douthat would have some proper Catholic humility. But no, he claims that, with consciousness (and other phenomena described below),science has reached the end of the road. Ergo, God.
I beg to differ. Naturalism is the one route to understanding the universe; it’s the only game in town. Scientists, as Laplace explained, have discarded the God hypothesis because it doesn’t help us explain anything. Further, naturalism is already helping us understand consciousness: the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on. As with Patricia Churchland, I believe consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious. (Yes, I do realize how hard that endeavor is.) Beyond that, there’s no “hard problem.”
As for the “ultimate” explanation for consciousness—whether it’s a phenomenon favored by evolution or simply an epiphenomenon of the brain—I have no answer, but I could think of possible reasons. But let’s move on to Douthat’s next reason for God.
3.) The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God.
Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
This again is not a new argument, and has been made for centuries. It involves two connected claims: that the Universe is comprehensible because God made it that way, so that it obeys laws (let’s leave the annoying lawlessness of miracles aside), and that God forged the human mind so that it could understand those laws, thereby appreciating God’s greatness.
As to why there are physical laws in the first place, we don’t know, but it’s likely there could be no universe to observe unless there were physical laws. They may differ among different universes, but if laws changed within a universe, what would we have? We wouldn’t have planets orbiting the Sun according to the laws of gravity, we would not have matter, whose existence depends on many regularities, and so on. In other words, we could posit a “weak anthropic principle” for physical laws.
As for why humans can investigate and understand those laws, we don’t need to posit God. The blind and naturalistic process of evolution, for which (unlike for God) we have evidence, will suffice. And if God gave us brains to comprehend the universe, why didn’t those brains include a universal belief in the real God—the one that Douthat thinks exists. All scientists worth their salt accept the inverse square law of gravity and the existence of evolution, but different populations of the world have very different concepts of God—or no god at all. Did God intend to punish atheists by withholding from them the ability to believe in God while still vouchsafing them the mental ability to detect gravity waves? I’m puzzled.
Now note that if you combine arguments #2 and #3 you get this result:
When there’s stuff we don’t understand, that’s proof of God
When we do understand stuff, that’s proof of God, too.
This means, of course, that Douthat has a watertight argument for God that can’t be disproven.
4.) Demonic visitations, near-death experiences, and other numinous phenomena prove God. This is truly bizarre, especially given Hume’s postulate that one should take a parsimonious view of such occurrences, accepting them as real only if a naturalistic explanation (including deluded observers) is less parsimonious.
Here’s Douthat, whom I’ll have to quote at length (there’s a lot more than this!):
Read the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s recent account of his pilgrimage from unbelief through Zen Buddhism and Wicca to Christianity, and you will find a story of mysterious happenings that would fit neatly into the late Roman world in which Christianity first took shape. (Except back then he would have probably been a Platonist rather than a Buddhist.) Or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Living With a Wild God,” a memoir by an inveterate skeptic of organized religion, which describes mystical experiences that came to her unbidden, with a biblical mix of awe, terror and mystery.
“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” Ehrenreich writes. “One reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
So the bolt from the blue still falls on nonbelievers as well as on believers. The nonbeliever is just more likely to baffled by what it all might mean, or more resistant, as Ehrenreich remains, to the claim that it should point toward any particular religion’s idea of God.
Likewise with experiences that seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events, or brushes with the strange “tricksters” that used to be read as faeries and now get interpreted, in the light of science fiction and the space age, as extraterrestrials. In the 21st century, as in the 19th or the 14th, they just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
. . . Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble.
Let us first note that a. there are reasons why people would want to take these phenomena as evidence for a God, for who wants their life to end at death? But the phenomena, which can be reproduced with drugs, chemicals, meditation, and so on, are not themselves evidence for any kind of divine being. Anyone who’s ingested LSD or other hallucinogens will experience all kinds of bizarre things, including great and ineffable beauty that eludes us in our quotidian life, and perhaps a sense that we’re all part of one Universe. But just because we can reproduce mystical experiences with chemicals is no proof that non-chemical experiences of the numinous are evidence for God. In fact, people who are severely mentally ill often have such experiences, including the sense that they themselves are gods! Douthat is incredibly credulous about human experiences and what they mean.
And no, an evolutionary explanation for “nonhuman minds” is NOT making “a concession to religion’s plausibility”; it’s a scientific/sociological attempt to explain why people so readily buy religious claims. Pascal Boyer’s explanation, for instance, that “agency detection” would be of evolutionary advantage, does not give even an iota of credibility to religious claims. It’s simply an attempt to see why people so readily impute unknown phenomena to God. It’s arguments like this one that makes me think Douthat is either not as smart as he seems, or, more likely, is deeply blinded by his will to believe. He hasn’t the slightest idea why evolutionary biologists seek explanations for religion, or what that seeking means. We want to know why so many people believe stuff that’s unsupported by evidence. The only concession that people like Boyer or Dennett make when they study how religion might have come about is that religion exists, not that it’s plausible !
5.)Finally, because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, ubiquitous belief in God must give us greater confidence that God exists. I’ve already discussed a bit of this claim, for it’s in this bit of Douthat quoted above:
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
I mentioned above the fallacy of asserting that evolutionists’ study of religion gives the content of religious beliefs—including God—more plausibility. Now I’ll address the idea that evolution tells us what’s true about the world. This is often the case, for an individual who thinks a lion is harmless, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt him, is less likely than others to pass on his genes. But, as many have pointed out, evolution has also endowed us with faculties that can be fooled. Optical illusions are a good example. But there are many more, and here I’ll quote from Steve Pinker’s excellent essay, “So how does the mind work?”
Members of our species commonly believe, among other things, that objects are naturally at rest unless pushed, that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral trajectory, that a bright young activist is more likely to be a feminist bankteller than a bankteller, that they themselves are above average in every desirable trait, that they saw the Kennedy assassination on live television, that fortune and misfortune are caused by the intentions of bribable gods and spirits, and that powdered rhinoceros horn is an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. The idea that our minds are designed for truth does not sit well with such facts.
One would imagine that Douthat could have talked to more evolutionists before he started making The Argument for God from Evolution. But the man is clearly beset with confirmation bias, and his willingness to make the fivefold assertion that modern science proves God more strongly than ever testifies to that bias. And because of his personal issues, we get this wretched essay that’s come from his word processor.
I’ve alluded to Douthat’s evasion of the issues of evil, and of the problem of many and conflicting faiths, and you can read for yourself how he punts on these issues, which actually are critical ones. Just one quote here:
But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?
These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
Well, at least he admits the problems, but doesn’t face the fact that these are arguments against God—especially if you use his own claims! He thinks his arguments are so strong that niggling worries about how many gods there are, or why little kids get cancer, can be ignored or put off for some other time. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.
Reader David Milne, chair of the Greater Manchester Humanists, got the letter below from the “Engagement Manager” of the University of Manchester’s Museum (I use David’s name and position with permission). It announces the creation of a “multifaith space” at the Manchester (University) Museum. Read it and see if there’s any justification for this project.
The letter (I’ve removed the signer’s name):
As part of Manchester Museum’s transformational development hello future, we are delighted to be creating a multifaith space, which will be opening in autumn 2022.
The Museum is keen to share these ideas for this new space with as many people of as possible, so have created one of the two zoom consultation sessions where you can find out more and share you [sic] views.
These sessions are on
Thursday 22 July 11am-12noon
Or Monday 26 July 6.00-7.00pm
Please do share this invitation with other people in your networks and all at Faith Network for Manchester, as we are keen to work with as many people as possible.
The Multifaith/contemplation space will provide a space for prayer and reflection for people of faith and no faith, as part of the new visitor facilities being created as part of the hello future transformation at Manchester Museum. Manchester is one of the UK’s most multi-lingual, hyper diverse cities, and providing a multifaith space is part of our commitment to being a truly civic organisation and commitment to the people of our city.
In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate. The Multifaith Room is not just about a space but a way of being and reflected in the way we programme, learn together and respect each other. This work builds on our previous experiences and activities, such as our first ever Iftar in 2019, Diwali celebrations in 2019 and contribution to online Diwali programming in 2020, and the integral place of prayer in the launch event for the Jalianwalla Bagh 1919 Punjab under Siege exhibition and programme. And our current and future work, such as the ‘Indigenising Manchester Museum’ programme.
The Multifaith/contemplation room is part of the Museum’s £13.5 million exciting hello future development which includes a new Exhibitions Hall, a South Asia Gallery and Chinese Culture gallery, as well as new visitor facilities, including a new entrance on Oxford Road and our first Changing Places toilet. Through this transformation our ambition is to become the world’s most inclusive, imaginative and caring museum when we reopen in 2022. https://mmhellofuture.wordpress.com/
What it will do
· Prayer/contemplation space for people of faith and no faith
· To be welcoming to all and respectful of each other for people of faith and no faith (how to reflect the need to be respectful of gender neutrality and gender specificity)
· Feel calm, peaceful and inviting
·To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none –– recommendation to focus on plants (as representation of animals not appropriate); Geometric designs (but avoiding any religious iconography)
Manchester Museum is committed to working in partnership and give voice to young people to help shape the Museum and the heritage sector. To help develop the initial project brief we worked with a group of young people from the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Collective (a National Lottery Heritage Fund, Kick the Dust programme, led by the British Council) and young people associated with the Multilingual Manchester Project. These young people are continuing to participate in the consultation process.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate in contacting myself.
Many thanks, Name Redacted
I share David’s concern about this. For one thing, people can pray in their homes, in private, or in their mosques, temples, or other religious buildings. Why do we need a prayer space in a museum?
Further, it’s very likely this is not really a “multifaith” space, as Jews, Anglicans, and those of many other faith do not need to take time out while visiting a museum to “pause, reflect, pray, or meditate”. Given the reference to the Museum’s own “Iftar” (the meal that Muslims eat after fasting all day during Ramadan), and the fact that devout Muslims must pray several times a day, I suspect this is not designed for Jews, Anglicans, or Catholics, but Muslims. (Do note, however, that the Museum seems to celebrate Diwali, largely a Hindu holiday.) But what is a Museum doing hosting celebrations for religious holidays?
Third, I object to this sentence:
In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate.
Given the lack of evidence for any religion, as well as the conflicting claims made by all faiths, I have no respect, much less admiration, for “the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, or meditate.” (Note the reference to “no faith” which by definition is not a faith and doesn’t require a “meditation room”.)
Finally, the Manchester Museum, owned by Matthew’s university (he has of course no connection with these plans!) is devoted to displays of science: archeology, anthropology, and natural history, apparently concentrating on the latter. To put a religious space (yes, you can also “contemplate” there, which is their way to de-emphasize religion), is an unconscionable mixing of faith and science. Note the statement, “To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none.” Well, I’m not sure how Nature provides a common link between people of all faiths except insofar as they’re all part of nature and take advantage of its products.
Now I don’t know how this project came about: it could have been an accommodationist gesture on the part of the Museum, the result of a request by certain religious people, or via some other force. But it’s out of place. I know airports have these things, too, and they always bothered me a bit, but I don’t object to them as much because in the U.S. they do cater to everyone but mainly provide an island of peace in crowded airports (I’ve never been in one). But in a Museum about natural history? And must we have religion sticking its nose in everywhere? (No, there would be no “interfaith spaces” in a secular society.) Do Sweden and Iceland have “meditation rooms” for their atheistic population?
Please give your take below, because there are arguments to be made for allowing such spaces (though should they be in every building?). And let’s have a poll, too. But I do want to hear readers’ opinions.
I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.
Click to read (and weep):
His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”
Here’s Benson’s homily:
For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.
Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.
But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:
If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.
But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.
That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”
Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.
Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)
Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”
Benson goes on:
Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.
Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.
And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?
Finally, there’s this:
. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.
If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.
And so we have another New York Times column to ponder, but one that won’t get its author, David Brooks, fired. For it’s just religion-coddling message: “if we want true social justice, the best way is to embrace the Christian religious view, which leads naturally to the healing of society”.
It’s dreck—dreck covered liberally with the maple syrup of feel-good words. It carries no weight, is dubious in its argument, and will lead to no results. I think part of Brooks’s job is to hold down the Be Nice to Religion desk at the paper. But this column is simply a waste of words—a bit of chest-thumping by Brooks about the wonder of faith.
I’ll be brief (or so I always think). The whole schmear rests on the supposition that Christianity is true (e.g., we were created by God). If that’s not the case, there’s no good reason to lean on the Bible and liberal Christianity to buttress genuine advances in social justice. Humanism will serve just as well. But let’s look at McCaulley’s narrative that Brooks found “riveting”.
This vision begins with respect for the equal dignity of each person. It is based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. We may be unjustly divided in a zillion ways, but a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.
But we weren’t made in the image of God! Doesn’t Brooks accept evolution? And if this God-given equality just a metaphor, then it’s meaningless. A metaphor for what?
One can better ground equal treatment of people on humanistic morality. Granted, that morality, like all morality, must in the end be subjective, but I’m a consequentialist and happen to believe that accepting equal dignity of each person is the notion that works best for society.
But wait! There’s more!
The Christian social justice vision also emphasizes the importance of memory. The Bible is filled with stories of marginalization and transformation, which we continue to live out. Exodus is the complicated history of how a fractious people comes together to form a nation.
Do we really need the Bible to remind us to remember history, especially because much of the history of the Bible, and its stories of “marginalization and transformation” (which include fig trees and pigs) are bogus. Humanism would also emphasize history, but true history.
And finally, this:
McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.
The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.
Crikey! Why do we need “sin”? (This, by the way, feeds directly into John McWhorter’s view that Critical Social Justice is truly a religion.) You can do equally well with the concept of bad or harmful behavior, which racism is. And the tasks that stem from seeing racism as a “sin” are identical to the tasks broached by humanists, who of course differ (as do religious people) on the question of “reparations.”
It will have crossed your mind that #NotAllChristians are adherents to social justice in the same way as Brooks and pastor McCaulley. How many evangelical Christians marched under the banner of Trump? Brooks mentions that good things have been done under the aegis of religion (e.g., the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties), and that’s true. But remember the words of Steven Weinberg:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”
The “proper” stand to take on religion these days, if you’re a science-friendly liberal, is to say that yes, you’re not really a believer, but you’re spiritual, that religion is in general good for The Little People, and that Richard Dawkins has ruined it all with his shrill and misdirected attacks on religion, which he’s mistakenly taken to be identical to fundamentalism.
Every bit of that is bogus, of course, but religion is the one superstition, the one delusion, that you simply can’t criticize in public. While you lose considerable reputation by attacking it, you lose nothing by extolling it. Indeed, if you’re an atheist who lauds faith, you’re seen as an affable and open-minded fellow.
Richard Just, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, isn’t a nonbeliever, but he’s the closest thing to it: a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue—the most liberal branch of Judaism. (The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.”) But Just does go to schul, and apparently believes in a higher power of some sort. He’s leveraged his faith into a very long article in this week’s WaPo magazine, which, despite Just’s undeniable talents as an editor, is about the lamest defense of religion I’ve ever seen.
His thesis is this: American democracy is falling apart, the country riven with mutual distrust. Also, America is becoming more secular, with the percentage of “nones”—those who are atheists, agnostics, or believers in “nothing in particular”)—rising from 17% to 26% in the last decade.
Just sees a connection here, blaming increasing nonbelief on “the erosion of the traditional norms that have sustained our democracy”. He means religious norms. Now Just is not calling for more fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians, but he thinks that the main characteristics of religion are just the ones we need to buttress American democracy. And so he argues in the article below (click on the screenshot to read).
The piece is so tepid and vapid that I can barely bring myself to offer a critique, for Just adduces no evidence for his thesis. (Well, he cites two psychological studies, but they’re irrelevant to his argument.) Rather, he simply asserts that religious faith is just the ticket for repairing our democracy.
Before I summarize the allegedly salubrious aspects of faith, let’s realize that Just is writing pretty much about the last four years of the Trump era, not about America over the last several decades. Perhaps our democratic system is unraveling, but I don’t see that—nor does Just offer any evidence for it. And, as I’ll mention below, he totally ignores the place where the real data lie: the European democracies that are not sustained by faith: the atheistic countries of Northern Europe, including Scandinavia. That alone refutes his entire article.
Need I continue? Very well. Here are the values religion can use to shore up the levees of democracy:
A lack of idolatry. This beggars belief. Religion, in America, at least, is idolatrous, but Just feels that it’s better to have religion than what has replaced it: a politics that has become a religion. Yes, that’s right:
De Tocqueville was worried, essentially, that if we didn’t worship God, we might exercise our instinct to worship through politics or politicians themselves. If this concern resonates with you — if you fear that some of our politicians have, in the past few years, become can-do-no-wrong cult-like figures in the eyes of their supporters — then you’re not alone. As Quincy Howard — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and coordinating director for Faithful Democracy, a multifaith coalition advocating democracy reform — put it to me recently, American politics is arguably “on the brink of being idolatrous at this point, and this goes for the left as well as the right.”
Remember that Just is writing as a Reform Jew, just a hairsbreadth from atheism, and doesn’t seem to realize how damaging religion, in particular Christianity, has been to America politics—perhaps the main force sundering America. But I won’t expatiate about that. The only argument in favor of Just’s argument is that many people seem to worship Trump. But who do the Democrats worship? Saying that politics is idolatrous resembles the argument of faithheads that atheism is a form of religion. It’s an assertion without evidence, and can be dismissed as part of Just’s argument.
Inner peace and emotional comfort. Yes, these are the traditionally mentioned virtues of religion, and I won’t deny them, except to say that it’s false comfort to rest your peace and comfort on nonexistent propositions. For if the tenets of faith be not true, and Jesus did not live and die as the son of/part of God, then what comfort is there to be had?
There is, however, a more complicated element of de Tocqueville’s warning that is also worth taking seriously today. It has to do with inner peace. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, recently told me that he sees a sense of personal calm as one of the key contributions religion can make to our national life. “Religion offers peace. Serenity, if you will. And people want that too,” he said. “How do you deal with undesired uncertainties and fears and worries and doubt?”
When I put the question of whether and how religion could benefit democracy to the Rev. Michael Bledsoe, the now-retired longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, he spoke about how “authentic communities” can help to “leaven societies.” They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death. “This is a tapestry that’s being woven almost unseen by the rest of the culture,” he said.
And it’s all delusional. Are we supposed to believe in unevidenced palaver because it brings us comfort? And, given the inevitable and increasing secularism in America, does Just feel we need to go back to faith? Granted, his is a nebulous faith without much dogma (read some of his quotes about Judaism), but it still depends on the existence of Yahweh.
Humility and doubt. Again a howler. Maybe Reform Judaism brings humility, for argument and doubt are part of its package, but to characterize “humility” as an essential component of American religion is to misunderstand American religion. You want humility and doubt? Try science and rationality!
One value that is found in all the major religions is, of course, humility. “Believing in a higher power,” Hendi told me, “must make us humble in God’s presence, and make us realize that only God is perfect. We are not.” Faith, he added, instructs us to say, “I am right, and I know I’m right, but I could be wrong. My opponent is absolutely wrong but could be right.”
The thing that has surprised me most as I learned more about my own faith in recent years was how consistently inconsistent — how proudly riddled with uncertainties and outright contradictions — religious Judaism is. Consider this passage from Martin Buber’s 1923 book “I and Thou,” a touchstone of modern Jewish thinking about God: “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. … Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Every sentence about God here is essentially an argument with itself.
Note that Just avers a belief in God here: he’s not a “ground of being” guy. More important, doesn’t he realize that Reform Judaism is not the main religion of America? 43% of Americans are Protestants, 20% are Roman Catholics, and only 2% are Jews (and only a fraction of those are Reform Jews). A high percentage of the Christian denominations are pretty authoritarian, espousing a particular morality that comes from the Bible (ergo from God). There is no “doubt” in the minds of the Christian pro-lifers, no “humility” in those who oppose gay marriage. And none of these warts on American democracy come from secularism: they’re all a product of religious hubris.
Further, Just is a big fan of the “mystery” of religion, a supposed source of humility:
But because religion is fundamentally a mystery, it can also be a profound source of analytical humility and existential uncertainty. It can teach us to value, even celebrate, contradictions, to think constantly about how we might be wrong — an ethic that is the very opposite of the perpetual certainty now running rampant in American politics.
Yes, Trump’s religious base is certainly thinking constantly about how they might be wrong, aren’t they? How can we get them to be properly religious and embrace some doubt? Just doesn’t tell us. That’s because he’s not offering a prescription to fix American democracy, but simply expelling pious hopes into the ether. If he though hard about the issue, he’d advise his readers to join the nones and turn America into a Denmark West.
Just two more points showing Just’s cluelessness. The first is this (“Hendi” is Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University):
Churches continue to reflect the racial segregation of society as a whole. And how can institutions that drive people apart be a useful source for democratic values? The point goes beyond Christianity: To many secular Americans, religions of all kinds appear to be just one more marker of identity that separates us from one another.
It’s a major challenge, and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Yet in the long run, religion doesn’t have to be a divisive, rather than a unifying, force. Hendi told me that he thinks this is a crucial contribution that Islamic theology can make to our democratic mores. Islam, he explained, “is very particular about how God created us to be different and God wants us to be different, and that differences do not mean animosity or hatreds or negativity.” He added: “Our closeness to the divine depends on our ability to value those differences.”
What the deuce is Hendi talking about? Muslims value their differences from non-Muslims, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be the final faith and the Qur’an urges killing nonbelievers and apostates? I suspect Hendi is a weak-beer Muslim just as Just is a weak-beer Jew. But anybody who argues that Islamic theology can buttress American democracy by bringing us together needs to get out more.
As for the “evidence” that infusing America with more faith will strengthen our democracy, Just cites two studies:
None of this will necessarily assuage the worries of ardent secularists, many of whom may intuitively fear that religion correlates with an authoritarian mind-set. But academic studies suggest the situation is more complicated. One study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995, found that “authoritarianism was positively related to several different facets of less mature faith development, and negatively related to several aspects of relatively mature faith development.” Another study from the same publication reached a similar conclusion in 2007: It found a positive association between authoritarianism and religiousness, but a negative association between authoritarianism and “spiritual seeking.” In other words, yes, religion can line up neatly with anti-democratic forces — and it often has — but faith that is undergirded by the right kind of values can serve as democracy’s partner.
I urge you to look at these studies. One is based on surveys of college psychology students (a sample of 156), and neither of them surveyed nonbelievers (one explicitly surveyed only believers). Neither study says anything about what a purely secular democracy would look like.
But we already know some stuff about that, for we have an experiment. Atheism is rife in the democracies of Western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. How are their democracies doing? Pretty well, I think. Certainly better than America. Yes, the Right has been ascendant in some lands, but, in general, the healthiest democracies in Europe, and those that have the people who are happiest and most well off, happen to be those democracies full of atheists. The lesson: we don’t need no stinking faith to have a good democracy.
How Just comes to this conclusion is simply by revelation: the same way that most believers get their faith (aside from their parents, of course). As I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, hoping he’d publish this in his “Dissents” (he didn’t):
There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations. Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.
Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.
This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.
Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.
Just ends his 3300-word screed with an emission of gaseous verbiage; as Eliot said, not with a bang but a whimper. If you understand this, you’re better than I. But hey, it’s theology, Jake!
For [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel, we are meant to live in the world of space — the material world — six days a week, but on Shabbat, we are meant to celebrate the holiness of time. “Time,” he wrote, “has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars. … It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations.”
In the past few years, I have often felt that politics, with its never-ending loop of can’t-look-away ugliness, was stealing my time. Perhaps you have too. If our time is holy, then we simply have to figure out a better politics — one that is saner, more measured, more humble, more humane. Religion can’t solve every problem facing our democracy, but maybe, if we step into the mystery, it can help.
My response is this: no it can’t. Yes, we need to figure out a better politics, but faith isn’t useful for that. And everybody knows we have to figure out a better politics, anyway.
For your amusement, you may want to read some of the 1,600 comments by readers. A very large number of those readers aren’t buying what Just is selling. Reader Timothy, who sent me this link, attributes the pushback largely to the Four Horsemen, and I think he’s right. Those who argue that the New Atheism was a dismal failure have to explain why so many of the religion-dissing comments would not have been conceivable had Just’s article been published in 1960 or so. New Atheism has done its job: it’s nudged the rock down the hill, and the rest is gravity.
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!
Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.
It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:
Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.
Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.
Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.
But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:
Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.
Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:
Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.
Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.
As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.
In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!” The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.
Palmer goes on:
Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.
From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.
Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”
Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:
But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.
Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.
But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):
Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.
What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics. In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)
Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!