This is the third and last email I’ll post from people reacting to the recent re-publication on Yahoo! News of my Conversation article, “Yes, there is a war between science and religion.” I stand by what I said and assert again that the incompatibility between the two—war, if you will—is that religion accepts certain truths about the universe without good reasons to do so, while science, with more rigorous standards, has empirical methods for supporting or eroding what we think is true. In other words, religion itself has no way to verify its beliefs, though they can be knocked down by science.
It may sound harsh to say so, but the Abrahamic religions, like most religions—some “secular” faiths like Quakerism or Unitarian Universalism are exceptions—are fairy tales, pure and simple. They may make you feel good, and even motivate some people to do good things, but in the end their factual stories, like that of Jesus, Muhammad and Gabriel, as well as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, are just myths. We have no need to support our morality or behavior with myths.
But some people still like religion because even if it isn’t “true” in the sense of being grounded on genuine circumstances or beings, it still makes them feel good. They like sitting in a warm pew, singing, hearing the soothing ministrations of the pastor, and admiring the stained glass while sniffing the incense. Or they like the sense of ritual involved in a daily puja. Well, the email below came from one of these folks.
Read your recent article. I would have to disagree a little bit.
I am a secular minded person who still attends Christian church. I don’t believe any of the theology. But I find the service comforting nevertheless. And in our church we are constantly reminded to be better persons — not to escape hell but just because it feels right. Why would we throw out the arts, music, dancing, etc. because they don’t express thoughts verifiable by science? Religion to me is in the same category as the arts. It’s part of human expression. Some of Mozart’s music is very powerful to me. It raises my spirts. Religious services do the same thing.
I really don’t have much quarrel with this person’s feelings. If he likes the morality preached from the pulpit (assuming that he doesn’t go to an evangelical Christian or Catholic church, where the “morality” is ludicrous), that’s fine.
I tossed off the email below about about 4 a.m. yesterday, so it’s not particularly eloquent, and I’ve edited it a tiny bit so it doesn’t sound like I just woke up. What I would also say to this person, which I wasn’t sentient enough to add, is that the Scandinavians and northern Europeans, who are by and large atheists, manage to find solace and meaning without having to go to church, much less believing in God. Yet I bet the average Swede still goes to musical performances and museums much more often than he goes to church. You don’t need religion to get the kind of solace that this guy gets from church. And stuff like music and art can arouse the emotion without making you believe in nonexistent divinities. Finally, as I emphasize below, patronizing a religion has the side effect of enabling faith, a defect in the human character that is mistakenly regarded as a virtue.
Anyway, my reply:
Yes, if all religion was involved providing a place to go and appreciate the music and quietude and smell the incense and to meditate, that would be fine. It’s all the other stuff that bothers me–the things that Catholicism, Judaism, and Christianity do to people and make them do to other people. You’re admirable in not believing the theology, but religion enables all the people who do believe to create all the bad things that religion does to the world. It’s the factual beliefs, which undergirds the invidious moralities, that cause these problems. Surely you realize this–that by saying that we need religion because you yourself enjoy the non-theological benefits–you’re advocating keeping systems that oppress women and gays, terrorize children with thoughts of Hell, keep little Orthodox boys and girls from getting an education, and so on and so on and so on.
Religious services are fine; it’s what they lead to and support that is bad.
A while back I was asked to appear on Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s Closer to Truth videos, but I had some issues over Templeton funding (there appears to be none), and the fact that the show always seems to be pushing goddiness.
Given that Kuhn has now interviewed atheist Dan Dennett (see the 8-minute video below), perhaps I should have been more willing to be interviewed, for I see my correspondence with Kuhn simply petered out. What makes Dan ideal for this kind of show is that he’s affable, pulls no punches about his nonbelief, but also is interested in the phenomena of religion and especially of “belief in belief”: the view that religion is a good thing for humanity regardless of whether you yourself accept a god. As Dan points out, there are more people with “belief in belief” than those with “belief in God”, because the former class subsumes the latter and adds nonbelievers as well. So his interest in religion goes well beyond investigating whether any gods exist.
Dan does a good job here, saying that the Abrahamic god doesn’t exist but that the phenomenon of religion is still worth studying. He notes the steep decline of religiosity throughout most of the world, which just prompts churches to proselytize all the more. As he says, “Religions aren’t growing; they’re just growing louder.” (Dan’s handy with the bon mots.)
My only quibble with what Dan says, and it’s barely even a quibble, is that he’s not all that interested in the existence of gods. Having dismissed the Abrahamic one, he also isn’t interested in whether there is something “real” for which God can be seen as a metaphor (e.g., the cosmos or a Tillichian “Ground of Being” because “the answer to it doesn’t have much to do with how religions flourish and it guide people’s lives in the future.”
That may be true, but if you take moral guidance from the metaphorical god, or pray to it, or inculcate your children in it, or simply take the view that faith plays a role in this process, then at best you’re enabling belief in the unevidenced, and at worst promulgating or preaching bad behaviors.
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!
Many of you must have had this experience: walking through the airport, say, and seeing a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the little girls dressed like their mothers, and the little boys sporting sidelocks and yarmukes—all destined to grow up into lives exactly like those of their parents. Or you see a Muslim family, with the little girls wearing hijabs and “modest” clothing. Or Amish and Mennonites, with the children exact miniatures of the adults. And as with the clothing and hair, so the beliefs. Those children are doomed—doomed to adopt via indoctrination the religious beliefs of their parents. They will never be exposed to alternative points of view, will never have the chance for lives different from those of their religiously regulated and constricted community.
I find this ineffably sad, for this kind of religious (and cultural) indoctrination is nothing less than brainwashing. Famously, Richard Dawkins called it “child abuse”. And although that term angered many, including parents who assert the right to control their children’s religious beliefs, Dawkins was not wrong. It is abuse to limit the lives of children by filling their minds with religious nonsense as soon as they can understand language.
Reader Andy called my attention to this 23-year-old transcript of a lecture by Cambridge neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey: his plenary lecture to Amnesty International. That was nine years before Dawkins’s The God Delusion publicized the “child abuse” argument to the world. Surely Richard derived some of his views from Humphrey, for Humphrey’s are plain, courageous, and eloquent. Further, all of us who have John Brockman as an agent, including Dawkins, read stuff on Brockman’s website Edge, where this essay was published.
Humphrey’s lecture is the best thing I’ve seen written about why parents should not indoctrinate their children with religion, and I recommend it very highly. Click on the screenshot to read the transcript.
Humphrey is far from “strident” here. Though he’s passionate in his arguments, he also considers possible objections—before disposing of them. And the gist of his argument is in this excerpt:
I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture today [is] . . . to argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.
I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.
Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
That’s the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured [sic] by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.
Now when Humphrey rules out “moral and religious” education, he doesn’t mean “moral” in the sense of “you can’t tell your children that hitting others or bullying them is wrong”. He means “morality as derived from the tenets of religion.” The lecture is in fact solely about religious beliefs, and doesn’t rule out teaching your children the kind of “moral” behavior that’s universally agreed upon by all, including secularists.
I won’t spoil the read for you with more excerpts, except to give one more below. Suffice it to say that Humphrey’s lecture is especially good because (like Dawkins’s books) it anticipates and answers counterarguments. Don’t parents have a right to teach their children their own faith? Even if religion is based on false tenets, isn’t it good to teach children those tenets if it makes them happier? And so on. Humphrey then explains that religious indoctrination deprives the child of the right to hear about alternative beliefs and lifestyles, a form of learning that, if imparted, could give them richer and fuller lives. In other words, religious indoctrination is like a mental jail in which children don’t ever get out, never breathing the fresh air of Freedom to Explore.
Lest you think I’m violating my determinism here by talking about “choice”, I’m not: I’m saying that you can make an good argument that not propagandizing children is better for them than forcing them to adopt your own beliefs. And perhaps those arguments will influence the brains of religious parents to lay off their kids, or at least prompt third parties to criticize this invidious indoctrination. Children released from religious “jail” then experience environmental inputs into their brains that can lead them to leave their religious lives behind. As an example, Humphrey mentions the Amish who, when drafted as conscientious objectors, were allowed to work in public hospitals—just as I did. Exposed to other ways of living and thinking, many of these did not return to the Amish way of life. (This stopped when Amish elders, seeing they were losing hold of their kids, got the government to agree to send Amish C.O.’s only to Amish-run farms.)
At any rate, here is the criterion that Humphrey uses to judge religious indoctrination as immoral:
So I’ll come to the main point—and lesson—of this lecture. I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.
This test, I admit, will not be simple to apply. It is rare enough for there to be the kind of social experiment that occurred with the Amish and the military draft. And even such an experiment does not actually provide so strong a test as I’m suggesting we require. After all the Amish young men were not offered the alternative until they were already almost grown up, whereas what we need to know is what the children of the Amish or any other sect would choose for themselves if they were to have had access to the full range of alternatives all along. But in practice of course such a totally free-choice is never going to be available.
And the second paragraph is the rub: there is no way that Orthodox Jews, observant Muslims, or the Amish, much less adherents to many other faiths, could ever refrain from imposing their beliefs on their children, for their religious beliefs and their lifestyle are almost one and the same. How could a hyper-Orthodox Jew bring up a child in a religion-free atmosphere?
But that’s a different question from “Is it wrong to indoctrinate children?” It is wrong to brainwash your kids. What one should do to remedy the situation is much harder.
At the end of his piece, Humphreys offers one solution: make sure that all children are given a thorough grounding in science in school. Learning to think scientifically, he avers, and learning how to give reasons for what one believes, and think critically, will inevitably make children question all beliefs and, if they decide to be religious, will at least expose them to a variety of religions rather than the one they would have been forced to adopt. (I suspect the most likely outcome of this process, though, is atheism.)
The problem with this, of course, is that children aren’t given much of a scientific education when they’re young and vulnerable, and many—such as young Orthodox Jews or those who go to madrassas—are given no scientific education at all. Critical thinking courses, which naturally align with science, would help, but those aren’t on the menu for many believers, either. Can you imagine the Amish bringing up their children completely free from all religious doctrine, and making them go to secular schools where they learn science?
Humphrey’s arguments for why religious indoctrination is indeed a form of child abuse are eloquent and sound. His answers to those who criticize his views are also sound: parents do not have a “right” to fill their children’s heads with religious nonsense. What is lacking is a way to remedy this universal indoctrination. Humphrey’s own solution won’t work because it cannot be applied to those who need it most. Still, it’s useful for us to remember that this brainwashing goes on for millions and millions of children every day, and many of those children are forced into a narrow, blinkered life they wouldn’t have if they’d been given a better education.
I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus. The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”
Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?
Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance. And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.
If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense
Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.
And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.
I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.
I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.
On his website The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan publishes “dissents”—comments from readers who have disagreed with things in the previous week’s column. They’re often quite long, and, to his credit, Sullivan often admits he’s wrong or engages the dissent thoughtfully.
In his column a week ago Friday, Sullivan made a statement about the virtues of Christianity that riled me up, for recently he seemed to have strayed away from the God-osculation that was, to me, his most irrational feature. But then it returned. He had this exchange with a reader (my emphasis):
Part of reader’s comment:
Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?
I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
That response, about the need for Christianity to sustain liberalism, struck me as badly mistaken, and I wrote a short post about it. But then, realizing that perhaps Sullivan might engage me directly in a “dissent”, I rewrote my post, added data, and sent it off to the Dish. I was hoping he’d choose to answer it in public, and I wanted to see what he’d say.
I didn’t entertain high hopes for this, as Greg, who sent several dissents to the old Daily Dish (a couple of them published), told me that dissents aren’t acknowledged and few of them are printed. Nevertheless, I sent what’s below to Sullivan. I’m printing it here because it wasn’t used this week; Sullivan answered several readers’ dissents about Trump. (Sullivan engaged me in an exchange nine years ago, back when I was pretty down on his religiosity and took issue with his seeing Scripture as metaphorical, not intending to be read literally.)
Rather than waste what I wrote, here it is. Perhaps some day Sullivan might address it, or it might be useful for somebody else. The data come from a number of posts I’ve done on this site.
I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:
. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.
I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.
Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.
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.
While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “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.”
Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.
Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.
In one way things haven’t changed since the Middle Ages: the onset of a pandemic leads people to search for a greater meaning, usually involving the wrath of a god. So, for instance, the Black Death was blamed on a lack of piety (penitentes arose), the perfidy of the Jews, and so on.
Now, in America, many of us are still seeing God’s will in what’s happening. A poll by the Associated Press and the respected polling operation NORC, along with the University of Chicago Divinity School (!), shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that the deity is sending us a message through the pandemic.
Click on the screenshot to read the report:
The poll found that 31% of Americans who believe in God feel strongly that the virus is a sign of God telling humanity to change, with the same number feeling that somewhat. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to believe that strongly, at 43%, compared with 28% of Catholics and mainline Protestants.
The sad tale is told in the first graph below. Note that this is not a cross section of Americans, but of believers. Yet even 42% of the “unaffiliated” (i.e., the “nones”) think that the pandemic somehow conveys a message from God. Of course born-again Protestants think that in spades (70% of them), but even 65% of Catholics adhere to that delusion.
Note too that the message is “humanity needs to change how we are living.” It’s not clear exactly what we’re doing wrong this time, or what we were doing wrong in 1918, but surely this is a nasty God. After all, did he have to kill 644,000 people (today’s total death toll worldwide) to convey that message? Why did he kill the children, too? And are the U.S. and Brazil particularly in need of that message? And why, in the fourteenth century, did God kill off 60% of all Europeans? After all, they were far more pious than Americans today, but yet they got an even sterner message.
The second row in the figure below shows that 73% of born-agains, compared with 52% of Catholics and only 32% of nones, think that God will protect them from being infected.
All this testifies to the power of delusion, since there’s not an iota of evidence that God engineered this pandemic. Those who assert such a thing must answer these questions: How do you know this? What are we doing wrong to anger God? And do the national disparities in death tolls comport with the message that God’s supposed to be sending?
There’s a racial breakdown too, though it’s not graphed:
The question was asked of all Americans who said they believe in God, without specifying a specific faith. The survey did not have a sample size large enough to report on the opinions of religious faiths with smaller numbers of U.S. adherents, including Muslims and Jews.
In addition, black Americans were more likely than those of other racial backgrounds to say they feel the virus is a sign God wants humanity to change, regardless of education, income or gender. Forty-seven percent say they feel that strongly, compared with 37% of Latino and 27% of white Americans.
An explanation from the Sophisticated Theologians®:
David Emmanuel Goatley, a professor at Duke University’s divinity school who was not involved with the survey, said religious black Americans’ view of godly protection could convey “confidence or hope that God is able to provide — that does not relinquish personal responsibility, but it says God is able.”
Goatley, who directs the school’s Office of Black Church Studies, noted a potential distinction between how religious black Americans and religious white Americans might see their protective relationship with God.
Within black Christian theology is a sense of connection to the divine in which “God is personally engaged and God is present,” he said. That belief, he added, is “different from a number of white Christians, evangelical and not, who would have a theology that’s more a private relationship with God.”
Now talk about a real delusion, have a look at the figure below. (This appears to be a sample of all Americans, not just those who believe in God, though it’s not clear.)
As the report notes, “Overall, 82% of Americans say they believe in God, and 26% of Americans say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak. Just 1% say it has weakened.”
Think about that: a naturalistic pandemic that kills people willy-nilly, still increases people’s faith in God!
What, pray tell, would decrease their faith in God? When there’s no pandemic faith remains steady, when there is a pandemic faith grows stronger, so should we expect that when the pandemic wanes, or we get a vaccine, faith in God will decrease? No, of course not: believers will just say that God is satisfied that people will change their lives. Still, it’s up to believers who think God’s sending a message to be explicit about what that message is. After all, if you know God is sending us a message, you must also know its content.
A new study by the Pew organization (click on screenshot below or get full pdf here) surveyed 38,436 people in 34 countries across the globe, asking them questions about how important God or religion is to them and—today’s topic)—do you really need God to be moral. The methods included both face to face and phone surveys.
The overall results aren’t that surprising: more religious countries and more religious people within countries think that “belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values”, while richer countries (which are also less religious countries) tend to harbor respondents who don’t think faith is necessary for morality. And the proportion of those who see God as important in this respect is waning in most of Western Europe over time, though growing in Russia, Bulgaria, Japan and Ukraine).
The overall results show a pretty even division across the globe, though religion plays an important role in most people’s lives. But these results aren’t that informative given the observed variation across countries (see below):
Below is a plot showing the variation across the surveyed countries. Look at the first two lines showing a substantial difference between the U.S. and the more secular Canada.
Overall, I would have thought that even religious people wouldn’t assert that you need God to be moral, mainly because there’s so much evidence that nonbelievers are moral. In fact, the most secular countries in the world—those in Scandinavia—could be construed as being more moral than many of the more religious countries, like Islamic countries of the Middle East. Further, the Euthyphro argument, which shows that our sense of morality must be prior to belief in God (unless you believe in Divine Command theory), disposes of the we-need-God-to-be-moral claim. But of course few people have thought the issue through that far.
Muslim and Catholic (or devout Christian) countries show the strongest belief in God as a necessity for morality. 90% or above ratings are seen in the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Three more plots. The first one shows the familiar pattern of richer countries adhering less to religious dicta than poorer ones. In this case there are multiple confounding factors, for “belief in God is important for morality” is surely itself highly correlated with simple “belief in God.” The relationship here is very strong. My own view is that of Marx: countries where you are in bad shape and can’t get help from the government tend to be those where people find hope and solace in religion.
This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).
As expected, people with more education tend to connect morality with God to a lesser extent. Again, this is probably because of a negative relationship between education and religiosity:
In the comments below, reader Eric said I may have “buried the lede” by neglecting the rather large drop between 2002 and 2019, in the proportion of Americans who think God is necessary for morality. This is part of the increasing secularization of the U.S:
Finally, there’s a plot showing the variation among countries on the general importance of religion. Western Europe, Australia, South Korea, and Japan lead the pack for secularism, while Catholic, Muslim, and African Christian countries are those seeing religion as more important. That’s no surprise:
In truth, the failure of nearly half the world’s people to see that atheists can be moral, which should dispose of the “God-is-necessary” hypothesis, is depressing. But one could argue that for many religious people, “morality” consists largely of religious dictates: what you eat, who you sleep with and how, how you feel about gays and women, and so on. So, for example, Catholics and Muslims might see the free-loving and egalitarian Scandinavians as immoral.
The Big Think seems obsessed with the relationship between science and religion. I can’t think of how many posts I’ve done about their interviewees discussing this issue. The 14-minute video below features a number of prominent people weighing in on the question, “Has science made religion useless?” That’s a question different from, “Is there a clash between science and religion?” Religion can still be falsified by science, as it has been, and still be “useful,” though I agree with Sam Harris that finding something useful that’s palpably false is not a good way to live.
The discussants include Frans van de Waal, Reza Aslan, Francis Collins, Robert Sapolsky, Alain de Botton, Penn Jillette, Bill Nye, Rob Bell, and Pete Holmes (I didn’t know Holmes, but guessed he was a believer from his remarks below. It turns out he’s a comedian who not only makes jokes about god and religion, but also believes in some kind of deity. I didn’t know of Rob Bell, either, but he’s an author, a former pastor, and certainly a believer.
Actually, nearly all the respondents say that yes, despite science, religion is still useful. A couple of folks, including Sapolsky and Aslan (one an atheist, the other a mushy believer), float theories about why religion could have been evolutionarily or culturally adaptive. Culturally, yes, in the tautological sense that religion fulfilled or fulfills some social need. But something has made religion more useless than before, for, at least in the West, belief in gods is waning rapidly. And, truth be told, we have no idea why religion arose in the first place. We know only how it’s perpetuated. As for Aslan’s claim that there are genes for religion that have evolved by natural selection, well, we have no evidence for that. He’s just making stuff up, as he does so often.
You can find the complete transcript of this discussion here.
By the way, if you want the source of Nye’s claim that a good value for π is given in the Bible, go here.
Some selected quotes (indented) and my brief take (flush left).
ASLAN: Religious thinking is embedded in our cognitive processes. It is a mode of knowing. We’re born with it. It’s part of our DNA. The question then becomes why. There must be some evolutionary reason for it. There must be a reason, some adaptive advantage to having religious experience or faith experience. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist.
This is arrant nonsense. Religion could have hijacked other evolved tendencies of humans, such as the tendency to believe our elders or to attribute agency to natural happenings. There need be no explanation of “why believers had genes that left more copies than those in nonbelievers.”
DE WAAL: Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young and our species is much older. And I cannot imagine that, for example, 100,000 years or 200,000 years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course the had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others. All of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system. And then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think were sort of tacked onto the morality that we had. In societies with 1,000 or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other and that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a god kept watch over everybody and maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer. And so instead of saying morality comes from god or religion gave us morality, for me that’s a big no-no.
De Waal is reasonable here, but again, we do not know that religions got off the ground by hitchhiking on morality that already existed, though of course that’s what they do today. But he’s absolutely right in making the Euthyphro argument.
PETE HOLMES: It’s not about literal facts or the unfolding of what happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a story because sometimes you need an explanation and sometimes you need a story. And a story is going to transform you and symbols are going to transform you. You see this in our culture. Batman is a symbol. Go out on the street and look at how many men, especially are wearing Batman shirts. It’s a symbol. It’s something that speaks to our psyche about the pain of a boy who lost his parents using his wound to become super and try and change his reality. That’s a symbol. That’s a Christ story. That’s a hero story and we need those because it’s not about at the end of the day winning a televised debate or finding DNA on the Shroud of Turin or proving his burial was here. I’ve been to Israel. I studied in Jerusalem. They’re like he was crucified here and then they’re like well, he was crucified here. Guess what? We didn’t start writing that down until 150 years later because nobody gave a shit. It wasn’t about that. It was about your inner transformation. You. Yours. I don’t care how you get there. It can be photos from the Hubble telescope. It can be Buddhism, atheism, agnosticism, Catholicism. It doesn’t matter. Who fucking cares. Whatever gets you there because we’re talking about something. An energy that you can feel and be quiet to and respect, but most importantly you can flow with and dance with and feel and listen to and attune to.
Here Holmes expresses the idea that it doesn’t matter whether Biblical stories are true, but they are of value because they bring us solace in time of need. All well and good, but does Holmes think that the stories need to be true to be efficacious? Apparently not, but this ignores the fact that the majority of religious people really do adhere to factual claims that are either false or untestable. (For Christians, it’s that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and was crucified to expiate our sins. If you don’t believe that, how can you adhere to Christianity?) My own take is that if believers really knew that the foundational truth claims of their faiths were wrong, they’d give up those faiths.
BELL: This idea somehow that faith and science are in opposition I’ve always found to be complete insanity. Both are searching for the truth. Both have a sense of wonder and an expectation and exploration. They’re each simply naming different aspects of the human experience. One thrives in naming exteriors – height, weight, gravitational pull, electromagnetic force. The other is about naming interiors – compassion, kindness, suffering, loss, heartache. They’re both simply different ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience.
. . . Everything is driven by the desire to know the truth. There’s an exploration. There’s a wide-eyed sense of wonder. If you talk to the best scientists they have this sort of gleam in their eye like ‘This is what we’re learning. And we don’t know what’s actually around the corner.’ And if you talk to the best theologians and poets and scholars they—ideally—have the same gleam in their eye which is ‘Look what we’re learning. Look what we’re exploring.’ And so to me they’re not enemies. They’re long lost dance partners.
No, religion and science are not naming different “aspects of the human experience”—unless you conceive of the cosmos as an “experience”. One field makes up stuff to make people feel better, and makes claims about reality that are either falsified, untestable, or unlikely. The other, science, helps us understand how the Universe works. Just because scientists and believers share a “sense of wonder” does not mean that seeing their conflict is a form of “complete insanity.” And as for “the desire to know the truth”, well, science has ways to figure out if it’s homing in on the truth. Religion does not. Each faith has its own distinct “truth” (they often conflict), and our understanding of the nature of gods or divinity, assuming that they exist, has not changed in millennia. Christianity, for instance, is not an iota closer to the truth than it was 1900 years ago.
COLLINS: Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict I’m afraid.
You can always make up ways that religion and science are in harmony. You can assert that there are religious scientists (like Collins himself). You can say that most liberal faiths accept science (generally true, though Catholicism, which claims to accept evolution, is at odds with it in several important ways, like the position of Adam and Eve.) But in terms of knowing what is true about the Universe, there is no harmony. Theology and religion are useless in that endeavor (even when trying to know about whether God exists and what He/She/It is like). Science is the only game in town when your aim is to find out what’s true about the universe.
Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cleverly defined theology as a “subject without an object”. That presupposes that there is no evidence for the “subject”: gods, prophets like Jesus, and so on, and I think most of us agree with that. So does the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as a definition:
I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.
But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs. Further, those areas can be wide-ranging. Have a look at last year’s course list at the University of Chicago’s theology school, which includes courses like “Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,” “History of Religions,” “Islamic Philosophy”, “History of Judaism,” “Christian Iconography,” and so on. Since religion has been an enormous influence on history, art, and sociology, I have no problems with these, though I don’t see why they can’t be folded into history, anthropology, philosophy, and art departments. And of course studies of the history of the Bible and Qur’an, as well as Hindu scriptures, are also useful since these books have been so influential and connect Christianity and Judiasm with Islam and the myths of other faiths and early non-Abrahamic religions.
But there are also courses like “God and the Good Life” and many courses on “Religious leadership and practice,” which appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions. Here’s one that looks a bit suspect (my emphasis):
RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus
This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).
I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”
RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III
The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.
Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.
I’m sure I’ll get pushback from the people at the Divinity School (and I like some of them, having talked to them when I was writing Faith Versus Fact), but I’ll pose my own view on theology in the next three paragraphs in bold (I’m taking “theology” here to apply only to Abrahamic religions):
Insofar as “theology” encompasses philosophical, sociological, and historical studies of religion, which do not presuppose the existence of anything divine or supernatural, these studies can be valuable and should be taught in universities. But I don’t think they need to be lumped together in a divinity school. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, when establishing the University of Virginia, specified that it would be a nonsectarian school lacking both schools of theology or even places of worship. (And yet there is a Department of Religious Studies at U.Va, though it seems to exist to produce academic scholars of religion, much like a virus that uses a larger organism to facilitate its own replication.)
In other words, “theological” studies that have bearing on secular issues like philosophy and history, or reveal something about human actions and beliefs, or discuss religious influences on literature, art, and music, are justifiable—so long as nobody argues that the objects of theology, gods and prophets and unsubstantiated and unevidenced religious claims, should be taken seriously. Likewise, “theology” that is like “New Biblical Criticism”, dissecting Scripture as a human document, examining its genesis (so to speak), its influences, and its connections with history and other faiths, is also justifiable.
Insofar as “theology” includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago’s and Harvard’s, have very few of those courses, but there are some. They should not be part of a secular university.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens’s razor is correct: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth.
I’m sure others disagree here. Some will say I don’t go far enough in dismissing theology; others will say that I don’t give theology enough credit. And expressing your view is what the comments are for on this Christian Sabbath.