There are plenty of outspoken atheists in the United States—read the latest Carnival of the Godless #48 for a small sampling—but you can still find many mainstream journalists writing about them as if they were peculiar aliens living under a log with other unsavory and oddly constructed organisms. Today, it’s Newsweek that exclaims in surprise that there are godless people among us.
It’s not a very deep or thoughtful article, and what I found most noticeable about it is the obliviousness of the author. Here’s how it starts:
Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual. Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians.
From there, it goes on to note that there are these unbelievers, Dawkins and Dennett and Harris, who are writing about the dangers of religious fanaticism, and this is “not a message most Americans wanted to hear,” as if the strange thing is that rational people find no comfort in that invisible impotent phantasm, God, but it’s perfectly reasonable for people to hear voices telling them to blow themselves up, or to talk to oneself in hopes that a holy ghost will materialize to smite one’s foes. Answering atrocities with faith is like answering them with denial or wishing for leprechauns—it’s ineffectual and pointless. But no, the weird thing is that these atheists are publishing popular books and making a case for skeptical, rational inquiry. O Heresy!
This particular passage was singled out for criticism by Afarensis, and I can see why. It’s a twisted lump of illogic in the center of the article.
But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.
What is the author thinking here? Dawkins raises an objection to the idea that religion is a force for morality, and his reply is 1) the argument from popularity, that since millions believe, there must be something to it, and 2) the erroneous idea that beliefs about belief are a data point in favor of its efficacy. Millions of people believe that wearing a copper bracelet cures arthritis, that burying a statue of St Joseph in your yard will help sell your house, and that aliens have abducted human beings—not only does this stuff fail to prove anything about the existence of magic copper, helpful saints, or aliens with an anal fetish, but it also says that human belief is a fickle and silly thing that seems to have little bearing on what’s actually true. I’m sure Dawkins has spent time among ordinary Christians, and has heard them earnestly declare how important God is to them, but so what? Ordinary Aztecs, animists from the Congo, and teenybopper fans of David Cassidy have all gushed over the central importance of their idols to their lives, and it doesn’t impress most of us at all. Maybe we should add Argumentum ad Fanboi to the lexicon of logical fallacies.
It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious “moderates” as well–indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with “terrorism,” Harris asserts in “The End of Faith”; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, “on almost every page … prepares the ground for religious conflict.” Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: “They know what it’s like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and there’s a paradise you can get to if you die in the right circumstances. They’re not left wondering what is the ‘real’ cause of terrorism.” As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath? Obviously our culture no longer believes in that, he adds, so why not agree that science has made it equally unnecessary to invoke God to explain the Sun, or the weather, or your own existence?
I can’t say that I’m particularly fond of critics who don’t understand what they are criticizing. No, the books he’s talking about aren’t attacks on religious moderates, or on the idea of moderation: they are attacks on foolish ideas. If I say 2 + 2 = 4, and the raving lunatic in the corner says 2 + 2 = 6, the “moderate” does not get points for suggesting that we split the difference and agree that 2 + 2 = 5. When the premise you are working from is false, it doesn’t matter how polite you are, or how fair you are about giving each side a turn to speak.
It’s the same story with Harris’s approach to the Bible. Are you going to claim it’s the sacred, inspired word of God, or are you going to say it’s the theological maunderings of a lot of old priests? One thing that doesn’t make any sense at all is to claim that you are going to pick and choose which bits are the True Words of God, and ignore the ones that you think are out of date or wrong. That’s Harris’s point: once you start seeing the objectionable and the lunatic in the holy words, there’s no reason to stop, no reason not to reject the divinity and treat the whole thing as a wholly human production.
Ah, but lazy thinkers always stoop to portraying atheists as the equivalent of fundamentalists, out to purge anyone who has impure thoughts.
Even agnostic moderates get raked over–like the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist who attempted to broker a truce between science and religion in his controversial 1999 book “Rocks of Ages.” Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical questions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts. But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm? And can science really abjure any interest in the claims of religion? Did Jesus come back from the dead, or didn’t he? If so, how did God make it happen? Collins says he is satisfied with the answer that the Resurrection is a miracle, permanently beyond our understanding. That Collins can hold that belief, while simultaneously working at the very frontiers of science as the head of the Human Genome Project, is what amazes Harris.
Notice that Dawkins raises those awkward, difficult questions, and the reviewer…glides over them, unperturbed, and simply utters the new iconic name among theists, St Francis of Collins. Well, it’s nice that Collins is satisfied by the word “miracle,” but it’s really no answer, and it says more about the shallowness of Collins’ thinking than it does in actually addressing any of those questions. I can tell we’re going to hear much, much more about Collins from now on—he’s the all-purpose answer to any criticism of religion from a scientist. He’s a wonderful 2 + 2 = 5er.
The Newsweek article concludes by simultaneously belittling the importance of those inconsequential atheists, and raising the worry that their continued vocal insistence on existing is going to get people hurt.
Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a “movement.” American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million.
Oh, and the Armenian Apostolic Church only has about 200,000 members in the US, so we can all take comfort in the fact that there are hardly any Christians here.
Cute trick. Take a group that has no central organization at all, pick one associated organization, and pretend that that subset is the whole. Ignore the fact that the nonreligious are the second largest belief category in the US and the secularists are the fastest growing segment of the population.
On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. “Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way,” she writes. Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world–for “the people who want to know that they’re going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can’t offer that.”
Here’s the important point, though, the thing that all the bland and thoughtless guzzlers of religious myths don’t want to think about: when people want to know about an afterlife, religion can’t answer it, either. They don’t know! They’re good at covering up their ignorance with a smooth patter of dogma and doctrine, but don’t confuse “spiritual fulfillment” with “hearing what you want to hear.” That’s all religion has to offer. If science has any handicap as a substitute for faith, it’s that scientists are more reluctant to lie than are priests.
If you want grand and tangible ideas and objects to venerate, though, the scientists have a lock. We offer the entire universe and all space and time as the center of our beliefs. The priests? A rather dull book or two, and the tepid products of some uninformed imaginations.
If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.
And of course, no one had been hurt in the millennia that religion held unchallenged sway; religion would never be divisive, and until science came along and made people uncomfortable with their myths and superstitions, everyone was happy and got along peacefully and sang hymns as the manna fell from heaven.
Yes, let us choose sides. I’m on the side of enlightenment and knowledge and critical thinking and the rejection of dogma. Which side are you going to be on?
(crossposted to The American Street)