Bunting on Atheism

The article by Julian Baggini disucssed in yesterday's blog post was a reply of sorts to this article by Madeleine Bunting. She starts with some encouraging words:

This is Holy Week. It started yesterday with Palm Sunday and continues through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and culminates this Sunday with Easter Day. One can no longer assume most people will be aware of this, let alone the events these days mark; in a recent UK poll, only 22% could identify what Easter was celebrating. What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity? One can only presume that the New Atheists are organising a fabulous party to celebrate. Richard Dawkins could stump up for the crates of champagne out of his sumptuous royalties from The God Delusion.

England sounds cool. Would that she were describing the situation here in the States.

Bunting continues:

But I'm curious as to how many of the country's finest minds would join the celebrations. Increasingly, one hears a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume, and how it has drowned out any other kind of conversation about religion: what it is, the loss of it, whether it matters, and what happens in a post-religious society? From sometimes surprising quarters there is an anxiety about the evangelical fervour and certainty of the New Atheists: they are so sure they are right, but there are plenty of people - and many of them would not count themselves as believers - who can't share their contempt for religion.

I have no doubt that the sort of person from whom Bunting hears is dismayed by the New Atheist books. I wonder, though, how representative a sample that is.

The headline of Bunting's article is, “Real debates about faith are drowned by the New Atheists' foghorn voices.” The implication is that the New Atheists are engaging in fake debates. We hear about “other conversations” we are supposed to be having. She seems to be writing from the perspective of one who regards it as obvious that the fact claims of religion have little merit.

The fact remains that a great many religious people take their dogmas very seriously indeed. Dawkins et al are perfectly correct in addressing themselves to that issue, and to the even more important issue of the negative effects to society of being too solicitous towards such belief. Bunting is free to hang out with whomever she fancies to be the nation's finest minds and to wring her hands over whether anything of value remains in religion once its empirical content has been removed. I would invite her, though, to spend some time in Kansas or Oklahoma before dismissing the more mundane concerns of the New Atheists as engaging in fake debates.

Skipping ahead a bit:

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney. Ask a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong and they are simply not interested in the debate; they bin the invitations to speak on platforms alongside New Atheists. Gray dismisses them as offering “intoxicating simplicity”; Armstrong is appalled by their “display of egotism and arrogance”. Both are deeply frustrated by a debate inflated by the media that generates heat but no light. They see the New Atheists mirroring a particular strain of fundamentalist Christianity with no knowledge of the vast variety of other forms of religious faith. In common with their Christian opponents, they share “the inner glow of complete certainty” - as Wilson describes his atheist conversion.


Dawkins et al are perfectly aware that there are many forms of religious belief, including those forms that are not centered around a collection of fact claims about the natural world. If those other forms were dominant among religious people generally there would be no reason for them to write polemically. But they are not. It is people like Bunting who are addressing a fringe sort of religion, while Dawkins et al are confronting the more mainstream form.

Meanwhile, all of the New Atheists and especially Hitchens and Harris have shown themselves perfectly willing to discuss religion with anyone who is interested. Having watched some of these debates I can tell you they are always polite and civil towards their interlocutors and make no attempt to shout anyone down or cut anyone off. If Armstrong and the others feel they have a take on religion that is poorly represented in modern discourse, then perhaps they should stop binning those invitations to sit on panels with people who do not share their views. If she is consistently turning down invitations, then I would say she deserves much of the blame for the fact that her views are not well represented in public discourse.

Armstrong and Gray converge again on where they pinpoint the key mistake. Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What “belief” used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty”: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice not by studying a manual, argues Armstrong.

Has Armstrong not heard of the Nicene Creed? It is perhaps the oldest clear statement of the essentials of the Christian faith, and it remains, in various forms, the basis for most versions of modern Christianity. It is a set of propositions, pure and simple. There is nothing in it about committment or loyalty. I don't know how Armstrong formed her conclusions about what faith is “supposed to be.”

I am sympathetic to the view that religion is about ties to your community, with the rituals representing visible evidence of your membership in that community. In a recent eight day period I participated in two Passover seders and a Bar Mitzvah, and enjoyed all three of them. I don't believe for a second that God afflicted Egypt with ten plagues or parted the Red Sea so that my ancestors could make their escape. But the ritual has some meaning for me nonetheless.

If we evovle to the point where most people view religion in that way then I will be happy to engage in the more high-falutin arguments Armstrong seems to prefer. Until that time I prefer to inhabit the real world. And in that world far too many people do not share Armstrong's view of what faith is supposed to be.

A few paragraphs later we come to a prime example of the gibberish so beloved of liberal theology:

It's a perspective that Gray shares. Describing himself as a sceptic, he looks to another border of belief for deeper insight into the nature of faith: the dialogue between the theistic and non-theistic. Intriguingly, where Gray, Armstrong and Vernon all end up is with the apophatic tradition of theology. Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it's a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: “In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice.” It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Pure twaddle. People of a bygone age knew we could say nothing about God? I'd say all those people throughout history declaring the Bible or the Koran to be infallible thought they could say something about God. The seemingly endless flood of people engaging in religion-inspired violence thought they knew something about God. Augustine and Aquinas had plenty to say about God's attributes and about what He wanted from humanity. Armstrong is talking through her hat.

I don't know what it means to refer to God as a she, describe her as something that can be experienced by religious practice, and then turn around and say that God's existence is not a proposition in which you believe or disbelieve. And what sort of knowledge do we gain access to by religious practice? I really hate this sort of argle-bargle.

The article meanders to a close with one more paragraph. Bunting is concerned that when the old, false myths die their well-deserved death, people are left floundering in a sea of meaninglessness and nihilism. I see no evidence that that is the case, and Bunting, at any rate, provides no inkling of a solution to the problem. Personally, I will worry about people's existential crises after we have followed England's example and have relegated traditional religion to the margins of society. Until then I will worry more about the bizarre religious beliefs of those less sophisticated than Armstrong.


More like this

Via P.Z. Myers I came across this article by Julian Baggini. Baggini is the editor of The Philosopher's Magazine and the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. The essay is rather weird. It begins with the standard brain-dead boiler-plate about how Dawkins et al are just too darn mean in…
I've rarely seen it so starkly said: "We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism," says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. "Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the…
The Wall Street Journal recently hosted an exchange of essays on the subject of evolution and God. The participants: Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong. Here's your first question: Which of them wrote this: Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived.…
Forgive me, readers, but Madeline Bunting has raised up her tiny, fragile pin-head again, and I must address her non-arguments once more. Well, not her non-arguments, actually, but the same tedious non-arguments the fans of superstition constantly trundle out. She was at some strange conference…

The fact remains that anybody with a reasonable knowledge of intellectual and social history is bound to find the polemics of the new atheists rather naive. For most of the last couple of thousand years, for example, it really was the case that the central meaning of faith in Christianity was faithfulness or trust rather than belief in the truthfulness of propositions. Balls-out atheism struck most people, including most intellectuals, as profoundly paradoxical. They didn't need a leap in the dark to affirm the existence of God. They thought that God's existence was demonstrably true; what required prodigies of faith was accepting that salvation was possible granted the obvious sinfulness of our nature. The old religion certainly implied assent to the validity of the creeds, but that just wasn't the central issue because so much of what was in the creeds wasn't controversial. Reading old books as if the authors were engaged in modern arguments isn't a very good way to understand the past. Augustine or Aquinas or Luther simply weren't debating P.Z. Myers or anybody like him. They had other fish to fry.

What I object to in some of the New Atheism is not their stridency, but their philistinism. They are like the characters Abbot's flatland who simply do not recognize that human experience has other dimensions than scientific knowledge and that acknowledging those dimensions doesn't amount to embracing some sort of conventional spiritualism or obscurantism. Mysticism is not required to develop a little depth of field in one's vision. Getting a life would probably help, though, if you'd like to get beyond the atheism of nerds.

Jim H., you say: They thought that God's existence was demonstrably true; what required prodigies of faith was accepting that salvation was possible granted the obvious sinfulness of our nature.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the above definitely-not-philistine, anything-but-philistine summary of god belief up until the appearance of 'the four horsemen' books is accurate.

The new atheists are saying, in response: no, god's existence is not demonstrably true; it is, instead, unsupportable; and therefore questions of salvation are quite beside the point, diverting of human energy, delusional, counterproductive, diminishing, etc.

Whether you find it "philistine" or not, it does matter whether god actually exists or actually does not; and playing out the implications of the very likely case that god does not exist is a worthwhile project. It is a much overdue corrective to the several-millenia-long playing out of the evidentially-unsupported claim that god does exist.

Your last paragraph, in which you claim that new atheists don't recognize non-scientific aspects of human experience, is simply wrong. It indicates you have paid somewhere between scant and zero attention to the thinkers you're criticizing.

On a stridency scale of 0 to 10, I would give Dr. Dawkins a 3, Dr. Myers a 5, and Mr. Hitchens at least a 7. It is difficult not to get strident about things you care about (I am reminded of Brad DeLong's Order of the Shrill), nor is all stridency bad, but Hitchens goes a bit too far for my taste. There is some insult-comedian humor in it, as when he said that if Falwell were given an enema he could have been buried in a matchbox, but I would prefer an attempt, however doomed, to engage people and change their minds rather than scoring debating points in a manner which is unlikely to have that effect. Dr. Dawkings, on the other hand, is trying to reach people and change their minds. Just my opinion, and a minor point in the scheme of things.

(I give this blog a 3 for stridency also. I try to stay within that myself, except on certain subjects.)

Re Jim:

As Jason keeps on repeating, the Dobsons and Warrens of the world aren't making any philosophical arguments about the nature of spirituality. They are making arguments like this one noted by Ed Brayton:

You have to read this press release from Robert Peters of Morality in Media. The title:

Connecting the Dots: The Link Between Gay Marriage and Mass Murders


This garbage is being used to support laws and constitutional amendments, which affect real people. That some people are willing to argue against the root of this evil, in no uncertain terms, is laudable.

After reading nauseating evangelical spew day after day, Dawkins is downright genteel. I laugh every time I hear the phrase "atheist polemic". Hardly.


Mr. Harrison is presumably representing the Augustinian/Calvinist tendency within Christianity; lots of Christians in the last two thousand years would have strongly disagreed that this was "the central meaning of faith."

At any rate, for most of those two thousand years, Christians certainly did think that "God exists" was a true statement of fact, and most of them thought that creeds such as the Nicene Creed were also true statements of fact. If atheists, new or old, are correct in their assertions that these statements are in fact false, this presumably has pretty serious implications for Christians. That is, it means that they need to shift to what in the 60s was called "Death of God" Christianity. It also means that what used to be called "sin" in the old days needs to be radically rethought, since sin used to mean disobedience to God's commands or some other kind of alienation from God.

One can still take life very seriously, and moral issues very seriously. But the non-existent entity formerly known as "God" has nothing to do with one's taking these matters seriously, that's all.

The fact remains that anybody with a reasonable knowledge of intellectual and social history is bound to find the polemics of the new atheists rather naive. For most of the last couple of thousand years, for example, it really was the case that the central meaning of faith in Christianity was faithfulness or trust rather than belief in the truthfulness of propositions....

Does anyone else find this paragraph rather incomprehensible?

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 17 Apr 2009 #permalink

Augustinian/Calvinist thinking certainly treated faith as primarily a matter of trust in a savior rather than belief in a proposition, but the opposite emphasis, i.e. thinking of faith as primarily a way of knowing certain matters of fact, wasn't all that common as far as I know. Gnosticism was a heresy after all. As has been pointed out by many historians of religion, the Fundamentalist emphasis on belief as belief in a series of propositions is a distinctly modern tendency, a sort of theological version of positivism.

JonJ's assumption that I'm speaking from inside a faith illustrates the point I was trying to make about the limitations of the us vs them approach. I'm not representing the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition since it isn't mine. I'm trying to comprehend religion, not argue for it. I've been an atheist time out of mind but I find that I've got to ditch the polemical posturing in order to enter into the thinking of people I don't agree with: what we have here is nonfaith seeking understanding.

If operating with some false premises vitiated the entirety of a person's ideas, intellectual history would be a pretty dismal undertaking. A great many Western thinkers worked under the aegis of Christianity, but their error in assuming the existence of a God (and I do assume it was an error, by the way), doesn't mean that their outlook on human affairs was thereby rendered meaningless. In fact I think they saw a great deal not only in spite of but perhaps because of their faulty premise. I draw an analogy with Marxist thought. You don't have to agree with the fundamental premises of Marx to find that looking at history as the story of the successive ways that ruling minorities exploited humanity captures an important if partial truth. Similarly, you don't have to believe in God to appreciate that Paul's insistence that there is neither Jew nor Greek was a crucial event in the development of Western societies.

Jim Harrison:

Getting a life would probably help, though, if you'd like to get beyond the atheism of nerds.

Next you'll tell us we're fat. Much the same way AGW denialists insult Al Gore. How cunning of you.

she's cherry-picking the apophatic parts of the famous theologians

Synapophatic or autapophatic?

In any case Bunting seems to be missing the fundamental point of christianity which is precisely that God became Man in order to be one-of-us and not just some ineffable remote being. She is entitled to her own beliefs but when she claims that they represent the historical mainstream of her faith then she is also laying claim to her own facts.

(One could argue that the Torah and the Koran have a similar role in Judaism and Islam respectively to that of Jesus in Christianity. They are both ways in which God descends from ineffability for the sake of humanity.)

If Augustine and Aquinas thought you could not use words to describe God, why are their books so darn long?

I am not sure why but the difference between K&R's "The C Programming Language" and any book on C++ comes to mind. 8^)

Jim V -

I hadn't heard that line from Hitchens before. It is funny and accurate.

Jim Harrison -

I've been an atheist time out of mind but I find that I've got to ditch the polemical posturing in order to enter into the thinking of people I don't agree with: what we have here is nonfaith seeking understanding.

Which assumes that a) the "new" atheists actually want to understand the nuts and bolts of Faith and b) that many of them don't already.

I have not been an atheist time out of mind. Indeed, I still tend to eschew the term atheist, because the degree of my assumptions about a rather deistic god figure are not nearly that of most atheists.

I have been a Christian for most of my life. While my understanding of some non-Christian, non-Abrahamaic Faiths is rather limited, I have a very fundamental grasp of generic Faith and Abrahamaic Faiths and especially Christianity.

I can well assure you that the atheists you are criticizing here have a pretty solid grasp of what they are talking about. Their characterizations are generally not inaccurate, nor would it be reasonable for them to pretend that they feel differently than they do about Faith. They have just as much to contribute to a reasonable discussion of Faith, including a discussion who's goal is to push people out of the need for Faith.

I am an ex-Christian and I am angry about my experience with Faith. I am not alone in this. My experience of Faith was abusive. My experience of Faith was a destructive force in my life, that had a crippling effect on my ability to function within the mainstream of humanity.

I don't go out and disparage others for their Faith. I generally just smile and say thanks, when people try to bless me - not because I am afraid to challenge them, but because I see no good reason to do so. But I am not meek and quiet, when people of Faith decide to press me. I have been known to get downright nasty with people who refuse to respect my lack of Faith. I get really nasty when people dare to presume that if only I read this, listened to that and above all, prayed more - I would realize that I was wrong for denouncing my Faith. And I get a very special sort of fucking seriously damned angry, when people presume to attempt foisting their abusive Faith on my children.

I spent years trying ever so desperately to reconcile my fundamental perceptions about people and the world/universe around me, with even the most far-fetched, fringe notions of my Faith. I worked very hard to make it all reason out and eventually lost a war of attrition. I most certainly did not lose that war for lack of trying.

I don't play nice with people who decide to push me and see no utility in doing so. And there are many who find my baseline discussion of religion and especially Christianity offensive. But I am not going to stop, because people get offended. I get offended too, yet I still engage. I am not going to stop, because even when people get offended by what I have to say, the criticisms that I raise, they are hearing something I believe they need to hear. And the mere fact that they found it offensive, doesn't mean it won't have a positive effect on them - doesn't mean that it won't force them to rethink just a little more.

And I will state categorically that my goal is to help others get away from the destructive bullshit that is Faith. I spent years drawing others into that destructive bullshit - quite effectively I might add. I have a lot to make up for.

I am not saying that you shouldn't act and express yourself in a manner that you find reasonable. I am saying that you shouldn't criticize others for doing the same.

I think that the view of religions like Christianity which holds that they really are not about what is factually true or false (or that that aspect is really not important) is profoundly ahistorical, at least if one is talking about the period up to the nineteenth century. After the onslaught of the Enlightenment and writers like Voltaire, some relatively sophisticated thinkers began to hedge on the true/false thing. Kant dodged the issue like mad, and Hegel certainly fuzzed it up quite a bit.

But ironically it was Hegelâs sworn enemy, Kierkegaard, who really made this approach fashionable in âfaithâ circles. When he was through, Christianity could be considered (at least by the sophisticates) merely a mode of psychological analysis. It was all essentially about dread, etc.--a purely private, individual affair.

The other way of evading truth issues that is quite common nowadays is of course the political approach: Jesus as the rebel leader. Of course, there really isnât an actual âDivine Being,â and for all we know even Jesus might have been a mythical figure. But the Sermon on the Mount is all so inspiring for the justice movement (Paul the homophobe, not so much)!

Neither approach has much to do with the actual history of how Christianity started and what the religion meant to its adherents for most of the last 2000 years, but hey, if thatâs how Christians want to play the game today, itâs up to them. At least we can be grateful that theyâre not burning folks at the stake so much these days (probably mostly because itâs somewhat illegal now), and spending their time searching their souls instead. Now if theyâd just stop knocking on my door and expecting me to spend a few hours in a nice little chat.


Once again, thinking of religion as a essentially a matter of belief in a set of propositions is pretty much a modern phenomenon, which is absolutely not to claim that the truth of propositions wasn't always part of it for most of the faithful. Although it's pretty hard to make generalizations about something as enormous and invertebrate as Christianity, I think it's pretty clear that for most believers most of the time the hard thing to believe wasn't that there was a God but that they could or would be saved. They were playing a different game than what modern atheists or, for that matter, a lot of modern Christians get excited about.

I'm not trying to evade truth issues. In fact, I think that the doctrines of Christianity, like those of the other religions, are simply false and that's enough to make Christianity unacceptable to me because I care about such things. What I'm trying to do is point out that you can't begin to understand human religiosity until you get over thinking that it's normally a matter of guys arguing about metaphysics. What's nerdy about nerd atheism is its inability to recognize that not everybody is in the knowing things business. (I also have a problem with people who presumably care about literal truth but can be bothered to learn any goddam history. "At least we can be grateful that they're not burning people at the stake." Phooey. I guess everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition in this skit as if persecutions were the principle thing that believers have been doing for the last two thousand years. In evolutionary biology this sort of thing is usually denounced as essentialism.)

Jim Harrison -

The problem is not that many people aren't into the knowing things business - most people aren't. It's the denial of what we do know and believing that their beliefs should get equal play with reality. It's about pretending that what they know and believe, can change with an increased understanding of the natural world and they just pretend that we misunderstood the Truth before learning about that.

And for fuck sake, lets not pretend that prosecution hasn't been a pretty fundamental aspect of most brands of Faith over the history of the human race. While it doesn't necessarily qualify as the principle function of believers, it has certainly been pretty consistent for a lot longer than two thousand years. And it still happens today, depending where in the world you live.

Faith still motivates executions, some quite brutal. Faith still motivates wars and even genocide - tofuckingday. There are people somewhere in the world, dying because the dominant Faith in their local disagrees with their own, their lifestyle or because the happened to get raped and can't prove the fetus in their womb was the result of said rape - in some places whether it was rape or not, she still needs to die for it.

Phooey, I guess we should just shut the hell up and pretend that because it doesn't happen in the West - at least not often, we should just pretend it doesn't exist. And I suppose we should just pretend that religion (including Christianity) hasn't been responsible for unbelievable death and wanton destruction through all of human history.

In reasonable, rational circles this sort of thinking is usually denounced as sloppy/fuzzy thinking, or outright denialism.

The notion that the history of religion is mostly the history of persecution is pretty much equivalent to the idea believers throw out about Stalinism or Maoism representing the 'essence' of atheism. Part of the problem is the superstition that a religion like Christianity has an essence, a thesis that really only makes sense if you are a Christian and believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Faith. Since I'm an atheist, I have to hew to nomininalism. I find that people called Christians have sometimes been intolerant and sometimes they haven't been. A Manichean, Warfare of Science and Theology version of history is simply bad history. The facts don't bear it up. It is what used to be called cant, a canned speech one has been taught to recite.

First of all, I am not talking about just Christianity - atheism isn't not believing in any one Faith. I am talking about Faith in general, while focusing more on Christianity, because that is by far what is most familiar to me.

Second, you are lecturing someone on the history that I am pretty damned certain I am a hell of a lot more familiar with than you are. I was a Christian most of my life. I was studying theology and the history of my faith, before I reached double digits in age - not just the easy stuff and not just that which meshed with my own beliefs. I spent years studying this shit, because I believed that I had been called by my god to be a minister, theologian and psalmist. I needed to understand as much of the history of my Faith and those who's Faith was similar but wrong, as humanly possible. Later, I was studying in a desperate attempt to hold onto my Faith, in the face of reality.

Third, I am not following some superstition that Christianity is only plausibly understood by Christians. I do however have a massive foundational grasp of most of the dogmatic systems that fall under the heading of Christianity, as well as most of the non-dogmatic sects.

At no time in the history of Christianity, has there been a period where every brand of Christianity was living and letting everyone else live. Not one moment, from the time of Christ to the present. And there are very few brands that have never engaged in bloody intolerance.

I think it's also important to define intolerance in this context, because there have been few periods of history, where any sect was completely tolerant of others - there have been periods where they weren't inclined to kill everyone who disagreed with them, but that's not saying much.

The bottom line is that the history of religion is rife with violent intolerance and persecution. An argument can reasonably be made that the human tendency to eschew that which is different is at least as responsible for this, as religion itself, but pretending that this isn't the reality is fucking ignorance, pure and simple. There has never been a period of human history that didn't see some religiously motivated violence from somewhere.

Name one time, back it up with solid evidence and I will apologize for my fucking ignorant stupidity. I will even post that apology on my own blog, to make sure that my friends see it.

Honest DuWayne, fuckity fuck fuck isn't much of an argument.

People may have always distrusted outsiders, but organized religious intolerance just isn't that universal. Greek and Roman paganism was famously inclusive in its palmy days; Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, with some exceptions, didn't go in for persecutions; and for most of its history and in most places, the Muslim preferred to tax believers in other religions rather than to kill them or even destroy their holy places. You can look it up.

Christianity is in many respects an outlier in respect to intolerance since it certainly went in for it in many times and places, but even ignoring the many versions of Christianity that are exceptions to that rule, which these days includes most denominations, violent persecution just isn't what most Christians have done most of the time in the course of belonging to their churches. I don't object to the Black Legend version of church history because I'm OK with inquisitions and holy wars. I object to it because it is not very accurate or insightful. Incidentally, there is a huge irony that is often missed. The standard horror stories about Christianity weren't invented by atheists or skeptics. They were invented by 16th and 17th century Protestant propagandists and then taken over by atheists.

Honest DuWayne, fuckity fuck fuck isn't much of an argument.

Which would be a reasonable response, if that were my argument. But it wasn't.

...but organized religious intolerance just isn't that universal.

I never claimed that it is, just that violent intolerance is huge in organized religion and has been for the whole of human history. Stigmatic intolerance has been even worse.

I am not talking about the majority of followers of any religion either - it doesn't take a majority to discern a very ugly, dangerous pattern. And it is a very short time since far more Christians were violently intolerant, right here in the U.S. But the stigmatic intolerance is still quite pervasive here in the U.S.

People who fight religious encroachments in public schools, regularly receive death threats and are actually assaulted fairly often. People have had their houses burned down, because they dared to object to a teacher proselytizing - not fifty years ago, but in the last few years - here in the U.S. My brother writes about this shit all the time. And in other places it is far more overt and pervasive - including places where Hindus do the violence. Or Christians. In South Africa, we have Anglicans actually burning fucking witches and killing gays.We have even seen Jews in Israel commit acts of violence, because gays have the audacity to want to show the folks in Jerusalem that there are gays in Jerusalem who are also human beings.

Sometimes the violence is officially sanctioned and called for by the church, sometimes it's given a wink and a nod - other times it is actually condemned by the church (or applicable religious congregation). The results are the same - violence in the name of religion. Simply because the violence doesn't happen to be on an overtly large scale, doesn't mean that it's not pervasive or endemic.

The violence in Darfur, for example, was small at first and grew in scale fairly slowly.

Nor can we ignore the violence within the culture of a religion. While Muslims may have been disinclined to kill non-believers, they were not reticent about using violence on their women and children - condoned by their faith. They had and still have, no compunction about killing someone who belonged to their Faith and then leave. They have long killed those who commit certain types of sins, merely because they sinned. And they are all about killing people who belong to the the sect they don't. Christians have been the same, as have (traditionally) Jews.

Again, label one period in human history, where religiously motivated violence didn't. I'll even give you the easy route and we'll only count religiously motivated, systemic violence and religious conflict.

Jim H., I want to be sure I understand you on a couple of points:

1) Christopher Hitchens (among others) is a philistine by dint of his inclusion in the 'four horsemen' category; he has nothing to contribute to the world of culture and ideas. That he has read, written reviews of, and likely forgotten more books than most people have ever taken off the shelf counts for nothing -- because he's a philistine (The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Vanity Fair, and assorted book publishers have been duped) who never has anything positive to say about anyone or anything, and because of his tendency to use cutting japes that hurt people's feelings. Yes?

2) Violent persecution carried out by Christians in the name of "defending" their faith has been overblown. Some of it has happened, sure, but why dwell on it? Right? It was a distortion begun by the Protestants in the early days of the Reformation, and later picked up by atheists. All of what we've read about the Inquisition prior to the arrival of Martin Luther was, evidently, the revisionist history of Vatican-hating, partisan Protestant rowdies. Yes? Galileo was not outright *killed,* after all -- and in any case, his was just an isolated incident signifying nothing. Right?

As a matter of fact Hitchens isn't particularly well informed about the history of religion. He's a gifted polemicist, but he often plays fast and lose with facts, not only in his anti-religious works but in much of his political journalism. He's glib, not deep. In a way he reminds me of the late Bill Buckley, another guy who was extraordinarily good at impressing the natives while carefully selecting a series of intellectual midgets as the targets of his sarcasm.

I'm unfortunately all too aware of the grim history of religious wars and persecutions because I've been a student of 16th Century history all my life and that era has to be one of the golden ages of religious mischief. I'm not interested in excusing or minimizing the bad behavior of various religious figures if only because they are well and truly dead. Thing is, I'm not interested in ritually denouncing them either because that doesn't explain anything and my interest lies, as previously advertised, in understanding what happened.

Reality is an embarrassment to any ideology. The Crusades were extraordinarily brutal, for example, but they were also an integral part of the church's long struggle to civilize a Europe dominated by the perpetual anarchy of thuggish barons. The Spanish Inquisition was an attempt to suppress secret Judaism, heresy, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment; but it also represented Rome's attempt to rein in the much more murderous (and racist) intolerance of the Spanish laity. Christianity (or, more precisely, the various Christianities) have sometimes been a force for good and sometimes for bad and often for both at the same time.

Dale -

I would just like to point out that Hitchens, while he manages some very well reasoned commentary on occasion, has also made some incredibly incendiary and counterintuitive statements. Not the least destructive being calls to annihilate Muslims in Muslim countries. I do tend to think that that alone is reason enough to be reticent about being all that defensive of Hitchens. His rhetoric often tends towards the extremes, even if he doesn't usually call for outright genocide.

On top of that, he also has a profound track record for appearing on the tee vee and for speaking engagements, too drunk to function well. I have sympathy - I'm an addict and I am studying addiction in the hopes of helping to develop better models of treating addictions. And part of the fault is with executives who want ratings and bring him on because his incendiary views and even his drunken antics, boost ratings.

But the bottom line is that I think he does one hell of a job at perpetuating the very worse Beliefs that a lot of non-atheists have about atheists. I would certainly not call for him being censored, but were I an exec in charge of a broadcast venue or an editor for a print venue, I would definitely choose not to provide Hitchens with a voice at my venue.

Jim Harrison -

Before I respond to your most recent comments, I would like to step back to your statement about seeking knowledge.

I was discussing this conversation last night, with one of my fundamentalist Christian friends and he made a point that I really should have jumped on when I first responded to that. "Dude, a lot of us are very keen on knowing things - you always were when you were a Christian and while there are a lot of folks who just warm the pews, a lot of us spend a lot of time seeking knowledge and understanding of and through God's word. And just because we are most interested in understanding our Faith, doesn't mean we aren't interested in knowing more about the world around us."

I should note, because the inflection of his statement can't be expressed by merely writing his response, that he was pretty pissed - obviously offended by the implication that theists aren't keen in knowledge seeking. To be very clear, while I'm sure our many years of friendship play a role in his feelings - he has not gotten angry with me or offended by my very strident critiques of a Faith we once shared. And such critiques have come up several times since I publicly denounced that Faith. Coming from someone else those same words may have an increased tendency to offend, but when I pressed him on that, he was clear that he finds the condescension more offensive than criticism.

I also think it's very important to look closely at his statement though. He makes it quite clear that though he and many other Christians (I know this is true, having spent hours upon hours in bible studies over the years and many more in personal study) are keen on seeking knowledge, their primary source for knowledge is a book that was mostly written over fifteen hundred years ago and purports to be the divinely inspired word of their god. Most of the knowledge they are seeking, is an understanding of what their god meant.

This is a very important concept to grasp, because no matter how you or I view it, they do not see their quest for knowledge as any different than the quest for knowledge that working scientists engage in everyday. They see their quest as no less valid and infinitely more important. They, as offended as many of them might be at the condescension your statement implies, are just as condescending of those who seek knowledge through the methods of science - to the exclusion of their method.

There are two important points to be recognized in this. The first being that many theists are seeking knowledge, just in a very different and ultimately very dangerous fashion. The second being that tone/volume makes very little difference in the offense theists take away. The reason that you don't see them getting offended by less strident critiques is twofold.

First, they don't actually hear much in the way of non-strident critiques. The less strident voices have very little voice at all. Second, most of the time they hear less strident voices, those voices are criticizing the more strident atheists. Remove all the references to other atheists, keep the less strident tone and let the theists actually read or hear what you have to say and the ones who are incredibly offended by the strident atheists are going to be just as offended by you. It's not the tone or volume that ultimately offends, it's what's being said that is offensive to those theists.

As far as the history of Faith you keep harping on, you are failing to recognize that officially sanctioned religious warfare is a very small percentage of the violence that has been fostered by theistic Faith. On the officially/dogmatically sanctioned violence side, you still have a great deal of violence to account for that is no less valid, for being entirely within a particular body of Believers, or geographical local, run by a particular religious institution. On the completely non-sanctioned side, you have a great many rogue individuals and splinter sects that have also perpetuated a great deal of theistically motivated violence (oddly, theistically is a misspelling according to my FF dictionary, yet one of the options it gives is atheistically).

And recognizing that religion is/has been an occasional force for good doesn't negate the atrocities of Faith. One of the options I had for seeing a therapist, the only one that would actually guarantee that I would get in - was through Catholic family services. I didn't end up using them, because my preferred option panned out - but I would have had no hesitation in going through them if it had come to that. I also recognize that for significant periods of human history, Catholics educated more people than any other group - often than all other groups at the time combined. The Catholic church has certainly been a remarkable force for good, in a great many contexts. Yet I view Catholicism as one of the most insidious, dangerous cults in all of human history. And coming to that conclusion, in the face of everything good that Catholics have done and do, is not mutually exclusive.

Likewise, I have seen protestants do remarkable and wonderful things for their communities, macro and micro. I have been involved in doing those things myself. But again, these goods simply do not balance the profoundly negative aspects of Faith - not the least being a drive not only to seek knowledge through Faith, but to actively fight the dissemination of the knowledge and understanding of the world that science has discovered. Bad enough that, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Theism is directly responsible for a great deal of violence and abuse - both physical and mental.

I am not going to live and let live. I will fight theism voraciously and without apology, because it is fucking dangerous - whether the dogma is liberal or orthodox. I will fight it not in spite of the good that it's fostered, but because if there is any such thing as evil, theism is it. Theism is a cancer, that no matter the motivations, is a prime source for hatred, the perpetuation of ignorance, psychological abuse and physical abuse.

"I am not going to live and let live" is the credo of every persecuting orthodoxy there ever was, political, ideological, or religious. Though I'm a strident defender of the separation of church and state and was pretty much on P.Z. Myer's side of the great framing controversy, I generally prefer the more genial versions of belief and disbelief that one finds in Erasmus or David Hume, outlooks that don't find enemies everywhere because they aren't looking for 'em.

Jim, you are committing a huge logical fallacy here. While it is certainly true that "I am not going to live and let live" has been the credo of every persecuting orthodoxy, that doesn't mean that statement implies a call for persecution. I am most certainly not suggesting that I want to persecute anyone, quite the contrary, I want people who are stuck in the same destructive, damaging bullshit that I was, to find the peace I have outside of it. I want those folks to start the healing process that I have started in my own life.

Attempting to help people who are where I was, means that I am going to offend a lot of people. It means that I am going to say things that are not the least bit genial about it. And I am going to end up making more enemies - not because I am trying to find them or make them my enemies, but because that is the reaction of many theists to the things that I have to say.

I am not going out and picking fights with folks, I just refuse to sit back and take it. And I am not going to sit back silently while people who are in the same position I was, languish in misery, because I don't want to offend fundies or fear making enemies. There are a lot of people in the position that I was, who need to hear strident voices who understand what they are dealing with. They need the reinforcement of the feelings and ideas they have, to develop the courage to face the reality of Faith and theism.

I cannot begin to describe the conflicts, pain - the complexity of my experience of faith, in comments on Jason's blog. If you are actually interested in understanding, you can click on my name for the most relevant post - though I am only at the beginning of explaining the experience, the tags Faith and religion are a start. Another place to go, to understand why I am as adamant about this issue as I am, is ExChristian.net - though if you do go there (and I suspect this caveat is not necessary in your case - more for others who might be reading this) I would ask that you respect that this is a safe place for people who have suffered a great deal of damage, to discuss their experience and get support from others who have had similar experiences.

When I say that I am not going to live and let live, I mean that I am not going to sit idly by and ignore the bullshit spewed by people of Faith. I am not going to pretend that there aren't a great many people of Faith, who are suffering in the ways that I was, and to some degree still am. Because the fallout from my renunciation of my Faith is far from over and the pain is far from past. I pushed a lot of people into that bullshit over the years. I was an incredibly effective apologist. I was also very good at proselytizing, because I genuinely love others and genuinely believed (when I was younger) that without salvation through Christ, people would suffer for eternity. I was fucking motivated.

I still love people and I have a lot to make up for. While it's doubtful that many of the people I convinced to come to Christ are in the situation I was, they have certainly contributed to the issues that damaged me so horribly.

I am not going to play nice and genial, to the point that it infringes on my ability to help others. I am busy as hell with school and career issues, but I have been presented with a possible opportunity to write a book on this topic - if the proposal that was requested is accepted, I will make the time. And I can promise you that if it all pans out and gets published, it will garner the same sort of reaction that Bunting and Baggini are throwing at the "new atheist" movement (please don't take that to mean I am comparing myself to folks such as Dawkins and Dennet).

DuWayne: "I have been presented with a possible opportunity to write a book on this topic - if the proposal that was requested is accepted, I will make the time. And I can promise you that if it all pans out and gets published, it will garner the same sort of reaction that Bunting and Baggini are throwing at the 'new atheist' movement"

Don't be so sure about that. For example, it's already clear from what you said about how your theist friends "see their quest for knowledge as any different than the quest for knowledge that working scientists engage in everyday," that you aren't about to say that simplistic canard about how faith is defined as belief without evidence. That puts you at a level well above that of Dawkins, and probably about in the same territory as Greta Christina, who I find usually talks sense about religion and tries to be accurate.

That's not to say that you won't make anyone mad, but you'll probably do it for the right reasons.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 19 Apr 2009 #permalink

There has never been a period of human history that didn't see some religiously motivated violence from somewhere.

Hmmm. Recently I've heard several atheists make the argument that religion doesn't provide anything positive, it just latches on to positive things and adds 'God' or whatever. It seems to me that fairness demands that when religion gets involved with violence we should just admit that this is a negative thing to which 'God' or whatever has been added.

And, Jason: the 'knowledge' we're talking about is experiential. If you want to define that is something other than knowledge, go right ahead, but don't tell me that people don't really have experiences. They do. It may all be in their head, but they do. And religion latches onto this and adds 'God' or whatever, and people seem to feel that whatever is added gives them a target to ruminate on. It's not 'twaddle' to see that some people value their experiences as well as their capacity for doubt. It's real. You should thank 'whatever' that you don't apparently have that problem...:)

All right, last post for a while - I have end of semester crunch to deal with...

J.J. Ramsey -

I think it entirely depends on who's making the judgment, because I have taken some serious crap from people already. Not the least being some friends who were mortified about the incident I discuss here...

Scott Hatfield -

Hmmm. Recently I've heard several atheists make the argument that religion doesn't provide anything positive, it just latches on to positive things and adds 'God' or whatever.

You haven't and won't hear that from me. A couple of posts or so above, I make it clear that to some degree the violence is influenced by the natural human tendency to fear/fight that which is different. But that does not begin to justify all of it - it merely makes it easier to engage in the violence.

The problem of religiously motivated violence and even secular dogmatically motivated violence, is much more complex than simplistic paradigms can account for. And the same is true of dogmatically motivated good - indeed the good and the bad are inexorably linked in this discussion, because the motivations on either side are impacted by the other.

I really can't even begin to delve into this here, one could write an entire book - probably more than one, addressing just this one point. And even if I get to write a book, while I will touch on it, I will be far more focused on the specifics of helping people find comfort and peace with leaving the Christian Faith. I may try to dive into the shallow end of this on my own blog, but I doubt it will happen very quickly - I only have a couple weeks off before summer classes and I am taking twelve credit hours, which would be like taking twenty or so, in a regular semester.

Scott -

I am aware that people have expereinces and that these experiences are meaningful to them. But if we are going to talk about “knowledge” of God obtained through experience or practice the clear implication is that God exists. That makes it absurd to say that God's existence is not a proposition in which you eiether believe or disbelieve. You can't have knowledge of something is false. Likewise, you can't say that God's existence is not a proposition in which you either believe or disbelieve, and then turn around and pretty clearly imply that it is true that God exists.

Also, what I described as twaddle was the idea that people of an earlier age knew we could say nothing about God. The part about gaining knowledge from religious experience I described as argle-bargle.


As a matter of plain historical fact, It's just not the case that the theme of the inscrutability of God was cooked up as a way of defending faith against unbelievers. The so-called negative theology, which was actually invented by pagans several centuries before Christ, wasn't a polemical tool but a wildly influential philosophical idea. Jaroslav Pelikan, the church historian, noticed that scholarly dictionaries of late Greek have enormously long sections of words beginning with alpha because the various pagan and religious writers of the first millennium had coined so many terms using the alpha-privative to express negative attributes in the much the same way we talk about something being amoral or ahistorical. God or ultimate reality or nirvana was non-existent, not good, not beautiful, not whatever because the ordinary categories we use to speak about things did not apply, at least in the same sense, to transcendence. Now whatever else it was, this negative theology wasn't a way of defeating the atheists because there weren't any atheists to defeat--even the ancient atomists did not deny the existence of the Gods, they just thought they were material beings. Various people were accused of being atheists, of course, because atheism was thrown around as a generalized term of abuse in much the same way that bloggers trot out the word fascism; but until the Enlightenment, the heretics and other enemies of the faith were just as theistic as their orthodox opponents and oppressors. To use your lingo, the fights were between different schools of argle-bargle, not between argle-bargle and some sort of skeptical rationality.

These days theists do appeal to the inscrutability of God to defend themselves from nonbelievers but they do so in a way that would have offended the theologians and philosophers of late antiquity or the Middle Ages. Those guys weren't being evasive about believing in propositions. They believed in lots of propositions. They just didn't think that the propositions were the whole deal, either in respect to knowing God mystically or in relating to God existentially. I don't see the benefit of projecting modern arguments back into periods in which they wouldn't have made sense to anybody. What's next, trying to figure out whether Charlemagne was a Democrat or a Republican?

No atheists in antiquity?

What about Democritus, Diagoras of Melos, Epicurus, and Theodorus the Atheist. Brainz.org lists them as such.

Jim Harrison -

Your comment is fascinating but totally irrelevant to anything I said. Where did I say, or even suggest, that notions about the inscrutibility of God were just modern inventions for defeating atheists? I was criticizing Armstrong's assertion about what faith was “supposed to be,” and about what people “used to understand.” From the beginning Christianity has had at its core a set of factual propositions about the world and about God that are central to the faith. It's that simple. Armstrong is wrong to be so dismissive of that point.


Democritus and Epicurus were atomists who didn't deny the existence of the Gods. They just thought the gods were material beings and perhaps not terribly relevant to us. Diagoras of Melos does seem to have dismissed the gods completely, but Theodorus, despite his title, may have simply been critical of popular religion. In any case, ancient atheists were rare and marginal figures.

You complain about Armstrong for maintaining (in Buntling's paraphrase)that "what âbeliefâ used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of âloveâ, âcommitmentâ, âloyaltyâ: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice not by studying a manual." Now it seems to me that this view is essentially accurate as far as it goes and the existence of the Nicene and other creeds is hardly evidence against it since, so far as I know, Armstrong isn't claiming that Christianity and Islam didn't involve belief in a series of propositions, just that propositional knowledge just wasn't central. At this point a preacher would hit you with seventy-eight quotations from Paul's epistles and an Imam would remind you that "Islam" literally means submission.

When you claim that the Nicene Creed is "the basis for most versions of modern Christianity. It is a set of propositions, pure and simple," you are reflecting a contemporary attitude that understands religions as systems of ideas rather than forms of life. Historians and sociologists don't buy this view of religion, not because they are defending anybody's faith, but because religions on the hoof aren't very much like axiomatic systems. Doctrine is not insignificant, but for most believers most places ritual, myth, images, liturgies, emotions, forms of church governance, and many other things are as important or more important than articles in the catechism.

If the only thing holding Democritus and these other "enemies of faith" back from total and complete assimilation into atheism was general ignorance about earthquakes and weather patterns, then 1, why are you assuming that they would NOT arrive at the same conclusion as today's atheists if handed a science textbook, and 2, since they were critical of the beliefs of their time, then they ought to be distinguished for their lumpen behavior not generalized as simple theists.

The reason that the ancient atomists believed in the gods had nothing to do with earthquakes or weather patterns. Indeed, Democritus and Lucretius and the rest had mechanistic explanations for such things and specifically criticized the traditional notions such as the idea that Zeus hurled lighting bolts at evil people. The atomists thought the gods were real because people saw them from time to time. If we credited the first person accounts of ordinary people in the same way the ancients did, we'd believe in the gods too.

Jim Harrison -

Thank you for the clarification, but it changes nothing. The Nicene Creed shows that from the start Christianity was committed to a series of factual propositions. If any significant number of people came to believe those propositions were false then the rituals, myths and all the rest would have died with them. You can't separate one from the other. Furthermore, Christian apologetics, that is, providing rational defenses of the faith, was a going concern right from the dawn of the religion. It was not some incidental concern.

I'm sure it's true that if we go back many centuries we would find that most people most of the time did not view their religion as rational acceptance of a set of propositions, but that's because most people in history have been illiterate and uneducated, and simply absorbed their religion from the surrounding culture. As you said, there was no significant body of people challenging the central tenets of the faith, so there was no need to mount any defense of them.

What I described as twaddle was not the idea that ritual and the rest was front and center in people's religious lives.
It was the idea that in the early days of the religion people knew that they could say nothing about God. That just isn't true. They had a great many things to say about God's attributes and desires, and these things were absolutely central to the way they viewed the religion. Augustine, to pick one example (used by Armstrong), may have believed that God was ineffable and beyond human powers of description, but he also believed we knew a great deal about God's wants and desires. He regarded the Manichees, for example, as people who were sadly mistaken about critical questions of fact regarding the doctrines of the church. That they were wrong on these questions of fact was not something that could be brushed aside or ignored on the grounds that the really important thing was the commitment and the ritual. Most people did not engage in such activities because they lacked Augustines education and resources. But that does not mean the rational side of the faith was unimportant.

At any rate, if Armstrong's point was that these were happy times that we should want to go back to (she does, after all, describe it as a modern mistake to try to defend the faith rationally) then I'm afraid I must stand by my criticism of her. That this is what faith often was in the past and in some cases still is today does not mean this is what faith is “supposed to be” and it does not make it a mistake to seek rational arguments. I would say that the modern insistence on rational arguments for the faith from so many quarters of modern Christianity is a great step forward, not something to be comdemned.

Finally, I would point out that natural theology, in which people seek evidence of God's attributes from a study of nature, has an honored history in the church going back several centuries. If the desire for evidence is a modern mistake, it is nonetheless one with a very long history.

Armstrong was levelling her criticisms in the context of talking about how simplistic the New Atheists are for focusing their ire on the lack of rational justification for specific tenets of modern religions. She is wrong to see it that way. The New Atheists are focusing on the really important questions, since if the doctrines fall the religious practices go with them, and, regardless of how things used to be, the fact is that today an awful lot of people see their faith as the most rational thing in the world. Armstrong actually concedes much of what the NA's are arguing, since she also has little use for the more doctrinaire sorts of religions. Like her, I wish we could focus the discussion on the more benign aspects of religion. But for now we can not. She is the one living in the ivory tower, while the NA's are the ones dealing with religion as it actually is.

The Atomists didn't credit first person accounts from ordinary people. Those like Epicurus said one shouldn't believe in what one hasn't first experienced. The first person doesn't extend beyond the self. That's not the same as believing in first person accounts from just anyone.

I take no position one way or the other on Armstrong whose works I have never read. What inspired me to get into this discussion was a general irritation with two tendencies:

1. The tendency of right-thinking atheistical folks to identify rationality with their own rather positivistic vision of empirical science as if other activities such as, for example, law, philosophy, music theory, literary criticism, history, and many other disciplines were illegitimate or subordinate to science. I'm not laying that one on your desk, but the attitude is all over the place.

2. The tendency to think of religion as primarily a matter of belief in a series of propositions. You do seem to buy into that notion, at least to the extent of writing "if the doctrines fall the religious practices go with them, and, regardless of how things used to be," when I expect it would be more accurate to say "if the doctrines fall, the religious practices ought to go with them if people would only have the sense to operate as I claim to operate." It is an empirical question how often a change of opinion has been the originating cause of a loss in religious belief. What does seem clear is that the doctrines of the religions are practically irrefutable, i.e. one can decide they aren't true, but one never has to, precisely because theologies deal with unreal things such as gods, demons, and spirits. People were willing to be burned at the stake to hold on to their beliefs; they aren't going to be terrified by a knock-down good argument even if, from both your point of view and mine, it really is unanswerable.

Dogmas and creeds are rather like scripture. Their meaning and force depend upon the interpretive practices of the communities that hold them sacred. To believe as certain Protestants and many atheist do that the words of the Bible or the Nicene Creed come with an enduring meaning is as superstitious as thinking that the God really does inhabit its idol. It may be possible to come up with a reasonable conjecture as to how something was read a long time ago, but that reading, however likely, does not bind the present. The temptation episode in Genesis does sound like it deals with a story about a talking snake, for example, but for Christians it's "really" been about Satan for a long time now. It's not just that religions are not axiomatic systems that depend upon the soundness of their axioms, it's that the axioms don't stay put. Religions don't have any bones in 'em.

By the way, I quite agree with you that the old theologians were deadly serious about doctrine, although neither Augustine nor Aquinas would dream of reducing faith to belief in propositions. Lay people could also get fantastically worked up about fine points of dogma: the classic instance is the blood that ran in the streets of Constantinople over whether Christ was the same as the father or merely like him--a difference that comes down in Greek to a single iota in a single word of the creed. The point is it doesn't really come down to that iota: the passions that lay beneath these struggles were about politics and cultural identities. At other times and places, heads got broken over purely ritual issues like the date of Easter and whether the laity were entitled to wine as well as bread in Communion--that last one got Huss burned at the stake and led to a monster religious war in the 15th Century.

Ideas matter, but they matter in context; and they are never decisive by themselves. At least that's my claim.

Jim Harrison -

Okay. I'll let you have the last word. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Okay. I'll let you have the last word

I wonât!

With all due respect, I have a problem with people wandering around accusing Dawkins of Philistinism, for a couple of reasons. (Dawkins in particular, as the New Athiest that I have read most, and most identified with; the others Iâll leave to defend themselves if they care to).

Firstly - Iâve read a great many of his books, and am inclined to disagree with the charge; secondly, on a more personal level, I identify with his arguments sufficiently that if that charge is leveled at him, then itâs also leveled at me as well, and I take exception to that.

Jim â I think the two issues that we disgree on are nicely summarised in your 4.55pm post. Iâll take the trivial one first: the idea that the new atheists

rationality with their own rather positivistic vision of empirical science as if other activities such as, for example, law, philosophy, music theory, literary criticism, history, and many other disciplines were illegitimate

This is a pretty serious charge and one that I think is a bit unfair. Yes, Dawkins is a scientist and values evidence and rationality when considering truth claims about the world. However, this does not mean that he disparages, or is even unappreciative of, those other non-scientific areas of thought. In throwaway comments, he comes across as a lover of literature, art, music, albeit an amateur. As someone whose primary area of training is in science, it is no surprise that he has not attempted to write professionally on these subjects â that does not mean that he treats them with disdain. This comes across most clearly in his book Unweaving The Rainbow â which if you have not read, I would thoroughly recommend. It is entirely an attempt to communicate his appreciation of the beauty and majesty of the natural world through gaining a deeper understanding of it, and for me, it represents him at his most romantic and sympathetic.

What he does do, however, is to take the position that religions make truth claims about the natural world, and as such, they should be evaluated by the standards of scientific evidence. This is where we run into your second criticism, that we

think of religion as primarily a matter of belief in a series of propositions.

This seems to me to be something of a misrepresentation of our actual position. Religions make truth claims â true, and undeniable. This is not to say a religion is âprimarilyâ anything.

You make a long and eloquent argument about the history of religion and âfaithâ as love or trust in salvation rather than belief in propositions. Iâm sympathetic to that argument and have no intention of challenging it â except in its relevance. The Christian faith (to take an example Iâm most familiar with) can certainly be spoken of in terms of trust in God, and faith in Salvation through Jesus Christ. Yes, it might also be possible to argue that for much of its history, Christians might argue about these tenets without ever questionning the fundamental assumptions that lie behind them â but assumptions there are.

The very concept of faith and salvation is only meaningful if we assume: God exists; God wishes us to behave in a certain way; these wishes are relevant (our compliance will determine our fate in a subsequent life to this one); these wishes can be known. These assumptions are in fact truth claims about the world, and while they may have seemed self-evident to many of the great theologians, and therefore remained unexamined, that does not in any way make a modern analysis of these assumptions ânaïveâ or make their examiners âphilistinesâ.

Indeed â since these assumptions lead directly to the influence religion has over our lives, and since that influence is not always for the better (and can at times be quite evil), such an examination is long overdue. Thus the New Atheist movement (and how I loathe that term, despite my usage above) seeks to challenge these assumptions, in the open. You can, if you wish, argue that their tone is aggressive (at times, true) or condescending (ditto) â but the substance of the debate is entirely valid.

James W:

"In throwaway comments, he comes across as a lover of literature, art, music, albeit an amateur. As someone whose primary area of training is in science, it is no surprise that he has not attempted to write professionally on these subjects â that does not mean that he treats them with disdain."

Did you read The God Delusion? He attempted to write professionally about a subject (religion) that he is less than an amateur. His contempt for religion is so severe that he refuses to acknowledge that any good thing has ever come from religion and instead resorts to sophomoric rants about how religion is the ultimate evil and poisons everything it comes into contact with.

In the Delusion, he makes no scientific claims. In fact, almost all of his arguments are religious with some philosophy sprinkled in for good measure. Regardless of his scientific acumen and engaging writing skills, he is an obvious dilettante in matters of religion. His ignorance of Christianity and the Bible is on full display and really falls flat for people who have even a basic knowledge of Biblical theology. Where The God Delusion is concerned, I will have to disagree with your assessment (as quoted above) of Richard Dawkins.

By Lofcaudio (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink

I wouldn't pick Dawkins as an example of what I called Philistinism, and back in my original post I didn't. In his books and interviews, Dawkins doesn't dismiss his serious opponents as knuckleheads; he thinks they are wrong about natural theology and the much else but he doesn't think they can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Though he is a gentleman, which is more than you say for a lot of the rest of us in these debates, I don't think Dawkins is just being polite either. He recognizes that ideas and values he opposes have some real weight.

I'm also not complaining about guys like DuWayne for whom all these issues have a tremendous personal relevance that they can never have for somebody like me who was never part of a church.

In writing about the belief in God and related notions, James W. writes that "these assumptions lead directly to the influence religion has over our lives." As I suggested to Jason above, this way of speaking hides its own assumption, namely that religion is somehow based on premises like the theorems of an axiomatic system. Once again, I'm not suggesting that doctrines aren't significant, especially for many modern believers and unbelievers who really do think that a faith is a matter of accepting the truth of various facts. I'm just pointing out that this way of thinking about religion is both one-sided and misleading if you apply it to religion in general.

Anthropologists and historians of religion sometimes distinguish two ways of approaching a cultural phenomenon. You can try to interpret the feature on its own terms by entering into the mind set of the people it belongs to (the emic approach) or you can make sense of it from the outside using categories that apply to all cultures (the etic approach). My point is that whether you try to figure out real religions emicly or eticly, you'll eventually end up thinking of them as forms of life. They not only define themselves in this way for the most part, but the empirical evidence suggests that rituals, customs, myths, images, forms of church governance,liturgies, and values tell you a lot more about them than the catechisms ever do. One piece of evidence is the persistence of what sure look like Christian denominations that have effectively abandoned many of the specific beliefs atheists want them to depend upon: read the notes in the Bibles they use.

A technical note: in denying that the essence of the Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) religion is a body of propositions, indeed in denying that these religions have an essence, I'm not suggesting there aren't family resemblances that make it reasonable to go on trying to figure them out as objects of study. As a historical fact, Christianity is hardly coherent, but it is stringy. One can examine the various strings, some of which involve persistent propositional beliefs and some which don't. For example, I think you can go a long way to understanding the history of Christianity if you see it as an attempt to arrive at a way to finesse intractable social conflicts.


Where The God Delusion is concerned, I will have to disagree with your assessment (as quoted above) of Richard Dawkins.

I did read it, and yeah - fair enough. It is the one book in particular that takes him out of his area of expertise.

I will make one point in my defense: in the passage of mine that you quoted, I was defending Dawkins from the charge of denigrating the disciplines of "law, philosophy, music theory, literary criticism, history, and many other disciplines". In The God Delusion, although he moves away from his scientific home ground, he still does restrict his attack to religion (as implied by the title).

Now - I'm not sufficiently an expert to defend him against the charge of being a dilettante or sophomore (even if you had given any specific examples to back up your challenge). What I will say, however, is this:

1) His contempt for religion is actually quite heavily bounded and is qualified in the opening chapters; he is careful not to let it spill over into a hatred of religious people - he chastises their actions, and the mindset that contributes to those actions.

2) He is clear that he does not intend to address theology, but rather the beliefs and actions of actual religious people. These two are in no way the same thing, and his ignorance of the former does not seem massively relevant given his stated intent.

Anyhoo - feel free to respond to this as you wish - especially if you have any more concrete criticisms about specific chapters - I am always happy to learn something. I might not be around when you do, so I apologise if I don't reply. I will do my best to check in though.

Jim -

thanks for reading and posting. I'm going to read through your post in more detail when I have time.

I think maybe we disagree less than I had thought. I'm not sure I agree that

this way of speaking hides its own assumption, namely that religion is somehow based on premises like the theorems of an axiomatic system

... but I'm going to have to think some more about why.

As I said to Lofcaudio - I gotta run. Hope to cath you around later.