Wednesday, July 22, 2009


The New Atheists

The philosopher's God | HE Baber | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

I wrote this piece for The Guardian, which got the predictable comments there and then enjoyed something of an afterlife on Butterflies and Wheels with more predictable comments.

I suppose I can understand some of the hostility to religion. There are still a few people around who were raised as fundamentalists and got beat up by it or who live in backwaters where conservative evangelical Christianity is the religion du jour, religious participation is de facto mandatory and non-participants get flak. And there are many more who don't have much contact with religion of any kind but who have picked up the rhetoric of these embittered ex-fundamentalists because it's an intellectual status symbol or because it's bad and therefore cool. Ho-hum.

What I don't understand is the virtually universal tone-deafness to religion--the utter failure to understand its appeal. But maybe I just have an anomalous understanding of what religion is.

Religion as I understand it is metaphysics + cult.

Metaphysics isn't empirical. The metaphysical commitments of religion don't have anything to do with the way in which material world operates. Science tells the whole story about that. They are solely concerned with out-of-this-world matters: the existence and nature of God and the possibility of postmortem survival. The metaphysics of religion commit one to belief in the supernatural, to out-of-this-world states of affairs--not to any claims about the supernatural influencing the natural order or breaking into it by way of miracles.

Cult consists in liturgy and, by extension, the infrastructure that houses it and facilitates it: church buildings, religious art, silverware and costume. It includes also all literature, music and art that has religious themes.

That's it in its essence. For historical reasons all sorts of other stuff has been tacked on, much of which has been, over the centuries sloughed off. Religions once provided cosmologies: now we know better and have abandoned creation myths for scientific accounts of the origin of the universe. Religions, Abrahamic religions in particular, told an historical story: we now know better, read the Bible critically and recognize that most of the history it includes is at best fanciful.

Most religious believers still seem to imagine that religion provides ethical guidance. It's time to dump that too: ethics is a purely secular discipline. As far as the Big Questions about the Meaning of Life and such, these aren't even intelligible. Faux-religions that dispense with the metaphysics but insist that they have something to offer when it comes to ethics and questions about Meaning or The Human Condition are completely worthless. Secular ethics, a philosophical specialty, deals with ethics and the empirical social sciences tell us everything there is to know about the "human condition."

So what is left is metaphysics and cult. That's religion in its essence. So what's the problem with that? Interesting metaphysics, that doesn't in any way undermine a completely scientific understanding of the natural world, ceremonies, customs and wonderful art and, if we're lucky, religious experience.

27 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

This will doubtless be predictable, like the comments at Butterflies and Wheels - but here it is anyway. One thing that's wrong with that is that people may call it metaphysics, or (in the demotic) supernaturalism, or beyond, or up a level, or some other such gesture - but many of them don't mean it.

H. E. said...

Not predictable, but a little cryptic--seriously. What are you suggesting: that what they really mean is that they want to promote some social or political agenda and are appealing to metaphysical claims to back it?

Peter said...

I think most religious people don't share your minimalist form of religion. Just as an example, religious people wrap up the afterlife stuff with the ethics stuff--live the life god wants you to live, and you get a good afterlife. At least, that's what the churches preach. I'm not sure how often the laity believe it, but I think they often do.

But a lot of people like to trot out Pascal's wager type arguments, and it's not at all uncommon to find someone who thinks that atheists can't be decent people, or people who use "Christian" and "moral" almost interchangeably. Have you maybe seen those stylized fishy things on car bumpers? Those are Xian symbols. Sometimes you see them on business advertisements too. I've always thought that was something suggesting that since the business proprietor is Xian, you should trust them. Actually, I remember George HW Bush once claiming that atheists probably shouldn't count as citizens. So, well, there may be a lot of religious people in the US who share your stripped down sort of religion, but there are also quite a few who mix up their ethics with their metaphysics. Some people even also mix up their science with their metaphysics.

Also, it's seemed to me for a long time that afterlife type questions aren't actually outside the realm of empirical investigation. There's a lot of neurological data that suggests that if there's any part of our conscious experience that will survive the death of our brain, it's not going to be a part that's very important to me.

Anonymous said...

Do people really read the Guardian? You sure got a lot of comments there. Down here, everyone reads the Sun.

Nice article but who chose the picture? What happened to the one with you playing the fiddle?

---Radicalfeministpoet

Ophelia Benson said...

A little cryptic - true.

No, not necessarily that there's really a social or political agenda; rather that the putative metaphysical God is really thought of as one that intervenes in the world, heeds prayers, etc. It's not really fully meta - it's just meta in the sense of being next to the physics book on the shelf. (That of course can include an s or p agenda, but it doesn't have to.)

H. E. said...

Peter, I suspect that most are at least as minimalist as I am. According to some sociologist who did a study about half of churchgoers are "lay liberals" who have no interest in metaphysics and believe that "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right." Having been a churchgoer and so had contact with lots of other churchgoers I can guarantee that this is, if anything, an understatement.

I remember overhearing two old ladies in the church parking lot chatting about a third old lady who had stopped going to church. One explained that she'd stopped going to church because she'd become really involved in Overeaters Anonymous. Evesdropping on the discussion that followed it was clear that neither of them though there was anything wrong or even odd about this. Church was one community activity, Overeaters Anonymous was another, and then there was of course volunteering at the library, getting involved in local politics, etc. People couldn't do everything and they did different community activities at different times as their interests changed and they looked to meet different people. Church was just another activity and there was no more reason to think ill of someone for not going to church than there was to think ill of them for not being involved in any of the other various activities that were available.

I'm sure there are some religious folks out there who think being a Christian is terribly important, that atheists are going to hell or whatever, but I've never met them. And I was deeply involved in the Church for a very long time and knew lots of churchgoers.

H. E. said...

Rad, nice to bump into you again. You retired to somewhere in the south of England? The Guardian wanted a recent picture--this was the only one I had. I was 16 years old in the picture of me playing the violin.

H. E. said...

Ophelia, thanks for clarifying. My religion is thoroughly meta. But it also seems to me pretty innocuous if people believe, or more likely half- or quarter-believe that God answers prayers or occasionally does little miracles. And half-belief is the most that most religious people give to these kinds of interventions. There are a few nuts, but most people aren't going to, e.g. avoid medical treatment and rely entirely on prayer and faith-healing. It hardly seems worth worrying about--no more than crossing one's fingers, wearing lucky underwear for the day of the big test, or tossing salt over one's left shoulder. Big deal.

I suppose I'm vexed by all the energy devoted to opposing these innocuous little superstitions not only because I'm a Christian but because there are so many seriously harmful secular superstitions, from quack medicine and immunization-rejection to pop psychology like the Mars-Venus literature. I have B&W various other debunking sites linked to my logic class website and talk about lots of this in the informal logic/critical reasoning part of my class. It's vexing that nowadays it seems the atheist thing has overshadowed the debunking of all this fashionable nonsense.

I won't claim that that's the only reason I'm vexed. Of course as a Christian I don't like it. But I am quite serious that the way in which concerns about religious belief have deflected attention from secular superstitions, which in many cases are not only more harmful but more compelling to students because, unlike religion, they're fashionable

Ophelia Benson said...

Well, Harriet, I can't agree that belief in an interventionist god is as inconsequential as throwing salt over your shoulder. (Can you? Really? The latter is so empty - so fundamentally meaningless - while the former is so not.) Some of the consequences of such a belief can be benign - but they can also be malign - it depends what kind of god is believed (or half-believed) in. People believe in a god who is good according to their lights, but their lights often include various forms of hierarchy, for instance. I know you know all this, so won't belabor it.

I know, about the overshadowing at B&W - but things shift around - sometimes there's more of the other stuff, sometimes there's less. I do my best!

I think you're wrong to think religion isn't fashionable though. Have you not noticed, for just one instance, all the characters wearing crosses on tv?

Of course as a Christian you don't like the atheist thing, but that could be partly just because you're not used to it. You had the deferential thing for decades - and you still do in many many many places, where it's still utterly taboo to whisper a skeptical word about Jesus, but you also have some vocal atheis now. Well...that seems only fair to me.

H. E. said...

"Not used to the atheist thing" Ophelia? Jesus, I'm not used to anything else. I grew up secular. When I got to college it was made pretty clear to us that religious belief simply wasn't even on the table. In phil of religion we worked over the standard theistic arguments but the pitch was that of course no one--at least no one who counted--believed in God anymore: the arguments were just terribly interesting. In Eng. Lit. we read Milton, the Metaphysical Poets and T.S. Eliot, and were told that it was important to understand the theological "background," the Biblical myths and such, for the same reason that it was important to know about Ptolemaic astronomy, the Great Chain of Being and the Divine Right of Kings. It was all cultural background.

In my subsequent life in Academia the assumption was that everyone was of course an atheist: that's why people rarely talked about it--not because it was taboo. Proclaiming yourself an atheist would have been like announcing that you brushed your teeth or wiped your butt. When anyone got wind of someone who was reputed to be a theist that was a shocker--that was something people talked about, with puzzlement and usually disapproval. When I chat with chums from the Society of Christian Philosophers one of the regular topics of conversation is "how is it for you at your place as a theist?" and the responses range from "my colleagues regard it as a personal eccentricity but are ok with it" to "I don't dare come out of the closet until I get tenure."

When I came out of the closet at my place I was immediately branded as a member of (this is the exact term) The Forces of Reaction. I also worked for a few years in book publishing in NYC and everyone I knew was either in book publishing, journalism or the arts. And it was the same thing. I didn't know anyone else who was a theist.

Now I am not "whining" here or putting on some elitist act. I am stating a fact and I find it hard to believe that you don't know this fact. How many theists do you know socially???

Ophelia Benson said...

Well I was simply responding to "Of course as a Christian I don't like it." I guess that was a little cryptic, and I misunderstood it - I thought you meant you didn't like the "New" atheism. If it's new, it's not what you grew up with. So - I don't know what you meant.

At any rate, I was talking about the broader culture and the US as a whole, not about the narrow slice in which "of course no one--at least no one who counted--believed in God anymore." In the broader culture it is belief in God that is assumed and taken for granted - a fact which is now, belatedly, meeting some push back. I took that to be what you don't like. Sorry if I got it wrong.

Ophelia Benson said...

Also - on further thought - just as you "find it hard to believe that [I] don't know this fact" - I find it hard to believe that you don't know that fact. I think it's somewhat disingenuous to talk about a narrow slice of the culture as if it somehow stood for the whole culture. I thought we'd already agreed, days ago, that there are circles where atheism is the norm - but that they don't represent the whole, or the majority, or even a very large minority. As people keep murmuring - if you think they do, you really need to get out more.

There are some theists in my social circles (because some of one's social circles are not of one's own choosing) - but not many - but then that's partly because I avoid theist circles. That can't be taken as straightforward evidence that theism is not the norm, because the fact that I don't have throngs of theist friends is because I don't want throngs of theist friends, not because there are no throngs of theists.

H. E. said...

I think you're underestimating the size of the "narrow slice" of the population where atheism, or at least polite agnosticism, is the norm, greatly overestimating size of the slice where fundamentalists dominate and make everyone else's life miserable, and perhaps most importantly completely ignoring the large group of people who just don't give a damn and, if asked, will say that "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right." I strongly suspect that that last group, comprising many church-goers, is the majority.

According to these stats over 3/4 of high school grads in the US go on to college. Most don't graduate but even if they don't they become, at least to some extent, enculturated. Most colleges, including those with nominal religious affiliations are thoroughly secular and give students the same anti-religious pitch I got in college. The overwhelming majority of kids drop religious practice when they go to college and for the past 2 generations, increasing numbers of those dropouts don't go back. See, e.g. Roof _A Generation of Seekers_.

Explicit atheists (if that's the term you prefer to "New Atheists") paint a picture reminiscent of the picture Mencken and Sinclair Lewis painted of the American hinterland 100 years ago, where churchgoing is de facto mandatory and intolerant fundamentalists oppress atheists who only now are beginning to "push back." It just ain't so.

I live in a working class suburb. I know my neighbors, I've been involved in local civic groups and also in my church with a nice cross-section of regular people. Most of these people simply don't give a damn. Some go to church, some don't. Those who do regard it as little more than another nice little community activity, aren't in the least bothered by those who don't, and couldn't care less what people believe or don't believe. That's not the "narrow slice"--that's Middle America.

I'm sure there are places where religious practice is de facto mandatory and fundamentalists oppress atheists but it isn't the norm in the wider culture. Most of my friends are convinced that there are hordes of powerful fundamentalists lurking, ready to take over and institute a theocracy on the order of _The Handmaid's Tale_, but when I ask them whether they've ever met any they draw a blank. This is the 21st century upper middle class version of the Reds Under Beds scare during the Cold War.

Ophelia Benson said...

"a picture reminiscent of the picture Mencken and Sinclair Lewis painted of the American hinterland 100 years ago, where churchgoing is de facto mandatory and intolerant fundamentalists oppress atheists who only now are beginning to "push back." It just ain't so."

Well, I submit that you don't know that.

About your working-class neighborhood - sure - but that's a working-class neighborhood in San Diego. I am told that things are very different elsewhere. I'm told this by people who have gone from various fairly cosmopolitan places to 'the hinterland' and been disconcerted by how different it is, as well as by people who have always lived in the hinterland.

Now, I'll freely agree with you that it doesn't seem to be like that where I live, and it never has. I used to wonder often where all these fundamentalists were, since I seemed to go from one year to the next without ever encountering any. But I also have to add that when I thought about it for a few more minutes, I remembered that where I live is where I live, and I can't assume that it represents everything. I also remembered one fundamentalist I did know - and the fact that he seemed to know a lot of people like himself too - and so on. And anyway that was before Bush got elected, and having gotten elected, remained so popular. Somebody admired that man, and it wasn't anyone I know, and it wasn't even any Republicans I know.

I hope you're right - but people who live in Texas and Nebraska and Minnesota and Georgia and Tennessee tell me you're not. I think you're extrapolating too much from your coastal city. (Mine is Seattle; in youth it was New York and environs.) I met some of those people at the Center for Inquiry a couple of years ago. In their towns, intolerant theists do oppress atheists - so I don't know how you can be so confident that 'It just ain't so.'

Jean K. said...

HE, In my suburb of Dallas, it's a problem being an atheist. I have had the same conversation with many atheist parents--what's going to be the kids' cover story? Some (like me) are very happy to be Jewish atheists (there are lots and lots of us), so the kids can get away with calling themselves Jews. Others are delighted when they discover the kids getting interested in Buddhism. That's OK, atheism isn't. Unitarianism is a good cover too.

How do I know that atheism is an unacceptable label? Because I saw the look on another parent's face at school when I accidentally mentioned that I was one. (Long story how it happened--it really was inadvertent.) Because I know polls say the majority of Americans wouldn't vote for an atheist. Because in this state you've got school boards crazy enough to want evolution taught as "just a theory" in science classes. Because I do mix with theists and I know they fear for my soul. Because I teach classes where I've been chastised by a student for covering atheism.

Given all of that, I really have found the new openness about atheism exhilarating. When people like Dawkins make atheist arguments in a sort of exuberant, swashbuckling way, I'm on board more because it communicates that atheists are entitled to respect. We can openly and confidently make our case, like theists have always done. I think attitudes vary in this regard, but people who are now in greater number "coming out" as atheists are not necessarily interested in hostility or disrespect. Literally, some of my best friends and smartest colleagues are theists, so I just can't be.

H. E. said...

We could obviously use some non-anecdotal empirical data.

It's really a matter of percentages and I think you may be underestimating the percentage of Americans who live in urban and coastal areas. Over 79% are urban according to the 2000 census. 53% live in coastal areas. But we still have the idea that most Americans live in small Midwestern or Southern towns. That's just statistically wrong, and is becoming wronger by the year as Americans become more urban and more coastal.

I'm not denying that there are places places where atheists aren't welcome, or that there are some nasty fundamentalists around. There are just far fewer than most people think and they have less power. Obama did win.

I can appreciate how atheists who live in these places feel because as a theist in Academia I get lots of flak. I wouldn't want to live in a place where atheism was a shocker, where kids had to have a religious "cover" but I also don't want to live in a country that everywhere approximated the "narrow slice" in which I live, where theism is a shocker, and theists are closeted or deferential.

And Jean (welcome to the blog!) I can believe you got a look when you mentioned being an atheist at your kid's school. But what kind of look do you think a theist would get in your department?

Jean K. said...

HE, I agree with you up to a point about the status of theists in philosophy departments. It's exactly as you say. They are an anomaly, and people secretly sit around wondering how theists can possibly be theists. I can understand how that's uncomfortable for theists. That said, theists are hired without reservation, and our resident theist is the department chair. If my community in Dallas wants to give atheists that sort of treatment--thinking we're puzzling, but respecting us and giving us power, I'm all for it!

H. E. said...

It depends on where you are in academia, just as it depends on where you are in the country. Some places it's just puzzlement. Other places theists get trashed. I know one guy who's in the closet until he gets tenure. I know another place, with a nominal religious affiliation no less, where theists have been squeezed out and where I doubt that any "out" theist could be hired.

I don't think you or I would want it like that for either theists or atheists. I can understand myself that where atheists get bashed the new openness about atheism would be exhilarating, but to theists who've been bashed--and that includes a significant number in the profession--that exhilaration feels like more bashing.

Ophelia Benson said...

"But we still have the idea that most Americans live in small Midwestern or Southern towns."

Well I certainly don't - I know most of us are urban, and most of the rest of us are suburban and exurban. But Midwestern and Southern cities are not immune to the surrounding culture.

The stuff about theists and atheists both getting "trashed" - how are we defining "trashed" exactly?

To put it another way, the question "why do you think God exists?" is not exactly symmetrical with the question "why do you not think God exists?". Is that "bashing"?

H. E. said...

Why do the semantics of "trashing" matter and why is it of any importance to atheists to show that there isn't a symmetry? We're not talking about the philosophical question of whether or not God exists. Of course I agree: the burden of proof is on the theist. It's theists, not atheists, who take the leap of faith. Philosophically, atheism is the default--certainly not as some claim "another religion." I'm not arguing the philosophical point.

The question is one about how people are treated in virtue of their intellectual commitments, whether true or false. In my "narrow slice" of the population, and I suspect yours, theists get funny looks. Theism is viewed as a peculiarity or a deficit--something one can be smart or acceptable in spite of at best. In some parts of my world being known to be a theist can set back professional interests when it comes to hiring, tenure, professional collaboration and professional advancement. In some places you have to deal with constant, grinding contempt for religious belief, disparaging remarks, chronic hostility and occasionally shunning.

But let's avoid talk about "trashing," "bashing" or whatever. I'm just suggesting that in some places theists are disadvantaged in virtue of their theism just as in other places atheists are disadvantaged in virtue of their atheism. The question of whether there is a symmetry is one of how disadvantaged atheists and theists are where they're in the minority and in how many places they're disadvantaged. If atheists are, as you put it elsewhere, a "despised minority" in a great many places but theists only get a few funny looks in a very few places then it isn't symmetrical. That, I think, is the way many atheists think things are.

I'm just suggesting that it is much closer to symmetrical than they think. There are a fair number of places where atheists get funny looks and among those places some where they're seriously disadvantaged. There are also a fair number of places, not confined to Academia, where theists get funny looks and among those places some where they're seriously disadvantaged.

Ophelia Benson said...

Okay. I think the two questions are related, but you say as much, so okay - let the question be one about how people are treated in virtue of their intellectual commitments, whether true or false. I see what you mean - but I'm not sure what you think follows from it. The same would presumably apply to, say, really serious Trekkies in an academic setting.

But maybe you're not saying anything about what follows, at this point.

Jean K. said...

"closer to symmetrical"

Well, having been in many philosophy departments with theists, and being a life long atheist, I think I'm in some position to compare. Granted, I was never the theist, but I've heard what people say about theists behind their backs, and you (HE) probably haven't! It's not actually that bad. As you said in your Guardian piece, philosophers have all sorts of weird theories. Theism is viewed as strange, but no more strange than...eliminative materialism or substance dualism or maybe even utilitarianism. Granted, it may be worse than that in some places. But theists are fully represented at the very top of the profession. Atheists, on the other hand, are not fully represented at the top of US society. It simply amazes me that my son can't dream of being president of the US, like other kids do, because he doesn't believe in God. Yet this is the case. I don't think theism is the sort of limiting factor that atheism is in the society as a whole, though I agree that within philosophy it's easier to be an atheist than to be a theist.

H. E. said...

Well, your son can always lie, like Obama. I'm a yellow dog Democrat, voted for and helped fund Obama, and thank God daily that he's in office. But I don't believe for a minute that he's a theist--or care. There was a little flurry sometime back about what church he'd join after having repudiated Rev. Wright. I'm betting that the answer is "none" and so far I'm winning. It would be very entertaining if after his second term is over he came out as an atheist.

Of course, being a utilitarian I have no problem with lying. I do take your point about theism not being an impediment in the profession generally in the way that "out" atheism could set one back materially in the larger society. I do get around quite a bit and compare notes and agree. But there are also some real horror stories at a few places and I've had a pretty hard time myself.

Even apart from that though, it's lousy being looked at funny--not just at work, but in other social transactions. It would be nice if no one looked at people funny either for theism or atheism.

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean K. said...

Ha...I agree with you on Obama probably being an atheist. I read a bunch of his memoir and it sounded to me more like he found church than he found God. So--great idea. I'll tell my son atheists actually can become president! Yeah, lying's probably the way to go.

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