Among the Disbelievers | The Nation


Among the Disbelievers

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Imagine it's Paris in the spring of 1789 and you have just announced that you are an inveterate foe of tyrants and kings. Obviously, your message is not going to fall on deaf ears. But now that you've made it clear what you're against, what are you for? Do you favor an aristocratic constitution in which power devolves to the provincial nobility? Would you prefer a British-style constitutional monarchy? Or do you believe in all power to the sans-culottes? How you answer will shape both your analysis of the situation and the political tactics you employ in changing it. It may also determine whether you wind up on the chopping block in the next half-decade or so.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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This is the problem, more or less, confronting today's reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time, religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor entertainment. Christmas and Easter were quite unthinkable without it, not to mention Hanukkah and Passover. But then certain enthusiasts took things too far by crashing airliners into office towers in the name of Allah, launching a global crusade to rid the world of evil and declaring the jury still out on Darwinian evolution. As a consequence, religion now looks nearly as bad as royalism did in the late eighteenth century. But while united in their resolve to throw the bum out--God, that is--the antireligious forces appear to have given little thought to what to replace Him with should He go. They may not face the guillotine as a consequence. But they could end up making even bigger fools of themselves than the theologians they criticize.

Richard Dawkins is a case in point. It is no surprise that, along with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon, he has emerged at the head of a growing intellectual movement aimed at relegating religion to the proverbial scrapheap of history (which by this point must be filled to overflowing). He's bright, obviously, a lively writer--his 1978 book The Selfish Gene is regarded as a pop science classic--and as an evolutionary biologist, he's particularly well equipped to defend Darwin against neofundamentalist hordes for whom he is the Antichrist. But Dawkins is something else as well: fiercely combative. Other scientists have tried to calm things down by making nice-nice noises concerning the supposedly complementary nature of the two pursuits. Einstein famously said that "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," while the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once characterized the two fields as "non-overlapping magisteria" that address different questions and have no reason to get in each other's way. But Dawkins, to his great credit, is having none of it. Although he does not quite come out and say so, he seems to have the good sense to realize that no two fields are ever truly separate but that, in a unified body of human knowledge, or episteme, all overlap. Conflict is inevitable when different fields employ different principles and say different things, which is why an evolutionary biologist can't simply ignore it when some blow-dried TV evangelist declares that God created the world in six days, and why he'll become positively unhinged should the same televangelist begin pressuring textbook publishers to adopt his views.

Consequently, he's got to go on the warpath--not only against the fundamentalists but against the sloppy logic and wishful thinking on which they batten. This is Dawkins's forte, and it is what makes The God Delusion such an entertaining read. Not one for politeness, he is the sort of fierce logic-chopper who chuckles nastily when coming across what he regards as some particularly choice bit of inanity. Discussing Arius of Alexandria, for example, infamous in certain fourth-century theological circles for maintaining that God and Jesus were not "consubstantial," i.e., not composed of the same substance or essence, you can almost hear him snicker: "What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What 'substance'? What exactly do you mean by 'essence'? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply." Quoting a third-century theologian known as St. Gregory the Miracle Worker on the mystery of the Holy Trinity--"There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son"--he can't help sneering that "whatever miracles may have earned St. Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity." Noting that the Catholic Church divides angels into nine categories, or orders--seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and ordinary members of the angelic rank-and-file--he lets slip that "what impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along."

This is not entirely fair. The Catholic Church does not just make such things up but has thought long and hard about angelic orders and other matters of equal importance. But Dawkins's outrage at the persistence of medieval ideas in the modern era is warranted. In fact, it's overdue. Also warranted is the sheer pleasure he takes in recounting a double-blind experiment funded by a whopping-rich outfit known as the Templeton Foundation to test the efficacy of prayer. Headed by a Boston cardiologist, Dawkins informs us, the study involved 1,802 patients in six hospitals who had just undergone coronary bypass surgery. Researchers divided the subjects into three groups: those who were not informed that church congregations as far away as Missouri were praying for their speedy recovery, those who were informed and a control group consisting of patients for whom no prayers were said and who were unaware that an experiment was under way. Church members were provided with each patient's first name and last initial and, in the interest of standardization, were asked to pray "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" in just those words.

The results, announced in April 2006, were a hoot. The first group of patients, those who had no idea that others were praying for them, did no better than the control group, while the second, those who knew they were the object of others' prayers, actually did worse. "Performance anxiety," the experimenters theorized. "It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?" one speculated. Instead of accepting the results gracefully and conceding that the theory of intercessory prayer had been disproved, an Oxford theologian named Richard Swinburne complained that the whole exercise was meaningless because what matters to God is not prayer so much as the reasons behind it. But if the experiment had gone the other way and the patients being prayed over had outperformed the control group, we can well imagine what the reaction would have been. People like Swinburne would have shouted from the rooftops that God's existence had been proved and that we had all better beg his forgiveness double-quick.

But it didn't, and it is now clear that praying for a quick recovery is on par with crossing one's fingers and wishing for a Mercedes. Science is predicated on the assumption that belief is unwarranted without evidence and reason to back it up. But religion is based on the opposite: that belief in the absence of evidence is a virtue and that "the more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are," as Dawkins puts it. "Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially highly rewarded." That last line is classic Dawkins--provocative, pugnacious, even a bit over the top, but true.

As Dawkins admits, there is something distinctly nineteenth century about the new rationalism that he and others are promoting. It smacks of prairie populism and freethinkers like the wonderful Robert Ingersoll, who, in the post-Civil War period, used to crisscross the country, drawing thousands eager to hear him denounce the churches, poke fun at the Bible and sing the praises of Darwin: "Can we affect the nature and qualities of substance by prayer? Can we hasten or delay the tides by worship? Can we change winds by sacrifice? Will kneelings give us wealth?... Has man obtained any help from heaven?" These were questions that made Ingersoll one of the most popular lecturers of his day. Now, after the mushy ecumenism of the late twentieth century and the religious terrorism of the early twenty-first, a growing number of Americans plainly long for something more bracing.

But we are still in the position of the French revolutionary who has not moved beyond antiroyalism. Atheism is a purely negative ideology, which is its problem. If one does not believe in God, what should one believe in instead? Dawkins thinks he has an answer--science--but his understanding of the term is embarrassingly crude and empirical.

This comes through when he tries to figure out how "the God delusion" arose in the first place. Why did people latch onto an idea that we now know to be incorrect? Why didn't the ancient Israelites conduct their own double-blind experiment to determine whether sacrificing all those bulls, rams and occasionally children to Yahweh was really worth the trouble? Dawkins gropes for an explanation at one point in his book. He speculates that religious visions may be a form of temporal lobe epilepsy (which implies that there must have been quite an epidemic in Palestine when people like Elijah, Hosea and Jeremiah were raising a ruckus) but then lets the idea drop. He suggests that religion caught on because it confers certain evolutionary advantages but concedes that this is exceedingly hard to prove. He speculates that faith may be the result of a self-replicating "meme," the cultural equivalent of a gene. But after a murky discussion of "memeplexes" and genetic cartels, the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that Dawkins is lost in a tautological fog in which religion is self-replicating because it satisfies certain human needs and is therefore... self-replicating. Finally, he suggests that religion survives because it is comforting--this, some 200 pages after conceding that religion is as likely to exacerbate stress as to alleviate it. (The last thing Old Testament prophets wanted to do was soothe troubled souls.)

Dawkins's sense of history is so minimal that it approaches the vanishing point. He is a classic example of the kind of shallow rationalist who thinks that all you have to know about history is that everything was cloudy and dark until the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at which point the sun began poking through. To quote Alexander Pope: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." Religion took hold at a certain point because people were stupid and benighted, but now that this is no longer the case, it should not hang around a moment longer. Yet it never occurs to Dawkins that monotheism is a theory like any other and that certain Jewish scribes and priests adopted it in the sixth century BC because it seemed to confer certain advantages. These were not survival advantages, since the Jews went on to rack up an unparalleled record of military defeats. Rather, they were intellectual advantages in that the theory of a single all-powerful, all-knowing deity seemed to explain the world better than what had come before.

Since Dawkins sees all religion as merely dumb, he can't imagine how this might be. Hence he can't see how the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator might cause worshipers to see the world as a single integrated whole and then launch them on a long intellectual journey to figure out how the various parts fit together. Roughly 2,500 years separate the Book of Isaiah, in which Yahweh first declares, "I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no god [44:6]," and Einstein's quest for a unified field theory explaining everything from subatomic structure to the Big Bang. Everything else has changed, but the universalism behind such an endeavor has remained remarkably constant. Dawkins blames religion for stifling human curiosity. But were he a bit more curious about the phenomenon he is supposedly investigating, he would realize that it has done as much over the long haul to stimulate it. For a world-famous intellectual, he is oddly provincial.

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