Among the Disbelievers

Among the Disbelievers

In their rush to throw out God, atheist writers appear to have given little thought to what should replace Him.


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.

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.

Christopher Hitchens’s new book, God Is Not Great, is another example of atheism as an empty vessel, one he manages to fill with an intellectual justification for George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” Hitchens, of course, is the former left-wing journalist who astounded friends, colleagues and readers alike by coming out in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, with everyone from Richard Perle to Peter Beinart busily backpedaling as the dimensions of the disaster have grown more and more glaring, Hitchens has dug in his heels. Like John McCain strolling through the Baghdad markets, he is more defiant of reality than ever, more insistent, as he put it in a March 26 article in the Australian, that the occupation has made the world a better and safer place. In God Is Not Great, he has something unpleasant to say about nearly every believer under the sun–except one. He trots out John Ashcroft’s infamous remark that America has “no king but Jesus” and reminds us that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both welcomed 9/11 as payback for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and abortion. He informs us that Hamas has talked about imposing the old Al-Jeziya tax on Christians and Jews in the West Bank, while in Gaza in April 2005 Muslim militants shot and killed a young woman named Yusra al-Azami merely because she was sitting unchaperoned in a car with her fiancé. For those inclined to think of the late Saddam Hussein as a Third World dictator in the secular-nationalist mold, Hitchens points out that Saddam found religion after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, inscribing the words “Allahuh Akhbar” (God is great) on the Iraqi flag, building a huge mosque as a showcase for his new piety and producing a handwritten version of the Koran allegedly with his own blood.

Yet one person is conspicuously absent from Hitchens’s list of religious evil-doers: George W. Bush. Yes, the man who said Jesus is his favorite philosopher “because he changed my heart” and, as governor of Texas, proclaimed June 10 as “Jesus Day,” goes unmentioned. How can this be? The explanation has to do with Hitchens’s subtitle. If “religion poisons everything,” then it must be responsible for most of the evil in the world, since belief of this sort is currently so widespread and pervasive. If a political leader is religious, he or she must be bad, and if he or she is bad, he or she must be religious. This is why Saddam gets slammed for his cynical exploitation of Islam and why Bush, author of the Global War on Terror and the war on Iraq, both of which Hitchens supports, gets a free pass. If he is to be believed, our faith-based President is defending rationalism against religious intolerance. Despite Hitchens’s anti-Stalinist credentials, arguments like these are so unscrupulous as to call to mind the Comintern of the late ’30s and early ’40s. Somewhere, Andrei Vyshinsky is smiling.

Hitchens’s historical sense in God Is Not Great is perhaps even more stunted than that of Dawkins. Here he is, for example, attacking the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the Maccabean revolt in 168 BC against the Seleucid effort to de-Judaize the Jerusalem temple and consecrate it to Zeus:

When the father of Judah Maccabeus saw a Jew about to make a Hellenic offering on the old altar, he lost no time in murdering him. Over the next few years of the Maccabean “revolt,” many more assimilated Jews were slain, or forcibly circumcised, or both, and the women who had flirted with the new Hellenic dispensation suffered even worse. Since the Romans eventually preferred the violent and dogmatic Maccabees to the less militarized and fanatical Jews who had shone in their togas in the Mediterranean light, the scene was set for the uneasy collusion between the old-garb ultra-Orthodox Sanhedrin and the imperial governorate. This lugubrious relationship was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.

If only the Maccabees had stood by as Antiochus IV Epiphanes looted the temple treasury, the world could have skipped 2,000 years or so of religious fanaticism and proceeded directly to the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism. Needless to say, there is no sense here of historical progress as necessarily convoluted and complex, with lots of back eddies, side currents and extended periods of stagnation. But just as it takes a child a long time to mature, it takes a long time for society as well.

It would be nice to believe that anachronistic thinking like this halted at Calais, but Michel Onfray’s Traité de athéologie, which has been given the hotter title of Atheist Manifesto for the American market, is not reassuring. Onfray is more philosophically sophisticated than Dawkins and Hitchens, and he is entirely commendable in his determination to hold Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the same rigorous standard. Whereas Sam Harris singles out Islam as “a religion of conquest,” for instance, Onfray points out that it was the Israelites who invented holy war, that the Israelite god Yahweh “sanctioned crimes, murders, assassination…kill[ing] animals like men and men like animals,” and that the Vatican has distinguished itself more recently as “a fellow traveler with every brand of twentieth-century fascism–Mussolini, Pétain, Franco, Hitler, Pinochet, the Greek colonels, South American dictators, etc.” Islam’s division of the world into a land of Islam and a land of infidels is “not too distant from Hitler’s,” Onfray adds. But Harris should know better than to call it “unique.”

This may seem fairly obvious. But with everyone from atheists to neocons jumping on board the anti-Islamic crusade, it bears repeating. Still, Onfray goes astray in the left-Nietzschean twist that he gives to his antireligious critique. Nietzsche’s influence is evident throughout Atheist Manifesto–in its high-wattage prose style, in its tendency toward aphorism, but mostly in its treatment of things like Judaism and Christianity as intellectual categories removed from their historical contexts. Onfray, to cite just one example, is extremely hard on St. Paul, whom he describes as a hysteric “driven by a host of psychological problems,” a loser who “converted his self-loathing into hatred of the world” and someone whose “impotence and resentment took the form of revenge: the revenge of the weakling.” None of this is surprising, given Paul’s views on such subjects as celibacy (strongly in favor), marriage (only for those unable to forgo sex), slavery (accepting) and women (condescending, to say the least). But anyone who reads Paul in the context of the entire Bible–which Onfray says elsewhere is the only way the Bible can be properly understood–will likely come away with a different impression. His hysteria, such as it is, doesn’t begin to compare with that of Hosea, Jeremiah and other Hebrew prophets, whose rages were truly volcanic. His political quietism is more explicable if one bears in mind that he believed that an impending apocalypse would soon put an end to all forms of injustice. His views on gender are more benign than is commonly realized, which may be why even pagans reported that women were among the first to convert.

Indeed, Paul was something new as far as the biblical tradition was concerned, a thinker, polemicist and organizer who was sober, practical and all but tireless. This is undoubtedly why Engels was so notably friendly toward him in one of his last essays. Not only did he describe Pauline Christianity as the socialism of its day but, referring to an epistle in which Paul reminds parishioners of the need to provide the new movement with financial support (which he describes as the “grace of giving”), he even commiserated with him across the centuries over the difficulty of squeezing party dues out of local members. (“So it was like that with you too!”) Context for Engels was all. It was obvious from his perspective that someone like Paul could not be held exclusively to a modern standard but had to be judged on the basis of his historical role. So what has happened in the century or so since Engels wrote that essay that has caused otherwise admirable leftists like Onfray to lose their historical bearings? Could the baleful influence of Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of overwrought 16-year-olds, have something to do with it?

Terry Eagleton shows a firmer grasp of the issues in The Meaning of Life–far firmer, in fact, than he did in the verbal hurricane that he unleashed on Dawkins in The London Review of Books last October. That article, which earned Eagleton a warm note of congratulations from Peter Steinfels in his “Beliefs” column in the New York Times–an indication of just how bad it actually was–was filled with ex cathedra comments and unsupported assertions that Eagleton, a left-wing Catholic back in the 1960s, somehow thought he could intimidate his readers into accepting. Thus: Dawkins “does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide.” Or: “Because the universe is God’s, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible.” Dawkins is a boor, in other words, because he is unable to grasp such ineffable truths. Yet both statements were nothing more than silly. Judaism concerns itself not with the life of the individual but the life of the nation, while Christianity saw the life we know as merely a prelude to the real life that will occur after the Resurrection. If the universe worked all by itself, similarly, God would have no need to intervene in it miraculously from time to time, as He does in both the Old Testament and the New.

With The Meaning of Life, however, Eagleton, the author of such works as Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory and The Illusions of Postmodernism, goes back to channeling his inner materialist. When he mentions God, it is in the sense of an abstract principle that he identifies by the Greek term agape, or love. Needless to say, this is not love in the erotic sense of the word but as a cosmic force that is an expression of the deity’s free choice in creating a material universe in which human beings can exist. Since Eagleton is coy as to whether he is speaking literally or figuratively, most readers will assume the latter. As a rhetorical device, it therefore allows him to make the point that the alternative to divine creation is not an empty and meaningless universe, as some moderns would have it. Rather, we can still see the universe as an intelligible whole, one whose “underlying laws,” he writes, “reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy which are capable of moving scientists to tears” (a rare point of agreement with Dawkins). If believers, according to Bishop Berkeley, believe that God invested the universe with meaning through the act of creating it, then nonbelievers can believe that people can invest life with meaning through a similar act of creating a mode of living that allows people to realize their full potential.

This supposes that meaning is not something that one discovers “out there,” by, say, sitting on a lonely mountaintop and contemplating the heavens. Rather, it supposes that one discovers it “in here,” that is, in society and through it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins notes that people might fill the gap left by religious belief in any number of ways but adds that “my way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world.” The words “my way” are a giveaway, since they suggest that meaning is something we arrive at individually. Eagleton, by contrast, contends that individual meaning is a solipsism, because any statement about oneself–such as “I am handsomer than Adonis” or “I am the greatest composer since Beethoven”–is meaningful only to the degree it is recognized by others. Hence, “my life is meaningful” is itself meaningful only to the degree that other people view it as such and see their own lives the same way. Hence, meaning can be achieved only via a collective act of self-creation in which humanity creates new conditions for itself so that humanity as a whole can flourish. As a corollary, Eagleton adds that “since there can be no true reciprocity except among equals, oppression and inequality are in the long run self-thwarting as well.” Freedom and equality are necessary for humanity to create a meaningful existence for itself.

In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence. Odd, isn’t it, that atheists can be right about God but wrong about religion and much else about the modern condition, while a believer can be wrong about God but at least on the right track concerning the current spiritual malaise?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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