There’s an article in the Guardian (reprinted on RichardDawkins.net) that’s been doing the rounds among the skeptical blogs lately. It’s written by a chap called John Gray, and titled The Atheist Delusion. I’ve been less deeply committed and in-depth in my response than I could have been, partly because I want to get something posted while it’s still nearly topical1, so I’ve just put together a paragraph-by-paragraph reply, rather than crafting it into a fully coherent rebuttal. It’s also somewhat scattered in tone and mood, so don’t be disconcerted if I switch suddenly and inappropriately between dry, tedious severity, and flippant obscenity.
First off, a necessary preamble: C’mon, are you really going to take this guy seriously? His understanding of basic science is so flawed, he thinks the two genders of humans originated on entirely different planets in the solar system! Ha!
No, I know it’s not that John Gray, but it had to be done. Onto the sarcasm, then, numbered by paragraph.
1. “Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, [religion] is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils.” Yeah, this is definitely the prevalent opinion in the western world these days, you don’t see many people actually promoting religion or talking about it in a positive sense any more. Yuh-huh.
2. “The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism.” Well, it’s very big of you to admit that some of us who choose to disdain the popular fairy tales do so for reasons other than fearing for our lives. Not that I’m entirely convinced that any particularly abrupt or dramatic shift has taken place, but I’ve been an atheist much longer than I’ve been cowering under my duvet to hide from the boogey-suicide-bombers who’ll get me if I don’t eat all my peas and carrots.
“The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.” Where does western opinion come into this? They blew themselves up and took thousands of people with them, because they were fanatically devoted to a religious cause. The idea that they were truly martyrs to some higher calling is something which general western opinion is pretty firmly united against, but there’s hardly any room for doubt that they saw themselves that way.
3. “In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.” First of all, is society not changing very quickly as a result of scientific development these days? Could’ve fooled me. Also, that religion will eventually be marginalised is an opinion, a future speculation, and not really something that anyone has put forward as a truly scientific hypothesis, that I’m aware.
Scientific understanding might be increasing, along with skeptical and critical thinking, and this may or may not be something that’s been empirically measured and verified – but as for the whole field of religion and faith being relegated to the tiny minority, people aren’t really claiming that as a theory based on evidence. This doesn’t mean it’s an article of faith, it’s just what they think is going to happen. If pushed, I’d say that I think Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. It’s not something I have “faith” in, and it’s sure as hell not an opinion based on detailed research and empirical analysis of the data, Xenu knows I’m too lazy for any of that. It’s little more than a guess, it’s where I’d put my money if I had to. This seems like quite a clumsy attempt by Gray to paint science as being just as faith-based and ideological as religion.
5. “The issues [Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights] raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks.” Indebted to the faith it attacks? Well… yeah, inasmuch as anything that makes itself useful by opposing something else requires that object of opposition to exist. I guess that Dawkins guy should be grateful to God, then, ’cause if He weren’t there to not exist, then how could Dawkins have written a best-selling book about Him? Huh? He should be more respectful to someone to Whom he owes his livelihood. Also, the issues John Gray’s article raises are essentially irreligious, and it is deeply indebted to the modern secularist movement it attacks. (The idea I’m parodying here might not actually be anything like the point that Gray’s trying to make, but I stand by my sarcasm all the same.)
“The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity.” Yes, most religions claim humanity to have some sort of god-granted free will, but much like morality, it’s quite possible to have a developed and meaningful concept of this without being religious, or buying into many other tenets of religious faith. And you don’t really get to dodge the accusation that certain religious institutions (as mirrored by the Magisterium in Pullman’s books) have exhibited oppressive authoritarianism, by claiming that they also originated the concept of free will. So they say we’re capable of making our own choices, big yay if they’ll still torture you or blow you up for making the wrong ones.
And this thing of atheism as a derivative of Christianity still confuses me. I get the idea of being “culturally Christian”, as Dawkins has described himself in the past – he sings Christmas carols, says grace in the dining halls at Cambridge when traditionally appropriate, listens to Bach – and I’d probably go along with that myself, having been raised in a liberally Christian household, and given a chance to develop fondness for things like Christmas, chocolate eggs, and the ritual consumption of human flesh2.
But when it comes to atheism, so what? I don’t believe in God, but I don’t think there’s anything Christian in the way I do it. It’s all gods I don’t believe in, you know, not just the big G off of Judeo-Christianity, although he is the only one I ever had any time for. There may be some kind of fascinating cultural history to the trends of atheist philosophy in the past (or it may be quite dull), but I can’t really see the bearing that all that has on my arguments for not believing in God and not enforcing any purely religious concepts on anyone else.
6. “Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.” According to Dictionary.com, the word “evangelical”, when not specifically referring to Christianity (as it does in the first four definitions of the word), means “marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause”. Well, I’m pretty ardently enthusiastic about a few things. That’s not the same as saying I never doubt things, or am in any way more unquestioningly and ideologically committed to them than moderate atheists are (especially since doubting stuff and rational thinking is a crucial part of what I’m so ardently enthusiastic about anyway).
And to address the actual point, it’s worth making the distinction between believing that everyone should live the way you do, believing that everyone should have to live the way you do, and simply having a philosophy or outlook on life in general. Those in the lunatic fringe of atheism who shout nonsense about religion being outlawed are not remotely representative of atheists in general, are soundly and appropriately denounced by all those of us who manage not to take rationality to irrational extremes, and seem to make up a much smaller minority of our demographic than do the right-wing Christian theocratic nut-jobs.
But the way this statement is phrased sounds needlessly accusatory. Is the author “certain that [his own] way of living is right for everybody”? Presumably John Gray thinks that the statements he’s making are not incorrect, but does he think that he’s absolutely right and everyone should agree with him? Does he think “universal conversion” to his point of view would be a good thing, or can people disagree with him without being lesser life-forms? If I think that everyone should basically have the freedom to do whatever they want insofar as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, would I be unfairly trampling on the freedoms of authoritarian tyrants if I became “evangelical” about arguing this idea? There’s a point at which this debate crosses over into triviality, and I think the way he’s talking here is more about painting modern atheists as bigots than making any particular point.
“It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human.” Obviously atheism as an idea can be taken to inappropriately dogmatic, evangelical, fundamentalist extremes. We get that. But among “the worst features of Christianity and Islam”, I would certainly include the abandonment of reason (surely a peculiarly human trait if ever there was one) in favour of blind obedience to any unknown, unmeasurable, unprovable set of ideas. Religion’s got that one in the bag beyond anything even the most zealous atheism can match.
An understanding of religion, and how much of a fundamental need of humanity it can be, is no doubt important. But that’s no reason not to take a stand against it, or be hostile to the destructive concepts behind it – though if possible it might be nice to take such a stand without being a dick to absolutely everyone involved. Other basic human impulses include a prevalent desire to spread one’s genetic code as far and widely as possible, inducing others to bear and rear one’s progeny as numerously as they can be persuaded to do so. But not everyone is driven equally powerfully by this instinct, and most of us would agree in condemning someone who indulged in such behaviour without making any attempts to control it in light of a developed moral understanding.
“It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion.” I’m friendly to a great number of religious people. It’s the religion itself I have no love nor respect for. This is an important difference. And while so many religious people are still failing to be at all friendly to either atheists or atheism, don’t get too comfy up on your high horse on this point.
Wow, am I still on this one tiny paragraph? Moving on…
7. “Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity.” I haven’t read Dennett’s book yet. I hypothesise that, actually, it’s no such polemic at all, but could be taken as one if you were a particularly touchy American Christian yourself with little sense of humour about your own faith being questioned, and an ability to feel personally singled out by any slights against the principles of religion in general, however broadly those slights were in fact made. I’ll report back on how this hypothesis bears up once I’ve read the book, if someone reminds me.
“The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity, while in Orthodox Judaism practice tends to have priority over doctrine.” I don’t think any of this undermines Dennett’s point, though. It’s true that most religions don’t consider themselves scientific theories, or attempt to be scientific. But just because their conclusions are more vague, or they throw around phrases like “mysterious ways”, or they don’t define themselves “by anything as simplistic as a creed”, their claims shouldn’t be immune from criticism. There are still clearly claims being made, many of which correspond to testable hypotheses about the empirically observable world – the accusations made by the likes of Dennett are, presumably, that these claims fail to be supported by observations of reality.
It’s not a defense that “[t]he incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity” – admitting that you have no idea what you’re talking about isn’t much of a step forward, unless you either start asking some more useful questions, or move on to thinking about something else. If the truth is ineffable, why is this good? And why should it be considered a rebuttal to Dennett’s claim that “[t]he proposition that God exists is not even a theory”? He’s right, it’s not, and it sure as hell ain’t a fact, so… isn’t this kinda what justifies atheism in the first place?
8. “For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked.” Gosh, I wonder why. A philosophy of thinking about an all-powerful magical being, and “magical thinking”… What could possibly be the connection there? (Oh, you were looking for a point? Sorry, all I’ve got is cheap snarking.)
9. “Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation.” There’s those human needs again. Yes, humans have needs, and religion often goes some way to serving those needs. This is something that everyone would do well to understand, atheists and skeptics included. But science arguably does more than satisfy biological imperatives, and the fact that religion also performs this same task in some cases is not enough to recommend it, or even condone it. I have certain physical, human needs, and one way of fulfilling some of them, up to a point, would be to go out and force myself upon an attractive mate. But if severe coercion were really necessary for me to accomplish any satisfaction of this need (which I think is a given), then I’m sure we’d all be grateful if I could find some other way to disperse this urge, without bothering anyone else. Which is what the internet is for.
11. “Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science.” Ouch. That would be “not at all”, then. Admittedly, memetics is not a well-developed science with many firmly established results (of which I’m aware), and even some of the basic ideas behind it (not least the limits of what constitutes a meme) are hard to define with useful precision. But insofar as it manages to behave like a scientific study, putting forward falsifiable hypotheses which can be tested by empirical observations to determine the strength of the underlying theory, it should be given due attention. As far as I know, intelligent design is yet to manage this at all, and remains a reactionary anti-evolution position entirely lacking in nuance, which serves no more purpose than to give creationism a faux-scientific front.
And really, even if you have no truck with meme theory, that’s not actually any kind of a hindrance in understanding the arguments for atheism. Even if it doesn’t qualify as a science, why should that stop it from being a useful metaphor (as Gray also describes it) to aid an intuitive understanding of how certain ideas spread?
12. Then we start skirting what is by now the rather tedious “argument by body count”: “some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes”. Yep, here come the Nazis. Please, like there’s no distinction between claiming scientific sanction and having your ideology actually supported by scientific fact. Hitler could have blathered whatever mindless crap he wanted about “survival of the fittest”, based on his own understanding of Darwin’s writings and evolutionary theory, but that’s a far, far cry from the idea that science says it’s good to kill lots of people if they’re less physically able than you. Whatever science learns about the truth behind, say, racial variation, drawing moral or ethical conclusions is itself an entirely unscientific process. And there are plenty of ways to get that wrong, but you can’t lay the blame on the facts we learn about our reality.
Oh, what’s that you say, the science “was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question”? No, fuck you, there was never any globally accepted science which said it was okay to murder millions of Jews. There weren’t rooms full of lab-coated boffins all around the world in the 1940s, shaking their heads sadly and saying, “Well, it doesn’t seem right to me what this Hitler chap’s doing, but I have to admit, the observable facts are plainly on his side.” What led to the mass slaughters in concentration camps was an ideology, which no doubt satisfied, incidentally, many of the “peculiarly human” urges of the instigators.
Yes, science can be “used for inhumane purposes”, but science can only examine results drawn from the world and use them to adapt, adjust, and improve our understanding of the world through the improvement of explanatory theories. If you want to twist that process into something that suits your inhumane purposes, then I’m sure you’ll find a way, but that’s not what it’s for. Religion, on the other hand, can be cruel and inhumane and horrific and evil even when you’re doing it right.
13. “But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom?” Yes, again, if militant atheism “becomes a political project”, and is enforced rigorously by a tyrannical regime, then it is in danger of becoming just as undesirably oppressive as any religious dictatorship. But, again, this kind of oppression is not inherent to atheism, and most proponents of atheism and critical thinking who I’ve heard talking about it are also big supporters of personal freedoms. Sam Harris is the example being quoted by Gray here, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to repress anybody’s freedom to express their personal beliefs, judging by his writing.
14. “But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.” Why are we still talking about Hitler? Yes, you’re right, the concept of race as a scientific category that led to the Holocaust was a Nazi idea. And we all agree the Nazis were bad. But it seems like they’re not being made to take the full brunt of the blame for this. It feels like another clumsy attempt to badmouth science and atheism in general.
And I admit I may have been guilty of this before now as well, but there’s not much distinction being made by Gray between atheism and science. Which is odd, because they’re entirely separate things. Hitler was not an atheist. The “Nazi belief in race as a scientific category” has zero connection with my belief in God as a fictional character. Inasmuch as race is a scientific category at all, it takes an ideological and unscientific twisting of scientific understanding to justify committing atrocities. And even if you don’t accept Dawkins’ so-called “simple-minded” reasoning, what Gray’s linking to the Nazi regime is science, not atheism – yet even he wouldn’t downplay the importance of science’s role in the world. (“Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world”, a few paragraphs ago.) Quite why Dawkins’ claim that “whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things” is not the important point, or what atheism had to with Nazi science, Gray entirely fails to establish.
15. “It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions.” But it’s a lot less clear who “he” refers to here. Nobody is named in this paragraph; possibly we’re still on Dawkins, or maybe just the “contemporary critic of religion” in general. But this attempt to painted the “avowed liberals” of the skeptical movement as illiberally fundamentalist is quite a flimsy straw man, given what they actually profess, and especially given the genuine continued fundamentalism of much of the religious establishment. As so many of this ilk seem incapable of grasping, there is a vital distinction between a desire “to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions” (as Gray’s mystery person is alleged to wish for), and a desire to see the government not put tax-payers’ funds toward endorsing or mandating any particular religion or article of faith, nor discriminate against anyone who wants nothing to do with the whole messy business. I believe the US has a thing called the First Amendment which is kinda with me on this.
16. Then he goes on for a bit about someone called AC Grayling, and stuff about history, and the direction in which it may or may not be progressing. I’ll refrain from arguing here, because I’m starting to feel out of my depth.
But I’m not at all convinced by Gray’s claim that, essentially, society isn’t making any progress:
18. “Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century.” Is this really evidence that history is repeating itself, cycle after cycle, with nothing ever being actually achieved? Slavery existed in America in the 19th century as a nationally endorsed institution, it was widely seen as an entirely acceptable part of life, and people openly admitted to this without needing to turn a blind eye or do any embarrassed coughing about what might or might not be going on. They just owned slaves. Is that really comparable to the state of things today, with such practices being almost universally denounced across what we call the civilised world, and relegated to society’s infamous “seamy underbelly”3? A few centuries back, the Spanish Inquisition routinely tortured many, many people, under the direction of the Spanish monarchy, as an official method of maintaining religious control. The much smaller-scale practices engaged in recently by the US government have earned the widespread revulsion of its citizens, been instrumental in sending the commander-in-chief’s approval rating plunging to record lows, and has had to be performed behind a plethora of smoke and mirrors to have had as small a damaging effect as it has. Yeah, it sucks, but it’s an improvement on the fucking Inquisition.
19. “Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.” That’s where it would start? Really? I mean, call me crazy, but I think that atheism, intellectually rigorous or otherwise, might have a few things to address first, before it gets to something like the “Christian view of history as a universal narrative”. Things like, just as a really nit-picking example, whether or not God exists. You know, something that atheism’s actually about. Just a thought. Probably just me.
20. Yes, as this Onfray dude is not the first to point out, modern atheism has an absurdly fundamentalist arm, as must just about any social movement of any significant size. But Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens ain’t it. However sarcastically you might choose to use terms like “defenders of freedom”, I’ve heard all of these guys passionately and eloquently defending the basic ideas of individual liberty. None of them wants to prevent people from being religious, or to be able to forcibly shut people up who only want to loudly proclaim disagreement with their ideas.
21. “In today’s anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism.” Oh, wow. Yeah. Seriously? Islam is secular? Seriously? The people blowing themselves and others up in the name of Allah, professing their righteousness in his eyes, hoping to be rewarded by virgins in the afterlife, are doing so in a way “unconnected with religious or spiritual matters” (dictionary.com again)? I don’t care whose “techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements”, I don’t give a fuck where they borrowed their “theatrical detail” from, they do what they do because of a totalitarian regime based on the inspired and unquestionable word of God, which lays out in no uncertain terms which unbelievers it’s alright to murder.
Okay, this has gone on long enough. Several of his points I don’t feel up to the task of responding to, because I do start to get intellectually out of my depth, particularly in the international politics. Hopefully it’s clear, after as much rambling as this, more or less where I stand. The main problem I see with this piece is summarised in his last couple of paragraphs. He’s still talking about “repressing” and “eradicating” religion, as if this were the goal of atheism’s modern mainstream proponents. The confusion continues in the minds of many religious supporters between an attempted suppression of ideas, and a series of logical arguments being levelled against those ideas, by people with the audacity to actually voice these arguments aloud in the presence of religious believers. I understand that the author is not insisting that I shut up, refrain from expressing my views, and fall in line with his own way of thinking. And I’m not insisting that about anyone else either. I’m just explaining why I think he’s wrong about a lot of things.
If you disagree with anything you’ve read in the above article, why not keep the debate going by writing a lengthy, directionless, uninformed, and only mildly interesting response of your own? Only articles officially titled The “The ‘The Atheist Delusion’ Delusion” Delusion will be considered valid.
For something actually brainful and smartucated about where atheism and/or secularism is headed, try the delightful Greta Christina.