Here We Go Again!
The new atheists seem to have hit a nerve. But it’s not like hitting your thumb with a hammer. When you do that, before long the pain dissipates, and, though sore, you can go on with whatever it was you were trying to hit with the hammer. Being hit by the new atheism isn’t like that. It produces a weeping sore that never heals, something like the wounds that phosphorous weapons make. Once they’ve been hit by the new atheism, the pain just won’t go away. In fact, it’s hard to find a newspaper nowadays that doesn’t have someone telling the new atheists what they are doing wrong. The new atheists – my, oh, my! – misunderstand religion, they don’t recognise that religion is so much more subtle than they imagine it, that, in fact, some religious people don’t have a clue as to what it is that they really do believe. And besides, all that shrillness and stridency! Will it never cease?! If people are that worried, the new atheists must be doing something right. There has been a continuing outpouring of complaint about the new atheism for well over five years, and almost every one of them begins by saying something like: “I agree with their conclusions, …. but.”
And all that is true — about the new atheists’ critics, I mean. You didn’t think I was talking about the new atheists did you? Nonsense! Of course not. However, I’ve just been reading a piece in the Guardian by James Wood, “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature 2010–11,” as the St. Anne’s College (Oxford) homepage tells us. (h/t to Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels for pointing me in the right direction.) The Weidenfield Lecture, from which the Guardian article was adapted, is about The New Atheism. His main point, of course — ’twas always thus – is that the new atheists, like the fundamentalists they are criticising, are parasitic on the literalism they deprecate, and I want to begin there.
The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy. Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism.
Now, of course, this has been said before. However, if what he is saying is true, why did the Church of England think that it was important, for the coming five years (quinquennium), to address itself specifically to the new atheism? Of a list of twelve emphases, this is the first:
The first is to be explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem. This is partly about taking on the ‘new atheism’. Bishops have a key role here both as public apologists and as teachers of the faith. Church members look to their leaders to speak out on their behalf and to help them in their own understanding and witness.
If the new atheism parasitically feeding off the literalism it despises, why is the Church of England concerned? And why, when the pope came to Britain, last fall (2010), did his opening speech at Holyrood House in Scotland, address itself directly to the new atheism and call it to account, suggesting that there was a resemblance between the aims of the new atheism and Nazi tyranny? He didn’t mention the new atheism, but it was hard to miss in the heavy emphasis that he placed upon it. Here are some of his words on that occasion:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).
Does this not suggest that the new atheism is striking very close to home for many religious believers, amongst those, from the sound of it, whom Professor Woods would not classify as literalists? It raises this question, though. If the new atheism is quite as literal as Professor Woods holds, what literalism is he speaking about? What are the new atheists taking literally?
To that last question, Woods provides an answer. They are taking the whole business of belief too literally. People don’t believe in that simple-minded literal way. In fact, he was talking with an academic theologian only the other day, and the theologian remarked — much to Woods’ surprise — that it is impossible to be a serious Christian and to believe in heaven and hell. Woods was taken aback by this, but then resolves the problem swiftly by saying laconically:
When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: “It’s exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief.” Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.
The theologian was an authority, you see, so Woods needed to look no further. And it is true, many Christians do now duck and dive quite a bit on the issue of hell (as well as on many other things), but there are not so many, like Woods’s expert, who are completely sceptical about the afterlife and heaven, and he shouldn’t have been so quickly satisfied that his childhood faith didn’t hold true of many many believers whom he would not pen up with the literalists even he despises. And my guess is, that for all its impossibility, the majority of “serious” Christians (that qualifcation covers a multitude of sins) believe not only in heaven, but in hell as well, possibly even in a literal place of eternal fire. Many many Muslims clearly do.
But the most surprising thing, really, is how Woods connects literal Christianity with belief in a personal god (as we saw in the first quote from Woods above). However, it has to be said: Anyone who believes that Jesus has an essential relationship with God must believe in a personal god, because Jesus was a human person. It’s really just that simple. Not the believing part, perhaps, for belief is just that heaving changing sea that Woods speaks about, and doubt and uncertainty and blind fear of emptiness are undoubtedly a part of it. And I agree with Woods entirely: if you want really to know what it is like to be a religious “believer”, in all its subtle hues and changes, read a novel, read, as I suggested in a post not so long ago, a theologian who probes deep, like Augustine, and who knows how difficult it is really to believe, and how like a changeling the believing mind can be. That’s why I say, don’t leave out swathes and swathes of human experience just because it was religious, for religion is a human creation too, and can tell us as much about the human condition as an army of atheists. But don’t be fooled by this into supposing that belief is not belief.
And don’t, whatever you do, suggest, as Woods so eloquently and mistakenly does, that religious belief is not earnest and literal and a quest for power too, because that is to mistake religious belief for something it is not. For, as Dawkins shows in The God Delusion (in a very introductory way, of course), religious belief may turn out to be, in scientific terms, quite human and explicable. Dawkins addresses himself, in much more detail than Woods allows, to the question of how religions might have come to be so widespread and persistent, and he picks out a number of mechanisms which might be hijacked by religion. It might, indeed, for all that Dostoyevsky and Coetzee and Tolstoy and Melville and Karl Barth and Rahner too, have written about the subtleties and depth of religious believing, and the quicksilver way it flashes through consciousness and is gone, still be a misfiring of some evolved psychological mechanisms, which may even have contributed to group survival in some cases (and so not so much as an mechanism of selection), but if persisted in could well be deadly and destructive, as religion seems poised to be today.
Woods seems to think that Dawkins’ only answer to the evolutionary question about the development of religion is HADD (Hyperactive Agency Detection Device), but that is far from being the case, and ridiculing him for being simplistic and literal is Woods’ own contribution to literalism. If Woods actually thinks that, then he knows very little about the scientific theory of religion, nor did he read Dawkins very closely either, in the summary he gives of some of the evidence in chapter 5 of his book. Dawkins mentions native dualism and native teleology; he speaks of the intentional stance as having survival value – for, as he points out, tending to ascribe agency very quickly to things in our immediate environment we are not so likely to have as many false negatives, although reacting to false positives may make us jumpy, but not dead. He also discusses the long dependency period in children, and the need for them to accept things on authority: “Don’t stand too near the edge, dear,” “Don’t put your fingers on the stove; it’s hot,” “Look both ways before you cross the street,” “Don’t talk to strangers,” and so on. So children are like sponges and take in vast amounts of information in a very short period of time, which is very useful for free riders in the child’s environment, too, for fairy tales and stories of the boogey man, and for stories of gods and angels too. What is sorted out as childish and what is suitable for adults is clear from what adults retain, and what they throw away. So if adults take religion very seriously, unsurprisingly the children will not throw religious ideas away with their childhood fairy tales. Dawkins also mentions the “irrationality mechanisms” built into the brain for falling in love. And so on. You get the drift. It’s not all about HADD, as Woods suggests rather fatuously.
And then, finally, we come to Dawkins’ encounter with Archbishop Williams of Canterbury. First, watch this little clip from Dawkins’ interview with Rowan Williams, because this is the one that Woods speaks about in his article:
And this is what Woods says about the encounter:
There is an amusing clip on YouTube, in which Dawkins confronts Rowan Williams. Dawkins asks the archbishop of Canterbury if he really believes in miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, happenings in which the laws of physics and biology are suspended. Well, not literally, says Williams. But, says Dawkins, pouncing, surely Williams believes that these are not just metaphors? No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur. Dawkins rightly says that this sounds very nice but is surely nothing more than poetic language. Williams rather shamefacedly agrees. The scene is amusing because both men are so obviously arguing past each other, and are so obviously arguing about language and the role of metaphor. Dawkins comes off as the victor, because he has the easier task, and holds the literalist high ground: either the resurrection happened or it didn’t; either these words mean something or they do not. Williams seems awkwardly trapped between a need to turn his words into metaphor and a desire to retain some element of literal content.
Without stopping to consider the fix that the archbishop is in and why, Woods immediately goes on to say that both men could have found themselves in Melville’s Moby Dick. But I wish he had stuck with the pregnant, very human, moment, when the archbishop was wriggling on the hook that Dawkins had cast him, because that was a very sensitive and provocative moment too, with all sorts of depth and complexity. And Dawkins does not pounce, but allows the archbishop plenty of time to think things through, and only after the struggle did Dawkins actually provide Williams with a way out. It’s amusing, but it’s most exquisitely profound at the same time, and Woods misses this entirely.
Woods thinks that the question that is hovering in the air between the two men is how we are to describe God. Here’s what he says:
Can God be literally described, or are we condemned to hurl millions of metaphoric approximations at him, in an attempt to describe him? After all, in Melville’s novel, the white whale is symbolic of both the devil and of God, and the writer tries very hard to describe the nature and mass and temperament of that indescribable whale: Melville uses scores of different metaphors to capture the essence of the beast, and fails.
That Woods wants to turn so quickly to novels is easily explicable by the fact that that is Woods’ element, but this is not the question that “hovers over the Dawkins-Williams exchange.” Dawkins is certainly not trying to describe God, and Williams is struggling to explain a belief which, as it turns out, has no readily apparent meaning in a world governed, as he acknowledges, by the laws of science. But notice that Dawkins is not denying his love for poetic language, or the complexity of an image. He’s asking whether talking as the archbishop does makes any sense at all — not whether it is something that the believing mind slips into and out of? Because it must, you know, make sense if the believer is going to have the thought, and if that is going to make a difference: if the Christian project is to go on some account must be given of it. It’s interesting that Dawkins should have the power to befuddle the archbishop at just this point.
In fact, here is a little clip in which the archbishop is stumped for a moment about what question he would most like to ask Dawkins (in Lincoln Cathedral, I think):
Now, who is being literal here? Surely the archbishop. Dawkins is not, like Ms. Hartley, of recent HuffPo fame, in love with the universe. He was clearly, in the passage referred to by the archbishop, responding, in a perfectly human way, to the beauty and wonder of the natural world, to the enchantment of his surroundings, made even more wondrous because he could understand quite a bit of how it got to be that way. Why should the source of that be a problem for anyone? Why did it seem necessary to the archbishop, to understand that very human moment, a moment of exquisite joy at the beauty and wonder around him, in terms of some special, transcendent explanation?
And why couldn’t Woods have just stayed in the human moment of the encounter between Dawkins and the archbishop, and lived there for awhile? For that was heavy with human significance too. That’s what I can’t help wondering. For all his talk about Dostoyevsky and Melville, his response seems very shallow, and he misses something that seems so profound, when the faith of one met with the knowledge of the other, and faith had no answer. Why can’t he see, what the Church of England and the pope can see, that the new atheism is not all just a matter of thumping fundamentalists over the head with their simple-mindedness? It clearly addresses real questions to real believers who don’t really know how to answer them, and they seem to know that they’re in trouble.