The other day I came upon Jonathan Rée’s piece in The New Humanist: “Varieties of Irreligious Experience.” To a large extent it is written in the popular genre — “the new atheists don’t really understand religion, which is diverse and doesn’t imply belief in anything” — but then it explores a completely new way of looking at things by saying that atheism is the very same, that there are as many forms of irreligious experience as there are religious experiences, and that the new atheism, bound as it is to the old 19th century wheel of blustering against religious belief is nowhere close to addressing the real issues that face us today. Of course, he’s never very clear what new issues face us today. He’s much better — well, he thinks he is — at knocking people down, than in building anything up. But what he’s most keen to do — and here he joins a large and growing club — is to tweak the noses of the new atheists.
However, Rée thinks he’s really put the new atheists in their place at last, because he traces the new atheism back to 17th century, when the phrase ‘le nouvel athéism’ was used “to alert Christians to the threat of Spinozism.” But even here, of course, it did not speak to unbelief, since Spinoza himself believed in something called god, but identified it with the whole of nature, rather, says Rée, than to “a transcendental supernatural agency.” But then, says Rée, when Spinoza was disarmed and identified with some sort of mysticism, ‘new atheism’ was transferred in the 19th century, seriatim, to those who supported the mutability of species, Ausguste Comte, and then secularists like Harriet Martineau and George Holyoake, Spencerian evolutionists, Darwinists, and, finally, Nietzsche. And then, of course, “[n]ew atheism was born again at the beginning of the 21st century, and some people think it has dealt a final blow to religion in all its forms.”
That last remark is demonstration enough that Rée simply doesn’t get the point. And when he goes on from making it to say this:
The God hypothesis has been spelt out with perfect clarity, apparently, and anyone capable of following logical and scientific arguments can see that it has no merit at all,
and then suggests, that religion has thus to be consigned “to a museum of intellectual lost causes,” is proof positive that he doesn’t get the point. The point, since he hasn’t been paying attention, and needs to pretend to understand what the new atheism is really all about, since he clearly hasn’t had the patience to read through what the new atheists have written, is that the concept of god is essentially meaningless. Not only is there nothing answering to it anywhere in reality or hyperreality or superrreality, it is so diverse, so impossible to pin down, so amorphous, a veritable changeling, that religion fails as an hypothesis at all. Mind you, any of the forms the god hypothesis — why must Rée capitalise the word ‘god’ even in this context?! — that do seem able to be defined with some clarity, immediately take on a completely amorphous shape, as soon as this is done, and religious believers will all with one accord tell us that no one believes in such a god. It simply disappears in evasive tactics. Indeed, so changeable is this concept that, in the end, if you keep your eye on the hands playing the trick, you can see the religious slip it up the sleeve of unknowability, only to produce in a few moments later in the context of the mass, and there this completely transcendent unknowable something is present, right there, in the bread and the wine.
Rée spends a good bit of time with William James, and on his Varieties of Religious Experience, and there is just enough uncertainty about what James meant by religious experience to permit the passage of a modern aircraft carrier through its very wide sea. James, for the most part — and I say that deliberately, since towards the end of Varieties James spends a good bit of time dealing with traditional theology and its rational structure — was interested in religious experience. That was the psychologist and the pragmatist in him. James himself was not a religious man, and, in fact, as Rée himself points out, tried to get out of his commitment to deliver the Gifford Lectures, delaying them twice, before he got down to work. He understood what a rat’s nest of feelings, half-beliefs, doctrines, and practices religion really consists in. How to put that all down so as not to offend, but to do or say something useful? Better not to pin it down too severely to specifics, but to allow that all sorts of things constitute religion, all the bizarre and nearly pointless drivel of what people call religious experience — a catalogue which does more to empty religion of significance than any number of disproofs of the existence of a god or gods. Just read a few of the “testimonies” that David Hay collects in his book Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit to get a modern taste of the same limitless formlessness of religion and how it shows itself in experience.
And then Rée gets straight to the point. Of course, you saw it coming, because this is the standard put-down of the new atheist:
Modern atheists might be fixated on God, but believers were no longer very interested: if they used the word at all, they treated it as an arbitrary name for a “supreme reality” engaged, as James put it, in “a wholesale, not a retail business”, or an authority whose demands on us were only “reinforcements of our demands on ourselves.”
This would be laughable, if it weren’t so wide of the mark. Sure, people’s ideas of god or gods are amorphous, and un-pin-downable, but that’s not because believers are not interested; it’s simply because, there being no such thing as god, and certainly no easily formulable doctrine as to the nature of god in any religious tradition, that there is no readily available language in which to formulate one’s belief in god. It’s as hard to define god as to define the shape of jello. Jello fits into all sorts of shapes. God fits into practically any experience you can express in words. But the failure to be able to characterise god or gods doesn’t mean that believers are no longer interested. That’s simply nonsense. If any Anglican priest were to stand up in church of a Sunday morning, and say that s/he didn’t really believe in god, and that what they were doing there that morning was a completely human creation to bond a community together so that it could engage in wholly human projects, to strengthen and comfort each other, to pursue justice, and just generally, to encourage each other to works of humanity, s/he’d be reported to the bishop, and s/he’d be out of the parish within a week.
Besides, as Peter Berger writes in an article about Jürgen Habermas’s new appreciation of the role of religion:
Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore.
God can be as amorphous as you like — just as amorphous as Rée takes god to be — but god’s still there, waiting and watching and keeping account, and anyone who thinks churches are just social service organisations simply has no understanding of how religions function.
But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Rée explains why religion is going through tough times. He thinks that the reason that people are leaving religion has to do with what he calls “the problem of scale.”
… even without the benefit of modern cosmology, our earliest ancestors must have been able to sense the paltriness of their hopes and fears compared with the colossal indifference of everything else.
But what would suggest to him that “our earliest ancestors must have been able to sense the paltriness of their hopes and fears”? All the signs point the other way. The fact that we are here, and that we are important — how could we not be important? — and lived in a cosy universe created just with us in mind, meant that, not only was there a god, but that god was concerned about us in particular! Has Rée never noticed the cosy little world that the religious still occupy to this day? Has he not heard them sing their hymns, and reassure themselves that their god counts their hairs, and sees the little sparrow fall, that their god is an Awesome God! How much more evidence does he need?
So when he goes on to say that
Disappointment with religion’s false assurances about the cosmic significance of our existence is likely to be followed by disillusion with the idea of the soul,
you know just how far adrift he is from religious reality as it expresses itself in countless churches, mosques, temples and conventicles around the world. He can point out some of the logistical details (and their problems) with the idea of immortality, considered in even more detail by Robert Price in his answer to Rick Warren’s idiocies, in his The Reason Driven Life. The trouble is that Rée doesn’t seem to be aware that it is precisely the problem of scale that drives people to religious solutions. Karl Rahner, as I recall, dealt with the problem of evil by asking whether suffering drove people away from rather than towards religion. The question answers itself. People need a comfortable three-decker universe, or life simply threatens to leave them comfortless. The problem of scale is precisely the source of much religious belief. Watch people singing the old dirge, Amazing Grace, even though they don’t believe a word of its implicit Calvinism, and you will see people lulled to sleep by the power of a religious dream. But its being a dream no more means that people simply aren’t interested in belief than it means that they don’t really expect to see their loved ones in the great by-and-by, logistical nightmare or no.
Of course, this makes being a disbeliever a difficult thing to be, because disbelievers are fighting with shades and shadows for the most part. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great divide between belief and disbelief. Not at all. Nor does it mean that believers don’t take belief seriously. They do. Just read the works of scientists turned religious to discover just how firmly they believe, and how important it is that science should be made consistent with all the most implausible beliefs in the believer’s menagerie, even down to Adam and Eve, the resurrection and the raising of Lazarus. And scratch a Christian, and you’ll find out just how important it is that Jesus was god or rose from the dead, or how important to a Muslim is the basic belief that the Qu’ran was dictated by God’s own messenger itself (presuming angels are sexless).
Rée thinks that the fact that religions have to deal with the problems of scale, of the afterlife, and morality, but that “none of this constitutes an argument for atheism,” because it was there from the start. Religious beliefs or quasi-beliefs or even nonbeliefs are still there performing their important function as
… what you might call a momento absurdi, a guardian of fragility, contingency, mystery and incommensurability, and a reminder that however clever you may be, there will always be an awful lot of things you do not understand.
Well, whoopee! Now you see it, now you don’t. In what way does or can religion function this way if people don’t really take belief in god or the afterlife or the foundation of morality in religion seriously?
Rée brings us to the end of his pious ruminations with this:
… we need to realise that many modern believers have moved a long way from the positions of their predecessors: as Mill once said, they may believe they are loyal to an old-time religion when in reality they have subjected it to “modifications amounting to an essential change in its character”. In particular, they may not accept the idea of God as an actually existing entity, so arguments for atheism will not disturb them; and they will be aware that there has always been more to religion than belief in God.
Well, then, I wonder, I really do: How does it come about that what the new atheists are saying is being taken so very seriously by religious believers (and by old atheists too!)? They may have modified religion beyond recognition, but popes go on aiming their darts at atheists, the Archbishop of Canterbury actually devotes considerable time being concerned about the new atheism in particular, and the internet is simply alive with the offended cries of the religious, who very clearly believe in all the things that Rée thinks religious believers don’t take seriously any more. How many books have been written with the sole purpose of telling atheists that they simply do not understand the arguments for the existence of god, which are still held, not only to be valid, but actually to prove the existence of the entity whose existence believers don’t take seriously any more? And why, one wonders, cannot there be other ways of acknowledging and guarding fragility, taking note of the contingency and mystery, even the magic, of things, and acknowledging that there are so many things that we simply do not yet understand? Doesn’t science do these things? Of course it does, but what it doesn’t do is make cosy belief possible, the belief that gives a peace that passes understanding, and ushers the person, even if only for a few hours of make-believe, into a world where all the tragic contradictions of life seem, for those precious moments, to be resolved. Some even manage this make-believe for a lifetime.