Philip Ball has been carrying out a small vendetta against “noisy atheists” for some time, perhaps since his long exchange with Sam Harris back in 2009 (see What should science do?). Not much has changed. His most recent salvo is to be found in Saturday’s (10 February 2012) Guardian (a newspaper which, as Sir Harry Kroto says in a private communication, “now seems to be the main UK organ seeking to undermine the Enlightenment”), entitled (so that we don’t miss the point of the attack), “Even atheists must recognise the importance of a sociological study of religion“. The really strange thing is that no one, not even the so-called “noisy atheists” would deny the value of the sociological study of religion, or any other scientific study of religion, and it is hard to see why he should think otherwise.
Ball begins by referring to a piece of “online research” polling the views of 787 “self-identified Christians,” which concluded, not surprisingly, using Ball’s summary, that:
American Christians adjust their concept of Jesus to match their own sociopolitical persuasion …. Liberals regard Christ primarily as someone who promoted fellowship and caring, say psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University in California and his colleagues, while conservatives see him as a firm moralist. In other words, he’s like me, only more so.
The research, whose lead author is Lee Ross, of Stanford University, is published the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. After remarking briefly on this research, though, Ball’s article simply runs steadily downhill, showing that not only the religious adjust their concepts to agree with their “sociopolitical persuasion”. He spends most of his time working as hard as he can to misunderstand what “noisy atheists” are saying. And the main reason he misunderstands them lies in the fact that he simply slots them into his presuppositions, instead of trying to find the best understanding of what they are trying to say. They’re just “noisy”, after all, and spending time with them would just be a waste of time. For a “science writer and published book author,” as his website declares on Google, this is not exactly smart science, so let’s consider what he has to say more closely.
Here’s how he sums up how the “noisy atheists” think about religion:
Many atheists prefer to regard religion as a virus that jumps from one hapless individual to another, or a misdirection of evolutionary instincts, curable only with a strong shot of reason. These epidemiological and Darwinian models have an elegant simplicity that contamination with broader social and cultural factors would spoil. Yet the result is akin to imagining that, to solve Africa’s Aids crisis, there is no point in trying to understand African societies.
This is simply careless and intellectually lazy. Certainly, some new atheists, such as Dennett, use the concept of memes to some purpose in accounting for the transmission of religion, and others, such as Dawkins, do think of religion as having developed, amongst other things, by way of a hijacking of evolved capacities, but none of them suggests that the sociology of religion is a pointless study, nor that the evolution of religion can be dealt with in such a cavalier way. This is simply a caricature of what any of the new atheists would say, and a careless one at that.
Ball’s next paragraph, however, tells the tale. Here he purports to give the considered opinion of two “noisy atheists”:
Thus arch-atheist Sam Harris swatted away my suggestion that we might approach religious belief as a social construct with the contemptuous comment that I was saying something “either trivially true or obscurantist”. I find it equally peculiar that chemist Harry Kroto should insist that “I am not interested in why religion continues” while so devoutly wishing that it would not.
And while he links both names, the links don’t take you anything that justifies his peremptory dismissal of Sam Harris or Sir Harry Kroto as uninterested in the scientific study of religion. If Ball is going to make such claims then he has a responsibility to show us where these claims are made good. Even a science writer should know that documentary evidence is necessary to substantiate such claims, especially since they are negative judgement made with such insouciant confidence.
Let’s start with Sir Harry Kroto, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (1996). I couldn’t find any confirmation online for the claim that Ball makes, so I shot off an email to Sir Harry, and he responded graciously and quickly. Here is a part of his response:
I do not remember saying or writing this and if I did (and I can only assume I did at some time) it was a flippant and certainly ill-considered comment and totally the opposite of my real view — negating Ball’s key hypothesis. These people typically alight upon such things and blow them up as they have nothing better to [do] but build a house of cards on the head of a pin. I am actually very interested in this topic so Ball has done me no favours — but then I am used to this by now.
He could have come back to me to check on whether I really meant this in this context had he been a good journalist. Such people spend their time finding some pretext or other to write something under the pressure of having to produce something — anything — they can for their living. In the case of Harris, had Ball read much of what Sam has written he would have realised that it negates Ball’s hypothesis anyway. I guess we are just sick of journalists who actually create nothing intrinsically but make a living by regurgitating (either accurately or not — as in this case) the creativity of others.
Well, this puts the point as clearly as can be, which does Ball no favours! Sir Harry even points out, appropriately, that if Ball had read Harris closely enough it would have quickly become apparent that Harris would also disagree with Ball’s claim. Sir Harry also sent along a copy of an email which he sent off to Philip Ball, of which I will only quote the following brief excerpt:
You might be interested in the fact that I have just been reading through the evidence of my relations murdered in 1942 in the holocaust. If and when people like you confront the bad side of religion honestly you might actually understand why people like me are not too pleased with the effects of religiosity.
This is the point that all those who snarl about the new atheists seem to miss. It’s not that they think — as Ball accuses Harris – that without religion there would be no violence at all. We are primates, after all. The point is that the evidence is simply too emphatic to be missed: religion is simply the source of so much evil. Of course, someone might say that Sir Harry’s relations were not murdered because of religion, but by the Nazis, and the Nazis, it might be said, were atheists. Of course, the latter claim is untrue, but, even if Hitler’s ultimate aim was to subvert Christianity, would so many Jews have been murdered, and would they have been so reviled, had it not been for nearly two thousand years of the most murderous hatred directed towards the Jews for their part — as the Christian revelation insists — in the crucifixion of Jesus? As Hitler said, justly, he never did anything to the Jews that Luther did not also recommend.
Now, what about Sam Harris? Sam Harris and Philip Ball had a long exchange of views in 2009 (linked above, and here), to which Sam very kindly directed me. In the course of many other things that were said, Harris does in fact say, as Ball claims, that what Ball says about religion being a social construct is “either trivially true or obscurantist,” and while it may have been mildly contemptuous, it certainly wasn’t swatting away the suggestion that the sociological study of religion is valuable. Not at all. Let’s put it in context. Here is what Harris says:
Your frequent claim that we must understand religious belief as a “social construct,” produced by “societal causes,” dependent upon “social and cultural institutions,” admitting of “sociological questions,” and the like, while it will warm the hearts of most anthropologists, is either trivially true or obscurantist. It is part and parcel of the double standard that so worries me — the demolition of which is the explicit aim of The Reason Project.
But, notice, the point that Harris is making is not that the sociological study of religion is unimportant, but that, in the context where the truth of religious claims is in question, the sociological study of religion has nothing of relevance to add. This is made immediately clear by the analogy suggested by Harris, which follows directly upon the above quotation:
Epidemiology is also a “social construct” with “societal causes,” etc.—but this doesn’t mean that the germ theory of disease isn’t true or that any rival “construct”—like one suggesting that child rape will cure AIDS—isn’t a dangerous, deplorable, and unnecessary eruption of primeval stupidity. We either have good reasons or bad reasons for what we believe; we can be open to evidence and argument, or we can be closed; we can tolerate (and even seek) criticism of our most cherished views, or we can hide behind authority, sanctity, and dogma.
In other words, it is quite clear that Harris was not simply being noisy; he was giving the context for his questions about religious belief. It had to do with the evidence for religious belief, or the basis upon which religious beliefs are held. He was not discussing sociology or anthropology, and how religions developed. Nor was he dismissing the value of such study. What he was doing is claiming that we can either give good reasons or bad reasons for our beliefs, and that sociological explanations for the rise of certain beliefs is irrelevant to their truth. It is important to note that in the discussion Ball himself does not respond to Harris’s point, but ascribes to him the ridiculous view that ”scientists should at every opportunity criticize religious belief for being a groundless fantasy that encumbers people with false hopes and obstructive (even destructive) dogma” — which is in fact not implied by anything that Harris says.
This is important, because, later in the conversation, Ball suggests that the way a belief makes you feel might provide a rational basis for holding that belief. Here’s his argument:
Let’s imagine a person, say a well educated doctor, who has thought deeply about the religious faith he feels, and concludes that it is something he cherishes and finds meaningful and doesn’t interfere with his trust in science. His faith in God is valuable to him. Now, you will say he is deluded and hasn’t thought deeply enough about all the contradictions this creates. I believe that he holds an incorrect belief about the world. But do I think that it is intolerable that he should continue to find solace in his belief? No, I think that the fact that he finds solace in it makes it perfectly rational on one level for him to maintain that belief, even if it is irrational in other respects. It is rational to do what makes us feel good. That doesn’t always make it right for us to do so, but that’s another matter. [my italics]
Unfortunately this is the last email in the exchange, because it leaves unjustified Ball’s unexplained shift from thought to feeling, and from belief to action. ”It is rational to do what makes us feel good,” he says. And it is unquestionably true that it rational to do so, other things being equal. But Ball simply elides the important question about whether it is or is not rational to believe whatever makes us feel good. Religious faith is not only about feeling, as Harris points out in his summing up of the email exchange. If Ball could explain everything about the sociology of religious belief relevant to this point, it still wouldn’t show that it is rational to believe something because it makes us feel good.
Now, here’s the strange thing. If we accept Ball’s point about the sociology of religion and the importance of the idea that religion is a social construct — something he repeats over and over again in his exchange with Harris — and repeats again in his Guardian article – then we must end up with the conclusion that religious belief is, as he says, just a human construct. In other words, religious beliefs are not true, and there is no evidence that they are — in fact, evidence for religious beliefs is irrelevant, since they make no knowledge claims — a conclusion which, I suspect, would trouble most religious believers. Ball, however, thinks that the religious do not claim otherwise. As he says:
Your [Harris's] charge is that the problem comes because this chap considers he has a form of knowledge – he thinks he knows there is a God. Yes, often this is what happens for people who are superficially religious, and many, many are. And here they are plain wrong, I don’t dispute that. If my chap thinks this way, he is mistaken. Hold the front page: ‘Man is mistaken’. But if he knows his theology, he knows why religion – and in honesty I only really know about Christianity here – emphasizes faith, not knowledge. [my italics]
Now, this is simply beyond belief! Only those who are superficially religious consider that they have a form of knowledge; but if he knows his theology, then he will know that he only has faith, not knowledge, and faith is feeling not knowing.
Its not being knowledge, and not intending to be knowledge, according to Ball, means that religion has a completely different focus, a different resonance or valence. He thinks that the “noisy atheists” are just intellectually lazy. It’s safer and easier, he suggests, “to ridicule a literal belief in miracles, virgin births and other supernatural agencies,” than it is to see religion simply as “one of the ways that societies have long chosen to organise their structures of authority and status, for better or worse.”
But this is simply a nonsense, born of the misunderstanding that faith makes no knowledge claims, when it manifestly does. Someone like N.T. Wright does not write books about the resurrection of Jesus because he simply has “faith” in the resurrection, and it is hard to think that Wright simply does not know his theology. He writes books about it because he believes that it is true that Jesus rose from the dead. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) Let’s not bandy words here. The word here is the Greek word ἔλεγχος (elenkos), a word which means proof or evidence. And so it has seemed to Christians all along. Jesus, in John’s gospel, calls later believers — to whom, of course, the gospel is addressed –blessed, because they have not seen, and yet have believed. They have believed in the absence of the evidence of their eyes and hands, which doubting Thomas refused to do. Even though they had not seen the risen Jesus, they have believed, and so they are blessed in their faith, not their feeling, that Jesus had risen (or was raised) from the dead.
Religions are not just ways in which societies happen to have ordered themselves. Religions, despite Ball’s repeated insistence, include beliefs, and for those beliefs there is not a shred of evidence. Some, of course, realising this, have opted to call their beliefs myths, and Ball thinks this is theologically normative, and that faith is about feelings and not about knowledge. Ball thinks that the religious don’t need any evidence, because for those who know their theology, religion is not about belief, but about faith. And that, I am afraid, is a distinction without a difference. The Christian creeds do not begin, “We have faith that …..” but “We believe in one God ….” But if they did begin with “We have faith that …,” they would immediately continue with “there is one God,” and this makes it quite clear what faith is all about, and it is a misrepresentation of religion to suggest anything else. It is also a misrepresentation of the “noisy atheists”, as Ball so contemptuously calls them, to suggest that they “reject an anthropological approach to religion.” That would be unscientific, as he says, but what is more unscientific is the way that Ball himself, to use Sir Harry’s phrase, builds his “house of cards on the head of a pin.”