Boghossian’s “A Manual for Creating Atheists”: A Preliminary Report II
This continues, rather abruptly, at the point I left off in the last installment, so if you want to contextualise this, it would be helpful to read over the last couple paragraphs of the first installment.
I repeat what I just said, so that I don’t forget it, that Boghossian’s conception of faith is simply a straw man. Becuase if faith is, as he says, an epistemology, then it should be a matter of supplying reasons for beliefs, and that is not, by and large, how the word ‘faith’ is used in religious contexts. Faith is much more holistic than that, and concerns a general world-view in which concepts which refer to supernatural entities plays a subordinate part. Religions are worldviews, not lists of beliefs for which reasons are given. That doesn’t mean, mark you, that giving reasons is irrelevant to religious beliefs, but it simply cannot be held that religious beliefs are, one and all, factual beliefs, for which evidence can be provided.
One of the first things that anyone interested in religion must do is actually to look at what religious people claim, and how they account for the various beliefs that they hold. Many of the beliefs that Boghossian singles out for special reprobation are ones which many religious believers do not hold in the simplistic way that Boghossian suggests that they do, and when he illustrates his street epistemology with examples of interventions they almost always turn on simplifications of how “faith” functions in religious contexts. While it is true that some Christians make a great song and dance about the historicity of the resurrection, it is important that many Christian theologians do not, and construe resurrection, based on the accounts we have in the New Testament, as something other than an historically delimited reality. In other words, just reading the accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament (mainly the gospels, though Paul is not to be ignored, since he claims to have seen an appearance of the risen Christ), as factual accounts simply will not do, and nowhere does Boghossian consider any of the things that people have actually said about the resurrection, just that it concerned the raising from the tomb of the man Jesus. Certainly, some believers do believe that that is precisely what happened, but there is no satisfactory evidence that the supposed experiences of the risen Jesus can be dealt with in this way. There is simply too much written about this to do it justice here. But one might do worse than look at an exchange between two Anglican Christians, Don Cupitt and C.F.D. Moule, on the subject of the resurrection, one of them saying that he finds it incredible that there should have been such a movement of Christianity if there had not been an historically verifiable event at the heart of the surprising flourishing of Christianity. This is the so-called “beaten man” argument, which is responded to by Don Cupitt, who justly claims a realistic historical belief in the resurrection simply does not make sense of the sources. (See “The Resurrection: A Disagreement” in Cupitt 1979)
But all one needs to do is to look at the resurrection stories in the gospels and note that they are not coherent together. The accounts do not agree, and there is a clear development of the tradition at work, so that it is reasonably clear that something other than a realistic account must be given of the conviction of the first Christians that Jesus Christ was alive. It won’t do to say that resurrection belief is pretending to know something that people do not know (and perhaps cannot know), since the texts themselves give no confirmation of the supposed events they (only apparently) describe. A body that retains the gaping wounds of the crucifixion, that can walk through locked doors, that is not recognised by his friends: one could go on. Obviously, something other than factual, historical description is at work. Indeed, Dominic Crossan’s book Who Killed Jesus? (Crossan 1995) is a sustained attack on the notion that we are here dealing with anything intended to be an historically remembered account of events that happened in first century Palestine. Instead, he gives good reason for believing that the resurrection is a theological belief, based on the completed life of Jesus and the significance that that life and death had after being passed through the alembic of theological processes of interpretation. And this is Cupitt’s point too. But if that is what the resurrection is – namely, a theological construct – then the simplistic claim that we are dealing here with a pretence to know something that we cannot know is just that, simplistic (and, we might add, misleading). Indeed, one of the things that Boghossian simply ignores is the obvious fact that he ignores everything but the most simplistic way that some people have of understanding religious claims such as the one that “Jesus lives,” something that was only worked out (and is still being worked out) over long periods of time. Religious faith – if we must stick with that expression – is a complex matter in which explicit beliefs about supernatural events (the interpretive or symbolic level of faith) are part of a theologically interpreted account of what actually took place (in historical time).
Remember, we were dealing with Boghossian’s list of reasons why (according to the religious) atheism is to be deprecated. The first one was that without religion morality devolves. Well, we don’t know. Certainly, one might think that without some agreed upon cultural values, morality would indeed devolve. Morality is not simply something that can exist individual by individual conceived of as separate individuals without relation to each other. It evolves within a society, and pertains to the way that people in society view each other and deal with each other. Boghossian cavalierly suggests, a bit later, that we make meaning in our lives. Well, and so we do. But, in general, society provides us with a framework within which this process of meaning making can be carried out. Worldviews, no more than science, can exist by themselves, or can be developed singly by individuals doing their own thing, without any relationship to others. The sense that a life makes, its meaning and purpose, and the conviction that there is some kind of comprehensive meaning that a life makes, is not something that is easy for individuals to develop by themselves. This is something that is, in general, provided by the society in which people grow up, and the cultural values that the culture as a whole expresses. The lone individual, making meaning all by him or herself, is a myth. Something more comprehensive is needed, and people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. Even atheists seem to acknowledge this, since they meet regularly, and exchange ideas, and develop orthodoxies of disbelief which all members of the group are expected to share to some extent. This becomes abundantly obvious from a brief acquaintance with the atheist web, and the various conferences planned by atheist organisations, in which leaders of opinion in the atheist movement as a whole express their views as to what atheism is all about, and how individuals can fit into and form part of a larger group of like-minded disbelievers.
One of the arguments that Boghossian considers and dismisses is the claim that “Without faith, life becomes worthless and meaningless, and failure or death is the outcome.” (Boghossian 2013, 2900) Now, it may be true that you don’t need religious faith in order to give life overall meaning, but at least many people need to think that there is some overall meaning to life, and not just what they can contribute to that meaning from their own resources. People gather together in like minded groups precisely because groups provide the surplus of meaning that individuals don’t get simply by making things up as they go along. It doesn’t need to be supernaturally religious, and there are probably enough reasons to give up on many religious beliefs in common usage, but it doesn’t follow that a comprehensive world view, and not just a negative denial of the apparent “factual” claims of religions, is not necessary in order to live a worthwhile life, or at least one that provides a sense of the meaning of life as a whole. Boghossian’s reply is that “If life has no meaning for someone unless they pretend to know something they don’t know, then I would strongly and sincerely urge extensive therapy and counselling.” (Boghossian 2013, 2908) This is simply nonsense. By translating the word ‘faith’ as ‘pretending to know something you don’t know’ he may think he has turned faith into a pathology, but that is simply because he doesn’t seem a appreciate what faith does for people, and it doesn’t for one thing, provide information about things that people don’t know. Instead of the comprehensive world view of religion Boghossian suggests “children, music, art, poetry, charity, reading, hobbies, simply trying to make the world a better place, small acts of kindness, etc.,” (Boghossian 2013, 2915) And certainly, all those things are good advice, but people of faith already do those things. What they are looking for is an interpretive scheme which comprehends and somehow integrates life as a whole, and reflects something about the reality of what is in some sense “out there,” in the way that Ronald Dworkin does in his book Religion without God. Ignoring the fact that there are, in fact, comprehensive ways of understanding life “as a whole”, whether they be religious or humanistic, and that faith is required for such interpretive worldviews, is ignoring evidence that needs to be taken into consideration.
This actually goes for his response to almost all the objections to Boghossian’s endeavour to disabuse people of their faith. Take his tenth one: “Why take away faith if it helps get people through the day?” Why indeed? Boghossian’s answer is: “I’ve never really understood how removing a bad way to reason will make it difficult to get through the day.” (Boghossian 2013, 2921) But this is simply childish. It’s a bit irritating to be told that people should seek psychological services, when people who are quite functional in their daily lives find that religious faith provides a basis upon which that functionality in large measure depends. As Schumaker says in his book Wings of Illusion, something like religious faith seems to be necessary to hide some of the more brutal realities of life. Religious beliefs may be illusions, but they may be, for many people, necessary illusions, and they are not even necessarily simply illusions. They may be ways of providing an integration of life in the face of disintegrative realities all around them. The illusion may in fact lie with those who are denying the need for this kind of life integration based upon beliefs which, in face of the facts of life, provide a structure within which life can be lived, even in the midst of horrible realities. Schumaker refers to Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, where Becker claims that “our paranormal self-deceptions are “vital lies” that serve as indispensable defenses against a human condition for which there is no other remedy.” ( see Schumaker 1990, 31) Whether paranormal or religious or simply humanistic, some comprehensive interpretive ideal of human life and purpose may be necessary to quell the fear of death and disaster that is an integral part of most people’s lives. It may be that in the world today there are favoured peoples who do not need such robust support for finding meaning in life, but it is arguable, given the world as it is, that such favoured status will only ever be available to a few. To simply answer “Scandinavia!” as though one had uttered a profundity, is not a sufficient answer to people who think that some comprehensive world view is necessary for living a fully meaningful life.
Continuing with his narrow understanding of what ‘faith’ might mean, Boghossian continues with his attack on such comprehensive world views by apparently deliberately misleading as to the purpose and content of faith positions. “To argue that people need faith is to abandon hope, and to condescend and accuse the faithful of being incapable of understanding the importance of reason and rationality.” (Schumaker 1990, 2928) But this also is condescension, for those who speak in terms of faith may be very aware of the need for reason and rationality in understanding what their faith claims are all about, and dismissing them simply as “pretending to know what they do not and cannot know” is deceptive and misleading, and shows very little commitment to using reason and rationality. It is to characterise people of faith (such as Ronald Dworkin) as people who despair of reason. This may be true of some fundamentalists who dismiss evidence contrary to their beliefs out of hand, but it is not true to, and dismisses the plain evidence that, many people of faith not only use reason to defend their beliefs, but use it in almost unbelievably sophisticated ways to counter attacks such as those presented by the kind of oversimplification characteristic of Boghossian’s book. Now, they may one and all be wrong in their claims, but that is something that an epistemologist like Boghossian needs to establish, and that is something that he simply does not do.
At one point Boghossian denies that he has faith in his wife, simply denying that faith and trust are related, and that faith is, as he says, an epistemological claim about things that the person of faith does not know. He gives a couple examples of interventions he has made with people who claim that there is a place for faith (these begin at Boghossian 2013, 2993). I’m not going to discuss these in any detail, because they are too simplistic to be taken seriously. Of course, it is always possible to catch people out in silly arguments. We do it all the time. Half of the conversations that we have involve arguing about things, and hearing people make defences of their positions based on inadequate evidence. This is no surprise, and including such examples is scarcely to the point. And it is not even clear who is the “winner” of the examples that Boghossian supplies, though it is clear that he believes himself to have carried the day. The problem is that Boghossian relies on the concept of truth, not reason. Do you think, he says at one point, that people’s faith will lead them to the truth? Well, what is truth (said jesting Pilate)? Truth is not the issue here, for truth is always subordinate to the present state of knowledge (about anything, from science to history to religious belief). There are no absolute truths around to which anyone can point. Truth is a limit concept, not one that can be given any definite instantiations, aside from logical and other analytic truths, perhaps (pace Quine).
Take the claim that, without religion, there would be few restraints on people’s behaviour. Well, that may seem to be an excessive claim. People don’t not rape and murder and pillage because they have religion. Indeed, religion sometimes drives people to rape, murder and pillage. But restraints on behaviour are not going to be established, either, just on the basis of reasoning. I dimly remember an occasion when police in Montreal (I believe) went on strike, and there as a rash of episodes of lawless behaviour. Take the restraints away, and people certainly may do things they would not otherwise do. It is not unreasonable to think that, if people believed that they were not responsible in some more or less decisive way for their actions, that they might indeed act in ways that are justly disapproved. The question of Scandinavia comes up, and Boghossian’s interlocutor says, “You people love to talk about Scandinavia,” and then he points out that the contexts are different, ending up saying of Boghossian that “You’re impossible” (Boghossian 2013, 3026) And, in a sense, it seems to me, he is – if, that is, he thinks he won that round. For it wasn’t a matter simply of better reasoning, even though that’s what Boghossian thinks he has successfully turned all questions of faith into. Scandinavia and the US are not simply divided by the ability to reason more successfully. Americans are just as capable of reasoning as Danes, I suspect, but Danes are more concerned about each other than Americans are, who (that is, Americans) therefore need to have some kind of defence mechanism that resolves some of their deepest anxieties about life in a society in which the rich are thousands of times richer than even those who are well off, let alone those who live on the margins of the richest society in history. If Boghossian thinks that Danish secularism is the result of better reasoning, then he really doesn’t see that the contexts are entirely different and there are few commonalities that can be referred to in terms of which the Danes come off looking more rational than Americans. Reason has a context, and for many Americans, reason loses out to anxiety every time. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are irrational, just that there are forced options in American society that Danes don’t even need to consider.
And when, next, he denies that he has faith in his wife, saying that “trust and faith are not the same” (Boghossian 2013, 3035), he simply ignores the dimension of faith that includes trust. Boghossian has a reason for doing this, because he wants to turn ‘faith’ into an epistemic term, and it is not only epistemic. It has other dimensions of meaning that he has a vested interest in ignoring. It’s called confirmation bias, and he falls into this particular trap throughout the book. Of course, he has faith in his wife. He just calls it trust, even though trust is an aspect of faith, and perhaps the more important aspect.
After these paltry examples of intervention, Boghossian recommends a book by Guy Harrison entitled 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, which he claims to use in his atheism course. This is surely a scandal. Here are the chapter headings of that book, and one look at most of them shows that Harrison hasn’t really done anything more than blog a book, listing a lot of palpably foolish reasons for believing in a god. Had he really addressed himself to some of the arguments that theologians use for the claims that they make about a God, or other religious beliefs, he might have had more meat to chew, but the following are pretty obviously shallow and easily dispensed with. The chapter headings are:
1. My god is obvious.
2. Almost everybody on Earth is religious.
3. Faith is a good thing.
4. Archaeological discoveries prove that my god exists.
5. Only my god can make me feel significant.
6. Atheism is just another religion.
7. Evolution is bad.
8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.
9. My god created the universe.
10. Believing in my god makes me happy.
11. Better safe than sorry.
12. A sacred book proves my god is real.
13. Divine justice proves my god is real.
14. My god answers prayers.
15. I would rather worship my god than the devil.
16. My god heals sick people.
17. Anything is better than being an atheist.
18. My god made the human body.
19. My god sacrificed his only son for me.
20. Atheists are jerks who think they know everything.
21. I don’t lose anything by believing in my god.
22. I didn’t come from a monkey.
23. I don’t want to go to hell.
24. I feel my god when I pray.
25. I need my god to protect me.
26. I want eternal life.
27. Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong.
28. My god makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself.
29. My religion makes more sense than all the others.
30. My god changes lives.
31. Intelligent design proves my god is real.
32. Millions of people can’t be wrong about my religion.
33. Miracles prove my god is real.
34. Religion is beautiful.
35. Some very smart people believe in my god.
36. Ancient prophecies prove my god exists.
37. No one has ever disproved the existence of my god.
38. People have gone to heaven and returned.
39. Religion brings people together.
40. My god inspires people.
41. Science can’t explain everything.
42. Society would fall apart without religion.
43. My religion is so old, it must be true.
44. Someone I trust told me that my god is real.
45. Atheism is a negative and empty philosophy.
46. Believing in a god doesn’t hurt anyone.
47. The earth is perfectly tunes to support life.
48. Believing is natural so my god must be real.
49. The end is near.
50. I am afraid of not believing.
These are chapter titles, and almost all of them consist in pretty simplistic stuff. People may give these reasons for believing in a god, but you could collect any number of reasons that people give for believing quite reasonable things and come up with a similar collection of howlers. Why Boghossian uses this particular book in his atheism course, is like seminaries providing only Christian apologetics instead of actually dealing with real arguments that people make, in all seriousness, and with good reason, for not believing in a god. Most of the arguments that I have heard for not believing in a god are just as lame as these reasons for believing in one, and it is a scandal that Boghossian should think this a good resource for his students in learning about atheism. Is he a philosopher, and committed to reason, or not? This is not clear.
I’m going to skip over the chapter on relativism, because I do not think that relativism is an intellectually respectable position. I won’t argue this here, but, in simple terms, relativism is self-defeating, because it cannot state its own position about truth without making (reflexively) a truth claim. It’s a bit like the logical positivists’ Verification Principle which cannot itself be verified. I have no dispute with Boghossian’s general position on epistemic relativism, multiculturalism or the misuse that is systematically made of the idea of tolerance and toleration. Indeed, I think that this chapter is a useful corrective to the misuse that is made of the ideas of liberalism, toleration, multiculturalism and the like. When faith is used to subvert reason (and it need not be used in this way, even though, in the end, it might be quite in order to believe that the religious do not make their case), it is used in an illegitimate and indeed totalitarian way. That is why I object to much religion and religious discourse, because it is, as Boghossian claims, largely based on unreason.
Basing oneself on what is written in the Bible or the Our’an, for example, is nonsensical. There is no reason, and no reason can be given, for privileging these texts above others. Indeed, if people pay attention to what biblical scholars do with the Bible, it is often the case that they see correctives, within the Bible itself, for obvious errors that are made by biblical writers. And there is simply no way of establishing, of any particular “sacred” text, that it is revealed in a special way and therefore should be given authority over what we are to say or believe. Religions may want to privilege certain texts because they are central to the developmental process that leads to the religion of today (for whatever religion), and because those texts are central to that process; but they must not be allowed to claim that these texts are in some sense above critical reason. Indeed, religions that claim to have accommodated science, must also be prepared to accommodate the critical reading of their primary texts, and to the extent that they do not, they cannot be taken seriously as rational ways of viewing the world.
There can, however, be disagreements about religious beliefs. It may be argued, and justly argued, that Aquinas’ five ways do not establish conclusively the existence of a God, even if you add to that his more detailed examination of the nature of being. On the other hand, however, there is probably still room for theologians to continue to argue that there is a place for religious understandings of human life and the world. We can compare this to contemporary physics, for example, where the cutting edge of physics deals with conclusions that are not empirically verifiable, and there are reasons for holding a variety of different views about the “ultimate” structure of reality. I don’t know enough about this to be able to show with any show of reason which views are and which views are not arguable, but, as I understand it, there are substantial disagreements amongst physicists as to what the next step in physics will be. The same may reasonably be said about the higher reaches of philosophical theology. The only caveat that I would enter here is that those who are engaged in these disputes must not establish parameters for discussion which are not inherent within the arguments themselves. In other words, they cannot limit argument in such a way that it tends to confirm one set of positive religious beliefs over others.
To take a simple example, Christians argue about the legitimacy of illegitimacy of the acceptance of non-acceptance of diverse sexualities. To use ancient texts to establish the limits of the morally acceptable is simply a non-starter, for there is no reason to believe that those texts can be established, with any show of reason, as being unquestionably true, whether the whole corpus or a selection of texts is in question. The disapprobation of homosexuality based on obiter dicta of Paul, remarking on what he found offensive in the society of the Roman Empire of his day, is simply irrational, especially as we know so much more about homosexuality now than Paul did. It is simply unconscionable to base one’s moral conclusions on ancient cultural ideas of what is or is not disgusting or reprehensible. In the same way, it is wrong of Christians, for example, to conclude, based on, say, cosmological reasoning, that the God at the end of a chain of reasoning is the God of Jesus Christ, and can be summed up in the word ‘love’. Mind you, a loving God is an improvement over the vengeful, vindictive God of Islam (even though he is repeatedly called most merciful), but even Christians cannot claim that the God of Christianity has lacked the dimension of vengefulness. Christians need to be reminded that one of the most consistent accounts of Jesus in the gospels is the belief that Jesus warned people of the fire to come, and that the gate leading to life is narrow, and few there are who find it. This seems undoubtedly to be a feature of his teaching, to my mind, and it would be wrong to concentrate so completely on the idea of love that this dimension of his teaching is ignored.
The point is that, even if philosophical theology could establish the existence of some principle or being that stands at the beginning, or underlies the present being of things, there is no way that it could ever establish that one supposed revelation of that God (principle or being) is expressed in any existing religion. Most “high” (philosophical) religions claim that there is an ineffable something (in Anselm’s terms, a greater than can even be thought), but then they want to go on to say that some particular religious tradition in some sense can be established as the expression of the will of this ineffable something. And it is hard to see, even given the pyrotechnics of the analogy of being that some philosophical theologians use, how this can possibly be done. Some people claim to have encountered in experience the being in question, but it is hard to see how this could even be possible, if, in fact, the being in question is truly ineffable. There are doubtless spiritual disciplines that can produce experiences that are interpreted by many as experiences of God, but since the only way to “know” this God is by means of negation, by iterating in sequence what this God is not, the most that can reasonably be claimed for these experiences is that those who have them associate them with their belief in this ineffable being, and carry out their spiritual disciplines under this concept. The abyss, however, is too wide and deep to make this kind of connexion, despite the widespread belief that the abyss is sometimes crossed. What we do have is human experience on the one hand, and the mystery of being on the other, without any undeniable link between the two.
One thing, however, that can be said is that the religions do provide a way of producing comprehensive ideas or ideals of how life should be lived, based on their conviction that something of unexampled greatness lies at the end of chains of reasoning leading from the sense of the mystery and implausibility of our being here. Others, like Ronald Dworkin, for example, would agree with the sense of mystery and wonder, but go on to say that, while there is no reason for believing that a being of love and goodness lies at the end of chains of reasoning, there is a reason to believe that the universe is a place of wonder and beauty, in which life can be lived with comprehensive meaning and purpose, and with a devotion to live life responsibly and with an acknowledgement of what, in the Christian lexicon is called grace, but which may reasonably be called, with Ronald Dworkin, something of real value and wonder.
Dworkin, for example, speaks of Carl Sagan, who, though he did not believe in a personal god, “also used ‘numinous’ in declaring his own convictions. In the words of a commentator, Sagan meant that he ‘revered the universe. He was utterly imbued with awe, wonder, and a marvelous sense of belonging to a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos that inspires devotion as much as it does discovery’.” (Dworkin 2013, 42) Anyone who has read Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy will be familiar with the concept of the numinous, but what they may not remember is that there is a gap in logic in that book between the sense of the numinous and the leap from that to Christianity. For Otto never justifies his claim that the numinous can be given positive expression in terms of specific religious beliefs. Indeed, at the outset it seems quite impossible that this should be done, and one reacts in surprise that where he has been speaking about a completely overwhelming sense of the wonder and terrible beauty of reality, which has both a negative as well as a positive pole in Otto’s understanding of the holy, he suddenly is found assimilating this experience to the Christian religion as its most developed expression. This transition is never justified, and, indeed, is in conflict with what he says about the holy and its ineffability.
Perhaps religious belief, or the experience upon which it is in part based, of wonder and awe at the very gratuituousness of existence, is necessary in order to give expression in life to that sense of wonder, and the moral responsibility that the sense of the numinous seems to impose on those who experience it, but it is important to remember that the positive religious beliefs are really inadequate expressions of something that, at its very heart, is inexpressible. It is when this is forgotten that religion, or any other ideological belief puts itself forward as the decisive expression of the numinous, that you know it must be mostly wrong. What is not wrong, however, is the sense that there is something there that elicits from us a sense of the wonder and beauty of existence, as well as its more negative features of apparent indifference to either our wonder or our suffering. But that sense of “something far more deeply interfused,” as Wordsworth called it, seems to be a normal aspect of human experience, and does draw out of us a sense that we can live more fully and responsibly.
Some people express this sense in terms of religious beliefs, which, then, of course, they erect into a kind of protective castle which imposes full life and responsibility as a burden. This does not mean that positive religious beliefs are necessarily a completely mistaken way of approaching life and living it, but it does mean that those religious beliefs must be held with a kind of suspension of disbelief (like watching a movie). That is probably why doubt and the so-called “dark night of the soul” are integral to most forms of religious believing, because it is hard to believe some of the things that religious teaching seems to impose upon people. Here is where faith as bad epistemology comes in, and it is necessary for religious people to remember that their religious beliefs are expressions of the ultimately inexpressible. They are interpretive responses to the numinous. One of the sad parts is that many people never get to experience the numinous wonder at the mystery and gratuity of there being a world, a universe, and life to be lived in it, because it is protected behind layers and layers of myth, story and sometimes dogma and doctrine. These things should enable people to experience the wonder and awe, and this is something that people like Dawkins can help us experience. For there is, as Dawkins often points out, much “out there” to wonder at.
The point is, however, that this is the heart of religious faith. The dogmas and doctrines that have developed over thousands of years tried to fix this experience in words, and it can’t be done. That’s why protestantism has degenerated into forms of hysterically reiterated claims about the truth of beliefs for which there is not a shred of evidence, and often much evidence which disproves the truth of such beliefs. One of the things that more ritualistic religions got right is that there are ways in which to generate the experiences that underlie religious beliefs, whether chanting or meditation, or the celebration of ancient mysteries. The explanation of those mysteries, in terms of things like transubstantiation, has a tendency to undercut the effectiveness of the ritual and the sense of mystery it creates. When the liturgy was translated into modern English, many of the prayers no longer made sense, because, written in everyday English, they often came to seem absurd. Ritual prayers should be like mystical sounds, not distinctive expressions of supposed truths. That is why Latin was so effective in the Roman liturgy, for it was no longer understood by most people. When the Roman Church gave up Latin, and replaced it with ordinary language, people began to see what was being said, and the mystery disappeared, and with it the power to arouse the sense of mystery and numinousness at the heart of things. But of course religious ritual is not the only way to generate these experiences, as the popularity of TV series about astronomy, the natural world, and so on, testify. The justly famous BBC Planet Earth series with its astonishing photography expresses, as religious ritual cannot do, the sheer superfluity of being, and the wonder that such superfluity generates.
This is, in a sense, a creation narrative for today. The question of how to integrate this sense of awe and wonder and reverence into an integrated life: this is the religious question for today, which is still a question of faith. The problem with Boghossian’s approach is that he seems not to understand that this is really, in the end, what faith is really about. He chips away at faith and comes up with something that is just silly. But what is not silly is that each of us has a life to live, and making it possible to integrate that life, and to live that life fully, is still a religious task, even if it is religion without a god. This is something that the Buddha understood, and there are some who think that Jesus was similar to Buddha in this respect, and that his radical rejection of institutional Judaism was his most important contribution to religious life. The problem is that those who think like this have to dispense with the resurrection, belief in the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was in some sense a god, and all the rest of the Christian bag of tricks. And when they do, and still claim to be Christian, people like Boghossian and Dawkins will say that they are simply prevaricating and pretending to be something they are not. But there are reasons for believing that this form of Christianity is a much more authentic continuation of the tradition than the know-nothing fundamentalism that atheists such as Dawkins and Boghossian demolish with so much satisfaction. And they would be much more honest if they realised that in demolishing fundamentalism they have not really shown that religion itself (whether theistic or not) makes no important contribution to living well. And the sad part is that they simply dismiss those who have developed their religious traditions in contemporary ways as being unfaithful to the traditions in which they stand. But that is simply because it is much easier to demolish fundamentalism than serious religious belief that uses image and symbol in ways that do not imply belief in things that we could not possibly know.
I should add here that religions of the book still constitute problems for contemporary society, for there is still a tendency in such religions, even though they may be developed in imaginative ways by theologians, to revert to type. That is what makes Islam especially dangerous, for at the heart of Islam, as textual religion par excellence, is the call to jihad, a call that has been a constant accompaniment of Islam wherever it has been in the ascendant. The problem is that, so long as religions regard their supposedly sacred texts as sacred, there will always be people who will continue to attempt to purify the religion of its non-scriptural elements, claiming that the truth has been explicated once and for all time, and faithfulness must lead people to return again and again to faithfulness to the truth once delivered to the saints. This is dangerous and delusional, and it is a reason for dissociating oneself from such religions, for there seems to be no way to protect against this atavistic tendency to return things to the way they were at the time of the original “revelation”.
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