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What's wrong with atheism?

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Atheists just don't 'get' religion

Imagine you have a friend who has never seen modern art before and you invite him to accompany you on a trip to the Tate gallery. As you go around viewing the various exhibits your friend is totally bemused at what he is seeing and keeps telling you that none of the paintings look like anything real. They're just meaningless distortions and splodges, he says. You end up in front of a painting by Picasso entitled Weeping Woman. Your friend points out that the painting looks nothing like the face of a real woman and to prove it he pulls out a photo of his daughter from his wallet and invites you to compare the photograph and the painting point by point demonstrating in great detail where the resemblances break down. Of course your friend is quite right, the painting is nothing like the image of a real woman's face. His observations and arguments are perfectly sound. However, what is also clear is that your friend has quite missed the point. He just doesn't 'get' modern art.

It like that with atheism. Atheists, or to be more precise the so called 'New Atheists' just don't 'get' religion. They dismiss it as stupid, pointless and false because they don't understand the kind of thing it is. They judge it by the wrong standards. They focus only on truth claims and having dealt with those they think there is nothing more to be said, nothing to understand and nothing to learn from religion. It is as if an anthropologist were to go into the Brazilian jungle to study a tribe of Indians and having found that they believe in magic, which he knows to be complete nonsense, he just returns home saying there is nothing else of interest here. The problem with atheists is that for all their fetishising of science they lack the the key virtues of the scientist: curiosity and imagination.

The New atheists

The beginnings of the New Atheist movement can be traced back to 2004 when Sam Harris published his book The End of Faith which was on the Times best-seller list for thirty-three weeks. Then came Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006, by Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University in the US. Next there was The God Delusion also in 2006, by Richard Dawkins. Harris joined battle again the same year with Letter to a Christian Nation, which renewed his attack on Christianity in particular. And then in 2007 there was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late, great, Christopher Hitchens, which was probably the most articulate and the angriest book of the lot.

Over the past ten years these books have been followed by masses of articles, TV series, lectures, movies and more books. Atheism has become fashionable and sells like never before. Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens became known as the 'Four Horsemen', presumably as they harbingered the demise of religion in a final secular judgement.

Those who write in the spirit of the New Atheism are sometimes referred to as 'Militant' or 'Fundamentalist' atheists which is somewhat unfair. It's true that their style is loud, uncompromising, aggressive and sometimes arrogant but as far as I know none of them have ever killed anyone for their beliefs, or tried to suppress free speech, which is more than can be said of militant Islamicists. They have provided a useful service by goading the religious into having to accept that we live in an open society where no one's beliefs may be insulated from critical discussion. We may all possess the right to respect as individuals but our beliefs do not require respect. I rather like Karl Popper's adage that in an open society it is our ideas that should die in our stead. The New Atheists have also enabled many American atheists to 'come out' (2014 Pew research showed that atheists, rapists and Muslims were the most mistrusted groups in America!).

Definitions: atheist, agnostic, anti-theist

But let's have some definitions before we go any further. Atheism and Agnosticism come in two strengths: strong and weak. This is not a judgement on how strongly the positions are held or on the soundness of the arguments supporting the positions. Rather it relates to the strength of the claim being made. The weak agnostic says that he, or she, personally does not know if God exists, but he does not make a judgement on other people's claims to knowledge. The strong agnostic says that it is impossible, given the limitations of human knowledge, for anyone to know whether God exists. Therefore all the claims of revealed religion are bogus. The weak atheist says that he has no reason to believe God exists and in the absence of good reasons he disbelieves. He sees disbelief as the default position in the absence of good reasons for theism. It is up to the theist to provide a convincing argument. If they cannot do so then disbelief is the rational position. The strong atheist, by contrast, says that he has positive reasons for disbelief (typically the absence of evidence for God, the problem of evil, contradictions in revelations and incoherence in the very idea of God).

Criticism of agnostics as 'fence sitters'

New-style atheists often berate agnostics for being woolly-minded and sitting on the fence, but as can be seen from these definitions the positions are very close. The agnostic is making claims about knowledge and the atheist is making claims about belief. In practice both positions lead to living life without reference to revealed religion, God or transcendence. It may be the case that fence-sitters often refer to themselves as 'agnostic' but this is a mistake. They are really weak or sceptical believers of some kind.

Anti-theism and atheism are not the same

New atheists also often confuse atheism, per se, with anti-theism and run the two together as if the one implied the other. Atheism is simply belief about the non-reality of God. Nothing else follows from it. An atheist may indeed be anti-theist, and New Atheists definitely are, but the judgement that religion is intrinsically bad is a logically separate belief from the belief that God does not exist. It is quite consistent for an atheist to hold that religion is benign or a matter of indifference.

Atheism as a philosophy of life

Some atheists often like to think they can generate a philosophy of life out of atheism, as a replacement for religion. There is even a web site called Positive Atheism that tries to promote this idea. However, as atheism is compatible with just about any value system including nihilism this is an fantasy. What is worse is when atheism becomes a life-stance requiring theism as an enemy to define itself. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre called 'bad faith' in his existentialist philosophy. This state of mind has much in common with anti-semitism and racism in that the believer requires an enemy to define themselves against. They have no positive beliefs of their own. Their identity is defined simply as 'I'm not one of those'. Sartre views this as existential inauthenticy. The believer is evading the fundamental questions of human existence and the problem of their own identity and meaning, by focusing on an enemy.

Rational belief

New Atheists like to claim the rational high-ground for their position. Atheism is, they claim, the rational position while any kind of religious belief whatever is irrational. The mistake here is to think that conclusions or substantive beliefs can be labelled rational or irrational. It is not beliefs, let alone, true beliefs, but the process by which you arrive at your conclusions, regardless of whether they are true or false, that is properly designated rational. Thus it is possible to hold a false belief rationally or a true belief irrationally. An example of the former would be the belief in luminescent ether held by physicists in the early 20th century. At the time they had good reasons to believe that there must be some sort of medium through which electromagnetic waves travelled in space. They couldn't just travel in a vacuum. However, it turned out that the theory was wrong but that did not mean that the scientists who believed it at the time were irrational. At that time they had good reasons for their belief.

Bad reasons for being an atheist

The reasons that atheists give for holding an atheist position are often bad even tho I personally believe the atheist position to be true in itself. For instance, many atheists argue that God cannot exist because of all the evils throughout history religion is responsible for. It doesn't require much thought to see that this is a non sequitur. It's logically possible that, say, Christianity is true but that human beings are so corrupt (as the doctrine asserts) that they misinterpret and abuse the faith resulting in conflict, wars and great suffering. This is a bad reason for being an atheist.

In 2006 Richard Dawkins produced a TV documentary entitled The root of all evil arguing that the effect of religion on humanity has been entirely malign. Dawkins is fond of quoting Steven Weinberg: "Without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion". Interestingly he was pre-empted by Pascal, in fact a pious Jansenist, in the 17th century who said: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction".

There is no doubt that religion has been behind many evils, but it is absurd to deny that religion has not given rise to many goods as well: hospitals developed out of medieval care for the sick by monks, the Quakers did early work in prison reform and founded the first mental hospital which provided humane treatment of the mentally ill; it was Christian scholars who developed the quintessentially rationalist methods of source and form criticism that were applied to the Bible in the first instance. Christopher Hitchens in one of his books points out how the Protestant church in South Africa was instrumental in buttressing apartheid but he omits to mention the work done by the Anglican church in combating apartheid.

We can no doubt spend an enjoyable evening playing 'what have the Romans done for us...' but it is impossible to draw up a straightforward balance-sheet of the benefits and costs of religion. You cannot separate out general culture from religion in a simple way. In western culture there is a notion of religion being a separate area of human activity that you can opt into and out of like joining a club. At most times and places in human history it has not been possible to separate out religion in this way. In fact in classical Greece and Rome the modern concept of 'religion' didn't even exist because there was no gap between civil and religious life. And how does one tease out true motives for action anyway? When is a motive purely religious and when is greed for land and conquest being covered by a rationalising gloss of religion? We can't separate out religion from the surrounding culture and we cannot re-run history to see what it would look like without religion. My own view is that religions are entirely human creations and that like all other human institutions they have good and bad effects. For example the institution of money has been very useful to human beings but we do not judge it entirely evil because recently some city boys manipulate it to make a fast buck.

Atheists and Darwinist explanations

As well as being rationalists the New Atheists like to think of themselves as empiricists and put huge emphasis on evidence for their views. They all take an evolutionary view of the development of religion and see it as a form of social adaptation. This view lumps all religions together as if they were aspects of the same phenomenon and completely discounts the cultural causation of religion. It's like trying to account for the rise of the novel by Darwinist natural selection. The reality is that religions are highly differentiated with totally different answers to entirely different questions about the human condition. It's true that we find differences across cultures in the way that, say, families are organised even tho they are all families but they are not as varied as religions. The only thing that religions might be said to have in common is a supernatural superstructure (although these are all different too and perform different functions). Belief in supernatural entities and forces is not definitive of religion as I intend to show later and religion cannot be reduced simply to supernatural beliefs.

As a result of their Darwinist obsession the New Atheists have a penchant for coming up with a variety of 'Just So' stories to explain religion as a hard-wired adaptation of the human brain. None of these accounts have a shred of hard evidence behind them but are simply speculations about what happened in pre-history. Furthermore, the 'News' have trouble explaining how they, personally, have been able to rewire their own brains into an atheist form.

Lack of evidence for God

The New Atheists also claim that a key reason for not believing in God is that there is no evidence for his existence. Interestingly, I have never heard an atheist say what evidence would sway them into belief. A voice from the sky perhaps? A miraculous healing at Lourdes involving the re-growth of an amputated limb? It is a truism of philosophy that metaphysical theories are compatible with all states of the world. You can't determine their truth simply by examining the world or performing experiments. As we cannot compare worlds created by God with those not created by a god we cannot determine whether this one we live in is a created or uncreated world. Evidence is just not an issue here and I am at a loss to understand what it means in this context.

Liberal believers are supporting the fundamentalists

Another failure of atheists to think straight is the assertion they all seem to make that liberal believers (such as Quakers, URCs and middle-of-the-road Anglicans) share some of the guilt of fundamentalist Islamicist outrages by their continuing to support a supernaturalist view of the world. The corollary of this view seems to be that if all the liberal believers were to become atheists tomorrow then Al-Qaeda would be seriously undermined, lose something of the rationale for their existence and lose power. I find this totally implausible. There is no connection at all between these ideologies.

Religion as a set of explanatory hypotheses

My central objection to the New Atheism, as I said at the beginning is that they don't really 'get' religion. They see religion as a set of beliefs or explanatory hypotheses which happen to be false. This quote from the atheist blogger, Greta Christina, sums up the position well:

Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis.

This is wrong. Religion is not primarily a set of false hypotheses but first and foremost a set of practices. Religion is not simply something you believe but something you do. Let's take the practice of prayer as an example. All atheists think that prayer is about simply asking for 'stuff'. It's like using a fruit machine. Sometimes you get the stuff out and sometime you don't but the believer just rationalises away the 'misses'. The atheist will also point out that prayer doesn't even make sense in theological terms. If God is omniscient he knows what you need already then why do you need to ask. They say this as if the thought never crossed the mind of believers. In fact there is a vast literature on the theology of prayer and many different theories, which atheists never bother to read, so the fruit machine analogy is very crude.

The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann spent two years studying Pentecostalism in America and she shows that while believers did certainly ask for stuff in prayer (in some cases things as trivial as praying for a parking space!) that wasn't all there was to it. They would say thanks for good things that had happened to them, say sorry for things they had done wrong, examine their lives day by day to make small improvements, praise God, express their concerns for other people, seek inspiration, motivation, insight and understanding. In short, they were expressing feelings, attitudes and aspirations and fostering a relationship when they prayed. They were not simply playing a slot machine. Luhrmann goes on to show that the various elements of prayer that she found in her subjects mapped very closely onto the elements of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), currently the most empirically well-founded form of psychotherapy. She refers to prayer as emotional management. In CBT patients are asked to write a list of things in their life they feel thankful for in order to foster a more positive frame of mind. They are asked to examine their lives and make small changes day by day. They are encouraged to keep a journal of their thoughts and express their problems in words as it has been found that processing emotions in language has a measurable therapeutic effect. The journal may be personalised so it is written 'as if' talking to another person. We are all familiar with the convention "Dear diary...". Anne Frank used to write her diary addressing it as "Kitty". In some cases the therapist may put an empty chair in front of the patient and say, "That's your father sitting in that chair, talk to him", inviting the patient to engage in an imaginary conversation. When seen in this light talking to an imaginary person does not seem so odd. What Luhrmann does make clear is that people do not come to a belief and then pray as a result. They come to the practice first, which has rewards that are not entirely dependent on belief. The belief underpins the practice but its practice that leads and is the focus of the religious life.

Now the atheist will riposte: that's all very well but if the person to whom you think you are praying is shown to be unreal then you undermine the rationale for the practice. However, that does not appear to be the case. The practice of prayer is expressive has rewards that do not depend on the underpinning belief. I was very surprised and intrigued to find in my web research for this essay that a number of atheists in the US had resumed the practice of prayer even after having given up religious belief entirely. They were all quite clear that they no longer believed in God but either just spoke out loud to no one in particular or in a couple of cases they had invented imaginary goddesses to whom they addressed their words! In effect they were practicing a version of visualisation which has been shown experimentally to be a very effective form of therapy.

Appropriating from Religion

Meditation is a practice that the non-religious have adopted from religion. Even Sam Harris is keen on it. The Sunday Assembly is a secular version of church that had become popular all over the world in the past couple of years. Alain de Botton in his book Religion for atheists recommends that we adopt religious practices such as fasting, pilgrimage, religious agape meals, ceremonial calendars etc. In contradiction to the New Atheists I want to argue that while religions may not be true, they contain useful insights and practices that non-believers could usefully adopt, including prayer, and that an attitude of contemptuous rejection is not justified. Truth is not the only value in our dialogue with religion.


So to sum up. My main objections to the New Atheists are that they make heady claims about being rational but in many cases they put forward reasons for their beliefs that are just as poor as those of the religious; that despite claiming to be empirical they don't check their facts; that they treat all religions as if they were examples of the same phenomenon and fail to do justice to their variation; that they misrepresent religions by treating them primarily as set of factual beliefs and not primarily as matters of practice; and they fail to see that there are features of religion that we can learn from.

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