Atheism Redux

By Bradley Shingleton

The end of atheism has been declared, time and again, for many years. (For a recent example, see Alister McGrath’s 2004 book The Twilight of Atheism.) To its religious adversaries, atheism has been a waning phenomenon, persistent yet persistently marginal. And empirical data support this view: opinion polls in this country indicate that atheism enjoys very little public acceptance (6 percent in one recent Gallup poll); belief in God and acceptance of religion is over-whelming as far as these polls can tell. Professed atheists have little if any chance to be elected to public office in this country, and other than the federal courts, there are few public forums available for promotion of the atheist perspective.

Recently, however, several books arguing the atheist case have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the two top-selling volumes among “religious” books in November 2006 were actually atheist manifestos. The authors of those two books, Richard Dawkins, with The God Delusion, and Sam Harris, with The End of Faith (and also the new Letter to a Christian Nation), have become minor media celebrities. For the moment, atheism seems to be enjoying a revival.

At first glance, these two authors, both scientists, do not seem to have all that much new to say, either about atheism or religion. For the most part, they rehearse time-worn arguments against religious belief, particularly as belief is manifested in the monotheistic traditions. In particular, they point to the deep-seated moral ambiguity of sacred scriptures of those traditions, the lack of rational justification for what they see as the truth claims implicit in belief, and the persistent strands of brutality and intolerance.

Their versions of these arguments are marked by a deep distress over recent phenomena, such as the rise of religiously fueled terrorism, the coalescing alliance between conservative churches and political activists, and the spread of hostility to science, rooted in types of fundamentalism.

Harris is particularly repelled by the assumed link between religion and September 11 and other acts of terrorism. He is also put off by the pervasive irrationality of belief and particularly by the immorality that pervades scriptures. Though Harris condemns religion generally, his critique is directed primarily at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He finds these traditions to be misanthropic, if not homicidal, in their respective cores, justifying unspeakable behavior on the part of deity and humanity. In a recent interview, Harris put it this way: “We have to start seeing religion for what it is, a failed science, a failed description of the world, a holdover of discourse by our ancestors, who had no basis to demand good evidence and good argument.”

While Harris directs much of his scorn at fundamentalism, he pointedly condemns moderates as well. He dismisses the notion that religion is a private matter that should be immune from criticism. For Harris, this is tantamount to hiding behind a “taboo” that protects religious claims from legitimate scrutiny.

The response from religionists to these books has been sparing. What has appeared in print has been rather curt and dismissive, although Alister McGrath reportedly has a book-length refutation of Dawkins forthcoming, entitled The Dawkins Delusion. Scientists and other scholars, though, have notably taken Harris and Dawkins to task for their fundamental misunderstanding of religion. The English literary critic Terry Eagleton, writing in The London Review of Books, accuses Dawkins of creating “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.”

In any case, a lot of people are bothering to buy and read these books. And this suggests that there is an appetite for scrutiny of the role of religion in contemporary America, and elsewhere, and for close, “objective” scrutiny of how religious beliefs have an impact on our public and private lives. I suspect that there is also a significant hunger, even among those sympathetic to belief, for a clearer understanding of how reason relates to belief. A lengthy article on Harris in The Washington Post quoted Van Harvey, an emeritus professor of religious studies at Stanford, as saying, “I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion.” Harvey is right. Serious scrutiny of religious belief—or what might be more usefully called “ultimate belief”—is often trumped by a kind of tight-lipped tolerance that is, above all, wary of giving offense. Religion remains, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, a “conversation-stopper.” While an increasing number of voices are now more willing to criticize fundamentalist and otherwise conservative religious groups, for example, that criticism by and large is limited to the political realm, and has a certain tactical quality.

Much of the current atheistic critique is grounded in a rather extreme and misguided idea of how people believe and how they reason. Harris assumes that what matters about belief is its veracity, and that veracity can and must be tested by the canons of scientific rationality. In doing so, he idealizes reason beyond all justification, crediting it with a range and authority that many would not share. Behind this is an expectation that all people would see things the same way if only they were rational enough.

Rationally based consensus may be available in some scientific matters, but it is a will-o’-the-wisp when it comes to the commitments we make with respect to what we consider to be most valuable and most true. People do not believe in any one single way; nor do they believe on the basis of any single criterion of proof or justification. Harris fails to take human diversity seriously, and in doing so, he fails to under-stand, fundamentally, what he condemns.

Although shallow and ill-informed for the most part, the arguments of Harris, Dawkins, and others have their uses. Believers should be able, in some way or other, to give account for their belief and its commitments; they should be able to define its words and describe their usages. While most people do not arrive at ultimate belief by the way of argument, believing involves reasoning as well as hoping, seeing, and willing. Christian scripture, for one, admonishes believers to be ready to give a reason for their hope.

The atheist refusal to accept that faith and belief are private matters is also worth some consideration. An opinion may be private (as well as personal), but a belief suggests something more. It carries with it a claim that there is some ground on which it stands, whether it is shaky or secure.  G. K. Chesterton wrote that a person “can no more possess a private religion than he [or she] can possess a private sun and moon.” Belief has something to do with some ground and some trust. It reflects the way things are as they appear to the believer, and with what really is valuable and meaningful for that person.

The atheistic critique goes astray in  assuming that these things can and must be subjected to empirical verification. The genesis and growth of belief is a variegated, multifaceted affair according to  Augustine, Anselm, Cardinal Newman, and others. Belief has several wellsprings, and the inability to quantify and account for each of them in the form of a logical syllogism does not mean that they are simply blind fantasies.

Clearly, the public square must be able to accommodate those who are tone-deaf to belief, as well as those who are undecided about it. To the extent that the cur-rent atheist polemic contains a renewed demand for the tolerance of nonbelief in a religiously prolific society, it deserves a sympathetic hearing. And the atheist challenge to belief poses legitimate questions about the why and how of belief. As long as religion is claimed as a sanction for actions that permit or enable ignorance, injustice, and inhumanity, there will always be a market for atheism.

Bradley Shingleton, who received a master  of theological studies degree at HDS in 1978, is a lawyer and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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