The Guardian recently published another contribution from frequent contributor John Gray, entitled “The Atheist Delusion”. In it Gray argues that the kind of atheism that is fashionable and profitable these days is wrong-headed. Well, that may or may not be the case, but Gray certainly doesn’t make much of a case for it.
First there are outright factual errors:
It is only some western Christian traditions, under the influence of Greek philosophy, which have tried to turn religion into an explanatory theory.
Only some Christians? Not Islam? How about Orthodox Judaism? For that matter, how about some Buddhists I’ve known? Fundamentalism isn’t special to Christianity. Far from it.
And is this really due to the influence of Greek philosophy? How so? Gray doesn’t elaborate in the article, but color me puzzled.
And then there are trains of reasoning that just don’t add up:
Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.
But in the very next sentence Gray cites some of the evidence that he supposes to be lacking:
It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian.
On the third hand, in the very next sentence dismisses the evidence he just produced:
However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal.
So there’s no evidence that contradicts the evidence that supports the claim that says there’s no evidence to support, but somehow this only weakens the evidence that isn’t there anyway. Or something. It’s too subtle for me. But let us continue on to the next sentence:
The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity.
Really? And where’s the evidence for this claim? Church attendance has been declining for decades in the US. And earlier in this article he talks about the huge sales of atheistic polemics. Are the religious people buying them all?
And then there’s this:
The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.
It’s hard to know exactly what he might mean by “vehicle for myths” but I wonder what evidence would make him think that the people involved in the civil rights movements, the feminist movements, the gay rights movements, the suffragist movements, and the labor movements were not doing what they were doing for the reasons they said they were doing it? The covert assumption of such a claim is that all sense of justice comes from God. To which one can only respond: so where did all the injustice come from then? I mean God has supposedly been around a good long time, right?
It’s the use of the word “collapse” that is particularly telling. Collapse implies failure. He doesn’t say these movements folded their tents because they accomplished their mission. He says they failed to accomplish their mission.
So when did these movements collapse exactly? Last time I checked women and blacks could still vote, the gay rights movement seems to be going strong, interracial couples now openly walk the streets just like anybody else. It’s true the suffragist movement isn’t what it used to be, but couldn’t the reason be they won?
So now that they’ve won, and the reason for the protest is no more, religion is rushing in to fill the mythic void left by the lack of injustices to complain about. How does this work exactly? Did people start waking up Sunday mornings feeling empty and unfulfilled because, well, there’s just nothing worth protesting anymore? “Oh hell, honey, we might as well go to church, I guess.”
All humor aside, not only does this slipshod language demean the people who made real sacrifices and took real risks to right some of the wrongs of our society, it also ignores the fact that a lot of the people involved in those movements drew their inspiration from their religious convictions. Martin Luther King was a minister! So I don’t see how the civil rights movement was a stand in for his absent faith.
More shocking claims follow hard upon this:
The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity.
Faith taught us about free will? How does Gray know this? Wouldn’t that mean that free will then must not be one of those things that Christianity inherited from Greek philosophy? Because I’m pretty sure that the Greeks were onto the whole free will thing.
But the principle problem with the argument that Gray advances in this article is that he repeatedly conflates the kind of atheism he objects to with other bad ideas he objects to. In fact, aside from the bad ideas that really aren’t atheism, it’s hard to see what exactly the target of his attack might be. It begins to look like what he really objects to is the kind of atheism that makes an argument. Good atheists keep their mouths shut about it. For instance:
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion.
Personally I don’t think that conversion is a bad idea. I don’t think Gray does either. After all, he presumably wrote the article I’m discussing because he wanted to convert people to his way of thinking about a topic he cares about. Conversion doesn’t get to be bad just when it’s “universal” for the same reason that curing everybody of smallpox isn’t worse than just curing some people. Obviously, what Gray is alluding to without saying so is “forced conversion,” and there’s the rub. So far as I know atheists aren’t forcing people to abandon their religious beliefs, not even the noisy atheists like the wicked trinity of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. Nor for that matter are most Muslims or Christians. But let us continue:
Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.
Again, what I want to know is how does Gray know these things? How does he know what these atheists doubt? And what does “suitably embellished” mean?
To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
I’ve read Dawkins and Dennett and Harris. What they demonize is bad thinking and all efforts to promulgate bad thinking. So do I. So I should hope does John Gray. Harris in his book is quite eloquent about his own spiritual beliefs and the difference between a life-affirming spirituality and a life-denying one. Dennett is also eloquent in his attempts to make this an debatable point: can we at least have a discussion about what kinds of religion work?
Let us skip ahead a bit.
Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes…. [Sam Harris] recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of “scientific atheism” – what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies. But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom?
Again the connection between religion and freedom. No religion, no freedom. Though even were this the case, does that then make religion true? No.
And again the conflation of forced conversion and atheism. Conversion is an act. Forced conversion is a violent act. Atheism is a belief (or at least a lack of belief). This is dealing off the bottom of the deck.
It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan “Religion is poison”, would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies.
So when Mao says atheism is what it’s about, we should buy that. But a little earlier we were told that
The abrupt shift in the perception of religion [characterized by the evangelical atheist’s polemics] is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.
So when Islamic terrorists say they’re acting on their beliefs, this we’re not supposed to buy? Why one and not the other? We should trust Mao’s motives, but not Osama bin Laden’s? Why?
It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure – as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.
So again with the bizarre double reasoning. When lack of belief is allied with power, it becomes a tyrannical force. But when mere belief is allied with power, that only becomes the Taliban. Here’s what I think: when bad ideas are allied with power, bad stuff happens. Let’s see what we can do to stop bad ideas. One thing we can do is be honest about our predispositions. Another thing we can do is make straightforward coherent arguments.
Could a philosopher make an argument so strong he didn’t have to bring up the Nazi’s? In this case, no:
Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. “What matters,” he declares in The God Delusion, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.
Read that through again. Follow the train of reasoning. Nazi Germany happened because Hitler was an atheist. Hitler was enamored of two bastardized scientific “theories”. (Hitler was an atheist.) Hitler co-opted bastardized Christian ideas and he was aided and abetted by the church. (Hitler was an atheist.) And there you have, “there can be no reasonable doubt” about it! This was a type of atheism. What type? The type that uses Christian ideas and partners with the Church? The type that believes scientific nonsense? This isn’t even dealing off the bottom of the deck. This is pulling aces out of your ass.
I could go on, but I’m really sick of the whole sloppy diatribe. And here’s the thing: I have a lot of respect for the things that the unholy trinity have written about religion, and I think they’ve each said important and intelligent things that needed to be said, but I don’t their work is without flaw. However, I have looked in vain for any more insightful and fairly critical examination of any of their writing on this delicate topic. Maybe I’ll have to do it myself.
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