God Reads…

And knoweth the hearts and minds of all his creatures.

God at His Computer

Well, no–not what this is about. This is about the new genre in religion (not religious) non-fiction which I have decided to name, for lack of an original thought, “God Reads”–books that are affecting to make a new case for God, or to restate old ones.

Actually the genre goes back a few years: Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2005) was a little premature when it was published, barely a year before the atheist best-seller The God Delusion (yes, that Dawkins) appeared (September, 2006) and seemed to suggest an atheist sunrise instead. It was dutifully followed by McGrath’s less poignant The Dawkins Delusion (2007) which (nonetheless) is a far better read than its nasty title suggests.

Besides, the former Master of Wycliffe College, Oxford and the sometime Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had slugged it out before, several times in fact–McGrath having the distinction of having trained as a scientist (which shows) and Dawkins having the good fortune, or sense, never to have trained as a theologian (which also shows.)

And so the back and forth was born, God’s defenders giving in equal measure what his detractors were at pains to inflict on his holy name. What was also born was a minor canon of celebrity atheists, variously called “New,” “Fundamentalist,” “Brights,” “Militant”–or merely Annoying depending what side of the line you were standing on and whose book you had read most recently.

I recall visiting the home of a kindly retired atheist couple in Tallahassee in 2007 where I had gone to debate the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne on the “God Question.” On their coffee table was displayed the whole array of new atheist titles, of which they professed to have read “only a little of Dawkins.” Still, as a Victorian mother might have the Authorized Version of the Bible handy in the parlour, a new generation had arisen who had embraced new authority and were prepared to use it (or at least allude to it in the absence of actually having read it) –In other words, just like the Bible.

In reviews and popular media, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett were dubbed, and basked in the glow, the “Four Horsemen” of a new age of scientific thinking–knights on a mission to debunk the claims and pretensions of religion. A few wannabes such as Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis) made their literary votives to the cause as well; in some cases, their books were actually slightly better than the canonical ones. But essentially the ranks were closed, like the book of the gospels at only four.

The voice of the atheist is still heard in the land. But my guess is, the shine is off the apple and we were out of Eden anyway. Ideas that were considered titillating and slightly dangerous (who says atheism isn’t slightly sexy?) became less interesting when read. I doubt there will be a rejuvenation, a rebirth, of the surprising interest (in some cases bordering on rock star fervor), that greeted the Dawkins Revolution.

The shine was off the apple.

The current spate of God Reads is a bit more interesting, to take only two recent examples. Karen Armstrong’s the Case for God, already reviewed in these pages, is not only lacking in sophisticated theistic argument but also lacks a sophisticated thesis. This hat is so old it’s made of rabbit fur and just as fuzzy. She perpetuates the idea that religion is intrinsically good and that bad people make bad religion.
If only they would grow up, buy a shovel, and dig down to the goldmine of wisdom and niceness that lay at the heart of every faith. Armstrong seems to have bluffed her way through the history of religion for a long time, but in this book she shows a woeful lack of information about history, psychology, and anthropology and pushes a unified-theory-of-religious-thesis that was last fashionable in 1969, primarily in sanghas and disorderly convents.

Robert Wright’s seductively titled The Evolution of God (2009), a far better read than Armstrong and basically naturalistic in its view of religions, nonetheless develops a premise that is hard to swallow, or, to be fair, one that I have trouble understanding. As the New Yorker review enthused, “[Wright theorizes] that religious world views are becoming more open, compassionate, and synthesized. Occasionally, his prescriptions can seem obvious—for instance, that members of the different Abrahamic faiths should think of their religions as ‘having been involved, all along, in the same undertaking.’ But his core argument, that religion is getting ‘better’ with each passing aeon, is enthralling.”

Enthralling, sure. But if that is true, then the tendency of religion to become better must have something to do with either (a) people taking religious doctrine less seriously or (b) the secularization of society that makes religion less appealing and more vulnerable to common sense. That being so, how can anyone say that religion, as opposed to the species, is getting “better.”

Maybe no one is–exactly–and this is a quibble. As John Loftus observes, Wright’s God is illusory from an ontological standpoint: it is our attitudes about God that evolve and change, and a healthy critique of the past–including the sacred books and interpretations that form the story of the human past–are important relics of that development or amelioration. The process affects religion because it affects society in every other area. God evolves, not only man. My own guess is that Wright is being slightly mischievous. These “Abrahamic Faiths” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially the most aggressive of them. Better therefore to convince the slowest to evolve that a compassionate state of acceptance is its future? I am highly skeptical.

Where are we with God Reads? Is anybody likely to have the last word in this contest of words?


Just now, I think, the momentum is with the Defense, the defenders of the God-hypothesis. Not in terms of argument but in terms of energy. Apologists are paying attention to names that may have been missed first time around, prior to the Dawkins Revolution. Names like Scott Atran (In Gods we Trust), Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds, a superb slightly older work that deserves reading now), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Todd Tremkin (Minds and God), Barbara King (Evolving God). The pro-religion forces are reading works of cognitive science and evolutionary biology and psychology as fast as they can, and it seems to me with more at stake. You always read faster before an exam.

The God Question could not escape this lens indefinitely, and the best modern reads often begin with something like Wright’s evolutionary view rather than with the stale philosophical and theodical questions that were raised by the new atheists. Given the fact that interest in outbreaks of intellectual zeal last about as long at great awakenings in American religious history, the Dawkins phase is already looking a little quaint.

And it’s a good thing that the religious and anti-religious are reading some of the same stuff, even if they have different ends in view. When a team at the University of Montreal conducted experiments on an order of Carmelite nuns in 2005-6 (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience), we were flabbergasted to learn that while they were subjectively in a state of union with God, “this state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.” Can you even point to Reno on a map? I thought not.

Carmelite Ecstasy

The study (“Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”: Mario Bauregard and Vincent Paquette) confidently concluded that “the results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.”

In other people, thoughts about more mundane kinds of union, puppy dogs and chocolate will illuminate the same regions. But the analogy that the physical basis of “mystical” experience explodes the reality of mystical experience (and take this from someone who likes chocolate) is a point that apologists for religion are right to challenge: It is argumentum ad superciliarum–a bit of logic based on a naturalistic smirk.

To the extent that the evolutionary and cognitive studies resemble this logic they have a long way to go. I offer the frankly disappointing view and research of Richard Hamer in The God Gene and the (antithetical) hodgepodge of material served up by Rause, Newberg and d’Aquili (all three medical doctors) in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief as evidence of where science can lead the opposite armies.

But the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God–no matter how much we want to make it that. And even if it were, we still won’t have settled the dispute between people like Hitchens, who think God is a very bad, indeed a poisonous idea, and people like McGrath who see it as the most sublime thought of which we mortals are capable.

Maybe Feuerbach was right: it all depends on what you eat.

14 thoughts on “God Reads…

  1. I actually just started reading Armstrong’s the Case for God and so far I actually kind of like it. Perhaps that’s because my knowledge of the history of religions is not that great. I’ll definately read The Evolution of God. Thanks for mentioning that one.

    While reading Armstrong I find myself thinking that religion would really have something to offer as long as it sticks to what it is good at: the domains of myth, story, ritual, spirituality, inspiration, social bonding. As long as it stays away from factual claims, which is when it starts to conflict with science and reason, then I’m all for it. Alas, that’s just not going to happen.

  2. Karen Armstrong became famous for not being a nun and then specialised in nothing in particular. Her scholarship is bland and tends towards generalisations and broad brush statements with pretty of frills but no real detail and plenty of flaws. But I haven’t read everything because I got bored… Actually she’d make a good writer of fantasy. Blaaa. It can’t really depend on what you eat. I like champagne, you like chocolate, and I don’t know what that means but I’m sure it’s significant.

  3. Karen Armstrong became famous for not being a nun and then specialised in nothing in particular. Her scholarship is bland and tends towards generalisations and broad brush statements with pretty frills but no real detail and plenty of flaws. But I haven’t read everything because I got bored… Actually she’d make a good writer of fantasy. Blaaa. It can’t really depend on what you eat. I like champagne, you like chocolate, and I don’t know what that means but I’m sure it’s significant.

  4. After Wright’s /Moral Animal/, It certainly seems within his scope to engage in a little memetic engineering through propaganda. Seems like a letdown for his final thesis here, though.

    The neural study you cite reminds me of a Michael Shermer book, How We Believe, that came out in 2003. There’s a section in there (can’t find my copy right now) detailing how some commonly reported feelings during religious experiences can be traced back to certain areas of the brain. The tenor of the book more generally tries to link religious impulses and even theodicies and other arguments back to determined physiological causes. Talk about people talking past each other. To enter into some kind of dialogue requires that the unbeliever acknowledge the possible reality of revelation as a result of religious experience and a mutual pursuit of truth.

    I saw a very capable presentation down at UM giving an armful of very good reasons why these fMRI-centered studies, at least in relation to normative judgments, are misleading — not least of which was your snark about chocolate and puppy dogs. I’ll have to dig it up.

    And I eat pizza. Perhaps the salt has preserved the amiability in my brain from a past religious life.

  5. Pingback: God Reads… (via The New Oxonian): Reviews When I feel Like It, Not on Demand… « The New Oxonian

  6. Jason Giannetti’s response to Dawkins points out the connection between pure Judaism and spiritualized atheism:

    Perhaps Dawkins is correct in pointing out that there is not much difference between this conception of God (as all of Being) and atheism.–“Richard Dawkins: Vox Populi“. In Journal of Liberal Religion, v.8 no. 1.

    Atheists who are not content to follow the path of materialist scientism may find that Gianetti’s approach to Biblical literature provides them with the spiritual/intellectual foundation they need.

  7. Pingback: Kako ja mislim da znam nešto

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