Dawkins v God: Stop the Fight, by Oliver Kamm*

Oliver Kamm’s review of The God Delusion originally appeared in The Times on November 2nd, 2006.  Educated at Oxford and the University of London, Kamm is the author of Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy (2005), an advocacy of interventionism in foreign policy. He is a leader writer and columnist for The Times. He describes his politics as left wing.

Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God “don’t prove anything,and are easily . . . exposed as vacuous”, wrote Richard Dawkins in The Times this week. Aquinas also offered, inadvertently, one of the strongest cases against Christian orthodoxy. In order that the happiness of the saints in heaven be made more delightful, he argued, they will be “allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned”. I would go to some trouble to avoid the company of those who take pleasure in others’ torment. I would do almost anything to eliminate the risk of eternal fellowship with those who believe such a spectacle is their reward for righteousness.

Yet after reading Dawkins’s philippic against theism,The God Delusion, I am not so sure.

A life of obeisance to a deity one disbelieves in may be a price worth paying. Dawkins’s harangues in this life are assertive enough. In the unlikely event that there is a region of the hereafter reserved for us infidels, hearing them again at full volume without end would be one more reason for penitence.

Dawkins is a formidable advocate of science and reason against pseudoscience and superstition. He has deserved sport with the scientifically illiterate. He scorns the scandalous suggestion of the Prime Minister that a school that teaches creationism is part of a healthy diversity of educational provision. He demolishes the notion that science and religion are, in the phrase of the late Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria” that deal with different branches of knowledge.

Biblical literalists have integrity enough to understand that science is not merely different from religion but clashes with it. Science is critical; liberal religion accommodates criticism as best it may; dogmatic religion rejects criticism in favour of revelation. But Dawkins cannot leave it there.

The problem is not with his well-known pugnacity. Referring to the controversy about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, Dawkins rejects the notion that religious sensibilities are uniquely entitled to respect. He thereby uncharacteristically understates. In a recent television [Channel 4] debate about Muslims and free speech, one of the Danish imams who had sparked the protests stated that he was entitled to respect. In a free society he is entitled to no such thing, but only to religious and political liberty. Whether he enjoys respect as well is up to him.

But Dawkins is himself uncomprehending of the argument for separating religious and civic authority. His message is not only that religion is false, but that it is the source of oppression. He quotes “the respected journalist Muriel Gray” — the obsequious honorific immediately alerts the reader to a tendentious proposition — about the bombings of 7/7. “The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself,” declares Gray.

Well, no. The cause of those acts of terrorism was a particular theocratic movement, Islamism. Dawkins does his best to draw analogies with other religions, giving warning of the political influence of American evangelicalism, and, at the fringes, an American Taleban intent on the repression of women and the suppression of liberty. But this is tosh.

Dawkins quotes approvingly the writer Sam Harris: “Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.”

Any significant component of the US government? We have a test case, for President Reagan did believe exactly this. “The president had fairly strong views about the parable of Armageddon,” Robert McFarlane, his National Security Adviser, later disclosed. “He believed that a nuclear exchange would be the fulfilment of that prophecy [and that] the world would end through a nuclear catastrophe.”

Reagan’s convictions may have been bizarre, but his political inferences were fundamentally different from those drawn by Osama bin Laden. Beth Fischer, the political scientist, has plausibly argued that Reagan reversed his arms policies on becoming convinced that a nuclear exchange was an imminent possibility. He implemented a rapprochement with the Soviet Union in 1984, with his saccharine “Ivan and Anya” speech, 15 months before Gorbachev became Soviet leader.

Religions, and even religious fundamentalisms, are not all alike. Liberal societies, partly because of the spread of knowledge borne of scientific inquiry, have come to an accommodation with religion — not intellectually, but socially. The founders of the United States sought the separation of Church and State. They were adamant that religion should not divide people.

But they still regarded religion as a rich civic resource. In motivating and inspiring social action it is. Reagan’ s pacific arms policies are still widely unrecognised both by his liberal critics and his conservative adulators. Martin Luther King’s witness against racial segregation is a more obvious example.

The secularist argument for having no religious test for public office is not the same as the argument for atheism. The argument for atheism is not the same as deriding religion as the source of conflict. Dawkins’s polemics are to secularism what C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersis to religious apologetics: knowing, insular and sanctimonious.

They are testament to how convictions about religion can lead serious scholars to intellectual disrepute.

Julian Huxley: Why Liberal Theology is Not Enough

John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich, England, in the 1960’s, was not an ordinary Anglican prelate, not even in a country where Anglican bishops are known as atheists in purple gowns. He first became notorious for suggesting that the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not only not pornographic but a moral book.

Then, in 1963 he ushered in a movement sometimes called “the new divinity” when he wrote a book exploding conventional images of God as false and suggesting that the biblical images of a petulant and fickle God, in particular, were more  a hindrance than a help to the Christian faith.  He challenged British Christians to consider alternatives to the God-in-the-sky model, especially ones being proposed by theologians like the German-American thinker Paul Tillich (God as “ultimate concern,”)  and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who rejected the objective moral values of the Bible.

In a country where “existential”  theology was not popular and German ideas especially suspect, it was no surprise that Robinson’s suggestions did not immediately catch on.

One sympathetic reader of Honest to God was Julian Huxley, a distinguished embryologist in his right and the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) by descent.  He independently distinguished himself as a researcher with his first book, on avian ethology. By 1925 he had become Professor of Zoology at King’s College, London, a position he resigned after less than two years to work with G.H. Wells on The Science of Life.

Rejecting T.H.’s legendary “agnosticism” relative to religion Julian preferred to call himself a “humanist,” emphasizing the positive and progressive goals human beings have achieved in their evolutionary march from simple to complex organziations, made possible through the use of language.  He rejected the notion that this progress was “teleological” in the religious sense, but rejected equally the idea that there was an absolute split between religion and science: As he notes in the essay below, “There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion;… I believe that [a] drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern.”

Ethics, Huxley believed, was at the heart of the progression;  “it largely overrides the automatic process of natural selection as an agent of change.” (Evolution in action. Chatto & Windus, London, 1953,  p132.)

His commitment to an ethical vision and “humanism”–a term he virtually reinvented and modernized, yet pointing back to the classical and neo-classical usages,  led him to become involved with the founding of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (largely inspired by his work) and with John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, to serve as a founding advisor to the First Humanist Society of New York.

Huxley however was, if not precisely in the American philosophical sense, a naturalist.  The two great philosophical traditions of Europe, the rationalist and the empirical, each had their own unresolved dualisms and overcame them in separate ways through linguistic and rational critique of the “supernatural.”  But Huxley was not eager to reduce religion to a commitment to supernatural entities and intrusions. He wrote, that the abandonment of the God-hypothesis did not entail the end of piety (in the strict, classical sense of the term) least of all ethics, but merely a recognition of our location of the history of our life on the planet:

“Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct something to take its place.”

The following essay is edited slightly from its 1964 version in Essays of a Humanist (1964: Chatto and Windus)

The Bishop of Woolwich’s courageous book, Honest to God, is impressive evidence not merely of what he calls our present theological ferment, but of the general ideological ferment and indeed of the revolution of thought through which we are struggling.

This is the inevitable outcome of the new vision of the world and man’s place and role in that world — in a word, of man’s destiny — which our new knowledge has revealed. This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. The entire cosmos is made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appears as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity.

This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where mind has flowered. Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.

Dr Robinson describes the current image of God as follows: “Somewhere beyond this universe is a Being, a centre of personal will and purpose, who created it and sustains it, who loves it and who ‘visited’ it in Jesus Christ. But I need not go on, for this is ‘our’ God. Theism means being convinced that this Being exists: atheism means denying that he does.” However he continues as follows: “But I suspect that we have reached a point where this mental image of God is also more of a hindrance than a help. … Any image can become an idol, and I believe that Christians must go through the agonizing process in this generation of detaching themselves from this idol.” He even writes that he heartily agrees with something I wrote many years ago in my Religion without revelation — “The sence of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous.”

And yet he clings to the essential personal concept of God — “nothing,” he writes, “can separate us from the love of God”; and sums up his position in the following assertion, that “God is ultimate reality… and ultimate reality must exist”.

To the implications of these statements I shall return. Meanwhile let me state the position as I see it. Man emerged as the dominant type on earth about a million years ago, but has only been really effective as a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, he has produced astonishing achievements — but has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. And looked at in the long perspective of evolution he is singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out his planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.

The radical evolutionary crisis through which man is now passing can only be surmounted by an equally radical reorganisation of his dominant system of thought and belief. During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities — agriculture with its rituals of rebirth as against hunting with its magic; early civilization with its cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods; universal and monotheistic religion; later, the scientific, the industrial and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought; and now the evolutionary and humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out.

What has all this to do with Dr Robinson’s views on God, or indeed with religion at all? The answer is, a great deal. In the first place, religion in some form is a universal function of man in society, the organ for dealing with the problems of destiny, the destiny of individual men and women, of societies and nations, and of the human species as a whole. Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework, whether myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized; and some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. But, as the history and comparative study of religions make clear, the codified morality and the ritualized expression of of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, the religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny, and will become progressively less effective a a social organ.

Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve, the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered up to bear the weight of the facts, and a radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief, just as the emergence of new types of bodily organization was necessary to achieve biological advance.

Such major organizations of thought may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of course, was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position and led to the replacement of the geocentric pattern of thought by a heliocentric one. I believe that an equally drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern. Simplified down to its bare essentials the stepwise reorganization of western religions thought seems to have proceeded as follows. In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of magic force inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to polydaimonism and polytheism; while with the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity and later branching off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth.

Of course a great deal of magic survived into the polytheist priest-king stage, and some persists in thinly disguised form in Christian and Mohammedan practices and ideas today. Similarly, elements of polydaemonism and polytheism persists in the nominally monotheist religion of Christianity, in the doctrine of the Trinity (with the virtual divinization of the Virgin in Catholicism), in the multiplication of its Saints and Angels, and in so doing has increased its flexibility.

But to come back to DR Robinson. He is surely right in concentrating on the problem of God, rather than on the resurrection or the after-life, for God is Christianity’s central hypothesis.

But he is surely wrong in making such statements as that “God is ultimate reality”. God is a hypothesis constructed by man to help him understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny. To say that God is ultimate reality is just semantic cheating, as well as being so vague as to become effectively meaningless (and when DR Robinson continues by saying “and ultimate reality must exist” he is surely running round a philosophically very vicious circle).

Dr Robinson, like Dr Tillich and many other modernist theologians, seems to me, and indeed to any humanist, to be trying to ride two horses at once, to keep his cake and eat it. He wants to be modern and meet the challenge of our new knowledge by stripping the image of God of virtually all its spatial, material, Freudian and anthropomorphic aspects. But he still persists in retaining the termGod, in spite of all its implifications of supernatural power and personality; and it is these implifications, not the modernists’ fine-spun arguments, which consciously and unconsciously affect the ordinary man and woman. Heads I win, tails you lose: humanists dislike this elaborate double-talk. The ambiguity involved can be simply illustrated by substituting some of the modernists’ definition of God for the plain word [I think it should read world, not word — Fredrik’s comment] itself. I am sure that many opponents of freer divorce use the phrace “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. If they were to proclaim that “whom universal reality has joined together, let no man put asunder”, it would not carry the same weight.

Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden to our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sence of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct some thing to take its place.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sence seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. Let me remind my readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interprete man’s experiences of this quality.

Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.

Such magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly outer phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned (though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind). However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magic or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truely supernatural but transnatural — it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sence, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has antropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling man to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition. But one can make some general prophesies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occured in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future (though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression).

Thus the central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities constitute the world’s greatest resource, but at the moment only a tiny fraction of them is being realized. The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provide the religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and makes his own particular contribution to evolutionary fulfilment.

In a way most important of all, an evolution-centered religion can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled. Besides what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values, we shall need a transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in prayer involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence; indeed, with every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations not only of his day-by-day existence in the equivalents of shared worship, but of his little secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence (already in some countries there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies). Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external noveltry, to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcendent the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self in a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even vaster human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But its consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of man’s place and role in the universe which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. Dr Robinson’s article is evidence of its effectiveness in changing ideas. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief which we confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.

Bloody Fools


It has been amazing and distressing to me that responses to this blog from a cadre of readers have focused only on the twin lunacies of Islamic extremism and Christian triumphalism.  Some of them want to vindicate Terry Jones as a kind of litmus test for their belief that a butterfly is enough to ignite the Muslim world–so why worry about an ox?  If there is logic there, it must be part of the initiation ritual.

Some have even taken the “What would you expect?” line, as though Mr Jones’s actions necessarily excited the “Muslim animals” and renders him, therefore, innocent.  From what tank is that slimy conclusion fished?  The further logic is that Islam is all about violence anyway, so a a little more (what’s the difference) can hardly be laid at the door of a Florida fundagelical.

Some respondents think that there is a moral equivalence, such that Terry Jones and the Afghan and Pakistani responders are cut from the same cloth. How that renders Jones innocent or raises the dead I am not sure. I find that kind of response both uninformed and worrying. Very worrying coming from nonbelievers, and maybe because it raises in my mind questions about whether a certain level of atheism isn’t also an impediment to moral reasoning–specifically that kind that finds all religions “naturally” guilty of atrocity and hence no one at fault and no one innocent of crimes.

Yet one wonders if Mr Myers–who also figures in this story–had been approached by NSS agents and told that his act of “desecration” would lead to the loss of life,  would have gone through with it.  Something tells me that the redoubtable Dr Myers would have relented. Because he knew his was a stunt.

Terry Jones’s acts were not a stunt: they were intended to light fires and kill innocent people.  Indeed they were done to prove that innocent people would be killed.  “For some of them,” he said, “it [the torching of the Qur’an] could be an awakening.”

…The world was reminded of the 30-person Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center on Friday, when a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. On Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.

Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it. But in the end, his desire to shed light on what he calls a “dangerous book” won out. The Koran was burned in a spectacle streamed live on the Internet. To reach out to Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles….”

As if we needed evidence. That, thankfully is the difference between an atheist Koran hater and a fundamentalist Koran hater: and if ever there were a clear bisection of the “rules” for blasphemy, this should be it–because people are dead as part of the definition.  Jones now plans to move house so to speak and put Muhammad on trial next month.

To my atheist colleagues, I say: please, before you snipe, try to understand.  We are not yet at the point where atheism is the “cure” for anything, least of all for the kinds of violence these acts have made manifest.  I know that it’s tempting to think that unbelief is the silver bullet cure for all the atrocities of religion [Imagine], and that a world free of it would be world in which neither Terry Jones nor Afghan extremists would hold sway.  Arguably that would be a more peaceful, reasonable, less violent world.

That is not the world we live in, so the question of what to do does not only involve the meager 1.6% of the population of America willing to identify as atheists, who have their answer and are sure it’s the right one, but the 1.66 billion Muslims in the world who want to differ.  The choice, frankly isn’t about No God or Your God; it’s about moving beyond the short-sighted religion-bashing of some atheists to a realistic position where criticism of religion can be effective.  That is the only business plan worth discussing.

Ultimately, the way forward is going to be a matter of tone and technique, not the outcome of the work of a few commando God-bashers writing from the safe haven of first world democracies telling the majority how foolish they are.


What do Professor P.Z. Myers and the Revd Terry Jones have in common?  Not very much, except both have desecrated the Koran.  Is it important that they did what they did for different reasons, and with different results? Do such distinctions matter when we’re talking about a book that neither man finds particularly–attractive?  Yes.

Terry Jones

As readers of this blog will know, I think the use of blasphemy to draw crowds and win followers is probably on a moral par with Jesus’exorcisms in the New Testament: you find something or someone that will grab people’s attention–a man possessed by 6000 demons will do– then you let fly, do the hocus pocus,  and hope the nasties will go into the pigs (like the trick requires) and not into the audience. When the pigs go shrieking in agony over the cliff and the “demoniac” is still in one piece, the crowd applauds wildly and proclaims you the messiah.  That is sort of what happened for both Myers and Jones.  But with different results.

Myers, simply an atheist showman, wrote a pretty nifty article about blasphemy on his site in 2008.  In it he documented the insidious reverence in which Catholics held to the doctrine of the “real presence of Jesus” in the eucharist in the Middle Ages and the violence shown to disbelievers, especially Jews, who were always getting on the wrong side of Catholics and always being accused of desecrating the communion host, or “cracker” as Myers snarkily likes to call the matzah used at Mass.

“That is the true power of the cracker, this silly symbol of superstition. Fortunately, Catholicism has mellowed with age — the last time a Catholic nation rose up to slaughter its non-Christian citizenry was a whole 70 years ago, after all — but the sentiment still lingers.”

Had he performed his oblation a couple of years later after the results of the 2010 Pew Forum Poll on Religious Knowledge in America, he could also have added that 45% of Catholics do not know their Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, though they like the Spaghetti suppers on Friday night.

Never was there a “mellower” target then than Catholics, who in the main seemed not to care very much when Myers drove a rusty spike through the cracker, some garbage (a banana peel and coffee grounds) and–importantly–pages of the Koran.  Of course, as soon as he did this, the eyes of the superstitious religious blind were opened, and the lame man leapt as an hart.

Crackers and Korans and peels, O My.

Myers’ antics made him the dark darling of full frontal atheists, those who hold to the curious view that the angrier you make people who believe in sacred books and objects, the likelier you are to win over people who hold a weak or no opinion on the subject.

Desecration, confrontation, Yo-mama style insult and blasphemy are tangible blows for reason, the commandos believe.

Though their training manual is being revised.  The Center for Inquiry, in its regular confusion over what fund-raising gimmick to try on next, made 2009 its first international Blasphemy Day and invited people to send in cartoons, jokes, slogans, and anything else to show just how lucky we all are to live in a country that cherishes free expression and where Nothing and No-one is sacred. The small difference between an inside joke that like-minded people think is funny and real blasphemy, which can only occur among people who take religion pretty seriously, and which might get your head blown off, escaped the organizers who soon enough put Blasphemy Day in the bottom drawer and rolled out Blasphemy Rights Day.

But, predictably, no one died as a consequence of Mr Myers’ brainstormium.  And an unclimaxed Myers was reduced to pasting letters from a few lost souls who wrote almost pathetically of their upset:  “As a Christian it is an insult for anyone to call my beliefs stupid shit. I have respected every religion and every idea for years.” To which Myers felt obliged to respond in derisive detail, defending himself against a volley of feathers by saying: “They [the pages of the Koran and the Bible] are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet.”

He observed that in addition to pages of the Koran he also used a few pages of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which as far as I know is not yet considered sacred scripture by any group, and whose spiking would not likely ignite a revolt–especially since it was well known that the sympathies of the spiker were pro-Dawkins anyway.  The point was half-clever, but the whole incident was tasteless, and (as I’ve said before)  cowardly: to be effective, try it again, only this time in downtown Lahore after you send the memo.

Tried, convicted, soaked in kerosense, ignited

Which brings us roundabout to Pakistan and the Reverend Jones.  Jones is the intellectual Omega and pastor of the sixty member Dove World Outreach Center in Lake City, Florida, who threatened to burn the Qur’an in August 2010.

His reason for doing so was to bring the book to justice  for the violence and murder “it [sic] had perpetrated.” Unlike Myers, who began with the view that no book is sacred, Jones is of the opinion that Islam’s holy book and Islam itself is “of the devil.”

A jittery National Association of Evangelicals disowned him, local Florida fundagelical groups (some of them militia) distanced themselves from him, and condemned his statements.  In the War Zone, General David Petraeus explained that soldiers “will be killed if this event happens.”  Jones demured, hedged, tried to stretch out his fifteen minutes to thirty six hours of fame (longer than a news cycle), then “postponed ” the trial and burning of the book while he “negotiated with the planners of the Ground Zero Mosque.”

The media being a fickle lover, lost interest in the story and almost missed more recent developments when Jones announced that the trial and sentencing would take place on March 20, 2011.  Funnily enough, the Interior Ministry in Pakistan was watching developments closely after a spate of incidents involving charges that Christians (about 3,000,000 in a country of 170,000,000) were secretly desecrating Korans and a spate of church-burnings and murders.

The trial was held, the sentence rendered by a Jury of 12 church elders, and a Dallas imam, according to reports, acted as a defense attorney. The book was soaked in kerosene for two hours,and was then ignited by Jones’s assistant pastor Wayne Sapp.  Further events are planned for Good Friday (April 22, 2011) in Michigan.  One thing that comes through clearly is that religious zealots know a thing or two about lighting fires. The Catholics Jones also despises are satisfied to light a Paschal candle on the night before Easter.

Reaction has been slow, because media attention has been erratic, but  in Afghanistan, thousands of outraged protesters stormed a U.N. compound killing at least 20 people, including eight foreigners–this at a critical moment in the Afghan war when America is trying to “win hearts and minds.” The demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif turned violent when some protesters grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards and opened fire, then mobbed buildings and set fires on the compound. Demonstrators were also massed in Kabul and the western city of Herat.

So far, three attempts to burn churches have been thwarted by Pakistani security forces, but it is just a matter of time before death and destruction, related to the imbecility of a small-time Christian publicity whore, rears its snake-maned head.  Predictable but terrifying right-wing approval for Jones’s action is also beginning its viral crawl across the internet.

As to Myers, despite the development of a blasphemy fan club and admiration for the cowardly use of free expression rights in the safe haven of Morris, Minnesota, the only serious “threat” came from Catholic League president Bill Donahue.  The League (like B’nai B’rith) was founded as an anti-defamation society at a time when discrimination against Catholic immigrants was on a par with discrimination against Jews.  Donahue filed a complaint with the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, offering that Myers’ actions violated the University’s anti-discrimination policy: ‘Expressions of disrespectful bias, hate, harassment or hostility against an individual, group or their property because of the individual or group’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion…can be forms of discrimination. Expressions vary, and can be in the form of language, words, signs, symbols, threats, or actions that could potentially cause alarm, anger, fear, or resentment against others.”

It was a far-fetched complaint both in terms of accusation and in terms of consequences; Myers’ action only succeeded in cementing his hard-crafted persona as a jerk.  And even as a one-off expression of jerkiness, the actions of 2008 did not rise to the standard of blasphemy, which is usually understood as an interreligious act designed to malign or humiliate a religious opposite.  Secular “blasphemy” against religion is more problematical, and Myers’ showpiece proved it. That is because there was no real conviction behind the act.  “Religion is sooooooo stupid” is not an impressive bumper sticker.  The defense of free speech is only relevant and brave when free speech is actually abridged, not when threats to its exercise are manufactured.

Jones is a different story.  A more dangerous one.  He is the ugly Id unchained from the soul of an America I’d hoped had died.  It is moronic, armed, and dangerous.  It does not question the ontological correctness of its religious and political views.  It burns a book in Lake City, Florida, and Muslims (and others) die in Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and elsewhere.  Jones does this knowing they will die, praying to his defective God that they will die, in order to prove his belief that the devil is with us.  He is with us, and he needs to be charged with and convicted of murder.  His name is Terry Jones.

The Challenge of Neohumanism

We will soon be marking the first anniversary of Paul Kurtz’s  Neo-Humanist Statement, a charter for a way forward in the study and application of human values at a global level.

My own view of the new Institute for Science and Human Values is that, given Paul Kurtz’s intellectual restlessness, it was bound to happen.

The Institute is not so much a new creation but the culmination of his assessment of where other organizations have fallen short or have been driven by short-term thinking to harp on one string. The reduction of the humanist message to an ever-narrowing vision was not just unacceptable; it was the contradiction of the full-bodied humanism he had worked for throughout his career.

For Kurtz, this vision entailed two separate steps: the rejection of parochialism, exceptionalism (“nationalisms”),  and dogmatism.  (All three ideas are laid out and laid bare in the Statement.) And second, an honest evaluation of what we can do to create individuals and institutions that promote moral excellence.  We cannot move forward until we faithfully examine where we are and where we have gone wrong–where we stand in relation to what Bacon called the “idols of the tribe.”

Kurtz was touting the inevitability of the global community and the need for a new ethical regime to support it before many academics–certainly before most politicians–knew what the word  meant.  To understand this, his own intellectual biography comes into play.

In 1977 the profoundly smart American historian, Henry Steele Commager published a book entitled The Empire of Reason.  The book grew out of the intellectual climate of Columbia University where he taught from 1936 to 1956.  Columbia had become famous for either producing or giving refuge to the gurus of liberal democracy, loosely bound together in a confederacy devoted to the liberating power of the humanities and the power of ideas to change society.  In the American Century, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, Mortimer Adler, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr (Union), Moses Finley, Sidney Hook, John Herman Randall,  and Lionel Trilling–to stop only for breath–walked in the shadow of Lady Columbia.  Not to know at least some of the names in that list means that you may have missed the formative debate about the role of education in American democracy, one of the greatest debates in the history of the Republic. (That debate is still going on, by the way, and the ones least able to participate in it, tragically, are our legislators.)


Paul Kurtz took away from his War experience in Europe and his graduate days at Columbia a staunch faith in the capacity of democratic institutions to make people’s lives better in a world that was changing quickly: on the one hand, bringing people closer together through communication and, especially, education, but also into strained alliances and sudden conflicts, as a result of global shrinkage.

Post-war Europe: Boy eating lunch of bread and lard

To say in 1950 that America was a “shining city upon a hill” wasn’t what it meant when Ronald Reagan was handed the phrase for the GOP in 1987 .  The expression was first used, symbolically, of “America” by John Winthrop (quoting Matthew 5:14-16) in 1648, then by John Kennedy in 1961.  It did not mean that America was better and brighter than everyone else’s city, but that it embodied vision and hope, ideals of social liberty and equality, the absence of which, from the American intellectual perspective had caused two European wars and the deaths of millions.

I remember hearing the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in Oxford in 1986, responding to an edgy question about his oft-professed love for America at a time when America’s ante was especially low in Europe and Reagan-era anti-Americanism was practically a school of philosophy in it own right. Berlin after a pause said to the youngish, smuggish interviewer, “You weren’t around then.  You can’t imagine how unbelievably dark Europe seemed to us then.  The only light there was was coming from across the sea.”  It was that kind of perception that a whole generation of Americans brought back with them from Europe: that they had done something worthy.

The phrase that had circulated widely among New York intellectuals in the 1950’s, the immediate post-War decade, was the term “practical wisdom”(phronesis, φρόνησις) a classical ideal (especially in Aristotle’s thinking) that relates to how the knowledge (sophia) we acquire is translated into the good life through thoughtful action.  Werner Jaeger had given the term and the idea currency in  a book called Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939-44). A pragmatist by temper, Commager thought the riddle about what was good for the mind, as mind, and what is good for the soul as virtue had been solved in the early American experience, where the story of the past was not valued for its defining and enduring permanence (as in Europe) but as a cautionary tale:

“While Europe looked toward ancient, stagnant civilizations like China’s, America looked at a horizon. True, the Old World had Goethe, Priestley, Kant – but the reality was that cities were put to the torch, nobles rode heedless over the fields of peasants, the Irish cotters starved to death….”

Americans, with “no King, no Court, no aristocracy, no body of laws, no professional army, no Established Church, no history, no tradition, no usable past” were required to invent a working society from the bottom up. Thomas Jefferson is exalted as the native philosophe embodying this development–a man who knew what the philosophes knew, but did not waste his time drinking coffee in the salon after he knew it.

Commager, as an historian, expressed the uniqueness of the “American way” in his own hyperboles, of course: The enlightenment in Europe,  was essentially theoretical rather than practical because it did not end in social or political amelioration (almost no European scholars agreed with him). But many of his conclusions about America wanting to create “a more perfect union” and references to the “pursuit of happiness” (not merely economic prosperity) were translated into important and defining differences between old Europe and young America in the early republic. Ideas like righting injustice, affirming human worth and diginity, and seeing government as a benevolent partner rather than an overlord in helping people to find the good life were there from the beginning. For all the hyperbole, Commager had managed to capture something important about the native humanism of the American spirit, which was always threatened not by a Europe emerging out of the dust of war but by nativism and isolationism, especially in its raw, loud, religious forms.

These were affirmative and optimistic ideas, coming soon after long centuries of religious warfare in Europe.  The general sense that religion could not be trusted to secure the enlightenment of men and women whose new fundamental identity was “citizen” and not “parishioner” or “layman”  was also there from the beginning, and a general distrust of priestcraft, popery, dogma, and supernaturalism is also there from the beginning.

This little bit of history is necessary to explain the background of the Neohumanist Statement.  Most of the names mentioned above would have called themselves “humanists,” or “ethicalists.” A few flirted with, then got disillusioned by, socialism and communism. Some were Jews by family tradition, some were Christians, some would have been reluctant to call themselves anything, other than pragmatists.

They had common concerns about religion in the story of western civilization (the Durants were a special case of this almost zealous commitment), but equally too much aware of the complexities of historical narrative to think that religion was the only problem human beings were likely to face or needed to overcome.  To oversimplify a body of work and thinkers who never formed a “club” (though the New York Intellecuals came close) they seemed instinctively aware that the problems we face are human problems, and to the extent that “religion in society” (a phrase popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr) can be identified as one of those problems, it has human solutions, too.

In his previous work, Paul Kurtz as the offspring of this movement has made the same point: the philosophy he once named “secular humanism” was his way of saying that humanism will always be non-dogmatic and must be naturalistic in its approach to the world.  We are real people, living in real time, dealing with real problems.  The resort to magical thinking is never an option.  We did not “make” this world–it was given to us to explain, interpret, and make our home; and religion is one of the ways in which we have tried to explain it to ourselves.  Now that science has arisen as a better explanation, people will have to judge for themselves, in honesty and charity, what the future of religion is going to be.  Yet in the Statement, this discussion emphasizes kindness and respect rather than hostility for creeds outworn.

But the Question of God, and the matter of religion, cannot dominate our thinking as humanists. Kurtz has written repeatedly that humanism is not atheism: it does not begin there, and it cannot stop there.  If the reality of global civilization is the rapid pace of change, discovery and kaleidoscopic power and economic shift, then there is simply no time to mourn the death of God.  There is too much to do.

Kant (in the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View) once saw a defining element in human nature as its commitment to scientific discovery being out of all proportion to the lifespan, in which questions that were just being asked were not likely to find answers. This he found remarkably unlike the day-to-dayness of animals. It proved to him that even though we struggle to maintain the moral good in a nature that also bends toward “evil,” the good of knowledge drives us on–a temptation in its own right.

That fundamentally affirmative approach to discovery is essential to the neohumanist vision: it is not limited to what we can accomplish in our four score years and ten, but open to what we can begin to do and to learn.  This means that the question of God’s existence or the postulates of religious morality which dominated thought for so long, will not be at the center of the humanist project.

A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century.  God no longer stands over us–this reality is not an argument.

And while it will always be important for the humanist to defend this assertion, and to remind the most ardent defenders of the religious world-view that their grip is gone, and that the age of faith is over, the real work is not in re-fighting yesterday’s battles as if they were new ones.

The real work, as Paul Kurtz has again reminded us, is always just ahead.

The Secular Core of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz, PhD, is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  He is also the founder and for almost thirty years editor in chief of Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer.  The author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, both learned and popular, Paul Kurtz resigned from the organizations he created in 2009 in order to devote himself fully to the ethical dimensions of secular and humanistic thought when the board of the Center decided on a militant atheist agenda unrelated to the historic strengths of the organization.  Dauntless, Kurtz founded the Institute for Science and Human Values and a new journal, The Human Prospect, which is now in circulation.

Kurtz’s Statement of Neohumanist Principles has now been endorsed by over a hundred of the world’s leading humanists, philosophers, scientists, and public intellectuals.

In this excerpt, Kurtz explains the difference between secular humanism and atheism, insisting that a key task of the nonreligious humanist must always be the free and critical examination of religion.


Secular humanism and atheism are not identical. One can be an atheist and not a secular humanist or humanist. Indeed, some thinkers or activists who call themselves atheists explicitly reject humanist ethical values (for example, Stalin, Lenin, Nietzsche, and others). Nor is secular humanism the same thing as humanism by itself; it is surely sharply different from religious humanism.

I should also make it clear that secular humanism is not antireligious; it is simply nonreligious. There is a difference. Secular humanists are nontheists; they may be atheists, agnostics, or skeptics about the God question and/or immortality of the soul. To say that we are nonreligious means, that is, that we are not religious; ours is a scientific, ethical, and philosophical life stance. I have used the term eupraxsophy to denote our beliefs and values as a whole. This means that, as secular humanists, we offer good practical wisdom based on ethics, science, and philosophy.

The term secular should make it clear that secular humanists are not religious. In contrast, the term religious humanism is unfortunate. It has been used by some humanists to denote a kind of moral and æsthetic commitment to a set of ideals and practices; but this is most confusing. Often it serves to sneak in some quasi-spiritual and/or transcendental aspect of experience and practice, aping religion.

Secular humanism is nonreligious. But this does not mean that it does not criticize the claims of religion; indeed, we have a moral obligation to speak the plain truth. There is a difference, however, between being antireligious—attacking religion or dismissing it cavalierly—and being willing to analyze religious claims and calling them to account for their lack of reliable empirical foundations. Biblical and Qur’anic criticism are essential to intellectual honesty and clarity; and so, secular humanists are able and willing to submit the claims of religion-particularly where these are relevant in the open public square-to critical scrutiny. To shy away from this would be dishonest.

Accordingly, secular humanists are nonreligious critics of religious claims, particularly where these intrude in public policies and beliefs. Surely theistic religions today attack secular humanists and naturalists without compunction. In contrast, secular humanists have a responsibility to truth, to respond and to present the outlook of secularists and the ethics of humanism in clear and distinct language.

Secular humanism is thus committed to science and reason as the method of evaluating all truth claims, whether arising in popular belief, scientific theories, or in moral, political, or religious claims. Similarly, secular humanists are sympathetic to skeptical inquiry-that is, the application of rational methods and empirical/experimental testing to all claims to truth. For that reason, too, secular humanists cannot understand why religious humanists so fear to step on the toes of their religious brethren. Similarly, secular humanists are critical of those contemporary skeptics who express trepidation about treading in religious waters. Surely, skeptical epistemology means that there is open season on any and all claims to truth; all are subject to empirical and rational scrutiny. Critical thinking should not be confined to paranormal claims alone, which might be considered safe to criticize. In principle, critical thinking should likewise be applied to religion, politics, economics, and morality.

What is central to humanism, in my view, is the ethical component; namely, humanists believe that:

  • Ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, independent of theological claims, amenable to rational scrutiny, testing value judgments by their consequences.
  • Ethical values and judgments are relative to human interests, needs, desires, ends, and values; they are open to objective criticism and evaluation.
  • Fulfillment, realization, and maximization of human freedom and happiness are what humanists seek, both for the individual and the community.
  • Thus there are ethical responsibilities that humanists hold toward others within the community, on the interpersonal level, the level of the democratic society, and the planetary community as well.

Clearly, secular humanism is not equivalent to atheism—it is far more than mere unbelief, since it stands for affirmation and not merely negation. Similarly, secular humanism finds itself at odds with religious humanism, since its outlook is clearly nonreligious. It goes beyond any negative skeptical inquiry insofar as it seeks to provide a positive and affirmative alternative to customary moral and religious practices.



Imagining Unbelief




My grandmother was a sturdy soul.  Her life consisted of taking care of her demanding German husband, incessant cleaning of a spotless house, speculating about the conjunction of rain clouds and her arthritis, and calling the church rectory for updates on mass times and confession.  She came from a large, loud, tuneful Irish family, pronounced film as “filum” and laughed at jokes three minutes ahead of the punchline.  “Hey Nonnie,” I would say, “Did you hear the one about the priest and the chiropractor?”  The laughing would start ere the words were out of my mouth.

She was patient, gullible, superstitious, carping and kind.  She didn’t like dogs or most of her neighbors, squinted at dust, sermons about Mary, and occasionally at me.  If she had secrets or dark corners to her existence they were buried with her and will remain forever unknown.

She now exists in photographs–often with the image of my grandfather standing in the background with a slight frown–not wishing to be in the picture but unwilling to move entirely out of range.

The photographs are important because when they were taken–mainly in the 1960’s–pictures were a bit of trouble: camera models, film, exposures (as in number of), light and focus were part of the vocabulary. No snapping your cellphone at any stationery or moving object that caught your fancy and then uploading images of you and your best friends by the dozen for the delectation of complete strangers.

I have a theory that the less complicated picture-taking and image- making have become the less sophisticated our memories and imaginations have become–a complaint some social theorists have leveled at “comprehensive” museums and zoos.  Imagination is not stretched.  Memory is not exercised.  Connecting impressionistic dots, sometimes captured years apart, is not required.  We live in the eternal present of the utterly familiar and the easily available Now. History is not needed to explain the familiar.  We know all about it. Thus history is a primary casualty of the widespread feeling that the unfamiliar–especially the past–is alien to the Now.

The tandem growth of religious illiteracy and EZ atheism emerges from the same matrix, one where what is “new” is regarded as good and what is old, or requires time, patience and interpretation, is regarded as irrelevant.  As the cultural gospel of America has always cherished this principle anyway (“A country without history for a people without memory”) the imagination crisis is especially prevalent in the USA.   Religious crudity is nowhere cruder or saturates politics more thoroughly or with greater dull predictability.  Discount atheism, especially of the new and in-your-face variety, is nowhere more disagreeable or less philosophical.

Henry Ford: "History is bunk."

It is enough for the American Catholic to know when the pancake breakfast begins (“after the 9 o’clock”), never mind the aesthetic torpor that his church offers as a sedative for his under-active conscience or the essentials of the faith he never bothered to learn.  It is enough for the liberal protestant to know that a collection is being taken up for Tsunami victims and for the conservative Christian to live in the cozy knowledge of Jesus’ saving grace–which entails the belief that abortion means killing babies and that Democrats want to demolish churches and put up mosques. It is enough for the atheist to see the deformed opinions of the religious majority as proof positive that he is right: God doesn’t exist and religion is for imbeciles.

The fact is, all four of the above have developed their beliefs through packthink.  Stem cell research does not entail killing babies.  America is not a Christian country.  Believing in God is not the same as belief in elves, fairies, and the Loch Ness Monster.  To be fair, the Catholic did not arrive at her position by reading Aquinas or the Protestant by reading Jonathan Edwards or the Muslim fanatic by reading Ibn Rushd or the atheist by reading Julian Huxley (an atheist supporter of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit who had read Aquinas).  They got there by reading pamphlets and the back end of cars.

Julian Huxley

What each group seems to be happy with is the discounted version of the “faith” they have chosen to embrace.  Coming “out” atheist, a mildly cool social stance similar to coming out gay in the nineties, requires the same level of intellectual commitment as coming out Christian, a mildly cool stance of the 1970’s when unseen forces (in Washington) convinced the believing masses they were in for a new persecution by neo-pagans, secular humanists and freedom-hating liberals.

Our presentism, symbolized in the free flow of limitless images and text messages, no longer needs ideas to survive.  That is why bumper stickers have replaced chapters in books as the all-you need-to know summation of belief and unbelief.  “My Boss is A Jewish Carpenter,” “I Support a Baby’s Right to Choose.” “‘Worship Me or I will Torture You Forever’-God,” “Organized Religion: The World’s Biggest Pyramid Scheme.” The hostility among groups and even within groups is not about ideas but about what one side is prepared to believe about the other: fakery not fact, histories robbed of historical location and philosophical positions devoid of premises and analysis.  It is a contest for followers lifted out of the Forum and plonked down into the Colosseum–where both sides will eventually lose.

Which brings me back to the lessons we can learn from photographs.  It isn’t the case that religion has not evolved.  But it is the case that religion has been, in evolutionary terms, unsuccessful in explaining itself to the twenty-first century–and to much of the twentieth. The increasing drowsiness of the flock when it comes to core doctrines may be a blessing for beleaguered theologians who otherwise would have to go on defending what the faithful have ceased to care about.  “Average” believers have defaulted to ground where they are more comfortable–to social issues and sexual ethics, buoyed by a thin belief in scriptural authority and a woeful lack of information about the warrants and religious justification for their commitments.  As religion can only thrive when its explanatory mechanisms are coping with change, its explanatory failure will ultimately prove to be catastrophic, and no new theological idiom will arise to save it.  In my opinion, this has already happened, and not only in liberal and radical circles.

This should serve to make atheism triumphant, but it doesn’t.  If theology has lost its voice and credibility, atheism has lost its imagination and coherence. It has done this by offering, instead of a vision of the godless future, the absurdities and atrocities of religion as the sum total of its own rectitude.  There is nothing wrong with itemizing the failures and hypocrisies of religion; but it does get repetitious after a while, and then the question becomes the Alfie question: What’s it all about?

And there is this detail: The errors-of-religion-motif does not originate with atheists but with religion.  It goes back to the reform movements of the late Middle Ages, and to the Reformation itself, unique among the chapters of western civilization in its brutal treatment of popes, doctrines and sacraments.

Reformation cartoon of the Pope as Antichrist

Religion has traditionally been the best ensurer of reforms within religion, controlling the excesses and extremities of the religious appetite for a thousand years.  It did this and was successful in keeping the beast from devouring its own tail by offering better ideas, different “truths,” a simplified diet and an accommodating attitude towards movements that would finally grow up, leave home, and not write back–secularism and humanism to name two.  What it never did, or was never prepared to do, was to offer no religion in lieu of bad religion.  It has survived into an era where many opponents have joined the chorus that all religion is bad religion.

Yet for atheists to assume that their rejection of God is anything more than an opinion based on snapshots of what they know about Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants is a misshapen view of their accomplishment.

The aggregate outrages of religion do not constitute a proof of God’s non-existence, nor establish a moral case for atheism.  The accumulation and “sharing” of snapshots of things that are plainly ridiculous about religion does not enhance the claim that unbelievers are smarter than believers.  The documentation of error is not the same as the discovery of the truth.  Ridiculing the beliefs of our distant faith-obsessed ancestors or the profanity of violence that seems to soak the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and more recently the Qur’an, belongs to other centuries: it’s been done.  It’s good for a laugh, or a gasp, not for a lesson.

And a final thing. If the contemporary atheist is really interested in the harmful effects of religion, he is up against two truisms that run counter to evolutionary wisdom: the adaptability and survival of religion, despite texts and practices assumed to be harmful to human society, and the fact that atheism has so far struggled unsuccessfully to replace religion with a new diagram of human values.  Unlike Alvin Plantinga, I don’t regard these phenomena as real facts, as “evidential” of the truth of religion, or as reliable justifications of religion based on common sense.  This is because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it means for religion to be “true” in the sense analytic philosophy comprehends the term.

But I do have idea of what values religion expresses idiomatically and crudely in ways that have occasionally challenged the human imagination.  If religion has a survivability quotient, that can be expressed in evolutionary terms, it is a human quotient.  In their independent ways, the atheist Julian Huxley and the believer Teilhard got that much right.

Blessed are the peacemakers...

I personally believe that the survival of religion can be explained in purely rational ways, and with no guarantee of lifespan.  I also happen to believe that atheism, if it is an informed and historically critical atheism–aware of its own past as well as of the religious past from which it artificially emerges–can develop new templates for human value that test the imagination in the same way that the interpretation of images and artefacts from the human past test, and are resolved in, the imagination through religion.

The elevation of atheism from opinion to something of much greater consequence begins when we see that belief and unbelief are aspects of the same reality.   Looked at in the starkest light, belief is only the other side of unbelief.  It is not a distinction that has the valence of right and wrong. It is pretty clear which came first, what images became dominant, which ones were lost in wars, through subjugation, and by assimilation.  Just like your family album when images were scarce, real and not easily improvable, the total picture of religion that the atheist is called upon to interpret is complex and requires a thoughtful charting of the distance between the rarefied image and the inquirer, a conversation between past and present which is more than an indictment of crimes.  It requires, as Gauguin said about imagination, “shutting your eyes in order to see.”

Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.


Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.

Skeptifying Belief, by Van Harvey

Van A. Harvey is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Stanford University. Twice a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author of A Handbook of Theological Terms, The Historian and the Believer, and the award-winning Feuer­bach and the Interpretation of Religion, as well as many scholarly articles and reviews. This paper originated at the conference, “Scripture and Skepticism” (2007) at the University of California, Davis, under the auspices of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the UCD Department of Religious Studies.

The Historian and the Dog

The two great intellectual revolutions in modern Western culture were the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the awakening of the historical consciousness in the nineteenth century. The themes of the first are familiar to us all: the notion of natural rights, the emphasis on reason rather than faith, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. The themes of the second, however, are not as easy to specify, though no less revolutionary:

  • Humankind is immersed in history like a fish in water.
  • Thoughtforms of ancient cultures were radically different from our own.
  • Most important, the recovery of the past requires the work of disciplined, critical, historical reasoning.

The awakening of the historical consciousness gave rise in the nineteenth century to a new discipline that soon took institutional form in the university: departments of history. The study of history became a profession with its own learned societies, journals, and organs of expression, together with prizes and hierarchies of prestige. As an intellectual discipline, history had its own subject matter, categories, and procedures for the identification and adjudication of issues.

Driving the practitioners of this new intellectual discipline was an almost Promethean “will to truth.” The aim of the new historian was, as August Wilhelm Schlegel once wrote in his review of the Brothers Grimm’s Old German Meister Songs, to find out “whether or not something actually happened; whether it happened in the way it is told or in some other way.” This formulation has been criticized by postmodernists, but it should not be forgotten how revolutionary it was. Only when this “will to truth” was consistently and radically followed were we able to separate myth, legend, and actual occurrence, and to realize how so much of what we had previously accepted as fact was, in truth, fiction. We discovered that so many long-trusted witnesses were actually credulous spinners of tales.

It was inevitable that the methods of critical historical inquiry would be applied to the Jewish and Christian Scrip­tures and that there should emerge what was shorthandedly called “the historical-critical method.” This was not so much a single method but a series of questions that could only be answered by using critical historical thinking.

  • When, by whom, and for what purposes were the texts written?
  • What sources did the authors use? What do the texts tell us about the self-understanding of the community that preserved them?
  • To what extent are the historical narratives in the texts reliable and constitute historical knowledge?

Just raising these questions threatened, naturally, those Jews and Christians who believed the Bible to be divinely in­spired and, therefore, historically inerrant. And, since the answers to those questions contradicted traditional answers, the fundamentalists in these religions attacked what they called “the higher criticism.” The Roman Catholic Church es­tablished a Biblical Commission to assure that no Roman Cath­olic scholar would advance any historical conclusion incompatible with church doctrine. But it was not long before liberal Protestant and even some Roman Catholic scholars saw that it was futile to resist the new biblical scholarship, and so they appropriated it, with some even arguing that it placed genuine Christian faith on a sounder historical footing. Lay conservative Christians clung to the traditional view of inspired Scrip­tures, but historical-critical studies of the New Testa­ment became the standard components in the curriculum of the most prestigious theological seminaries and university-based departments of religion. This more or less remained the situation until the past half-century. But there has suddenly emerged a new set of challenges to the critical historical inquiry of religious texts.

Strauss: Myth is the essence of the New Testament

These challenges come not from fundamentalists and evangelicals but from academics and intellectuals of various sorts. Partly under the influence of new philosophical and hermeneutic theories loosely grouped under the unimaginative rubric of “postmodernism,” there has been a backlash against the historical-critical method

It is not easy to generalize about this brand of postmodernism, because it is woven from many intellectual strands that are not always compatible—some are philosophically sophisticated and some are not. Among the sophisticated is the very influential interpretation, since modified, of science by Thomas Kuhn. He argued that science does not deal with facts “out there” to be interpreted, but that facts are only identified within some conceptual framework, some paradigm.

There were other philosophers of science who argued that there can be no representation of facts without some observation language, and no observation language is theory-free. There is, so to speak, no “given” that can be described neutrally and objectively. Along with these philosophical movements have emerged new hermeneutical theories. These theories tend to argue that there is no one “best” interpretation of a text and, consequent­ly, any reading of a religious text depends on the standpoint of the interpreter. The framework of assumptions and conceptions employed by a given interpreter is referred to as a “hermeneutics.” There is, it is claimed, a difference between a “hermeneutics of recollection” and a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a difference between a sympathetic interpretation that seeks to retrieve religious meaning and a hostile interpretation that aims to debunk it.

This, in turn, has sometimes been formulated as follows: the interpretation of someone who believes in the truth of a given religious text will be different from someone who is a skeptic, and, since there are no objective grounds for preferring one interpretation over the other, a hermeneutics of belief is as legitimate as one of unbelief.

These various philosophies and hermeneutical theories have now emboldened religious conservatives and apologists to claim that their interpretations are as intellectually legitimate as those of the historical critic. Everyone has his or her own interpretations, the argument goes. The critical historian presupposes that the supernatural does not ingress in history and that miracle is impossible, whereas the religious believer not only believes this intervention is possible but that it happens in given cases. The conflict between them, then, is not so much a confrontation between naïve religious belief and objective scholarship; rather, it is a hermeneutical conflict. The historian approaches his or her subject matter with the presuppositions of a nonbeliever; the religious person reads it through the “eyes of faith.”

Hegel: "spiritual" father to left-wing biblical criticism

This point of view seems plausible to many laypeople, and, since few of them read biblical scholarship or grasp the structure of historical inquiry, they become hostile toward biblical criticism. Perhaps it was once possible to dismiss this public ignorance of critical historical inquiry, but the events of recent times show that this is no longer the case.

Public ignorance of critical scholarship and the rejection of critical historical inquiry in so many circles now profoundly affects our culture and politics. Many argue that the refusal to submit the Qur’an to critical historical inquiry has been disastrous for Islam. But one might also argue that it is equally catastrophic that the West, which invented historical criticism and employed it for a century, is now confronted by a widespread ignorance and rejection of one of its most impressive intellectual accomplishments.

In what follows, I will not take up all the various versions of postmodernism, or what I label the “everyone has their presuppositions” gambit. Ultimately, the answer to all of these arguments lies in a proper understanding of the nature of critical historical reasoning. But since I could scarcely hope to accomplish that task in this brief essay, I shall concentrate on advancing two related arguments. First, the widely referred-to distinction between a hermeneutics of recollection and a hermeneutics of suspicion is irrelevant to the practice of critical historical inquiry and cannot be used to justify what is called a “hermeneutics of belief.” Second, although the historical critical method does practice methodological skepticism, this skepticism is not necessarily rooted in hostility to religion but is inherent in the logic of critical historical inquiry itself.

The consequences of scriptural illiteracy

The distinction between two types of hermeneutics—one friendly toward religion, the other hostile—was first made by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his 1970 book Freud on Philo­sophy: An Essay on Interpretation. He called the first “the hermeneutics of recollection” and the second “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” The hermeneutics of recollection names a type of interpretation that is basically sympathetic to religion because it assumes that the religious consciousness is in touch with something real. The best contemporary practitioners of this type of interpretation, Ricoeur thinks, are the phenomenologists of religion, who claim that it is only possible to understand religion if one attempts to “get inside” the religious consciousness and apprehend what it apprehends, albeit, he writes, “in a neutralized mode.” The phenomenologist argues that interpreters of religion must take the religious consciousness and its object—the sacred—with the utmost seriousness; indeed, they must be willing to accept the possibility not only that there is a message imbedded in the symbolic utterances of religion but that this message might even have relevance for the interpreters themselves.

To use the language of Protestant theology, religious interpreters must be capable of living in the expectancy of a new “word” and thus achieving a type of faith, one that has passed through the fires of criticism—a second naïveté, to use Ricoeur’s language.

Practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, on the other hand, regard religion as illusion. Their skepticism about religion is grounded in a theory regarding human nature and behavior that they think explains religion’s origins and persistence. They regard the religious consciousness as a false consciousness; the object of interpretation, then, is to expose this falsity. In order to do this, they rely on some underlying psychological or sociological theory that they think not only explains the origin of the religious illusion but provides the key for decoding the symbolism contained within it. Thus Freud’s theory of childhood dependence on parental figures, or Durkheim’s theory of the collective unconscious guides their interpretative work, explains how the manifest meaning of a religion is really a function of some latent meaning. The aim of these workers is not to understand religious expressions but to demystify them.

It is worth analyzing more carefully this distinction between two types of hermeneutics. When we do, I think it will become clear why it cannot legitimately be used by religious apologists to claim that their faith-based interpretation of scriptures is simply an instance of the hermeneutics of recollection, while the historical critic’s methodological doubt is a manifestation of unbelief and suspicion.

But before considering those issues, it is important to note that Ricoeur’s distinction hardly covers the range of religious studies. Many types of religious inquiries do not fit into either of his categories. They spring neither from an a priori sympathy nor from hostility toward religion, and they are concerned with subject matter other than what Ricoeur calls “the religious consciousness.” Religious scholars might want to know how a given doctrine or belief developed over time. Or they might want to know the status of women in Gnostic communities. Or they may be interested in the concept of heresy. In inquiries such as these, the nature of the religious consciousness and its object might never arise.

But, even if we accepted Ricoeur’s dichotomy as exhaustive, we would have to insist that being sympathetic to the religious consciousness is not the same thing as believing in the religious object of that consciousness. We can see this at once if we consider the method of the phenomenologist of religion, which Ricoeur thinks best embodies the hermeneutics of recollection.

Method­ologically, phenomenologists “bracket” or suspend their own beliefs and presuppositions in order to “get inside” the believer’s consciousness. Even if it were the case, as Ricoeur claims, that phenomenologists listen to what the religious believer says in the hope of hearing an existentially relevant “word,” listening in­volves a twofold possibility: that there is something to be heard, but also that there may only be silence. Listening implies openness, which is to say, listening is not yet hearing.

Religious belief, however, is neither listening nor openness. Belief is just the word we use to describe for having already reached closure, for having already heard and accepted. Moreover, religious belief has content. It does not consist of believing in a word in general, but of believing in particular words. The Muslim hears the words associated with Qur’an, while the Christian’s words have to do with Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection. Insofar as they are believers, neither can be said to be mere listeners—or phenomenologists in Ricoeur’s sense of the term. A hermeneutics of recollection is not a hermeneutics of belief.

When we understand that religious interpreters’ beliefs are quite specific, we can also understand why a certain type of religious believer is not only hostile toward biblical criticism but makes critical historical reasoning impossible. This is quite clear in the case of the fundamentalist but also, as we shall see, in the case of the more sophisticated believer who takes certain narratives to be true on faith. Christian fundamentalists make critical historical inquiry impossible, be­cause they claim to know in advance what any such historical inquiry will yield. They foreclose all the questions for which critical historians seek an answer: What are the various strands of authorship in the books traditionally associated with Moses? How many of the Epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by him? Was there an oral tradition underlying the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Did the earliest belief in the resurrection of Jesus make any reference to an empty tomb?

Of course most Christians are not fundamentalists, but there is, nevertheless, a very large percentage of them whose faith is bound up with the confidence that most of the narratives about Jesus are true, excluding perhaps some of the less-believable miracle stories. They believe that he claimed to be divine, that his preaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, that he was crucified, raised again, and ascended into heaven. Insofar as these beliefs are held on faith, they are subject to the same criticism one might make of fundamentalism—namely, that they foreclose historical inquiry.

Behold, the Lamb of God

We tend to think that this confidence in the truth of the narratives of the New Testament apart from any historical inquiry is naive, but Alvin Plantinga, one of the most sophisticated analytic philosophers in the United States, who is known for his work on warrants and the logic of possible worlds, has argued in his lengthy book Warranted Christian Belief that it is not. Plantinga first maintains that epistemological foundationalism—that is, the position that all that we can properly call “knowledge” ultimately rests on certain noninferential truths—is incoherent. (This position is, incidentally, also widely held in contemporary philosophy.) He then argues that it is just as rational to believe in a sensus divinitatis that provides an immediate and noninferential awareness of the truth of theism. Moreover, just as the sensus divinitatis guarantees the knowledge of God, so the Holy Spirit testifies to the Christian that the great things of the Gospel found in the Script­ures are true.

The extraordinary implication of this view, as Patrick J. Roche, one of Plantinga’s critics, has pointed out, is that the ordinary Christian who has no knowledge of biblical languages, textual criticism, theology, or even of history can never­theless come to know by appealing to the Holy Spirit that these Gospel events are indeed true; furthermore, his or her knowledge need not trace back (by way of testimony, for example) to knowledge on the part of someone who does have this specialized training.

There is, however, a more widespread challenge to historical criticism inspired by postmodernism that does not depend on an appeal to the Holy Spirit. It is what I have called the “presuppositions” gambit, which goes something like this: every historian has a standpoint that rests on certain presuppositions. Christian historians simply have different presuppositions than those of unbelievers. They believe in the possibility of supernatural intervention, whereas the historical-critical method rests on the presupposition of doubt regarding this possibility. This doubt is equivalent to unbelief and suspicion. It determines who the historian will accept as a credible witness and what the historian will count as evidence.

The claim that “every historian has his or her presuppositions” seems initially plausible to educated laypersons, but, when we unpack that generalization, it becomes clear that it cannot be used to legitimize what the religious apologist claims it does. When historical relativists make this claim, they usually mean that every historian’s judgments reflect certain basic general assumptions, say, about human nature or factors shaping historical causation.

But, because of the generality of these assumptions, they are reflected in the historian’s work whether they are writing about the American Revolution or the rise of the papacy. The historian’s assumptions apply across the board of history, so to speak. A Marxist’s interpretation of the Protestant Reformation, for example, will differ from that of, say, a Freudian.

But, when Christian apologists eager to defend the uniqueness of the Christian perspective use the term presupposition, they generally refer to something specific, like supernatural intervention in history. In the former case, the force of the word presupposition is quite different from that when it is used by the historical relativist. In this case, the Christian is not using the term to refer to a set of general assumptions that apply across the board of history but, rather, to exempt one narrow stretch of history from all those general assumptions that historians of various stripes use in their historical inquiries. The religious apologist is using the term to justify the suspension of all those assumptions we normally use when interpreting our experience and those of others. The point is that the alleged sacred events are so unique that no normal presuppositions apply.

It is important to distinguish between these two uses of presupposition, because only one of them permits rational assessment of historical claims. Marxists and Freudians may disagree in their interpretation of the causes of the Protestant Reform­ation, but they can still rationally discuss whether Luther did, in fact, draw up the Ninety-five Theses, or whether he had the childhood experiences that Erik Erikson claims he had. They will argue over the relevant evidence, but, if one of them claims that an angel dictated the Ninety-five Theses, the argument will come to a standstill. In fact, even if two historians have the same religious presupposition—say, that divine intervention in history is a possibility—they will still have to pore laboriously over the evidence in order to decide whether any given event did, in fact, happen. In most cases, the presuppositions of historians are broad enough not to weigh the scales in favor of any particular factual argument. But, if we identify presuppositions with certain specific beliefs arrived at on faith about particular events, then there are no general principles to which one can appeal when differences of opinion arise.

But any sophisticated answer to the presuppositions gambit must stem, I believe, from an understanding of the aim and methods of critical historical inquiry itself. As the philosopher A.O. Lovejoy wrote:

Though the inquiries of the historiographer, especially if they relate to events remote in time, are often more difficult, and sometimes at a lower level of probability, than the inquiries of courts, they have the same implicit logical structure, which is simply the structure of all inquiry about the not-now-presented; and if they are historical inquiries, and not criticism or evaluation, their objective is the same—to know whether, by the canons of empirical probability, certain events or sequences of events, happened at certain past times, and what, within the existential limits of those times, the characters of those events were.

Plantinga: analytic apologetics?

The Christian apologist, of course, will argue that it is just this appeal to “empirical probability” that is at issue, because the events in the New Testament are admittedly empirically improbable. They are, in the nature of the case, unique and, therefore, require faith.

The critical historian could probably surrender the language of “empirical probability” if that seems overly restrictive, but what the critical historian cannot surrender is the notion that the inquiries of historians, although they relate to events more remote in time, have the same logical structure as all inquiries regarding the not-now-presented—which is to say they resemble the same sort of inquiries that take place in our law courts, newspapers, and investigative panels of all sorts. We think historically when as parents we try to ascertain who scribbled all over the bedroom walls, or when as journalists we try to ascertain the origins of the decision to attack Iraq, or when as detectives we attempt to solve a crime. Historical thinking is an ingredient in all of our thinking.

To acknowledge this, however, is to acknowledge that the judgments we make and the arguments we use to support them solicit the assent of minds like our own that share our same general understanding of reality. For the most part, we make no use of technical terms except those that have become a part of our knowledge. Our causal explanations are pragmatic and usually unscientific. Our arguments and the warrants we use in coming to our conclusions are grounded in the best present knowledge we possess—a knowledge informed by the intellectual disciplines of our educational system. As many modern philosophers have shown, we get most of our beliefs and what we call “knowledge” from our culture, and it is this fiduciary framework that influences our concepts of necessity, possibility, and improbability.

The sciences are a part, but not the only part, of this cultural heritage and background. We presuppose the physics of ballistics when we engage in arguments about the velocity and range of rifles used in the Battle of Gettysburg. We presuppose biology when, as jurors in a rape trial, we decide that the DNA of the defendant is incompatible with the evidence brought forward by the prosecution.

We presuppose astronomy when we evaluate a passage in the Hebrew Bible reporting that the sun stood still. And we presuppose physiology when we assess a medieval narrative about a saint who picked up his head after his execution and marched into a cathedral singing the Te Deum. It is against this background of present knowledge that we reject stories of snakes talking, the claim that the world is only six thousand years old, and the notion that Muhammad’s camel leapt from Jerusalem to Mecca in four giant steps.

What seems to be ignored by the religious apologists who use the presuppositions gambit, especially those in the scholarly world, is that these apologists employ ordinary reasoning grounded in present knowledge when they are serving on juries, reading newspapers, writing histories, and, especially, assessing the scriptures of other religions as the critical historian does. The reasons for this are clear—in all these areas, they are soliciting the assent of minds like their own that share the same general understanding of reality. It is only when interpreting their own scriptures that they suspend those criteria that they use in their ordinary thinking and reasoning. But, we must ask, on what grounds is this suspension consistent and justified?

It is this same present knowledge that justifies our methodological doubt in relation to both witnesses and narratives. As the great historian Marc Bloch once pointed out in The His­torian’s Craft, it was not long ago that three-fourths of all reports by alleged eyewitness were accepted as fact. If someone said that an animal spoke or that blood rained from heaven, the only question was not whether it happened but what significance it had. Not even the steadiest minds of our predecessors, Bloch argues, escaped this credulity.

If Montaigne reads in his beloved ancients this or that nonsense about a land whose people were born without heads or about the miraculous strength of the little fish known as the remora, he set them down among his serious arguments without raising an eyebrow. For all his ingenuity in dismantling the machinery of a false rumor, he was far more suspicious of prevailing ideas than of so-called attested facts. In this way . . . old man Hearsay ruled over the physical as well as the human world. Perhaps even more over the physical world than the human.

In short, methodological doubt is not some a priori presupposition but, as Bloch puts it, a practice that has been arrived at “by the patient labor of an experiment performed upon man [with] himself as a witness. . . . We have acquired the right of disbelief, because we understand, better than in the past, when and why we ought to disbelieve.”

Indeed, it is just this right to disbelieve that R.G. Collingwood marks as the Copernican revolution in historiography. Previously, it was assumed that the historian had the responsibility to compile and synthesize the testimony of witnesses. The historian was regarded as a believer and the person believed was the authority or witness. But this was “scissors and paste,” not critical history. “In so far as an historian accepts the testimony of an authority and treats it as historical truth,” Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History (1946), “he obviously forfeits the name of historian; but we have no other name by which to call him.”

It is just because the critical historian makes his judgments against the background of present knowledge that the concept of miracle has all but vanished from the work of professional historians. The reason does not lie in some philosophical presupposition that miracles are impossible; rather, it lies in the nature of historical argument and the grounding of most of our warrants in present knowledge. Critical historians confronted with an alleged miracle as an explanation for an event or even as a description of an event have, first of all, no way of deciding whether the event is a miracle or not. They have no way of judging whether some alleged supernatural reality—a jinni, angel, or deity—is the cause of the event. They have no way of judging what would constitute evidence for attributing an event to this or that supernatural cause, and evidence is crucial for the critical historian. It is evidence that bears on whether such an event can be said to have occurred, and it is evidence that bears on what causes, if any, explain that event. At best, all historians can say is that such an event was anomalous. Reflective historians say this not because they are unbelievers, but because they are critical historians. They would hold with Collingwood that “History has this in common with every other science: that the historian is not allowed to claim any single piece of knowledge, except where he can justify his claim by exhibiting to himself in the first place, and secondly to any one else who is both able and willing to follow his demonstration, the grounds upon which it is based.”

Critical historical thinking in general, and its application to religious scriptures in particular, is one of the great intellectual achievements of Western civilization. It has its heroes stretching from Benedict de Spinoza through Julius Well­hausen and Albert Schweitzer to Rudolf Bultmann and Gerd Lüdemann. It is not a hermeneutics of suspicion rooted in hostility to religion. Indeed, it takes as its motto that scriptural injunction that “ye shall know the truth and it will make you free.”

But coming to know the truth is no easy matter, especially when the objects of one’s inquiry are treasured religious beliefs. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Christian thinker who nevertheless acknowledged his debt to Christianity, observed in The Antichrist: “At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. That requires greatness of soul: the service of truth is the hardest service. What does it mean, after all, to have integrity in matters of the spirit? That one is severe against one’s heart . . . that one makes of every Yes and No a matter of conscience.”

Further Reading

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Trans. by Peter Putnam. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954.
Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Harvey, Van. The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996. See especially chapter 7.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. “Present Standpoints and Past History.” In The Philosophy of History in Our Time, edited by Hans Meyerhoff, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Trans. by Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

A Secular Ethics?

Radical secularism calls for radically secular moral alternatives to religious ethics.  No one has been more vigorous in his defense of this project than Paul Kurtz.

I have claimed frequently on this site that if skepticism at a minimum, and unbelief at the extreme, is a kind of prerequisite to such a project, it’s not because either position is self-affirming.  It is because whether God does or does not exist, the secularist believes that human values are made by humans and do not originate on mountaintops.  Even if one believed in a God who demanded obedience to such laws, it would be the duty of the secularist to defy him.

Religious doctrine calls itself into question because it has lingered into an age where religious explanations of the world and human choice are no longer persuasive.  In the long run, it is the failure of the Church, the mosque, and the synagogue to explain and to persuade that leads to skepticism and atheism, the loss of faith, and the erosion of ethical absolutism.  It is the death of belief in a god whose laws rule both the universe and human choice,  as Sartre said, that invites human beings to construct a system of values that deals with a world shot through with doubt about the old explanations and mythologies.

Hammurabi receives his law code from the god, Shamash

Some people continue to maintain that there is a law of God, that this law is sovereign over conscience and that all other law is subordinate to it.  It is probably true that these people have a very imperfect understanding of science, history and the development of ideas.  In general, a secular humanist would consider this view malignant in the sense that it is not harmless: that it has both moral and political consequences, and that when it is enforced or advocated in educational or democratic contexts it is toxic and has to be defeated.

For that reason, secularism, and secular ethics can never be quiet about religion.  It must place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of people who believe unsupportable truth claims based on the authority of faith.  These people may belong to any religious group, and they exist in every corner of the cornerless world.  What they have in common is the fantasy that rules and laws crafted in the first millennium before the common era have not merely historical interest but eternal force.  That is the position that secularism opposes.  There is a “secular moral imperative” to resist this kind of thinking in the same way that there is a duty to call attention to error in other factual domains–especially the sciences.

There are others who believe that God exists, that not much can be known about the subject, and that there is no special connection between the life we lead, or the moral choices we make, and this belief.  This position might seem to make the existence of God superfluous, irrelevant or a matter of diffidence–the sum of the difference between two equal improbabilities.

Secularism, it seems to me, has no reason to quarrel with people who believe in what Kurtz has called the “common moral decencies,” and lead a life committed to the discovery of virtues and moral excellence without the dictates of revelation and divine law. For the same reason we use metaphors of love, hope and compassion to describe states that are essentially emotional, there is no additional privilege to be gained by insisting on the rejection of all conceptions of God.  Yet the more personal and “described” this being is, the greater the risk of identifying it with the gods of mythology–the gods whose rules are seldom relevant to the planet we occupy.  For that reason, a secularist may insist that any idea of god is an idea too far.  It’s at the point of this insistence that secularism and unbelief converge.

As in all ethical matters, the primary nostrum for secularists is “to do good and to do no harm” (Hippocrates).  Like other ideological systems based entirely on human wit and imagination, religious beliefs are accountable  to the ancient formula. A secular ethic  will always require that this interrogation take place–that religion enjoys no privileged status based on assertions of authority that are widely regarded as untrue.

Laïcité: The Radical Secular Imperative

You need to join us. Now. You need to take a stand against the deadening of the American brain. You need to do this whether you think America is already brain dead, or if you are an American worrying about just how much life is left in you.

The Europeans have long had a word for what radical secularity is, at its heart: it is based on challenging the prerogatives of religion in society–something Americans have long thought their First Amendment made it unnecessary for them to do. It is called laïcité in France, and sometimes gets translated into English as laicity: the rise of the common woman and man (the laity) who were not in clerical orders nor members of the aristocracy in cahoots with the Church. It goes back to the time of the Revolution (theirs, not ours) when the Catholic Church was greatly diminished in power and prestige among members of the third estate–ordinary people.

I’m happy to call it secularism, as long as we understand it in the most radical sense of that word. The term laïcité has the advantage of naming the thing after what it is: people. And when you get down to it, it is ordinary people (not bishops and theologians) who have suffered most at the hands of religion–and still do. It has the disadvantage of being French in a country where some states still serve Freedom Fries, though they have forgotten why.

It is amazing to me that the Catholic Church is still standing. We now know that the Church of Rome has used its prestige and its illegitimate claim to be the protector of conscience to tamp down the fires of outrage over the rape of children. Children were raped in Boston. In New York. In Brussels. In Dublin. In Frankfort. In Philadelphia. In Sydney and Toronto. We are just beginning [see note below] to get a sense of the scale, but on the basis of what we know–the number of priests and children involved and the inaction of the Church to stop the abuse–the crimes can only be compared to multiple serial killers being permited to go about their routine with the police watching and winking.

It is amazing to me that Islam has not petitioned the World Court in the Hague for forgiveness from the international community. There is no central authority to lodge such a petition, of course, and no desire to lodge one–which is part of the problem: The death in Pakistan last week by assassins who became national heroes overnight was conducted with the بركة of a dozen radical clerics, each claiming legitimate authority to issue licenses to kill in the name of God. I am not very interested in social explanations of why such killing occurs. I want to know why a liberal West is so willing to accept the rationale that it occurs because the liberal West created radical Islam. Or why the United Nations can pass a resolution declaring that the “defamation of religion” is a violation of international human rights, a premise eerily like the Blasphemy laws that led to the murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. I am saddened that innocent soldiers have to die to make a point about living without fear or reprisal and in the hope of freedom, sadder still that the atrocity of religious violence usually ends up not merely short of its objective but in the rubble of another Muslim household.

I am outraged at the religious sources of ignorance. Gallup 2010 says that only 39% of Americans “believe” in evolution while a further 36% have “no opinion,” a conclusion almost as stupefying as the first. And while the religion marketplace is competitive, and while church attendance is slightly down, Pew Research suggests that between 80 and 85% of Americans are either “religious” or “very religious.”

They are also anti-science and pro-ignorance: Abortion is not a science question, but a healthy 52% (Gallup) oppose it, exceeded by the 57% (Rasmussen, 2010) who oppose embryonic stem cell research because opponents think it involves killing babies for their brains.

I am angry at the teaching of absolute falsehood and mythology as truth, whether it is put across as history or geology or geography. The entropic principle in American democracy has always been the insistence that there are two sides to every story, and then applying this notion to facts.

There are not two sides to facts. It is self-evidently a crime against reason to tell “learners,” as we like to call the innocent these days, that a fact has the same epistemological value as an opinion or a perspective, thereby encouraging them to think that things that really are just opinions, like religious doctrines, have higher status than facts.

Scientists know this about facts or they could not do their work. You cannot treat cancer like a cold. There is nothing to be said for the idea you can get to the moon in a cardboard box. But there are still people in postions of authority over mind and heart, some of them passing laws on our behalf, who believe the world was created in six days and that Jesus walked on water and ascended into heaven. There is no doubt that this did not happen: there are not two sides to it.

Neither is there any merit in the idea that God created marriage for the procreation of the human race. The human race was doing very nicely without the god of the Hebrew tribes before the story was invented, and the Church cared almost nothing about the religious value of marriage until the 12th century. Procreation is a fact. Interpretations of its sanctity or exclusivity are opinions.

This list could be extended, should be extended. What these cases have in common is not only that they offend against our intelligence and perhaps basic sense of decency–a phrase that needs to be revived–but that religion is implicated in all of them. There is no secular child abuse scandal. There are very few secular suicide bombers. Among seculars facts are, in the main, valued and Darwin is permitted to speak. This doesn’t mean that secular women and men have not done evil things, but they have done them through malice, not in the name of secularity. In cases where the State simply replaced God, as in Soviet Russia, the motivation was essentially religious.

I am not happy to say Leave the dims to their dimness and let’s get on with converting the world to atheism. For one thing, that is not going to work. For another, we see what happens when the religiously craven are left to their own devices. It is a question of how long before they come knocking at your door and require you to have a Bible or a Quran in your house—just like pistol packers who want you to pack a pistol, too.

And I am also not prepared to say, “We need to start talking to each other, find out where the other side is coming from.” I have limited faith in the powers of this conversation. There comes a point, and we have reached it, that to indulge religious illiteracy is the same as saying there are two sides to every fact. But we can bring with us people with sincere, peaceable religious commitments who are nonetheless equally committed to secularity. That is not dialogue; it is common cause. It can be carried on with kindred spirits still living and long dead.

It may be true that atheism, agnosticism, interfaith understanding ,and various interest domains share with the Laïcité an interest in opposing and—to be perfectly militant—defeating the repugnant positions I have mentioned here. But the battle line has to be made up of people who see the world in a particular fashion and who do not think that the truth that constitutes knowledge of the world is negotiable. That is what Laïcité is all about. That is what a radically secular worldview requires.

All of the people who do these things, who believe these things, who teach these things are terrorists, not only the ones who throw bombs. The Catholic Church has committed acts of terror against children. Ultra-conservative protestants continue to promote intellectual feebleness among millions of people worldwide. Significant numbers of Muslims have adopted an anti-rational posture toward their domestic critics and towards all outsiders, especially in the west. That is the world we live in.

Slogans about there being No God (Live with it), about “Being good” without God–or about it being possible to be loving, gentle, and kind without God, besides being laughably obtuse, are almost hopelessly irrelevant to the problems we face. They shift the emphasis from causes to the moral rectitude of unbelief, a different matter, a game being played on a different field. Atheism and Goodness without God may be perfectly worthy subjects of discussion over coffee, among friends. But they are not relevant to this discussion, which is how very badly a great many people who believe in God are behaving. The problem requires a great many more than the 16% of Americans who aren’t especially religious to solve, since the religious ennui the statistic may betoken is not the same as laïcité–a radical secularity.

I hope that those of you interested in joining a cause, an organization, and a movement that is both targeted and appropriate to what’s happening in real time on the world stage will join the Institute for Science and Human Values. We affirm that there are non-religious solutions to the problems we face. We affirm that human beings shape the future by shaping appropriate values in the present.

Join us in promoting the cause of a radically secular future—one where there are not two sides to every fact.


Note on Roman Catholic Abuse Scandal:
The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The surveys provided information from diocesan files on each priest accused of sexual abuse and on each of the priest’s victims to the research team, in a format which did not disclose the names of the accused priests or the dioceses where they worked. The dioceses were encouraged to issue reports of their own based on the surveys that they had completed.

The team reported that 10,667 people in the US had made allegations of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002 against 4,392 priests (about 4% of all 109,694 priests who served during the time period covered by the study). One-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002 and 2003, and another third between 1993 and 2001. “Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials,” says the report.

Around 81% of the victims were male; 22.6% were age 10 or younger, 51% between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% between the ages to 15 to 17 years.