The Crusade Against Religion

The battle between naturalists and supernaturalists.

BY: Gary Wolf

  •  The Crusade Against Religion, pt. 1
  •  The Crusade Against Religion, pt. 2

    Reprinted with permission from Wired

    My pilgrimage is about to become more difficult. On the one hand, it is obvious that the political prospects of the New Atheism are slight. People see a contradiction in its tone of certainty. Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists. I hear this protest dozens of times. It comes up in every conversation. Even those who might side with the New Atheists are repelled by their strident tone. (The founders of the Brights, Geisert and Futrell, became grim at the mention of Sam Harris. "We don't endorse anything from him," Geisert said. We had talked for nearly three hours, and this was the only dark cloud.) The New Atheists never propose realistic solutions to the damage religion can cause. For instance, the Catholic Church opposes condom use, which makes it complicit in the spread of AIDS. But among the most powerful voices against this tragic mistake are liberals within the Church -- exactly those allies the New Atheists reject. The New Atheists care mainly about correct belief. This makes them hopeless, politically.

    But on the other hand, the New Atheism does not aim at success by conventional political means. It does not balance interests, it does not make compromises, it does not seek common ground. The New Atheism, outwardly at least, is a straightforward appeal to our intellect. Atheists make their stand upon the truth.

    So is atheism true?

    There's good evidence from research by anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran that a grab bag of cognitive predispositions makes us natural believers. We hear leaves rustle and we imagine that some airy being flutters up there; we see a corpse and continue to fear the judgment and influence of the person it once was. Remarkable progress has been made in understanding why faith is congenial to human nature -- and of course that still says nothing about whether it is true. Harris is typically severe in his rejection of the idea that evolutionary history somehow justifies faith. There is, he writes, "nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors." Like rape, Harris says, religion may be a vestige of our primitive nature that we must simply overcome.

    A variety of rebuttals to atheism have been tried over the years. Religious fundamentalists stand on their canonized texts and refuse to budge. The wisdom of this approach -- strategically, at least -- is evident when you see the awkward positions nonfundamentalists find themselves in. The most active defender of faith among scientists right now is Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. His most recent book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In defiance of the title, Collins never attempts to show that science offers evidence for belief. Rather, he argues only that nothing in science prohibits belief. Unsolved problems in diverse fields, along with a skepticism about knowledge in general, are used to demonstrate that a deity might not be impossible. The problem with this, for defenders of faith, is that they've implicitly accepted science as the arbiter of what is real. This leaves the atheists with the upper hand.

    That's because when secular investigations take the lead, sacred doctrines collapse. There's barely a field of modern research -- cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology -- in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed. Even the lowly humanities, which began the demolition job more than 200 years ago with textual criticism of the Bible, continue to make things difficult for believers through careful analysis of the historical origins of religious texts. While Collins and his fellow reconcilers can defend the notion of faith in the abstract, as soon as they get down to doctrine, the secular professors show up with their corrosive arguments. When it comes to concrete examples of exactly what we should believe, reason is a slippery slope, and at the bottom -- well, at the bottom is atheism.

    I spend months resisting this slide. I turn to the great Oxford professor of science and religion, John Hedley Brooke, who convinces me that, contrary to myth, Darwin did not become an atheist because of evolution. Instead, his growing resistance to Christianity came from his moral criticism of 19th-century doctrine, compounded by the tragedy of his daughter's death. Darwin did not believe that evolution proved there was no God. This is interesting, because the story of Darwin's relationship to Christianity has figured in polemics for and against evolution for more than a century. But in the context of a real struggle with the claims of atheism, an accurate history of Darwin's loss of faith counts for little more than celebrity gossip.

    From Brooke, I get pointers on the state of the art in academic theology, particularly those philosophers of religion who write in depth about science, such as Willem Drees and Philip Clayton. There is a certain illicit satisfaction in this scholarly work, which to an atheist is no better than astrology. ("The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a nonsubject," Dawkins has written. "Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.") On the contrary, I find the best of these books to be brilliant, detailed, self-assured. I learn about kenosis, the deliberate decision of God not to disturb the natural order. I learn about panentheism, which says God is both the world and more than the world, and about emergentist theology, which holds that a God might have evolved. There are deep passages surveying theories of knowledge, glossing Kant, Schelling and Spinoza. I discover a daunting diversity of belief, and of course I'm just beginning. I haven't even gotten started with Islam, or the Vedic texts, or Zoroastrianism. It is all admirable and stimulating and lacks only the real help anybody in my position would need: reasons to believe that specific religious ideas are true. Even the most careful theologians seem to pose the question backward, starting out with their beliefs and clinging to those fragments that science and logic cannot overturn. The most rigorous of them jettison huge portions of doctrine along the way.

    If trained theologians can go this far, who am I to defend supernaturalism on their behalf? Why not be an atheist? I've sought aid far and wide, from Echo Park to Harvard, and finally I am almost ready to give in. Only one thing is still bothering me. Were I to declare myself an atheist, what would this mean? Would my life have to change? Would it become my moral obligation to be uncompromising toward fence-sitting friends? That person at dinner, pissing people off with his arrogance, his disrespect, his intellectual scorn -- would that be me?

    Besides, do we really understand all that religion means? Would it be easy to excise it, even assuming it is false? Didn't they try a cult of reason once, in France, at the close of the 18th century, and didn't it turn out to be too ugly even for Robespierre?

  • Continued on page 2: Can atheism be hypocritical? »

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