Religions and their atheisms

Ernest Renan, as one of his contemporaries saw him

In his essay on Ernest Renan, Irving Babbitt wrote:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

Lest we think Renan’s tongue was entirely in his cheek as he wrote this last excerpt, Babbitt elaborates:

Renan thus has a special gift for surrounding science with an atmosphere of religious devotion… In other words all the terms of the old idealism are to be retained, but by a system of subtle equivocation they are to receive new meanings.  Thus a great deal is said about the “soul,” but, as used by Renan, it has come to be a sort of function of the brain.  “Those will understand me who have once breathed the air of the other world and tasted the nectar of the ideal.”  When this is taken in connection with the whole passage where it occurs, we discover that “tasting the nectar of the ideal” does not signify much more than reading a certain number of German monographs.  Men, he tells us, are immortal- that is, “in their works” or “in the memory of those who have loved them,” or “in the memory of God.”  Elsewhere we learn that by God he means merely “the category of the ideal.”*

As Babbitt reads him, Renan has rejected all of the characteristic doctrines of Christianity and certainly of its Roman Catholic variety.  He could fairly be called an atheist.  Yet he is a distinctly Roman Catholic atheist.  It is the God preached in the church he attended as a boy in the town of Tréguier in the 1820s and 1830s in whom Renan disbelieves, not any other god; it is according to the imaginative categories that he learned there that he thinks of the world.  This much is hardly surprising.  Renan was of course a man of great erudition, but his earliest and most intensive learning was of his childhood social environment and the ideas that prevailed there.

What brings this to mind is an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education a week ago.  Author Stephen Asma is, like Irving Babbitt before him, an American scholar of no religious affiliation who has studied Buddhism deeply and with sympathy.  Also like Babbitt, Asma is aware of the ways in which the religions we grow up in and around can shape our basic assumptions about the world even when we think we are rejecting them.  Asma’s essay discusses the leading figures of the “New Atheism,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the movement.  Asma argues that when these men argue against “religion,” they are in fact arguing against only those forms of monotheism with which they personally are most familiar:

As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men’s cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, “I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble.” I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould’s pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of “nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a” (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they’re wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the “mo­ral­ity job” to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Asma goes on to discuss animism at length, pointing out that if we classify the belief that nature is inhabited by spirits who influence our lives and require our worship as a single religion, it is easily the world’s most popular.  Yet animists rarely offer explanations of natural phenomena that compete with scientific explanations, and they do not ground ethical codes in divine commandments.  Westerners who focus on the rituals animists perform and the stories they tell to explain these rituals often dismiss animism as a childish notion, and to believe that “an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will ‘evolve’ (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent).”  If those Westerners side with the New Atheists, they may expect to see a further step in this ‘evolution’:

And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no “in­ten­tions” be­hind them. The view of na­ture as “law­ful” and “pre­dict­a­ble” has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

Yet this view of animism, Asma argues, is hopelessly distorted.  It leaves out the key insight at the root of animism: “An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.”  When I tell my classes about ancient Greek and Roman medicine before the time of Hippocrates, I often say something similar to this definition Asma offers here.  The ancients, I say, believed that the health of the body reflected the person’s social environment.  They expected a person whose relationships with others were loving and secure to be healthy, and they expected a person whose relationships with others were hostile or uncertain to be unhealthy.  These expectations are not at all unreasonable; more often than not, we do find exactly this.  When they saw that a person whose relationships with the people they could see were loving and secure, but that the person’s physical health was poor, it was by no means irrational of them to assume that there must be other persons whom they could not see with whom the person’s relationships were not so good.

Asma sums his argument up thus:

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris’s new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

I suspect that there are at least as many atheisms as there are religions.  As Renan retained the mental habits of Catholicism even after he renounced the Roman Catholic Church and the God it preached, so too the “Four Horsemen” and company cannot help but reject the specific religions which have been important to them.  That’s why it won’t do, for example, for John Wilks to say that “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.”  A person who was raised in a culture where Vishnu and Thor are simply names in stories that no one believes and who does not set out to adopt a belief in them is not doing remotely the same thing as is the person who, raised in a culture where virtually everyone pays cult to the gods of the Hindu pantheon or those of the Norse pantheon, declares that those gods are unreal and that their worshipers are wasting their time.  At the beginning of his or her journey away from belief in the gods, the latter person will certainly share most of the beliefs and the mental habits that go with the worship of those gods.  And it is entirely possible that s/he will still share them to the end of the road.  If so learned a man as Ernest Renan remained readily recognizable a Roman Catholic decades after he came to the conclusion that there was no God, it is clear that the simple act of rejecting a religious doctrine, however important that doctrine may be to the followers of the religion, does not by itself remove the influence of that religion from the person’s mind.

This much may seem obvious.  The forms of atheism that people develop as they leave a religion should be seen as phases of that religion.  Renan’s Roman Catholic atheism is a phase of Roman Catholicism, as Richard Dawkins’ atheism is a phase of Low Church Anglicanism, Sam Harris’ atheism is a phase of Judaism, ibn Warraq’s atheism is a phase of Islam, and so on.  Yet it is not obvious, as witness John Wilks’ comment identifying himself as a “Thor-atheist.”  What keeps it from being obvious is, I would say, the influence of fundamentalism.

Today, “fundamentalist” is often used as an empty term of abuse, suggesting angry people who are impatient with disagreement.  Yet it began with a definite meaning, a meaning which people who identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians still use.  “Fundamentalist” began as a name for people who agreed with the doctrines laid out in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  Those tracts identify certain interpretations of particular passages of the Bible as essential to Christianity and argue that one will be saved from damnation if and only if one believes that those passages, under those interpretations, are true.  Fundamentalists regard those passages, under the prescribed interpretations, as the great truths of Christianity.  They expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of these great truths, and they expect society to be transformed upon the triumph of the Christian movement.

To what sort of atheism does fundamentalist Christianity characteristically give rise?  I myself know many atheists who were raised by self-described fundamentalists.  Some have gone through complex intellectual and spiritual journeys since leaving their earlier faith.  Upon others, however, the marks of fundamentalist thinking are still writ large.  For example, one friend expressed amazement that a professor in a psychology course at the fundamentalist Bible college she attended could avow belief in fundamentalist doctrines.  When I asked her why she was surprised, she said that she expected his practice as a scientist to show him that there was no place for supernatural ideas.  She said that he must have “compartmentalized” his mind so as to keep his scientific thinking separate from his religious beliefs.  While psychologists do sometimes use the word “compartmentalization” to refer to an attempt to protect a cherished belief by creating a separate mental space into which one may confine dangerous knowledge, the currency the word has in this sense among atheists raised as fundamentalist Christians goes far beyond its actual prominence as a scientific concept.  The readiest explanation for its popularity among ex-fundamentalist Christians is that they still believe that once a person accepts the great truths, that person will naturally attain the virtue that marks the movement.  The content of the great truths may be different (“There is no God” rather than “There is a God,” “Science is the sole path to understanding nature” rather than “Faith is the sole path to understanding eternal things,” etc,) and the movement has a different name and a different liturgy, but the followers of each movement expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of the great truths and society to be transformed upon the triumph of the movement.  The expression “fundamentalist atheist” rankles nonbelievers, understandably so given the word’s pejorative uses.  Yet mental habits of the affirming phase of fundamentalism transfer so readily to its atheist phase that one can hardly expect the expression to die out.

*pages 259-261 in The Masters of Modern French Criticism (Boston, 1912)

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  1. Since you brought this up:

    In my book of faith, religion is man’s response to his awareness of his eventual death and his desire for to attach his temporary life to some sort of meaning. For me, that path is love. I do not worship a Creator, who or what I cannot envision, but the Creation, which I can and do as much as I can and as long as I can. As for other religions, theologies, etc., I see them as windows, perhaps of stained glass, through which people and peoples try to glimpse the Almighty Mystery which is otherwise too brilliant for the human eye to focus on.

  2. acilius

     /  January 31, 2011

    Thanks for commenting, Doc! It’s easy to see you’re a sailor, I can imagine you finding this perspective at sea.

  1. In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve? « Panther Red
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