Atheism is no excuse for skipping church

In a recent review of Alain de Botton‘s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, John Gray writes:

Rarely mentioned in the debates of recent years is that atheism has been linked with all kinds of positions in ethics, politics and philosophy. More particularly, there is no necessary connection – either as a matter of logic or in the longer history of atheist thinking – between atheism and the rejection of religion.

Atheist thinkers have rejected and at times supported religion for many different reasons. The 19th-century anarchist Max Stirner rejected religion as a fetter on individual self-assertion. Bakunin, Marx and Lenin rejected it because it obstructed socialist solidarity, while Nietzsche hated religion (specifically, Christianity) because he believed that it had led to ideologies of solidarity such as socialism. Auguste Comte, an atheist and virulent anti-liberal, attempted to create a new church of humanity based on science.

In contrast, the French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill – not exactly an atheist but not far off – tried to fuse Comte’s new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.

Certainly a dictionary definition such as “the doctrine that there are no gods” amounts to very little.  Professor Gray champions such a definition:  “Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism.”  For my part, I am reflexively skeptical of any very simple, purely abstract definition of an ideological label.  I doubt that anyone adopts such a label as a self-description or responds powerfully to it as a description of a participant in a debate unless it suggests a rather substantial narrative.   “Atheist” is a label that millions of people wear with fierce pride, and that raises equally fierce anger and fear in hundreds of millions of others.  The strength of those reactions proves that the word has connotations for these people that go far beyond the tidy little abstractions of the dictionary, and their predictability shows that these connotations are much the same from person to person.   Therefore, I am not convinced that anyone anywhere is an atheist simply in the dictionary sense of the word.  There are people who reject particular religious beliefs that involve the existence of gods, and there are people who accept particular beliefs that exclude the existence of gods.  The key thing about each of these people is their relationship to those particular beliefs, to the people they know who espouse those beliefs, and to the institutions in their social worlds that are associated with those beliefs.  A label such as “atheist,” in the dictionary sense, would sort a pious Confucian, an orthodox Communist, and a militant freethinker together.  Certainly no category that includes three such disparate people could be a very important part of our understanding of the world.

As I am skeptical of the dictionary version of the word “atheism,” so too am I skeptical of the word “theism.”  The Oxford English Dictionary gives four definitions for “theism.”  (Not counting another, unrelated, word spelled the same way, which means “illness as the result of drinking tea.”)  These definitions are: “belief in a deity or deities; as opposed to atheism”; “belief in one god, as opposed to polytheism or pantheism”; “belief in the existence of god, with denial of revelation”; “belief in the existence of god, without denial of revelation.”  n the first of these senses, the word appears to be a back formation created by taking the prefix off of “atheism.”  The word is obsolete in the second sense, having been replaced by “monotheism.”  The third sense has been replaced by “deism”; where deism is a live option, its opponents still use the word “theism” to describe themselves.  In view of the word’s history, then, it would be as true to say that “theism” names a “purely negative position” as it is to say that “atheism” names a “purely negative position.”  A theist is someone who rejects the labels “atheist” and “deist” and will not play the social roles that come with those labels.

Again, no one does only this.  Those who call themselves “theists” are adherents of particular religions.  Surely, no one believes in “a personal god”; billions of people believe in the God their favorite preacher describes.  Mere theism is as unreal as C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.”  Indeed, the labels that name world religions cover so many people and so many cultures of faith that anyone can see the point the late Edward Said made when he proposed scrapping the term “Islam” on the grounds that such a word “imputes a unified and monolithic religious and cultural system” to what is in fact an infinitely diverse range of experiences lived by over a billion people scattered all over the globe.  How much worse then is a label that encompasses not only that range, but also the ranges of experience grouped under “Christianity,” “Judiasm,” Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” etc.

Professor Gray does recover a bit as the review goes on.  So:

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.

Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don’t believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world’s religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines. In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.

A couple of years ago, we noticed James P. Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief, a book which argues not only that its beliefs are not the things which make a religious tradition most valuable, but that an excessive emphasis on beliefs is the surest way to drain a religious tradition of its value.  Professor Gray seems to be approaching Professor Carse’s views here.  He goes on to write paragraphs that will make any admirer of Irving Babbitt wince:

The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

Unfortunately, de Botton falls into this confusion when he endorses Comte’s scheme for a humanist church. “Regrettably,” he writes, “Comte’s unusual, complex, sometimes deranged but always thought-provoking project was derailed by practical obstacles.” It is true that in accepting the need for religion Comte was more reasonable than the current breed of atheists. But it is one thing to point out why atheists should be friendly to religion and another to propose that a new religion should be invented for atheists.

The church of humanity is a prototypical modern example of atheism turned into a cult of collective self-worship. If this ersatz faith came to nothing, it was not because of practical difficulties. Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs – especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world’s traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten.

I mention Irving Babbitt because of the episode that briefly made him a celebrity.  In 1930, Babbitt was 65 years old, and had for over 30 years taught French and Comparative Literature at Harvard University.  In those decades, he and his friend Paul Elmer More had assembled a school of learned followers who labeled themselves “the New Humanists.”  1930 was the year the New Humanists chose to make their debut as a movement.  A book featuring essays by Babbitt, More, and many of their followers (including Babbitt’s pupil T. S. Eliot) appeared under the title Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization; Babbitt himself gave a lecture at Carnegie Hall, drawing an audience of 3000.  Much to the dismay of Babbitt and company, a circle around philosopher John Dewey also chose 1930 to launch a project under the name “the New Humanism.”  While Babbitt traced the criticism that he and his school practiced back to Erasmus and the other the Christian humanists of the Renaissance and claimed that it offered a way even for irreligious people such a himself to recognize the value of religion, the Deweyans were hostile to traditional religion and favored views quite similar to those Professor Gray describes above.  The extent of the Deweyans’ triumph in the battle for the word “humanist” can be measured not only by remarks like Professor Gray’s but also by the prosperity of the American Humanist Association, which had its origins in the Dewey group’s 1930 activities and which stands today as the USA’s foremost institutional champion of atheism.  Needless to say, the American Humanist Association’s successive “Humanist Manifestoes” make no reference to Babbitt and More, and certainly take no notice of Erasmus or any other Christian humanists.

Babbitt’s “humanism” suffered from many weaknesses, not least the fact that it was at least as sweeping a collection of diverse beliefs and experiences as would be sorted under the label “theism.”  Indeed, at the height of the “Humanist” controversy Paul Shorey slashed away at the New Humanists precisely because they made the term “humanism” bear an impossible burden.  Even as the dictionary versions of “theism” and “atheism” elide the whole world of religious experience, so too Babbitt’s conflation of all the sages, philosophers, and prophets of the past is, in Shorey’s words, “exposed to misunderstandings and misapplications, and Professor Babbitt wishes to deduce from it precisely his own ideals in religion, ethics, culture, philosophy, politics, and education.”  By contrast, Shorey declared himself  “content to take the word in a loose, fluid, literary way and in the traditional Renaissance sense of devotion to the Greek and Latin classics and to the cultural and ethical ideals that naturally result from an educational system in which they hold a considerable place.”  Babbitt would likely have claimed that he and his school used the word in the same way, but that they, unlike Shorey, had thought through the question of what “cultural and ethical ideals” can be expected to “naturally result” from various educational systems in which the Greek and Latin classics hold various places that might be called considerable.  In other words, what Shorey was doing with the word “humanism” may be very much like what Professor Gray is doing by invoking the dictionary definition of “atheism.”  In each case, the critic is trying to avoid a controversy by associating himself with a version of a word that is artificially drained of its connotations and narrative content and confined to a purely formal significance.  In each case, however, the word has associations that cannot be suppressed.  By trying to hide those associations behind the dictionary, the critic puts himself in a weak position.  If Shorey wished to escape from Babbitt’s attempt to overstuff the word “humanism” with all the wisdom in the world and to ground in it all of his preferred ideas, he would have been better advised to consider the particular uses of the word as evidenced by identifiable people in specific situations than to express a preference for a use of the word that differs from Babbitt’s chiefly in its greater vagueness.

Philosopher that he is, Professor Gray was never likely to declare that a term and the prejudices it expresses are best left unexamined.  His refuge in the dictionary, however, leaves him in a very awkward position.  For example:

“Religion,” writes Alain de Botton, “is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognising our paltriness.” It is a thought reminiscent of Blaise Pascal. One of the creators of modern probability theory, the 17th-century thinker invented an early calculating machine, the Pascaline, along with a version of the syringe and a hydraulic press. He made major contributions to geometry and helped shape the future development of mathematics. He also designed the first urban mass transit system.

Pascal was one of the founders of the modern world. Yet the author of the Pensées – an apology for Christianity begun after his conversion to Catholicism – was also convinced of the paltriness of the human mind. By any standards a scientific genius and one of the most intelligent human beings that may ever have lived, Pascal never supposed that humankind’s problems could be solved if only people were smarter.

The paradox of an immensely powerful mind mistrusting the intellect is not new. Pascal needed intellectual humility because he had so many reasons to be proud of his intelligence. It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton. His spirited and refreshingly humane book aims to show that religion serves needs that an entirely secular life cannot satisfy. He will not persuade those for whom atheism is a militant creed. Such people are best left with their certainties, however childish.

I would be the last to deny that Pascal was a great mind, but neither would I say that atheism, even of the militant variety, has confined its appeal to people who can be dismissed as “best left with their certainties, however childish.”  As Professor Gray says, a bare denial of the existence of gods, considered in the abstract, doesn’t “amount to much.”  Yet there is something in the label “atheist” and the roles that atheists play in society that has a powerful attraction even to people who could have matched wits with Pascal.  Like Paul Shorey before him, Professor Gray has not followed his own lead.  As he is willing to break the “fixation on belief” in discussing religion, so too should he break the same fixation when discussing irreligion.



  1. Frankly, I am not sufficiently well read to read this essay critically. Still, I’m hoping you can shed some light on two items. First, when you write:

    In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

    I actually paused to consider what harm you were thinking that science has caused?

    Secondly, when you wrote,

    Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs – especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world’s traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten.

    I find myself speculating on whether Evangelical Christianity will endure because I am not aware of what enduring human needs it offers.

  2. acilius

     /  February 24, 2012

    Thanks for commenting, R. W. Rawles! Those were John Gray’s remarks, included in the passages I quoted from his review, so you’d have to ask him what he had in mind.

    For my part, I don’t know if it’s fair to say that science has caused harm. Certainly people have used the products of technology to cause vast harm, and I can think of some scientists who haven’t been especially kindly in the way they’ve gone about their work, but it seems to be letting those people off the hook to lay their misdeeds at the feet of some abstraction like “Science.”

    As for Evangelical Christianity, I suspect that the particular forms of it that tend to make themselves most conspicuous today cater to demands that are very specific to this moment in history. They seem to be attempts to channel panic reactions to advances in science that have undermined old images of how the world works, to changes in family structure that have changed the relationship of women to men and opened a prospect that sexual minority groups might find themselves on an equal footing with everyone else, to a popular culture that doesn’t seem bound to any particular place or committed to any particular moral ideas, and to scholarship that challenges Protestantism’s usual idea that religious authority should derive from the text of the Bible. Surely these reactions can’t last forever. Eventually Creationism and the conspiracy theories that explain why scientists don’t generally adopt it will die out, eventually defenses of patriarchy and attacks on sexual minorities will become embarrassing, eventually the religious right will give up on the idea of placefulness as it has given up on every other idea that makes capitalists uncomfortable, eventually the idea that editions and translations of the Bible are the product of a series of divinely inspired editors and translators will be laughed out of court. So I would be surprised if those movements outlasted our time. But there’s more to Evangelicalism the tradition than the headline-making right-wing churches of today. It isn’t absurd that the movement Martin Luther founded has the same name as the movement that gives us men like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham today. There is a common thread there that makes it sensible to call both “Evangelical,” and that common thread isn’t likely to run out any time soon.

    Of course, even the 500 years or so of Evangelicalism isn’t such a lengthy tradition compared with the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox brands of Christianity, which can reasonably claim to have been chugging along steadily since the days of the Caesars. And even the oldest Christian churches are late comers compared with Judaism or the various religious traditions grouped under the label “Hinduism” or various others in the world today. The long endurance of these traditions, coupled with the pervasiveness of similar traditions throughout history, makes it exceedingly unlikely that they will cease to be practiced any time soon.

  3. What we know about God is far exceeded by what we do not know. In a brief summary:

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

  4. acilius

     /  February 27, 2012

    Thanks for commenting, Ron Krumpos!

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