A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

A long comment at 3QuarksDaily

A moment ago, I posted a very long comment in response to a post by Quinn O’Neill at 3QuarksDaily.  Ms O’Neill’s post was a response to criticism that she had received after saying, in an earlier piece on the same site, that the most effective strategy for increasing the likelihood that schools will teach a biology curriculum based on sound scientific research might not consist of atheists making displays of personal hostility toward religious believers.  Much of the criticism Ms O’Neill received was based on the premise that anyone who questions the efficacy of such displays has betrayed the holy cause of Science and opened the gates to the Satanic hordes of Creationism.  In her response, Ms O’Neill felt obligated to reassure everyone that she is a True Unbeliever who renounces religion and all its works, and said among other things that she does not “believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”  I had to respond to that statement, and did so at a length that is really quite unreasonable for a blog comment.  Here it is:

“I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”

That sentence includes some pretty broad terms.  I grant you that a religious sect which demands that its followers believe the earth to have been created in October 4004 BC is not likely to be pleased by the findings of geology, or biology, or astronomy.  But what about a religion like Confucianism, which, to the extent that it represents a worldview, does so not by preaching doctrines but by guiding its followers through ceremonies and structuring their social relations?  Where is the faith/ reason battle there?

To the extent that “religion” is a meaningful category, I suspect that its defining features have far less to do with the belief systems that many religions  have than with the social bonding that they all promise.  I’m inclined to agree with James P Carse, longtime professor of religious studies at New York University, who in his 2009 book THE RELIGIOUS CASE AGAINST BELIEF argues not only that religious can get along perfectly well without having belief systems attached, but that their belief systems often keep religions from achieving their real value, which is their ability to bind people together into communities that endure for many generations.

Professor Carse’s argument may seem odd, but if we draw an analogy with science I think we can see more clearly what he’s driving at.  The point of science isn’t to uphold certain doctrines or theories, but to challenge all doctrines and theories with evidence and logic.  A scientist who would rather defend a pet theory than face the facts that cast that theory in doubt isn’t making the most of science.  Likewise, religious believers who wage holy war in the name of militant ignorance in order to protect a cherished belief aren’t breathing life into the past and binding the present to the future; they are condemning past and present to the contempt of the future.

So “religion” is a problem.  “Theism” is a problem, too.  So far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, “theism” was first coined in 1678 by Ralph Cudworth as a contrary to “deism.”  While deists affirmed the existence of some sort of god but denied that the god they believed in had communicated directly with the world, Cudworth wanted a word to name persons who, like himself, believed in divine revelation.  Later it was used as we would now use “monotheism,” and presented as a contrary to “polytheism” and “atheism.”  Nowadays “theism” sometimes embraces polytheism and deism, and is defined in smaller dictionaries as “belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.”

Does this attitude actually exist?  Is there, anywhere in the world, anyone who, as a matter of pure intellect, simply believes that there is at least one deity in existence?  I suspect not.  On the contrary, it seems likely that every person who would sincerely agree to such a proposition would also be a supporter of some particular religion, and of various other ideas and practices that come bundled with that religion.

However, let us assume, for the moment, that there is some point in talking about “theism” and “theists” in the very broad sense of agreement with the proposition that at least one deity exists.  Is it true that this proposition is not “logically compatible with” evolution?  Surely not.  An ancient Greek like Hesiod would fervently agree that at least one deity exists; however, in his THEOGONY, Hesiod describes the origin of the physical world as a spontaneous process that predated the birth of any gods, and frames the origins of the gods within the processes of nature.  It is admittedly unlikely that science will show Hesiod’s claims to be factually sound.  However, they are not only logically compatible with evolution, but are in the strictest sense of the words a story about evolution.

What about monotheism?  Is it logically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that a single personal God created the world and rules over it, and on the other hand to say that life as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.  I don’t presume to know why you think that these ideas are logically incompatible, but I can think of some other people who hold them to be so.  What I say next is directed at them, not at you.

In the early modern era, the idea took hold that the physical world operates like a machine.  It came to be widely expected that, given adequate knowledge, it would always be possible to predict what output would result from any given input.  In time, this idea became so familiar that it was fashionable to claim that reason could function only if events in the world were all predetermined.

When determinism of this sort reigned supreme and nature appeared to be a grand machine, theologians often described God as a grand machinist.  For thinkers like Jean Calvin or William Paley, reason demanded determinism and so faith demanded a God whose plans were complete before the creation of the universe and were bound to be realized in every detail. For people still invested in these theologies, evolutionary theory is profoundly disquieting, since it suggests a world in which events not only need not be predetermined to be described rationally, but in which many events may be in principle impossible to predict.  Obviously, quantum mechanics is a problem for them as well.

Is an unpredictable world logically incompatible with monotheism?  It seems not.  Not only was the idea of a universe that operated like a machine as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it was to everyone else before modernity, but the idea of a God who has nothing to learn from nature is absent from the record of their religious ideas preserved in scripture.  At several points in the Hebrew scriptures God changes his mind in response to appeals from the prophets and patriarchs.  Evidently these men, members of nature as they are, have told God something he did not know.  As a result of what he learned from them, God alters his plans.  These passages were a scandal in the early modern era, but they don’t seem to have bothered the Jews before the West had its encounter with mechanistic determinism.  Now that evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics have shown that reason can get along quite well without determinism, why should the idea of a God who can learn from the world and change his mind as a result of that learning bother any believer?

Counterpunch, 1-15 March 2012

In the latest issue of Counterpunch, JoAnn Wypijewski tells the story of Keith Jennings, a resident of Stony Ridge, Ohio.  Mr Jennings couldn’t keep up with his house payments, so the bank owns it now.  He has responded to this by enlisting a group of local youths to seal the house off, covering it in tar and cement.  Ms Wypijewski is at pains to portray Mr Jennings and his cohorts as a thoroughly unheroic bunch.  Their lack of heroism is precisely what makes their odd little story seem urgent to her.  They stand for all the forgotten eccentrics who have, over the centuries, done odd, apparently pointless things that have made life a little bit more complicated for people in power, and have thereby helped to prepare the way for the great figures whose names we do remember.

Harry Browne asks “How Toxic is the Fog of Benevolence in Foundation Journalism”?  Mr Browne points out that, while many people express concerns about possible conflicts of interest when journalistic enterprises are parts of big businesses, very few express such concerns about journalism that is funded by philanthropic institutions.  Considering that philanthropic institutions are usually endowed and overseen by the very people who have the greatest influence over big businesses, this certainly is a strange state of affairs.  It is all the stranger in view of the fact that for-profit journalism must appeal to a broad public, while charity projects need only satisfy their funders.

Self-described “adventurer, chef, yogi, and army wife” Rachel Ortiz contributes “Faith: An Atheist Perspective.”  As a Jewish teenager in Texas, Ms Ortiz fell in with a group of very outgoing Southern Baptists.  Converting to their faith, she spent three years being happy at church and miserable at home before she started asking questions that the Southern Baptists couldn’t answer.  After a period away from church, the 16 year old Ms Ortiz went back as an observer.   She was appalled to see everyone moving at the same times and speaking in the same ways during the service.  This seemed to her a sign of “brainwashing.” She writes:

I began to notice that when children “spoke in tongues,” it sounded remarkably similar to the way their parents sounded when they spoke in tongues.  I noticed that everyone simultaneously knew when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to clap, when to say Amen!  It was in that moment that I knew to the very core of my being that I had been, and all of them were, brainwashed.

My reaction to this was a bit complicated.  Mrs Acilius and I pay regular visits to a couple of nearby Anglican and Lutheran churches.  There, everyone simultaneously knows when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, when to say amen.  If that’s the result of brainwashing, it’s the least subtle brainwashing imaginable. They give you a paper when you go in the door on which a full set of instructions are printed.  It isn’t subliminal recruiting, but superliminal recruiting.  So the picture Ms Ortiz painted did not immediately strike me as sinister.

On the other hand, most Sundays we can be found in a Quaker meetinghouse.  Mrs Acilius is a member of the meeting, and I am also active in it.  In traditional Quaker meetings, shared silence is communion and an explicit agenda is a sign of the secular.  The one we attend isn’t like that.  They have a bulletin with a list of Sunday morning Protestant stuff, including hymns, a sermon from the pastor, etc etc etc.  There are some moments which are not stuffed full of planned events, what Quakers call “Open Worship.”  In these moments we usually sit silently together, but occasionally someone feels compelled to speak.  These moments are usually too brief to be a meditative experience that quiets the mind.  Frankly, that’s part of the reason why we keep going back to the neighboring liturgical churches; a well-executed service there is a single experience, and has a clarifying effect similar to that which an hour of meditation in communal silence can provide.  By contrast, the brief interludes of silence in our very churchy Quaker meeting often represent interruptions in a little series of tasks that all concerned are busily keeping up with.  Even so, the meeting fits into what is often called the “Free Church” tradition of Protestantism, in which congregations value spontaneity and individualism.  Because of these values, Mrs Acilius’ fellow members grow uneasy when we remark on the amount of busy-ness that is packed into that hour.  Thinking of their reactions when we talk about how little spontaneity there is in the meeting, it is easy to understand how a Free Church Protestant could be shocked to see a group of worshipers behaving in the highly coordinated manner Ms Ortiz describes.

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.

In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

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.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

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)

Why Live?

YouTube user Religious Fiction considers a question that she has heard from many believers: If there is no God, why live?  The question itself puzzles her, and she suggests that YouTubers should have a big conversation about it:

She says that no theist has ever explained to her “why living with the assumption that there is a God is so great.”  She finds it “hard to imagine that there are gobs of theists out there who would honestly think that they have no reason to live if their assumptions and their doctrine just slipped a bit or maybe even had a profound change.”

It’s true that quite a lot of people do talk as if belief in God were the only thing that made life tolerable, and that it is quite strange of them to do so.  Few people, after all, commit suicide, and most of those who do exhibit one of a very small number of psychological disorders.  The idea of suicide may have a compelling power over many imaginations, but in terms of actual practice suicide is an eccentricity.  When Albert Camus opens his Myth of Sisyphus with the claim that the  only serious philosophical question is whether life is worth living, therefore, it is as if he had said that the only serious philosophical question is whether one ought to ride a unicycle.

That much said, does the frequency with which believers suggest that life would not be tolerable without their beliefs show that they are mentally ill?  I say not.  I think Thomas Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons Not to Be an Atheist,” discussed below, explain why a happy, well-adjusted person could believe that a loss of religious faith would mean a loss of the will to live.

I would focus on the third and fourth of Fleming’s five reasons.  “Atheists have no religious calendars” and “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots.”  These points show, first, that it is not as propositions that the doctrines of a religion have power for its adherents, but as narratives.  The doctrines of a faith are a story in which the believer is given roles to play; the calendar is set of occasions on which the believer will enact those roles one by one, and will join with others as they play their own roles in the same story.  The sacred narrative consecrates particular places, places where key events in the narrative have taken place or will take place.  People can bond with each other as they share a relationship to these places.  Thus, the sacred narrative gives structure to a believer’s  experience of both time and space.  Discard the sacred narrative, and we may choose between a life with no sense of narrative structure or the acceptance of a new master narrative to create a new sense of structure.  “Life with no sense of narrative structure” sounds like a definition of clinical depression.  If we experience life as just one thing after another, we may very well wonder what the point is of living.  “The acceptance of a new master narrative,” on the other hand, sounds less like the outgrowing of illusions for which atheists strive than like a conversion from one religion to another.

The most interesting reply to ReligiousFiction’s invitation that I’ve seen is from QualiaSoup.

QualiaSoup usually does an excellent job explaining where arguments against a secular interpretation of physical phenomena go wrong; there’s a fine example here.  Addressing this question,  he proposes a master narrative about knowledge vindicating ignorance.  Scientific advances and antiracist action make life worth living because they both represent blows against ignorance.  QualiaSoup in fact takes on something of the character of a prophet when laying out this narrative.  Indeed, he presents himself as a prophet who brings not peace, but a sword; his image of a family is a group of people divided by various dark lines, such as “prejudice” and “hate”; these lines cannot be erased until all submit together to the liberating power of knowledge.  Otherwise, our prophet will set a man at variance with his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and the enemies shall be of one household.  He makes this point at greater length here.

Many commenters on QualiaSoup’s video say that people should be hurt if their relatives say that life would be intolerable without religious faith.  I disagree with this position, for two reasons.  First, it is through narrative that family relationships are defined.  Two people may have common ancestors within living memory, and yet feel no kinship at all.  Meanwhile, many people quite seriously regard pets with whom they have no common ancestor in the last 100,000,000 years as family members.  Change the narrative you accept, and your relationships with others will change in ways that cannot be predicted.

Second, let us assume that some person (say, a man named Bob) does live simply for the sake of his or her family.  Let us assume further that Bob lives in a society where it is a great advantage to be classified as “white,” and that the people Bob recognizes as close kin are all classified that way.  How could Bob justify working to abolish that advantage?  Indeed, if Bob considers his life worth living solely or chiefly because he wants to serve the interests of his family, would it not seem natural to him to lay down his life for the sake of perpetuating discrimination in favor of whites?  I certainly agree that Bob ought to find value in his family and enjoy sharing his life with them, but unless he adopts a narrative that can sometimes override that value in the name of a broader kinship he will be doomed to support white supremacy.

Need an unstructured life be dismal?  Certainly there are experiences that are pleasurable whether or not we see them as connected to any other experience.  The physical satisfaction that follows a vigorous workout is pleasurable even if we never give a thought to the benefits it might have for our health; a successful sexual encounter is enjoyable even if it does not strengthen the bond between the partners; solving a problem brings a thrill even if that problem is not part of an important research program.  To keep those self-contained pleasures fresh, however, we must continually increase our level of activity.  For example, when I was in graduate school I was a postmodernist.  The first few years I worked happily, convinced that what I was doing was of value because it was part of the postmodernist contribution to the study of ancient Greek and Latin.  There came a time when I decided that postmodernism was a dead end.  Rather than give up, I began to work much harder.  I found that if I put in 100 hours a week, each piece of work I did still gave me a thrill, even though I no longer believed in the overall project that had once justified it.  I couldn’t sustain that frenzied pace, but many do.  And isn’t frenzied activity one of the worst problems our world faces?  What is behind war, what is behind the destruction of our natural environment, if not people who have thrown themselves into ever-more frenzied activity rather than taking pleasure in the traditional rewards of life?

Irving Babbitt used to say that peace was a religious virtue.  This was a bit of a paradox, since Babbitt himself was not all religious and not at all warlike.  I think the paradox is resolvable, however.  A sacred narrative, with its religious calendar and its holy places, gives its believers something steady and finite.  If the world around them is at peace, they can find meaning and satisfaction without disrupting it.  On the other hand, those who try to live without a sacred narrative cannot be still, regardless of the conditions in which they find themselves.

The Old Right in the New Year

The current issues of The American Conservative and Chronicles appeared in our mailbox yesterday; here are my notes on them.

J. David Hoeveler, who in 1977 published the indispensable book The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940, contributes to this issue of The American Conservative an article about one of the main subjects of that book, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the other critics in the New Humanist group were identified as political and social conservatives in their own day, and it has been conservative intellectuals who have kept their names alive.  Hoeveler argues that Babbitt would have been deeply uncomfortable with much that characterizes the right wing of today’s Republican Party.  Hoeveler identifies four major strands in this movement, which he labels “imperialist conservatism,” “”populist conservatism,” “libertarian conservatism,” and “religious conservatism.”  Since Babbitt was an outspoken opponent of all forms of military intervention the US undertook throughout his life, Hoeveler has an easy time showing that he would have been unlikely to support America’s ongoing current wars and level of military spending.    Nor would the Babbitt whose main political concern was saving democracy by reconciling it to the “aristocratic principle” have found much to attract him in the populist right’s denunciation of “liberal elites.”

Hoeveler says surprisingly little about Babbitt’s likely attitude toward the libertarian right.   To the extent that libertarians set up the unfettered operation of the market as an ideal, it should be clear that Babbitt would have opposed them.  In the opening of Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt’s 1924 political magnum opus, he mentions that one hears that the future will be taken up with “the economic problem.”  If so, Babbitt declares, “the future will be very superficial.”  Though his political attitudes were certainly conservative, in some ways even reactionary, Babbitt was leery of capitalism.  In social arrangements that separate economic activity from family relationships and community bonds, he saw a world grown cold and senseless.  Babbitt would not have denied that the market was competent to allocate resources for efficient production, but would have argued that outside the limits of that sphere its judgments were meaningless.  Seeing successful businessmen consulted as experts on education and public policy, Babbitt told an old French story about a butcher who suddenly found himself needing an attorney.  When several lawyers offered their services, he evaluated them by the standards of his own profession and chose the fattest one.

Discussing the religious right, Hoeveler points out that Babbitt was very leery of their theological and political predecessors.  Himself irreligious, Babbitt thought that religion was necessary for social control and the development of a high culture.  However, he did not believe that all religious movements were equally capable of having these effects.  Babbitt admired contemporary Confucianism, early Indian Buddhism, and later Massachusetts Puritanism, as traditions that inculcated self-discipline and rewarded intellectualism.  The enthusiasms and eccentricities of Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups horrified him.

The American Conservative reprints President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, still famous for its warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”  In his commentary on the address, Michael Desch argues that Eisenhower was wrong to imply that economic interests drive America’s interventionism.  In view of the amount of money that defense contractors annually collect from the US taxpayer and the number of people whose livelihood derives directly or indirectly from those contractors, Desch’s claim seems preposterous on its face.  However, an article by Eamonn Fingleton elsewhere in the issue lends it a degree of plausibility.  Fingleton’s article, “Empire is Bad Business,” documents the ways in which US militarists have actively lobbied foreign governments to give preferential treatment to Japanese exporters over American exporters as part of deals to keep US bases in Japan.  Fingleton quotes trade economist Pat Choate:  “Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for Japanese support in Vietnam.  In any other country there would have been riots in the streets.”  Fingleton makes a strong case that the masters of the permanent war economy have played a leading role in the hollowing out of American manufacturing.  Thus, “military-industrial complex” is a misnomer.  However, Eisenhower’s broader point might stand.  American capitalists now pin their hopes of future profit on globalization, not on the development of any one country.  In that sense, they have become a revolutionary class, alienated from national loyalties.  The US military establishment is their militant wing, enforcing globalization.

Brian Doherty’s “Dignity Doesn’t Fly” has the subtitle “Peepshow scanners may not catch terrorists, but who says they’re supposed to?”  Laying out the shortcomings of the Transportation Safety Administration’s plan to probe air passengers in intimate ways, Doherty says that “The TSA has created the perfect enemy for any bureaucracy: one that can never be defeated, that could be anyone, and that creates excuses to funnel money to favored interests until the end of time.”  The worst aspect of the whole affair, for Doherty, is the apparent popularity of the TSA’s depredations.  Among those who support the scans, “the TSA seems to have succeeded in constructing a new morality,” one in which personal dignity is of no value and the agents of the state are above judgment.

Chronicles, too, includes a piece about the TSA.  While Doherty spends much of his piece demonstrating that the TSA’s scanners would not detect even the bombs that gave them the pretext to start using them, Chronicles‘ Douglas Wilson would oppose the scans even if everything the TSA and its apologists say were true.  Wilson brings up the Third Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the US from quartering soldiers in private homes.  When that Amendment was passed in 1789, it represented a real limitation on the federal government’s ability to defend its citizens from invading armies.  As such, it “was designed to interfere with national security.”  It proves that the framers believed that the rights and dignity of citizens were more important than national security.

Also in Chronicles, Thomas Fleming offers “The Five Good Reasons” not to be an atheist.  “Atheists have no god to worship” is number one; this is a good reason not to be an atheist, Fleming argues, because humans are generally inclined to worship something, and without gods they’ll only start worshipping other, worse things.  Reason two: “They have no religion to practice.”  That allegedly makes life dull, or did make it dull for Fleming when he was an atheist.  Number three: “Atheists have no religious calendars.”  This robs life of rhythm.  Time is then just one thing after another.  Fourth: “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots, no churches or shrines.”  Atheist space is as featureless as atheist time.  With no store of special stories to differentiate one place from another, atheists not only cannot value places as holy, but lose a means of bonding to each other as people who share relationships with those places.  Fifth, atheists have no sacred texts.  “Scriptures and even canonical literature, because they are sources of authority that lie beyond our own individual whims, discipline our minds and tastes and compel us to have a share in the common sense of our people.”  Fleming and others in the Chronicles crowd often cite Irving Babbitt; this sentence of his could have come directly from any of Babbitt’s books.

All five of Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons” are summed up by Steve Martin:

The last page of each of these magazines is devoted to a column by Taki Theodoracopulos.  They are not the same column.  The difference between them shows the difference between the publications.  For The American Conservative, Taki praises Kate Middleton, who is supposed to marry an English prince.  Taki praises her for being lower-middle class, and therefore likely to have enough common sense to behave properly in her new role, unlike the feather-headed daughters of the aristocracy.  Readers of The American Conservative might find this unvarnished class-stereotyping provocative, and Taki’s stories of his social life among the royals exciting.

When it comes to crossing the boundaries of political correctness,  Chronicles readers are used to headier stuff.  So his column in that magazine does not praise future princesses.  Instead, he opens by mentioning that a man from Somalia was arrested in Oregon on terrorism charges, and goes on to ask “Why are Somalis, in particular, and Muslims, in general, allowed to immigrate over here?”  That question in itself is fairly standard fare for the pages of Chronicles; most contributors to the magazine, however, would not have included some of Taki’s rhetorical flourishes, such as his reference to the man arrested in Oregon as “the subhuman- his surname is Mohamud, what else?”  Talking with other readers of these two magazines, I sometimes complain about Taki and his obviously deliberate attempts to offend; uniformly, these readers say that they usually skip his page.

I think you should be more explicit here in step two

Recently I took a lot of books to the nearest used book store.  My main goal was to free up space in the apartment, but since the guy doesn’t pay cash for books and I’m not inclined to give him books for free I had to take store credit.  That meant picking up a few books.  What he had that I could imagine myself reading were popular science books about cosmology written in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s.  It’s been fun looking through those.  It’s as if I’ve been mentally reenacting the development of grand scale physical theory as it has played out over the last 60 years.  So I started with The Nature of the Universe,  a series of lectures delivered in 1950 by Fred Hoyle, who coined the phrase “Big Bang” as a silly name for what he regarded as a ludicrous hypothesis.  Then I moved on to a somewhat later book suggesting that the hypothesis might not be so ludicrous, to a still later book that explains it as a settled fact, and then to a relatively recent book which shows impatience with people who still talk about the Big Bang when the the real questions are all about the period of extremely rapid cosmic inflation that followed immediately after the Big Bang.

Seeing how dramatically cosmology has changed in the last 60 years and how much more powerful its arguments have become, it’s easy to think that physics must have reached maturity in that time.  One might think that physicists are done making great discoveries, and that in the next few years they will tidy up the few remaining problems facing their discipline.  Looking more closely, a different picture emerges.  So, reading one of the more recent books I came upon a reference to proton decay, including the casual remark that in the distant future, several trillion years from now, there won’t be any protons left.  I was curious as to how long it takes a proton to decay and what happens to the little fellow while he is decaying.  So I googled “how long does it take a proton to decay?”  That brought up some articles saying that we don’t know how long it takes protons to decay, and that as a matter of fact we have no proof that they decay at all.  No one has ever seen a proton decay, and since we know virtually nothing about the internal structure of the proton we cannot very well describe the process by which that structure would dissolve.  Knowing so little about the proton, we are in the dark not only about the origin and future of the proton, but we are also in the rather embarrassing position of not being able to explain why objects have mass.  The Large Hadron Collider is supposed to inform this ignorance, but at the moment physics is left with an enormous blank space.  This blank space suggests, not a mature science with only a few loose ends left to tie up, but a young science whose greatest discoveries are very likely still to be made.

Perhaps I will cap off my read-through of old popularizations of cosmology with a look at Stephen Hawking‘s forthcoming book. This book has already received a great deal of commentary, most of in response to this quote:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

I haven’t yet seen the book, and these two sentences are not included in this excerpt from it published in Time magazine, or this one from the Wall Street Journal.   So I don’t know what Hawking is driving at with this line.  Since the book only became available on the 7th of this month, few in the armies of commenters can have seen it either.  Not even philosopher Ervin Laszlo quotes any part of the book aside from these 35 words.

It would therefore be both unfair to Hawking and superfluous for me to become yet another person who has reacted to these two sentences without reading the book from which they are taken.  So I will confine myself to mentioning some ideas of which this line has reminded me, ideas which I do not attribute to Hawking.

The discussion surrounding Hawking’s two sentences tends to be summed up in headlines like “Stephen Hawking: God Was Not Needed to Create the Universe,” “”Hawking’s Rejection of God Unpersuasive, Say Faith Leaders,” and “God Has No Role in the Universe, Says Stephen Hawking.”  The idea that the existence of the physical universe in some way or other proves the existence of a supernatural being who created and governs that universe is known as “the argument from design.”  To the extent that the 35 words quoted above summarize Hawking’s project fairly, that project would represent an attempt to refute the argument from design.  Over the centuries, other arguments have been advanced to prove that God exists; I very much doubt that an attempt to refute the ontological proof or the transcendental argument would inspire the furious reaction these 35 words have elicited in so many quarters.  Many people who are quite willing to see the other arguments as exercises for logic students to work through seem to be passionately attached to the argument from design, even to equate acceptance of its soundness with religious belief.

This state of affairs puzzles me.  As a teacher in a university classics program, I often talk with students about the mythological ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In these ideas, we see a culture which showed an intense concern with the birth of the gods, and an equally intense concern with the origins of various human populations.  The ancients usually worshipped their gods, not one at a time, but in groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the primordial cosmos to explain what the kinship relations were among the gods.  Only with that knowledge could they properly appease the unseen forces that they believed to hold great power over their lives.  Most of the ancients lived, not as atomized individuals, but as members of close-knit kinship groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the origins of the human race to know who their relatives were, and which groups were offshoots of other groups.  What pagan Greeks and Romans did not seek to find in myth was an account of the origin and basic governance of the physical universe.  Greek and Latin mythological texts simply take it for granted that “there is something rather than nothing,” that “the universe exists.”

To give just one example, the most famous Greek mythological text treating of the world before humans was Hesiod’s Theogony.  Not only does Hesiod say that the first cosmic entities emerged spontaneously from the void; this idea doesn’t even strike him as something needing explanation.  The gods did not create the physical world, as they were all descended from the entities formed in that first moment of spontaneous generation.  Hesiod does not appeal even obliquely to any process that might have produced the Earth.  “At first there was a gaping void, and then came into being deep-breasted Earth, the unshaken foundation of all the immortal gods who occupy the snowy peaks of Olympus, and shadowy Tartarus deep in the Earth’s wide ways, and Eros, most lovely of the immortals, who undoes the strength of minds and limbs and counsels both human and divine .”  And that’s it- from there on out we’re on to the interesting part, the cosmic family tree.

This blasé disregard for the origin of the physical world did not set the Greeks and Romans apart from their neighbors in the ancient Mediterranean world.  The ancient Hebrews, for example, were so bored by the topic that they placed two contradictory accounts of the origin of the world side by side in chapters one and two of Genesis, and then spent a good many centuries producing sacred texts that barely mention either account.  Having established that they were not an subgroup of any other existing nation, the Hebrews could go on to other subjects.

It has only been in the modern world that the idea has taken hold that the physical world operates like a machine, and that if there are gods who govern it they must be machinists.  With the prevalence of this idea, the “argument from design” became vitally important to believers of many stripes.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is often cited as the father of the argument from design, but it is worth pointing out that he in fact rejected the forms of the argument that are familiar today.  In Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas pairs the following objection and response:



I’ve often wondered about the word “fundamentalism.” The word seems to refer less to a specific set of beliefs than to an attitude of militant certitude about one’s beliefs.  So an “Islamic fundamentalist” and a “Christian fundamentalists” can look at each other, each serene in the conviction that the other will be damned for obscene folly.

How widely can the word be applied?  We hear sometimes about “Hindu fundamentalists”; while no one can deny that there are aggressively militant Hindus, some do deny that the word “fundamentalism” can be stretched to cover a body of religious practices that are not built around a holy book or the story of a prophet.  On the other hand, there are those who argue that militant Hindu nationalists have been trying to refashion Indian religious traditions in the image of the monotheistic movements commonly known as fundamentalist.

If fundamentalism isn’t particular to any one religion or even to any one category of religions, is it even necessary to be religious to be a fundamentalist?  Or, to ask a related question, if fundamentalism isn’t about particular religious doctrines but about the believer’s attitude towards doctrines, then wouldn’t we expect fundamentalists who change only in that they have lost faith in their religious doctrines to approach disbelief in the same way they had formerly approached belief?  That is, would we not expect fundamentalist theists who ceased to believe in their God or gods to become equally fundamentalist atheists unless they had undergone some change in their approach to their beliefs?

Yesterday, Arts & Letters Daily linked to a several-week-old piece on Slate that reminded me of these questions.  The most interesting bits of that piece were quotes from Australian science blogger John Wilkins.  Wilkins has denied that “fundamentalist atheism” is a meaningful phrase, but his description of the mindset that sets the “New Atheists” apart from the agnosticism he approves does sound very similar to fundamentalism:

For now my objections to the “New” Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organized religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

2. [The New Atheism] presumes to know what it cannot. More on this below.

3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of “weak” Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

5. But does that mean no *possible* evidence could decide it [existence or nonexistence of God]? That’s a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that’s a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists.