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Another Round On Atheism With Ross Douthat

Since Ross Douthat was so kind as to notice my complaint that he’s not arguing with worthy atheists, it behooves me to notice that kindness – and to praise his latest offering as exactly what I was looking for. I’m very glad that he’s clarified that he’s not making a “necessary foundations” argument. If I […]

Since Ross Douthat was so kind as to notice my complaint that he’s not arguing with worthy atheists, it behooves me to notice that kindness – and to praise his latest offering as exactly what I was looking for.

I’m very glad that he’s clarified that he’s not making a “necessary foundations” argument. If I understand his argument now, it is that the new atheists’ worldview lacks “coherence” – whereas other world views, including some other varieties of atheism, would not lack that coherence so drastically.

I suspect that’s true. But what I would say in response is that virtually nobody has a “coherent” worldview. I’m pretty sure I don’t. And it’s only a certain sort of personality that feels a psychic need for a worldview characterized by coherence. I might even go further and say that some religions are more prone to seek that particular grail than others. I’d certainly rank Catholicism far higher on the “seeks coherence” scale than, say, Judaism, or the LDS Church, to say nothing of faith traditions like Hinduism that don’t even have a clear mechanism for defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and that hence by definition cannot provide that kind of coherence.

What I think is really bothersome about the “new atheists” is their style of argument, characterized (as Douthat aptly puts it) by overconfidence and “crowing self-righteousness.” But this is precisely why they are not worth arguing with on this subject. Why would a serious atheistic philosopher, as opposed to a  rabble-rouser, waste his time arguing with Pat Robertson? And if she wouldn’t, then why should a serious theist bother arguing with an atheist who obviously has no interest in understanding either religion or the history of philosophical argument about ethics, but simply holds his own prejudices to be self-evident truths?

(By the way, I forget which new atheist it was – I think it was Chris Hitchens – who averred that he preferred arguing with religious fundamentalists  because they and he meant the same thing by religion, whereas those with a more subtle or complex theological approach struck him as merely being shifty. This is, I think, the right answer to Damon Linker’s question. The new atheists aren’t arguing with straw men. They’re arguing with real proponents of a contrary view who are quite as simple-minded as they are, and whose views are vastly more popular than those of serious theologians.)

I myself don’t like crowing self-righteousness of any variety, religious or atheistic. But I’m also skeptical of coherent world-views. Which leads me to Douthat’s delineation of the two types of people who might embrace religion in the absence of definitive conviction.


In the first case, the skeptic finds himself in possession of a deep-seated moral absolutism on certain questions that seems to only make sense in a divinely-ordered cosmos, yet also is intellectually unconvinced of the case that this divine ordering actually exists. Or, alternatively, she finds herself in need of a Higher Power or Purpose in her own life — like many people entering Alcoholics Anonymous, say — without necessarily being suddenly convinced that this Power is really out there. Such a person might then to decide to live as if a religious tradition is correct — to practice without assent, to speak the words without full belief. And this, I think, is perfectly defensible, because it basically represents a form of exploration, a way of testing (perhaps the only way of testing, depending on your ideas about religion) a proposition that you find doubtful but appealing, an attempt to gain knowledge that might help smooth out the contradictions in your understanding of the world. If someone in the midst of that kind of skepticism-infused experimentation were forced to suddenly elaborate a complete world-picture, they might end up sounding as incoherent as I think the new atheists often sound. But with this crucial difference: They would be aware of the tensions, aware of the difficulties, and accepting them as a hopefully-temporary part of a personal process, rather than claiming to have arrived at a permanent intellectual solution and proselytizing ardently on its behalf.

In general terms, I have no problem with these approaches to religious belief, which feel very close to William James’s “will to believe.” I’m going to have to get a little personal though to delineate an important caveat to that general assent.

I spent a chunk of my late-20s and early-30s getting progressively more religious, precisely for the kinds of reasons that Douthat articulates above. On the one hand, I wanted a firmer grounding for what I already believed; on the other hand, I wanted something to strengthen my own moral resolve. Another way of putting it is that I wanted a guide to how to live, because I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it, and I was frightened. This might have had something to do with marrying relatively young, something to do with pursuing a career that in retrospect felt somewhat alien to me – whatever the collection of reasons, I felt the need for something solid to stand on, even though I was fully aware, intellectually, of the variety of arguments that could be made against religious belief in general, and traditional Judaism in particular.

The thing is, in my experience that kind of approach feels anything but exploratory. Precisely because the need is felt so strongly, it becomes terribly important to believe that there is a coherence, that things do fit together. The cracks in the foundation, when you see them, are quite alarming. And you look anxiously for ways to patch them. That might be described as being “aware of the tensions” in one’s worldview, but I don’t think it is anything like “accepting them as a hopefully-temporary part of a personal process.”

I don’t want to generalize too much from my own personal experience, but I did come out of it with a greater appreciation for the importance of honesty, and of trying to understand oneself so that one can be honest with oneself. Can you mouth the words without full assent? Sure – but what you’re testing is not whether you can make yourself believe the words by repetition – that’s a crazy way to come to believe something, when you think about it – but what it feels like to mouth those words, over and over, weekly, or daily, or multiple times a day as the case may be. Which is a really important thing to know, after all, since the experience of a religion is primarily that – an experience, a way of living and behaving, not a set of propositions assented to.

Which brings me around to his second type, the “noble lie” type:

The “churchgoing skeptic,” as described above, is someone who embraces religion experimentally in the hopes of harmonizing his own contradictory instincts and beliefs. The “religion as a noble lie” attitude that Millman is critiquing, on the other hand, is all about other people: This kind of “pro-religion” skeptic is pretty confident that he knows the score, and he’s just worried about what might happen if everybody else knows it. So instead of conducting experiments to test his own beliefs and ideas, he’s demanding — or suggesting, quietly, to people in positions of influence — that the religious portion of society be encouraged to stop experimenting with theirs.

I don’t want to say that there’s always a bright line between “skeptical churchgoing” and the “noble lie” school of thought — one can attend mass exclusively pour encourager les autres, and (at a more subconscious level) one can want other people to remain religious so that one always has the option of making one’s own experiment in faith. (Garry Wills, in his post-Vatican II book, “Bare Ruined Choirs,” has some interesting things to say about philo-Catholics of this sort, who liked the air of timeless certainty around the pre-conciliar church precisely because they felt like it kept real religion going in case they ever wanted to dabble in it.)

But taken on its own, the “noble lie” attitude offers a form of support that actual believers should reject. Given non-religious premises, there are various defenses of this perspective that one can make, and the more Machiavellian ones — in which religion really is the opiate of the masses, and that’s a good thing, because popular piety preserves the skeptic’s own social position, intellectual freedom, etc. — have a certain grim consistency that’s lacking in the naively anti-religious sincerity of the new atheists. But believers should still prefer the thundering anathemas of Coyne and Co. to the subtleties of some of religion’s atheistic defenders: Better a sincere enemy, in the end, than a conscious liar who calls himself a friend.

I agree completely with Douthat’s conclusion here – needless to say, since he’s agreeing with what I said in my previous post. And yet, just because I’m difficult, I can’t help but introduce two complicating thoughts.

First of all, I think it’s entirely reasonable for an atheist to say that he is glad religions exist because (a) religion is natural to most of humanity, for whatever reason, so trying to suppress it would be pointlessly destructive; and/or (b) precisely because they start from premises that he rejects (maybe can’t even understand), religious traditions may come to conclusions that would otherwise never be found, and that are worth investigating for other reasons despite their origins. I’ve made this argument before, and I believe it: that a hegemonic liberalism should affirm the value of subcultures that are not founded on liberal premises precisely because without them there would be nobody capable of resisting when that hegemonic liberalism takes its own premises to destructive conclusions, which, all of us being only human, we will undoubtedly do. I don’t think either of these are “noble lie” arguments; they’re arguments from humility, not arrogance. And they don’t require anyone to lie.

Second, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with practicing faith for the sake of other people, rather than as an expression of one’s own convictions, provided that it’s done in the spirit of a gift rather than of condescension. I think that a man whose faith has largely been consumed by doubt, and who no longer faithfully follows the dictates of his religion, may still attend services – may still lead them, even, if he is told that his voice helps others to pray.

I hope so, anyway, since I’ve been that man often enough in recent years.




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