John Gray on the atheists

The Guardian has a provocative piece by John Gray attacking the new breed of proselytising atheist.

He claims that the issues taken up by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Philip Pullman and co, are often very traditionally religious, as is their optimistic progressivism. He also claims they prosecute their atheism in a way entirely continuous with the religious traditions they wish to overcome.

Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.

Dot writes:

What struck me about Gray’s piece was that it seemed quite unconcerned with what the truth actually is. Is there a god or not? Although in practice the anti-God squad direct most of their attacks at religion rather than God (which is rather common and strikes me as putting the cart before the horse), they do at least think that there is a truth and that it is important to find out the truth. This attitude is the basis of what Gray condemns as a ‘project of universal conversion’. But I can’t help feeling that seeking to know and uphold the truth is the necessary basis of moral life, the foundation of right living for both individuals and societies. This is clearly the case with respect to things like race: it is not true that blacks are of inferior intelligence to whites, and therefore it would not be just if they were denied education or intellectually demanding careers.

If Christians are right to believe that there is a god who made us, who loves everything and everyone he has made, and who desires a loving relationship with us, then we need to respond; though I do think Christians should be humble about how imperfect and historically contingent human responses to the divine always are. I also think that there are better and worse ways of living, not just an indifferent wash of cultural variants. To use the pretty uncontroversial race example again, the American South of the 21st century is a better society than it was in the days of the colour bar. To seek to proclaim what one believes to be the moral and factual truth to others is not just arrogance. What is arrogance is to believe that things are right simply because they are what one’s own society does. Christianity challenges notionally Christian societies just as much as non-Christian ones: it never gets easier to love your neighbour. So yes, I guess Gray is right about Dawkins and co. having something in common with Christians and Muslims, but I would regard it as rather to their credit.

Ken writes:

Gray criticises the advocates of atheism in particular for attacking a straw man when they portray science and religion as genuine competitors for the same territory:

For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better – they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense. “The proposition that God exists,” he writes severely, “is not even a theory.” But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories.

And later

Science … does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation.

I’m not sure portraying the contrast as one between myth and explanation is terribly flattering for religion, and a more advantageous contrast, I think, would be between teleology and explanation, but even so this ‘two worlds’ portrayal still leaves religion in competition with the social sciences (such as psychology, anthropology, and economics). The ‘two worlds’ position is only acceptable to the theist and the atheist who suffers from a failure of nerve. From the atheist side of the divide there is only ever increasing layers of order and complexity (neurological, biological psychological, inter-personal, social, cultural and ethical) in the natural world. The resolute atheist sees no reason to think these domains are fundamentally intractible or unsusceptible to scientific investigation and they have no reason to concede the territory. From the atheistic side of the divide, the world and the humans in it are just one big explanatory project to be tackled piece-meal by different branches of sciences as they can.

As it happens, I think the best argument for atheism is sort of ad hominem. It goes: You only believe Christianity/Islam/Buddhism etc. because you were given a religious education (indoctrination) as a child. Essentially the same criticism can be cast in the third person. We can explain the success of religions in terms of education etc. …. and how these institutions cater to people’s emotional needs etc. … and dissatisfaction with material social-economic conditions, but we cannot similarly explain the success of science in a way that doesn’t implicate its truth. The only way to make sense of scientific progress is to see scientific theories as making ever closer approximation to the truth.

This criticism obviously doesn’t itself speak to the issue of whether God exists, but it is not wholly irrelevant either in as much as it goes to the issue of the rationality of belief. It undermines the belief if there is a sufficient explanation of why someone holds it that doesn’t make reference to reasons/grounds etc. that would make the belief more probable.

Lastly, let me distance myself from probably the most damning charge levelled against the religious by Dawkins et al, namely that a religious mindset disposes believers to committing acts of atrocity. I just don’t believe there’s any truth to it. Since the vast majority of people through recorded history have been religious there is a paucity of comparison cases so we don’t know whether history would have seen the same level of violence in an atheist world. And besides, there are plenty of equally credible explanations of violence in the form of political and socio-economic factors.


5 thoughts on “John Gray on the atheists

  1. I think the scientific worldview of Dawkins et al is deeply embedded in the assumptions of modernity. No-one really knows what post-modernity is, but what it isn’t is a context where people simply assent to propositions set forth by ‘authority’. There has been a surge of interest in the non-rational, something from which the mainstream churches have not benefited, probably because they are essentially modernist in their thinking. Proselytising atheists must fight their corner because the process of secularisation, they had believed to be inexorable, is now in doubt.

    (As a Christian, I happen to think atheists are important in constantly calling the church back to first principles – a return to a ‘Christendom’ paradigm, which is the desire of Christian fundamentalists of various hues, would be as deadening as it was in the Ireland of the 1950s)

  2. I’ve now got the link to work!

    I’m not convinced that the tide of secularisation has turned as completely as Gray suggests, nor that zealous atheists are just as bad as fundamentalist religions.

  3. The best arguement for Athiesm is not the ad hominem one you describe. It is a fact that is very important to understand, but your right, it doesn’t address the question of God, just makes someone realize that there could be any type of God.

    There are a number of good points for why someone should be Agnostic (I think most of these writers are Agnostic in the philosophical sense of the word, but you tell a believer that you admit the same likelyhood of Zeus as Jesus as God, and they will tell you your an Athiest, so in the public sectors, thats what you go by). The issue is more complex as it has to unwind alot of social conditioning. First you must recognize that the ‘type of god’ you believe in seems to be socially conditioned and not innately obvious. Secondly you must try to address if there is a reason independent of the biased personal experience that you have had why one God should be better than another. Then you should investigate if a non-intellgent event could also potentially account for the mysteries that you have had God be the cause of.

    Etc etc etc.

    Finally, as far as the religious like way that Dawkins and the like are pushing the idea. Its an idea, thats how it gets spread. People pushed Democracy the same way back when it was new.

  4. jonathan

    there is no yes or no answer to the question as to whether there ‘is’ God or not. ‘God’ is not simply one thing among many other things, and the very meaning of the word ‘exist’ is derived entirely from the observation of things that obviously do, or don’t, exist. And in either case, your deeply held belief about whether God ‘does’ or ‘does not’ exist, are both an expression of faith, and you will doubtless reap the consequences, either way.

  5. ken

    Jonathan, it’s hard to know what to say to your very quick little comment. What do you mean by ‘you will doubtless reap the consequences’? Isn’t that a bit melodramatic? Reap the consequences of what, disbelieving (respectively, believing in God) or there being (respectively, not being a God)? Do you mean logical consequences or causal consequences?

    I don’t see any room for the impartial third party position you seem to want to occupy. On the ontological question of whether or not there is a God the two traditional positions (i.e. ‘yes’ and ‘no’ ) are exhaustive and mutually exclusive. So this is one of those cases where you really have to pick. If you have a problem with the concept of ‘God’, this would put you in the ‘no’ camp.

    Also ‘deeply held’ seems like a code-word to me for ‘unreasonable’ and ‘won’t listen to a convincing argument.’ That’s certainly not the case. I’m a philosopher by training and would always follow the argument where it leads, like Socrates taught us to! 😉

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