I assume you’ve all seen the above bumper sticker before (it’s pretty common in California where I live). But someone recently made a new bumper sticker that offers a pretty direct (and amusing) gnu atheist retort:
This recalls for me MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson’s recent theory as to why the gnu atheism, since 9-11, has gained some traction in the culture: the gnu atheists do not offer religion and faith respect:
That’s perhaps part of their attraction to a certain segment of the population—that is, that’s what makes it a new kind of phenomenon in that it basically shows no respect for religion whatsoever, because militant atheists think that religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.
Setting aside the ridiculous moniker “militant” attached to atheists, Hutchinson has nevertheless hit the nail on the head: the thing that distinguishes an atheist like Albert Camus in the 1950s from an atheist like, say, Jerry Coyne in the 21st century, is that Coyne declines the polite public deference usually accorded religion and faith.
But as startling as this decline of deference is, it has more than shock value. I think that the gnu atheists have arrived at a very interesting (and plausible) thesis:
Religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.
And the alternate thesis is this:
Religion is basically a good thing and needs to be praised.
Which direction do you lean? Are these theses too broad to be all that meaningful?
For me, to think that religion is basically a good thing would require an endorsement of one or more of religion’s traditional epistemic methods. But I can’t think of any that I’m at all impressed with. Here’s the standard list:
- religious experience
- memory (eye-witness testimony absent physical evidence)
- etiological narratives (origin tales from ancient books, such as Genesis’s story of the Tower of Babel purporting to explain the diversity of languages in the world)
None of these seem to get people (reliably) closer to the truth of matters, and the truth of matters matters. And so to say that religion is basically a good thing is to allow that, though its epistemic habits of mind are dubious at best, it still does more good than harm in the world.
But that in itself is far from obvious.
From my agnostic perspective, the sole value of religion is not that it makes people better (on average, it probably doesn’t), or that it inspires art (I think art can arrive via the desiring and intellectual imagination alone), but this: it gives people meaning and hope against all appearances that the universe has none. Religion and faith are human responses to death, suffering, and the contingent.
The truths of religion and faith—if you want to call them truths and not simply gestures of desperation—lie in the outrage and rebellion of the human spirit against its seeming absurdity and nothingness. They give people, in their flungness, two things to hold onto in the fog and storm of existence. Religion and faith are among the wines of Dionysus; the gifts of the gods; the intoxicants that make life tolerable.
And religion and faith are forms of gaming against appearances: as a limited being, you may as well be a Pollyanna as opposed to a Cassandra; you may as well believe and come under the spell of belief, and embrace an ultimate optimism (as opposed to an ultimate pessimism). There’s no empirical evidence whatsoever that this will ever happen, but the Book of Revelation (20:4) catches religious longing and the stout determination to believe with perfect pitch:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.
By contrast, the gnu atheists are realists about the most straightforward conclusion from the data at hand: they look at the appearances of death, suffering, and contingency, and say, “This is the way it really is”—and offer the following (not entirely comforting) promises about the future:
And scientists shall open our eyes even more; and it will grow in obviousness that there is no purpose or design to the universe, neither of matter, nor of life, nor of mind, neither shall there be any more ‘woo religion’: for dishonesty about our condition will pass away.
In other words, whether we like a conclusion or not, we have to possess the courage of honesty—and call what is almost certainly fiction fiction (including the highly implausible promises of religion and faith).
And the gnu atheist says what to this? Amen?
For those who like the gnu atheist thesis, I notice that the Fiction bumper sticker is being sold through PayPal here.