Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On atheism and indifference

In the New Yorker recently (subscription required), James Wood wrote about the so-called "New Atheists"--Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett--and considered books either responding directly to them (Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate) or taking religious belief more seriously (Saving God by Mark Johnston, the posthumous A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith by John Rawls). It's not a great essay by any means, but it's worth a read. Wood's conclusion is ultimately unsurprising; he finds neither approach satisfying:
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.
Disappointed because, finally, "the God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idoloatrous God of the fundamentalists", makes no more sense, is no more "worthy of our worshipful respect--alas." And so the essay dissipates at the end.

Yet I agree with much of Wood's conclusion, though I wouldn't put it in the same weary, disappointed tones. One reason for the lack of disappointment in a formulation I might come up with is encapsulated in an excellent line from the second paragraph of Wood's piece:
Atheism is structurally related to the belief it negates, and is necessarily a kind of rival belief; indifferent agnosticism would be a truer liberation.
Atheists often bristle at the idea that atheism is anything like religious belief. Fine. What I'm interested in here is the second half of the sentence: indifferent agnosticism would be a truer liberation. One could challenge the charge that atheism is like religious belief--"structurally related"--and posit a different kind of atheism, retaining the rest of the formula: indifferent atheism would be a truer liberation. And in this phrase I see myself. On the one hand, I do not believe there is a God. Some argue that the inability to truly know means one should opt for agnosticism, but even if I ascent to the problem of knowing, I nevertheless must cop to a belief, a belief in an absence, yes, but a belief nonetheless. On the other hand, I am indifferent. Though I have at times in my life pretended to be an engaged atheist--that is, one who feels the need to argue the matter with believers, who has felt that religion needed to go away--in truth, those periods have been the exceptions. For most of my life I have been indifferent to religion, to religious belief. So I agree with Wood that indifference is the truer liberation.

At the same time, I share the desire for a theologically engaged atheism. But can such a thing exist alongside an indifferent atheism? I am indifferent to religion, yet I remain interested in and respectful of certain aspects of tradition, I want to know what it's about, I yearn, weirdly perhaps, to know what it feels like to have genuine access to the symbolic culture the tradition rests on. Is it possible to be deeply conversant with, for example, the religious literature, while being indifferent to its sacredness? That is, while always having been indifferent? Can one go through a whole life indifferent to matters of faith and belief and still get the literature? And still really get literature?


Rebecca H. said...

I don't know. I grew up believing in God and don't anymore, but I'm still very much interested in spirituality of the sort that doesn't require a belief in God. For me, I think I could find meaning in religious literature, even though I would read it for spiritual truths that don't rely on God's existence and my reading might be different from someone who did believe in God. I think of this as a kind of translation -- I can enjoy a church service for example if I replace "God" with some other term -- love or ultimate meaning or some such.

Paul Dorell said...

We have more than sufficient evidence that the Judeo-Christian god is a human fabrication. As far as god is concerned, the only remaining issue is whether our innate predispositions require us to come up with a replacement. Probably they do. I think Dorothy's approach is one kind of replacement. Another approach is to use Darwinism as a religion. That works for me. I think Wood's article is completely muddled, and that indifference amounts to avoidance of the issue. For someone like me, the only question is how to deal with others who don't share my beliefs. I am inclined to be respectful, without bashing them even though I know they're completely wrong. What grates about the militant atheists is not their position, but their insensitivity to others.

Duncan Mitchel said...

Why limit the fabrication to the "Judeo-Christian god"? (He's not just the god of Judaism and Christianity, but of Islam as well.) All gods of all religions are fabricated, and most believers seem to be quite comfortable with the idea that other people made up their gods -- they just think that their god is different. I don't so much blame Dawkins et al. for their "insensivity to others," except insofar as it marks them as more like the believers they despise than they want to realize.

I've been surprised to discover how many atheists are "disappointed," as Woods put it, or feel that they're missing something important, or envy the faithful their faith. I can't recall ever feeling that, and I've been an atheist since I was 11 or 12. I didn't have a proper name for my style of atheism until I encountered Antony Flew's "Stratonician atheism," which is a-theism, not anti-theism, and argues that the burden of proof lies on anyone who wants me to believe in his or her god. But I have always felt that being an atheist is, if not liberating, at least a highly positive way to view the world.

Being an atheist doesn't give you much. It doesn't answer ethical or moral questions, or tell you what happens when you die one way or the other. Those are other questions, and have to be dealt with on their own. I think that agnosticism is a perfectly appropriate attitude toward many such questions after you've investigated them, and that again the burden of proof lies on the person who tries to tell me what happens after I die. Agnosticism doesn't have to mean a wishy-washy refusal to take a stand -- the guy who coined the term, Thomas Henry Huxley, was anything but wishy-washy. Sometimes it takes a fair amount of courage to admit that you don't know, and to deal with the consequences of that not-knowing.

Nice post.

Richard said...

Hi, Promiscuous Reader, thanks for reading.

You make some fine points. I'm not sure that "fabrication" is quite the right word, if only because that implies an intention to deceive, and I'm increasingly not sure that's how the religions developed. (Though, surely the institutionalization and maintenance of power relies on much intentional deception, but that's a separate issue.)

Paul Dorell said...

Promiscuous Reader,
I referred to "the Judeo-Christian god" because it is the predominant one in this culture and is relatively easy to trace back to its mythological origins. The same could be done with any god-invoking religion, but it wouldn't be as familiar.

Agnosticism is probably the most logical position to hold when you consider concepts of god that don't correspond to any historical religions. Strictly speaking, we have no way of knowing with certainty whether or not some being created the universe that we live in. But it may be meaningless to refer to such a being as a god, because, for example, it may have no interaction with this universe beyond its creation, e.g. it may not care what we do or set any rules. For this reason, I think the best position is to be an atheist in the sense of not believing in the existence of any traditional god.

Your point about the disappointment of atheists is an important one. There are some significant advantages to being religious even if god does not exist. Religion makes some decisions much easier than they would be otherwise and thereby prevents uncertainty and inaction. Atheism carries with it the burden of no easy answers to moral questions or the meaning of life. That makes it a dysfunctional position in many contexts. It is easier to get on with life and experience happiness if you internalize the right delusions. Religion caters to that need.

Let’s compare Richard Dawkins with George W. Bush. Dawkins was divorced twice and is in his third marriage. His personal life may have been more stable if he had adopted religious strictures. Even though he is an atheist, he seems to have an evangelical zeal to spread the message, and he seems a bit like a religious figure. Bush, on the other hand, has only been married once and seems to have a good relationship with his wife. He turned to religion when his life wasn’t going well, and it seemed to work for him. Of course, the world had to survive his bad judgment, and he was wrong about a lot of things. But from the standpoint of happiness, he and many believers may have an advantage over Dawkins. Being right isn’t everything.