It’s not uncommon for Giles Fraser to take an opportunity to have a pop at atheism and the dreaded Strident New Atheists, and this little foray into excuses for believing in imaginary friends is not untypical: The Battle to Believe in God
According to Giles, according to atheists, God …
“… was killed by thinkers: philosophers and scientists, especially those associated with the Enlightenment. First, God died in theory, only after which He died in practise, when ordinary people eventually caught up with the ideas that were first formulated in the study and the laboratory. The only problem with this, as Alec Ryrie astutely observes in a new book on the rise of atheism, is that “death-by-philosophy … is a poor fit with the actual chronology of western secularisation”. Atheism, he asserts, was alive and well before the Enlightenment.”
This is not news to atheists that have done their homework, particularly the ones that Giles names later. In fact, Dawkins and others insist that everyone is born an atheist, and most only have a very specific religion thrust upon them in childhood, and a rare few invent religions (rare, relatively speaking, of course, since there are many thousands of religions and sects). Given evolution’s description of human origins and our emergence among and from other animals, Giles would have to assert that animals are religious, unless only Humans invent gods, … or gods are choosy about which animals they reveal themselves to, though they don’t seem so choosy about how often and in how many ways they reveal themselves, if indeed they do.
The article title and sub-heading sum up the problem with the article.
The battle to believe in God
Don’t kid yourself that atheism is a modern invention — it’s as old as religion
Correction. It’s older than religion. It’s what humans and pre-humans and other animals with brains had going on in their brains before some humans invented religion. It’s a-theism:not theism, like a-symmetry is not symmetry.
Having poorly characterised atheism, Giles at one point, in this part book review, part dig at atheists, gets around to telling us what Christianity is about, according to Spufford (and Ryrie and Giles).
“The proper starting point is not the question of God’s existence, but what he calls “the HPtFtu” – or, “the human propensity to fuck things up”. The propensity extends to our relationships, our attempts to be good, even to our rationality. Emotionally, Christianity begins within the unfixable realities of human life, its tragedies and absurdities. Even its blood-soaked history, including that of the Reformation, is just yet another example of the HPtFtu. … Christianity grows out of the broken and unfixable. Its USP is to be found within and alongside the stuff that doesn’t work … Virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are at work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it”
It doesn’t take religion to realise that HPtFu, or that humanity is Fubar. It does take religion to milk suffering for all its worth to the coffers of the church. Too often the religious agenda has been to fix the sinner’s soul rather than fix the problem the sinner is suffering from, the latter being a means to an end. Not to say there aren’t genuinely nice, thoughtful compassionate believers out there, but are the same people so limited they need God to do it? Or has religion simply acquired the monopoly on helping the suffering. (Hint: it hasn’t – medicine cures people more than prayer does.)
And I’m not sure how Giles thinks Dawkins managed a career in Evolutionary Biology if he and Spufford really do think “Virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place“, as if they had no time for anything but to rebut religion’s fantastical and often harmful claims.
The Hippocratic oath requires doctors do no harm when healing. The hypocritical oaths of religion requires no such commitment, and religion has been known to be quite enthusiastic about saving souls by condemning bodies to death. Allahu Akbar, for good or ill.
“I suppose that is why I read the New Atheist critique of Christianity as often obviously correct, and yet strangely irrelevant. What they take to be a kind of philosophical or quasi-scientific explanation of things is often much more like a cry for help. And to accuse a cry for help as being intellectually confused is a peculiar kind of response.”
I find it a confused kind of response to pain to tell the sufferers, “Pretend to believe in this fake stuff and it might make you bear the suffering a little more easily,” distracting a child that’s about to receive an injection by waving a cuddly toy in front of its face. An elixir salesman’s fake medicine.
Homeopathy for the soul.
And, Giles ends with …
“Now, of course, you may completely disagree with my characterisation of Christianity. Many will. But what Ryrie’s engaging book suggests is that the battle over God is really a battle about a certain sort of emotional literacy. For the Christian life is as much dependent on arguments about God’s existence as birds are dependent upon ornithology.”
“Many will” – Yes, including many religious people.
Giles makes a mockery of the religionist rejection of the analogy of religious belief that atheists often put forward: a belief in fairies. Yes, Christianity as described by Giles does not depend on the existence of God, so emotional literacy could just as easily depend on the non-existent fairies, … or Allah, or any other imaginary friend that Giles does not believe in. So, what makes a Christian? Not believing in Christ as much as not believing in Odin or Allah, but pretending to believe in Christ anyway?
And of course this conception of religion that Giles presents is dishonest … he knows full well that many believers really do believe God exists. Try following people that have suddenly realised they’ve been scammed, how that shocks them when they self discover religion’s empty promise. The “many will [not accept his characterisation of Christianity]” plausible deniability card up his sleeve is just another cheat.
Let’s translate Ocham’s Razor into Giles-Speak: You better believe there is a God that doesn’t exist, because if He were to exist, though He doesn’t, you’d be good to go, but if there isn’t such a God, which there isn’t, you’ll be disappointed when you don’t end up in the literal hell that doesn’t exist?
And it’s no more than a perverted intellectual elitism that supposes the naive child-like plebs will be satisfied with the emotional sweeties, while the epicurean geniuses of theology dine on the sophistication of arguments for God’s existence. The religious intellectuals HAVE dedicated themselves to arguments for God’s existence. It’s only in the 21st century that theists like Giles are pretty much forced to concede “New Atheist critique of Christianity as often obviously correct, and yet strangely irrelevant” – yes, quite, “It doesn’t matter that I believe in BS, because I don’t care.“
Giles may be sincere. But then he has no choice in the matter, because being aware of one’s own intellectual bloopers, or giving up religion, are the unbearable painful cracks that religion, as he elucidates here, is well equipped to paper over
But it’s intellectual duplicity, even if self-imposed. A greater intellectual sophistication should be seeing the irrationality of religious belief, and helping the plebs get wise to the fairy tales. The intellectual failure of the theists is they ought to know full well how silly it is to latch on to just one of the myriad of gods that have been invented.
To speculate about origins, to wonder if all reality is an impersonally causal series of events, or a teleological invention, is a reasonable metaphysical exercise. But to choose one of the many supposedly revealed fantasies, to call oneself a Christian or Muslim, as if some ancient goat herder really did receive a message from a creator of the universe, and play out that game, while keeping atheists at bay by saying you don’t really believe in the literal claims, is no better than the fraudsters that caused the financial crash.
If you want to be ‘mystical’, there’s another option. It’s not beyond the wit of an intellectual to take up the selected cherry picked nice philosophy of Jesus, along with that of the Buddha, as well as atheist philosophers, and disassociate them totally from the fantasy. They could give up the religious mumbo jumbo and to stop conning the plebs that there’s some mystic truth they are incapable of seeing, so they’d better giving up quizzing the literal reality of this God thing. Trouble is, if they were honest with the flock they’d have no justification to dress up on a Sunday.
Not content with merely pulling The Lamb’s wool over the eyes of parishioners, Giles’s and other theists have to demonise the opposition, with what amounts to no more than propaganda about angry atheism.
“What Ryrie’s account achieves is an explanation as to why atheism often remains so angry. That it is angry seems undeniable — from the vituperative nature of exchanges on social media, to the hardly concealed fury of its leading lights, Dawkins, Hitchens etc, there can be little doubt it is driven as much by passion and righteous indignation as by following the consequences of cold clear dispassionate rationality. “Reason is a slave to the passions” as David Hume rightly noted”
This is a dishonest use of Hume’s ‘passions’, which isn’t about anger, but merely the idea that is now a fully credible understanding of consciousness: the lack of free will, that ideas appear as if from nowhere, but actually from the stimulation of the brain by bodily functions. The ‘passions’ in this understanding are well presented by neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness).
And where atheism is angry it has every right to be. Religion is the quintessential bully that persecutes and brutalises victims, then cries foul when the victim bloodies the nose of the bully.
For millennia witches and heretics have been burned at the stake, while hapless parishioners were scared out of their wits and manipulated by parsons, priests, monks and mullahs.
Civil wars were fought over religious differences – and it’s no good claiming that there were other political reasons, not religious ones. It doesn’t help religion’s cause to point out that a supposedly benign or even beneficial belief system can be put so easily to division and death as it was during the Christian Catholic and Protestant wars, the Crusades, the Islamic invasions from Spain to India, and the later ‘Troubles’ of Ireland, the Islamic terrorism.
Even now, throughout the Islamic world, atheists are persecuted, and in too many states, atheism is a crime punishable by death at the hands of believers that believe nothing like Giles’s theological scam on a scam. In the UK homophobic Islam patrols school gates and justifies the grooming of young girls, as Mohammed did. Damned right atheists are sometimes angry.
Speaking of Islam, reading Giles’s representation of atheism and atheists is very much like reading that of other popular believers, like Mehdi Hasan. Yes, the Mehdi Hasan who really does believe Mohammed split the moon, and in other miracles. Yes, the Mehdi Hasan who revealed that to the not so angry more astonished Dawkins. Yes, the same Mehdi Hasan, who, like that other fraud, Reza Aslan, will tell you you don’t understand Islam, because it’s nothing like atheists present it, … all the while his co-religionists butchering gays in the name of Allah for exactly the reasons atheists say they do. Oh, yes, what happened to Reza Aslan and his lovely Indonesia, where lashings à la (Allah?) Quran 24:2 are a regular occurrence?
It’s odd that these fake theists declare that only atheists and extremists believe in the literal truths of the holy books. No, atheists do not believe in the literal truths of these books. Atheists merely point out the obvious fact that too many theists do. Only the fake theists try to square the circle, by claiming the truth of the holy books (the inerrant truth of the Quran), while simultaneously denying the very words written therein – but only the inconvenient words, remember. The nice worlds can be read as-is.
Whatever this piece says about Christianity, it contains the usual mischaraterisation of ‘angry’ atheism, while it unironically tells us all about the greater angers of the religious.
“For Ryrie, a scholar of the Protestant Reformation, the passion in question has its roots in the protest against the abuses of the church of Rome, of well-padded priests feathering their own nests, of the bullying authority of the Papacy…”
Yes, quite. The ‘angry’ passions of the religionists have always been more ideological, more pathological, more psycopathic than any atheist, simultaneously defrauding the plebs.
Oh, and let’s head this one off at the pass before Giles or some other theist manages to slip some whataboutery through … “But, Stalin!” Not so fast. Yes, Stalin was an angry brutal ideologue. But it was not his atheism that drove the brutality of his ideologically inspire psychopathy.
While Stalin and other communists and fascists had the benefit of 20th century weapons of death, religions have been killing millions with the ultimate deity of doom, the authority of the autocratic arbiter of heaven or the abyss.
Not that the lovely Giles is a religious madman that would go in for the sort of cruelty that has been the mainstay of religious power for millennia. On the contrary, he’s one of my favourite public theists, and can be rational enough, on other topics.
But there are plenty of his coreligionists that are madmen, and religious ideologues can find all the justification they need in their holy books … you know, the holy books that tell of the gruesome demands of a God that doesn’t need to exist, the same God of passions that Giles’s parishioners don’t require.
You don’t find suicide bombers citing the Humanist Manifesto. Angry atheists. Ha!
But Giles’s fake of a fake God is in truth, as Steven Weinberg pointed out …
“The god of traditional Judaism and Christianity and Islam seems to me a terrible character.”
Unless, that is, you cherry pick the relatively sparse interesting and nice stuff, and ignore the vast amounts of hell, damnation and slaughter, and the boringly obvious nice stuff.
Tell me. How, in these horror shows of belief, do the nice believers pull off that particular scam on a scam? Based on what theologically obtuse reasoning do they justify their claims that the nice stuff in these books is the real deal, while the bad stuff is history, metaphor, old hat, from ignorant times, myth, allegory?
The trouble for the nice guys like Giles is that the same game can be played by ISIS: all the grotesque punishment is literally true, and the nice stuff is metaphor for what happens after death, after you’ve met the punishments prescribed in the holy book here on earth.
Both tacks seem equally plausible readings, as does the irrational but obvious requirement that belief in a God that revealed a book requires you accept all his words as-is, contradictory or not.
The consequence of this intellectually conflicted nonsense that is religion is as Weinberg also pointed out in his thoughts on God’s believers, that Giles thinks don’t really require a God to exist …
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
And Giles has the nerve to complain as ‘angry’ any atheists that point this out.
To repeat Giles’s point …
“For the Christian life is as much dependent on arguments about God’s existence as birds are dependent upon ornithology.”
Yes. You don’t need arguments for God’s existence when blind faith and duplicitous rhetoric is quite sufficient for self delusion. You may be fooling yourselves, but you don’t fool us.
To try and pass this whole religion thing off as a benign homeopathic remedy, God diluted so there’s not an atom of him left, yet the water holds his memory, … is a scam. It is put on the shelves of therapy with the real medicines of the sciences of the brain-mind-life; and on the shelves of genuine religious belief in existent fantasy friends. It’s sellers ought to be intellectually prosecuted for fraud.