Saving God

Here goes, as promised....some thoughts about Mark Johnston's Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (starting with the first four chapters).

About the "undergraduate atheists"--Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I mentioned the phrase in an earlier post. Yes, as I speculated there, Johnston uses that label primarily because he thinks these guys are attacking undergraduate theism. They haven't bothered to read Spinoza, for example.

Johnston has so much ire that I think it biases him, making him misinterpret what "the new atheists" are up to. For example, he speculates that Dawkins and Hitchens are somehow trying to recreate their halcyon college days, when everyone they knew was an atheist. (Is he serious?) Harris is dismissed as almost literally an undergraduate himself.

My take on it is that "the new atheists" feel like the boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes." They have always privately thought religion was utterly inane. They resent that they've had to keep their thoughts to themselves, and that religion has such power in the modern world. So they've decide it's time to get it all out in the open. Of course, the religion that concerns them is the religion that makes the world go 'round, not the high-brow religion of Princeton philosophers...or Spinoza.

It's ironic that despite Johnston's ire about the new atheists, some of his complaints are the same as theirs. His catologuing of the moral depravities of Yahweh is even more extensive than Dawkins's in The God Delusion. He even quotes Dawkins half-way through: "Yahweh is the most unpleasant character in all fiction." Yet even at this point he finds a way to accuse Dawkins of some mistake or other (I didn't quite follow).

Why is Johnston so mad? I think he perceives Dawkins & Co. as hostile to all of religion. He's certainly right about their tone, even if they manage an occasional careful nanosecond. Johnston has a religious cast of mind, and he's not happy to find it under attack. Even his skewering of Yahweh comes about in a very different way than Dawkins's. Johnston is at pains to show that his dissatisfaction with Yahweh grows out of a basic idea common to all religions--the rejection of idolatry. The moral monster of the bible, with all his grotesque flaws, couldn't possibly be "the highest one." So worshiping him is idolatrous.

The real "highest one" is nothing monstrous, nothing supernatural, nothing incompatible with science, nothing that wants us to reject science...but more on that later.

I'm intrigued by the religious cast of mind that Johnston doesn't want to give up, but wants to give a "proper object of worship." It intrigues me, because I just don't have it. I wonder what it is, and how it's different from the religious cast of mind even Dawkins admits to having when he calls himself a "religious atheist."


Faust said...

"Of course, the religion that concerns them is the religion that makes the world go 'round, not the high-brow religion of Princeton philosophers...or Spinoza."

I think this is just wrong. It's not that they are concerned with "X kind of religion." They repeatedly claim that "Religion is X and ONLY X and COULD NOT BE OTHER than X and people like Einstein who dabble in `sexed up atheism' are guilty of `intellectual high treason'" After all "religion" poisons EVERYTHING.

I would encourage you to go re-read the quotes I posted from Harris on this topic over on that old thread on TP. Or just re-read The End of Faith's section on moderate religion. It's pretty straight forward. If they made a distinction between different kinds of religion and made some kind of wave in the direction of theology (or even anthropology!) they wouldn't get this kickback from theologians. But of course Dawkins wonders if "theology is even a subject at all."

Johnston is irritated (angry?) by this because he thinks there is something called "real religion" and that the enthusiastic atheists help to obscure the possiblity of a better theology...something that might benefit those with a religious instinct but who are unhappy with common religious practice.

He writes:

"There is an important sense in which real religion never comes into view in these three authors. (Did they meet in a back room with the fundamentalists, long ago, to gagree to collaborate in the task of obscuring real religion?)"

Jean Kazez said...

I do think Dawkins, Harris, etc. decide what forms of religiosity to focus on based on "what makes the world go 'round"--they are worried about religion as actually practiced in the real world. They're worried about the religion that makes people attack evolution and tall buildings.

But yes, Harris has that section on moderate religion. His key point about it is that moderates give cover to fundamentalists--they want to protect their religious brethren.

Plus, he does say a bunch of critical stuff about moderate religion itself. Why preserve any of the ideas of these bronze age primitives, he wonders (as Johnston does seem to want to do). So yes, all of religion comes under fire in his book, except for something he calls "spirituality."

Dawkins is similar. Main focus is on "standard religion"--what most people believe. Religion standardly involves supernaturalism, in 99.9% of cases. In the chapter on why he's so hostile to all of religion, even liberal religion, he says it's because the liberals make the world safe for the fundamentalists. They teach children "that unquestioning faith is a virtue."

But what about religion without supernaturalism...is it so bad? He says it is misleading to call it "religion" because it's such a hugely different way of seeing the world. That is not an all an "undergraduate" point!

s. wallerstein said...

I recommend reading Spinoza to everyone, but he is certainly not religious and according to Steven Nadler, perhaps the most important Spinoza scholar around, can be considered an atheist, so he's hardly typical of those who believe in God. Here's a link from Nadler.


Jean Kazez said...

I have the feeling there must be great controversy about whether Spinoza is religious. If I ever read him, then I'll have to read piles of stuff debating what he really said. But I did invest in a Spinoza reader a while back...and (ok, ok) I'll go open it.

s. wallerstein said...

There may be a controversy over whether Spinoza is an atheist or a pantheist, but Spinoza detests religion. The Theological-Political Tract is anti-religious.
According to Spinoza, religion may serve to teach ethical ideas to the ignorant masses, but the free man is a philosopher and philosophy has nothing to do with religion. Spinoza is not so much anti-God as anti-religion. There is no worship of nature in Spinoza either (even if he may technically be a pantheist), but a respect for the rational, logical order of the universe, the respect of a logician for a well-constructed proof. That's why I like Spinoza: I detest religion, but I'm not necessarily anti-God, although I'm an atheist. That's why I don't get along with the Butterflies and Wheels set.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, but Mark Johnston is a clever guy who's also read Spinoza, and he reads him differently.

Maybe I should read himself. If only the book didn't look so long and turgid. I need a cheat-sheet from someone. The 10 pages of Spinoza that must be read. I read Hegel's entire Phenomenology of Mind twice, and I don't want to make that mistake again. Life's too short.

Re B&W gang. They have "animus" toward religion that I just don't feel...at all. Just don't. I am big on that dull, girl-scoutish thing known as "respect."

s. wallerstein said...

The Ethics certainly isn't turgid. Spinoza is minimalistic.
It's more like reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus than reading Hegel. I confess that I've never read Hegel, but I've looked at the text. Yes, I also tend to respect most things that others practice, unless they are clearly monstrous and ordinary everyday religion isn't monstrous.

Faust said...

Yeah it's funny about how Harris admits of "spirituality" but wants to get rid of "religion." He wrote an article called "Killing the Buddha" in which he argues that Buddhism has a great deal to offer, but that people who practice Buddhism betray the philosophical core of Buddhism. A sample of his writing from this piece:

Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.

Vintage Harris. Merely being a self-described "Buddhist" is to be COMPLICIT in the world's violence. Just hillarious. Truly: religion poisons everything.

I do think that when Harris talks about "spirituality" he's probably talking about "mysticism." The Stanford entry has a nice overview:


Now is mysticism "religion" or "spirituality?" Or is it just "mysticism." Or is this senseless quibbling?

My advice to the enthusiastic atheists is to STOP talking about "religion." Lets not worry about whether it's 99.9 percent of "religious people" that believe in "standard" "religion" or if it's 98% or whatever. What percent of people know that science involves a lot of induction? And ALSO deduction? How many people know what induction and deduction ARE? What if 99% of people in the world had a set of practices that they called "science" but it looked a lot like the kind of science produced by the scientists employed by tabacco companies? i.e. that it was mostly confabulation. Should we define "science" by what the majority of people think "science" is? Including people in non-industrialized countries? Without education? I'm not sure we should define concepts by what the majority of people believe. In fact I'm not even sure that when they survey those people in the "enlightened" non-religious scandanavian countries they have purged the evil demons they think they have. They should do some surveys on whether or not people believe in supernatural phenomena and see what they get.

What the enthusiastic atheists SHOULD continue talking about is supernaturalism and dogmatism. Instead of worrying about "religion" attack the two aspects of "religion" that are most troublesome. If there is anything left over then hurray!
And if not then they will have done the very job that they set out to do. Wreck it from the bottom up, not the top down. Harris could have written the very same article about Buddhism that he did and simply said that Buddhism should shed it's supernatural underpinnings (dubious if it actually has supernatural underpinnings and work to reject it's own dogmas. And guess what? Buddhism would survive such a purge. Indeed that is precisely the reason he wants to purge Buddhism of "religion" because it has this capacity to survive such a procedure. In Harris's mind freedom from dogma and supernaturalism are coextensive with freedom from "religion."

Still imagine if in all of these tedious conversations, including the one on the intersection, we SIMPLY stopped using the word "religion" and just attacked "dogmatism" which infects not just "religions" but also ideologies and philosophies, and "supernaturalism." Then we would be attacking the real problems, and we could leave "religion" to the anthropologists and theologians.

I think that such a change would build a broader and more effective coallition against "the forces of darkness."

Faust said...

There may be a controversy over whether Spinoza is an atheist or a pantheist, but Spinoza detests religion. The Theological-Political Tract is anti-religious.

Religion defined how? Kierkegaard wrote a book called "Attack on Christendom" in which he pretty much argues that the chuch of Denmark is worse than having no church at all. In a sense it's very "anti religous." But of course he has a better conception (in his view) of "religion" in mind. I haven't read Spinoza (yet. he's on my very short list) but does he attack "religion in general?" Or does he try to rehabilitate the term? The way he tries to rehabilitate "God?"

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, Faust, that's a good point you make about Scandinavia. I know some people from Sweden, who certainly aren't religious, but have some supernatural beliefs about Chinese medicine and Chinese horoscopes.
As to Spinoza and religion, Spinoza does not have the concept of an essence of religion that Kierkegaard probably has. His criticism of religion is directed towards the religions that he observes around him, but salvation for Spinoza does not come from reforming religion, but from reason, from philosophy.

Faust said...

So he specifically calls his project a philosophical project? A philosophical project that seeks to understand the mind of God as it were?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think their view is that that one thing leads to another. You pay your respects to liberal, rational religion, and the respect trickles down to all of religion. Religion as a whole keeps its high status and unquestionablity. So the bad religions continue to be able to wreak their havoc.

I don't find that reasoning entirely absurd. But maybe if we secretly examine liberal religious ideas (like Johnston's) without letting anyone know we're doing so, we can see if they have any merit without accidentally giving succor to religious fanatics. (But wait...who might be reading this blog?)

s. wallerstein said...

Got to run, but, yes, Faust, you get the idea of Spinoza's project, except that he wouldn't call it the mind of God, but the structure of the universe or of Being, which he calls God, but is not a being, although, as I say, it is Being and has no supernatural properties or at least no properties that Spinoza (remember that he lived in the 17th century) considers supernatural. I will return.

Faust said...

Heheh! Shhh!

In all seriousness though: You don't find it absurd when Harris says calling yourself a Buddhist is to be COMPLICIT in violence? Because I think it is patently absurd. I suppose you could argue he doesn't REALLY mean that. And that their critique is REALLY something else a bit more reasonable...but then why not just use more reasonable rhetoric? Why make such silly statments? I don't think Harris thinks it's silly. I think he's deadly serious. He really does think that caling yourself a buddhist is to be complicit in violence. And I think that's crazy. A lot crazier than "calling yourself a buddhist." In fact I'll go so far as to say that HARRIS is pretty close to being "complicit in violence." (have you read his paragraphs on pacifism?) In any case he's just as "complicit" as all those horrible people who call themselves "buddhists."

Jean Kazez said...

OK, I looked at the quote again. Yes, it's seriously insane. But there's got to be an end to this hush-hush attitude about religion, which says any religious idea gets a free pass, while other ideas can be examined. I do think even liberal religious types do lean toward that sort of hyper-tolerance.

Faust said...

I agree with that. I think this is probably the BEST thing that the so called New Atheist movement has done. Could they have done it without a lot of the bizarre hyperbole that they seem wont to deploy? I think so. But maybe not. Maybe one has to do a great deal of hand waving to move the Overton Window. The writings of the "four horsemen" have served as a foil for a lot of rebuttals and perhaps forced liberal theologians (and others) to be much more explicit about what they are up to. So surely this a good thing as well.

So on balance I think the world is better off for the work of the New Atheists than not, if only because it has stimulated so much conversation, and while some of it has been just blah blah blah contentious sillyness, some of it has been very productive.

On the flip side given the extremity of some the rhetoric deployed (and the over simplicity of some of the arguments made) no one should wonder when people push back.

Tom said...

Not-so-mean Jean wrote:

"But there's got to be an end to this hush-hush attitude about religion, which says any religious idea gets a free pass, while other ideas can be examined. I do think even liberal religious types do lean toward that sort of hyper-tolerance."

Why do you think that, generally speaking, religious ideas get a "free pass"? Do you mean at dinner parties? Then I guess I agree but lots of other things get passes there too. But if you mean in academic settings, then I have to say that that hasn't been my experience. To be clear: I've never felt any personal disrespect from my academic colleagues and would never claim to be persecuted in any way, shape, or form for my religious convictions (damn, guess this means I'm out of the closet on this blog!). But from the time I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I became accustomed to snide remarks and various forms of nastiness from many faculty members in lectures and class discussions regarding religious (particularly Christian) beliefs. To this day, if I'm in a group of philosophers, it is not uncommon for someone to make the assumption that "we all think this religious stuff is nonsense" and to begin saying insulting things that most of them wouldn't say if they had known going in that there was a Christian in their midst.

So I agree that there is a general decency that keeps people from saying what they know to be insulting (whether the topic be religious or not), but I don't agree that, generally speaking, religious convictions get a pass. That hasn't been my experience.

s. wallerstein said...

Tom, Jean and I and Faust have been discussing the new atheism and related topics for a couple of years in the TPM blog, in Butterflies and Wheels, here in Jean's blog and in other online sites. It's really been a discussion among atheists, hard-line ones and softer ones, and I'd really be interested in hearing your views, as a Christian on the new atheism, from a philosophical, sociological or personal point of view.

Jean Kazez said...

I mean they get a free pass in most settings. I see this with my kids. At their school you can be a Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, etc....and it's all just fine. It's completely taboo to look closely at what people belief, let alone challenge it. Yet if some kid comes to school saying that chewing gum causes AIDS, he will be immediately challenged. Anything that comes under the heading of religion gets exempted from scrutiny.

It's different in philosophy, because it's part of our job description to examine religious ideas. So of course they don't get exempted from scrutiny. Yes, I see what you're saying about the way people react to religious folk in a philosophy department. I have observed the exact same thing in most departments I've been affiliated with. No discrimination, but just a bit of puzzlement. FYI--from what I can tell, philosophers find Republicans in their midst much more puzzling.

Tom said...

Thanks for the invitation for discussion, Amos.

My general take on the New Atheism is that it has a lot in common with religious fundamentalism. While the intelletual firepower is clearly greater where the atheists are concerned, I've known some very smart fundamentalists who have pretty much the same attitude it seems to me that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, et.al. have: they can throw a bunch of arguments at you the soundness of which they believe no rational person could deny and they will embrace nearly any argument that has their favored conclusion. In both the case of the fundamentalist and the New Atheist I strongly suspect that there are deep,non-ratioanal motivations that cause them to think and act as they do.

I've more to say but I have to get back to my basil tomato sauce right now. (-:

s. wallerstein said...

Tom: When you finish your tomato sauce (bon appetit), what are those deep irrational motives in your opinion? I don't know any fundamentalists, but from what I can see about the new atheists, they are unclear about the difference between the will to power (Nietzsche's will to power) and the will to truth, that is, they are unconscious of the role of the will to power which underlies their discourse.

s. wallerstein said...

The problem for me is not so much the new atheism as a set of arguments (which isn't all that different from Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian), but the new atheists. I know lots of leftists, some of them fundamentalists in their leftism, and I always say: the best argument against the left are the leftists.

Tom said...

Amos--I don't really have a conjecture about what's going on psychologically with the New Athesists. And I have no good reason to think that there is one underlying psychological cause in all of them. And just to be clear: I take it that the term "New Atheists" designates a certain type rather than a set of individuals. In other words, as I'm using the term at least, an NA is someone who is vehement in his/her atheism and openly hostile to religion. Is that the way y'all are using the term too?

Ironically, I have to leave for church now, so I don't have time to finish the current thought or to address Jean's most recent post; I'm hoping to get back to it later today.

s. wallerstein said...

Tom: I'm not sure if we've ever arrived at an exact definition of what constitutes a new atheist. By new atheist, I in my inexact way refer to the type of person who I run into (or run from) in Butterflies and Wheels. I've never read Harris, but I include Dennett and Dawkins as the same type of person. Hitchens is a bit different, although his discourse is similar, perhaps the difference being that Hitchens is an anarchist or radical by temperment and there's something more playful about Hitchens. As you affirm, the new atheists may not all have the same underlying motivation, but, as you affirmed yesterday, one senses or one has the intuition that there is a deep non-rational core to their dislike of religion and to their hard-line atheism. I often come away from Butterflies and Wheels with the feeling that I've escaped from a lynch mob. What church do you attend?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I think vehemence defines the new atheist, and the conviction that it's important to "spread the word." I don't react the same way as Tom does to some of this genre. I think we react in just the same way to the most openly hostile end. Ugh.

As to the psychology behind the hostility...I suppose it's just "we are so smart, they are so dumb." It's pleasant to have a quick way of ordering the universe that puts you on top. Of course, the religious fundamentalist does that too. It's also fun belonging to a club.

Amos, I doubt Tom has had the pleasure of meeting the B&W crowd. It would be fun to be a true insider over there, because that's such a thriving "community" to use a word Ophelia hates. But I'm not, as my post about Chris Mooney makes plain. The personal attacks on him (and others) over there are way beyond my power to understand.

s. wallerstein said...

Jean: What you say about the smart kids club sums it up very well. As to Mooney himself, I left off following the polemic about a week ago, for my own mental health, but apparently, Mooney is into the joy of bashing, just as are who bash him. As someone in B & W remarked to me when I suggested that they try a little courtesy: "we enjoy bashing and they enjoy bashing, so let us bash". Yes, it would be great, as you say, to be a club member (it's more a club than a community), especially since it is the smart kids club or at least successfully promotes itself as the authentic smart kids club, and I always wanted to belong to the authentic smart kids club.

Jean Kazez said...

I've read the "offending" chapter of Mooney and his blog and a lot of the critical stuff...

(Why am I following this? Well, my kids are home for summer vacation, and I want to start a new book, and somehow things are not coming together at the moment.)

...and I don't buy that Mooney is into the joy of bashing. In the book, he addresses the phenomenon of religion-bashing on science blogs. it's a reality, and there's nothing wrong with discussing it. He actually does so carefully, and with lots of qualifications, and with plenty of explanation of context, and with some kind words for PZ Myers.

The angry response to him has been nothing short of incredible. Mooney is a good journalist, and I very much hope he's keeping a record of the anger and distortions. He could put it all together into a very good story.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I often come away from Butterflies and Wheels with the feeling that I've escaped from a lynch mob."

That's nice.

Ophelia Benson said...

"it is the smart kids club or at least successfully promotes itself as the authentic smart kids club"

That's nice too.

Tom said...


You wrote:

"I mean they get a free pass in most settings. I see this with my kids. At their school you can be a Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, etc....and it's all just fine. It's completely taboo to look closely at what people belief, let alone challenge it. Yet if some kid comes to school saying that chewing gum causes AIDS, he will be immediately challenged. Anything that comes under the heading of religion gets exempted from scrutiny."

I remain curious about the "free pass" issue. What is it you think people should do in religiously diverse circumstances? Challenge each others' beliefs? Ask for reasons and arguments? I'm not trying to be a smart-ass here, but I'm just trying to see what it is you object to--what getting a 'free pass' means.

It seems to me that generally speaking, any topic that people hold dear, that is controversial, and that is often discussed in less-than-civil tones tends to be a topic that is typically given a pass. For example, I learned pretty early on after having kids that topics like breast feeding and the "family bed" were best not broached.

If religion is given a pass that these kinds of issues aren't, then I either still don't understand what you mean or maybe I just disagree.

Tom said...

Amos: I'm a member of a "Presbyterian Church (USA)" congregation (of which my wife is the pastor). The PCUSA is the "big, liberal" denomination of Presbyterianism--and no, we don't buy the whole predestination stuff. At least 95% of us don't.

Jean Kazez said...

Religion seems especially off limits. There were kids in school last year who ran around saying that Obama is a Muslim, while others challenged them. There was controversy, but debate was permitted. By contrast, it's forbidden to discuss religion as school. The kids will definitely not be allowed to talk about God on the school playground, or about religious issues that divide them.

Now that sounds all pretty harmless, but down the line, it winds up giving cover to the entire spectrum of religious ideas, including ideas that are dangerous to have around.

That seems like a problem...but I admit I have no idea what the solution is. It's true that religious disagreements have a special potential to be endless and acrimonious.

s. wallerstein said...

Another thing that's off limits for public discussion is people's sex lives (unless they are public figures), the assumption being that sex and religious belief are private. The problem with religion is when religion enters the public sphere and when public policies are dictated by religious convictions. But the need to keep religion out of the public sphere is very different than the idea that one's privacy, be it about sex or about metaphysical beliefs, is off limits. In fact, it seems to me to be healthy to protect as big a sphere of privacy as possible from the pressures of mass conformity, even if at times mass conformity is correct in its posture. An idea imposed by mass conformity, even if it is true, is different than the same idea reached by an effort of thought.