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On what James Wood doesn't know

Truths and falsehoods alike can be both interesting and uninteresting. It is true that I have milk in my fridge, but so what? That spiders kill their male partners during reproduction is much, much more interesting than how much skimmed milk there is in my kitchen, even though both such matters can be turned into simple, literal assertions of fact. The same is true of falsehoods: if some dastardly thief has stolen the milk from the fridge in my house, my previous assertion of there being milk in my fridge is now sadly false. Again, unless it really was a dastardly thief, the lack of milk in my fridge is still rather dull. The same cannot be said for something like homeopathy which is profoundly wrong about the world, but as crazy pseudoscientific medical systems go, quite amusing and interesting.

True doesn’t equal interesting, false doesn’t equal boring. The two are quite separate properties. I point out this profoundly elementary distinction because it is almost guaranteed that when you hear someone write about “New Atheism”, they will conflate these two very different properties. And often enough they’ll throw in niceness: it’s not enough for something to be true, it also has to be interesting and said by a nice person, otherwise the truth of said assertion becomes highly suspect. Again, being nice has nothing to do with being right: to quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski, “You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

It is with that philosophical preamble that we should approach James Wood’s piece in the Guardian. It’s filled with so much egregious erring, I don’t know where to start.

First up, there’s the old Subtleties and Oriental argument:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights.

No, what atheists oppose is theism. It’s there in the name. If you oppose theism, you will end up in by dint of simple deductive reasoning opposing people who hold to theism. If your God is either nonexistent or very hand-wavy, you’ll end up not being the target of atheistic critique in the same way that if you don’t oppose the right to have an abortion, the people who want the right to have an abortion don’t tend to have much of a problem with you.

Yeah, the first problem with atheists apparently is that they are atheists.

Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”).

I’m sure that the same is true of political movements: the reason people become, say, white supremacists, isn’t necessarily because they have a stack of beliefs about the supremacy of white people but because it fills some kind of political niche, gives them a sense of positive self-identity in hating others, whatever.1

But it doesn’t matter. If a belief is wrong, the cause of that belief, or accompanying or directly related psychological states may be interesting but can’t be wheeled out as some kind of response to refutations of those beliefs. I don’t particularly care whether or not prayer is an important unconscious daily practice that forms an important part of your identity, just as I’m not interested in psychoanalysing the white supremacist or the person who posts urban legends on Facebook. The fact that there is non-propositional content to a belief doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the propositional content of the belief, and if it’s false, perhaps do something radical like… not believe it.

Fortunately, Wood seems to realise this:

This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door

Damn straight.

Now watch as Wood does exactly that.

Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.

Why is it the job of philosophers and scientists to give reasons why people believe falsehoods? There are crazy people on the Internet who spend every waking moment trying to teach the world that the Bush administration flew a missile into the Pentagon in order to give them a reason to, uh, invade Iraq and topple a fairly low-rent dictator, and if only the population wakes up and watches Loose Change, they’ll storm the palaces of power and demand an end to the war in Iraq. Now, if you are a structural engineer and you, say, write an article debunking said belief by pointing out fallacious arguments put forward to support that belief, you don’t have to play amateur shrink for Mr Avery and his pals for that critique to be understood as valid. Either it was a plane or it was a missile, either way the psychology of the believer is irrelevant to the factual question at hand.

Sure, the 9/11 Truthers won’t stop being nutcases, and religious people aren’t going to just stop believing in God, but that’s not the responsibility of the person providing a reasoned critique.

If philosophers (and, well, if you are writing about why God doesn’t exist, you are taking on the role of philosopher even if that isn’t what it says on your business card) fail to satisfy your need for psychological explanation, why is that the fault of the philosopher? If you want psychological explanation for religious belief, try a psychologist. There’s this whole field called psychology of religion which inquires into such subjects. Criticising atheists because they aren’t psychologists of religion is an oft-repeated but utterly pointless exercise.

Another analogy: it’s a common trope of discussions on the Internet and elsewhere that one “cannot prove a negative”. It’s bullshit, of course. We prove negatives all the time. If I prove or, let’s slice away that frequently misunderstood word “prove”, show beyond reasonable doubt that there is a cat sitting on my armchair, I have also proven the accompanying negative, namely that the statement “there is not a cat on my armchair” is false. If you can prove a positive, you can prove a negative. If you think that it is a law of logic that you can’t prove a negative, you don’t understand logic. I can show you very easily that if you can prove a positive, you can also prove a negative. It’s true and trivially so. You may reject my demonstration and continue to believe this falsehood, but it’s not my responsibility to show you why you believe that falsehood. And I can’t. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a mindreader, I’m not you, and, frankly, I don’t give a shit. If you want to carry on believing that you can’t prove a negative, all I can do is to sit back and hope you one day have a sudden burst of inspiration and decide to go read a logic textbook and that I never have to be a defendant with you in the jury.

Where does Wood go now?

But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God.

Okay. Yes. People’s beliefs change. Big news. Sometimes they even change their beliefs based on reasoned argument. Hence why it’s kind of a good idea to have reasoned argument even if it turns out to be useless for many.

Wood then goes on to tell of a conversation with some believers. One turns out to not be a believer in heaven and hell:

When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: “It’s exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief.” Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.

Again, logic fail here. God can exist without heaven and hell. That’s fairly obvious. I’m not sure if heaven and hell could exist without God: that’s a bit harder to unpack. But given that I believe in neither of them, it’s not something I worry about too much. Anyway, if heaven and hell depends on the existence of God, then not believing in heaven and hell doesn’t mean that you cannot or should not believe in God. If you’ve got good reason to believe in God and then you find reasons to not believe in heaven and hell, to conclude form that there is no God is a case of denying the antecedent.

The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy.

What he’s comparing New Atheism with isn’t literalism, that’s just shitty logic. There is a difference.

“Parasitically lives off its enemy”? Yeah, so does feminism. If there weren’t any misogyny and discrimination against women and there was complete equality, there would be no need for feminism. Responses to arguments are dependent on those arguments existing. Terming that “parasitism” might be a bit strong. But, again, how is this a big deal? Pointing out the wrongness in religious arguments when there aren’t religious arguments is impossible. But… religious arguments do exist.

Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism.

Err, no, it isn’t. Who says that “combatting” scriptural literalism is the goal of atheism, new or musty? If you spend your time speaking in tongues and rolling around the floor in the name of Jesus, fine. I can’t speak for all atheists, but just for myself, I think that religious beliefs are epistemically unjustified. Is this literalism? What am I being “literal” to? What text exactly? The collected works of Richard Dawkins? No, personally, I prefer something with a bit more philosophical meat like Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. But I’m not going to quote chapter and verse of that because… that’s a bloody stupid thing to do. This “rival literalism” thing is bollocks.

Since militant atheism interprets religious faith, again on the evangelical or Islamist model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why or how people believe the religious narratives they follow, and how often those narratives are invaded by doubt, reversal, interruption and banality.

How does “militant atheism” interpret religious faith? There’s no interpretation about it. I see fellow citizens, some have crazy beliefs, others don’t. I challenge the people with the crazy beliefs and leave the people with the more moderate beliefs alone. No interpretation at all. I fully accept that there are mild religious people, as do Dawkins and the rest of them. If you are opposed to religion, you’ve got to pick your targets, just as you do if you are, say, a feminist. Back in the early days of feminism, getting the right to vote and the right to work is more important than correcting people who say “love”. If you are fighting for gay rights, being able to get married is nice, but it plays second fiddle to not being murdered. To say that atheists in general think that all religion is exemplified by fundamentalist Christians is crazy. I know tons of atheists and none of them think that: with one or two exceptions, we’re pretty much happy to accept that religion is a wide label.

But there’s still a problem here. Yes, I’d rather have more Jainists and Quakers in the world than fundamentalist wackaloons shooting doctors who perform abortions and forcing schools to teach creationism or whatever the stupid shit of the week the crazy lobby are up to. But however nice I think plenty of liberal religious people are,2 I still think they are wrong on this whole God thing.

Wood goes on to criticise Dawkins…

There is a telling moment in The God Delusion when Dawkins speculates on why countless generations of people believed in God. How could belief in an illusion have persisted for so long? Dawkins suggests that we have evolved an HADD, a “hyperactive agent detection device”: “we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent.” His example of this elementary mistake comes from the episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese’s car breaks down. Cleese gets out and starts hitting the car. This is an example of HADD, and by extension, of mankind’s belief in God. Now, do you really think that offering a minute from Fawlty Towers is an adequate analogy for millennia of religious belief? This is not about whether one believes in God or not. One can be an unbeliever and find this a bit feeble.

Wood here is confusing analogy with explanation. The explanation is that humans have evolved to detect agency, and the Fawlty Towers example is just that: an example. Dawkins isn’t saying that religious belief is as trivial as a sitcom, he’s saying you can see this as an example of agency detection in miniature, and things like conspiracy theories and religion are agency detection writ large. It’s a pretty well-selected example.

Confusing analogy with argument and then getting all huffy about the analogy is something I’ve seen countless times before, and I’m bored to tears with it. Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a paper back in 1971 called A Defense of Abortion. Imagine, if you will, a literary critic reading said paper. He’s a bit crap at the whole logic thing, but gets caught up with the analogies, then skips the argumentation between the analogies. He comes away rather frustrated and writes a piece that berates Thomson for “comparing abortion to…” and then lists the various hypothetical scenarios and analogies she used. Now put yourself back in the position of Thomson (or any philosopher, really) and imagine the response on reading said argument.

“Of course,” Thomson would say regretfully, “I wasn’t saying that abortion is exactly like being kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers who use your kidneys to keep a famous violinist alive. And of course I don’t think abortion is exactly like being trapped with a rapidly-growing baby in a house with no windows. And of course getting pregnant is not like having a ‘babyseed’ come and land in your carpet. What kind of looney reads these analogies and fails to understand that they are analogies?”

So it would be for Thomson and so it is for the atheist reading the pontifications of literary types on the writings of the New Atheists.3

Marx said that the study of religion was the most serious project an intellectual could have. If I told you that the history of warfare, say, could be “explained” by some recent discovery of a particular receptor in the brain, that Agincourt and Austerlitz, Antietam and the Ardennes were all essentially the same thing, because produced by a universal delusion, what would I have told you about the nature of warfare, of politics, of statecraft, of the enormous mass mobilisations that Tolstoy characterised as “the swarm-like life of mankind”?

Sigh. Another straw man. How many times do I have to repeat this? It’s not the job of atheists New or Old to explain religion any more than it’s the job of vegetarians and vegans to explain meat-eating. Again, psychologists and sociologists exist. Go ask them. I’m not interested in why religion exists. I’m not uninterested exactly: if we come up with a good explanation that fits all the evidence, it’d be interesting to find out. But it’s not my primary concern.

One good place to study that “swarm-like life”, and to see religious belief seriously represented and seriously examined, is the modern novel – from, say, Melville and Flaubert in the 1850s to the present day. Melville, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Beckett, Camus – and in our own time José Saramago, Marilynne Robinson and JM Coetzee – have all shown sustained interest in questions of belief and unbelief; many of them have struggled with the departure of God.

That presumes that religious belief needs to be “seriously examined”. If the fundamental basis of it is false, why bother with serious examination? Do we need “serious examination” of the Loch Ness Monster? But, you know, I’m not a philistine, I’m not opposed to serious examination of falsehoods. And I’m open to the idea that falsehoods can lead to us learning interesting and useful things about humanity and the world. But, again, there’s the conflation of true with interesting going on here. Religious belief may be interesting, and, sure, Camus and Flaubert and so on: they are interesting. But how does that change the thing that the philosophers care about: is it true?

Is it true? is the question we care about. Things can be true and interesting, true and uninteresting, false and interesting or like Wood’s column, false and uninteresting.

One last thing.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor? This is the guy who gave the world giant robots controlled by selfish genes, ideas spreading as memes, evolution softening away at “mount improbable”, and so on. Dawkins is one of the few scientific writers who turns a bloody good metaphor.

Sigh again.

  1. Cue boring, tired and fallacious moaning about how I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. Yes, I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. I’m not saying that religious people are white supremacists. I’ll compare strawberries to Bill Clinton if you like. Or perhaps I’ll compare the termination of life support for people with persistent vegetative states to flipping a switch in a trolley-cart thought experiment. If you’ve got a problem with people making comparisons, please, go read up on the value of thought experiments. Without being able to make comparisons and distinctions, all intellectual inquiry goes up in a puff of stupid rhetorical pussyfooting.

  2. I’m not joking here. I’m glad that there are religious people who are warm, friendly, congenial, tolerant, gay-affirming and who stand for justice, freedom and human rights. And ceteris paribus, I’d rather there were more Greenbelt and less Bible Belt.

  3. Again, I’m not totally sure what makes the New Atheists different from the old, lower-case atheists or upon what criteria one categorises someone as a New rather than an old. But then I’m not a Wizened Literary Critic, just a guy with a philosophy degree.