Riches, Religion, and the New Atheism

 
 

It’s not that in misery and suffering human beings grasp at foolish theories that give them some hope. Rather, amidst prosperity, human beings can blind themselves to the reality of the human condition and so never ask the questions that, once asked, cannot be plausibly answered except in theistic terms.

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Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Dennett argues that the future of religion is bleak. Congregations are losing members at a tremendous rate, and churches everywhere are closing.

There are two reasons for this, Dennett thinks. First, “with hardly any significant exceptions, religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rise,” and the Western world, at least, is enjoying a great run of peace and prosperity. Second, “the rapid growth of mutual knowledge, thanks to the global spread of electronic and digital communication,” means that religious institutions, which in the past have managed “to control what their flocks know about the world,” can no longer do so. A young Mormon in Utah can now share “the ambient knowledge that is shared by the general populace,” including by learning from an episode of South Park that many non-Mormons find his religion “comical, preposterous, ludicrous.”

In other words, religion is basically a set of claims that, if true, would make bearing the hardships of life more palatable, but, as life gets better, there is less and less need for such things. Moreover, religion’s claims are not only false but usually provably false (Dennett mentions a study showing that intercessory prayer is not correlated with better results from heart surgery), and modern social conditions make it impossible for prelates to keep their congregants ignorant.

Dennett doesn’t credit Marx, but this is just Marx’s theory of religion as the opiate of the masses, updated, naturally, to include the internet.

Dennett’s Claims About the Causes of the Decline of Religion Are Untenable

Dennett is obviously correct, of course, that religious belief is declining precipitately in the Western world, but, as a matter of empirical sociology, his account of the causes for this decline seems pretty weak. Religion thrives when people are poor and miserable but goes into decline when living standards rise? Then we should expect China, which since 1980 has experienced the single greatest increase in material well-being in the history of the human race, to be in the vanguard of the atheistic tide. The truth is just the opposite. Christianity is booming in China, even though, incidentally, it’s easier in China to find on the internet (government-sponsored) mockery of religion than any pro-Christian messages.

A Mormon in Utah needs South Park to tell him that many non-Mormons have a low opinion of his religion? Recall that Joseph Smith was persecuted for his beliefs for decades, finally being murdered, and that the United States forced the Mormon church to adjust its teaching on polygamy before permitting Utah to join the Union. It’s not news to Mormons that many other people don’t think highly of their beliefs. On the contrary, it’s an essential part of their religious self-understanding.

In fact, this is true for Christianity generally, whose divine founder was publicly executed in the most shameful manner known to the Roman Empire, whose Emperors then persecuted and martyred Christians for three hundred years, a period during which the church saw immense growth, including during the good economic times of the Pax Romana. At least as regards Christianity, the whole idea that other people don’t think much of one’s religion is pretty much a given. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and an absurdity to Gentiles, and again, If you find that the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you.

I could go on like this, but so could anyone with a decent familiarity with the history of Western civilization. I don’t deny that increasing material well-being is sometimes associated with declining religious belief or that some religions have sometimes relied on keeping pertinent information from their congregants, but the facts obviously do not support Dennett’s generalizations. As Charles Murray shows in his book Coming Apart, even in the United States today, the affluent, highly educated Americans who live in Belmont are more religious and more likely to attend religious services than are the impoverished, poorly educated Americans who live in Fishtown. Religious belief in the United States is undoubtedly in steep decline, but this point from Murray is quite sufficient to blow up Dennett’s account of the causes of that decline.

Still, Dennett is not entirely wrong to focus on material prosperity and systematic ignorance. These are important, I would suggest, not so much in connection with religion but in connection with the secular humanism Dennett favors, though not in ways he seems to appreciate.

Ultimate Questions About the Human Condition

To understand why, it’s useful to begin by recalling why human beings will always be religious animals. Although we are feeble creatures, here today and gone tomorrow, we are also immensely grand beings who can ask about the origins and purpose of the universe, discover the astonishing order of the cosmos expressed in the absolutely invariant laws of physics, marvel at the set of anthropic coincidences required to allow our existence, and then stand in awe of the elegance and beauty of it all.

The shocking incongruity between our physical weakness as mortal human beings and our intellectual reach, which can span the universe and even imagine things beyond the physical universe in eternity, is itself very significant. If we start thinking seriously about such questions, whether in a self-conscious and disciplined way through contemporary cosmology and the philosophy of religion, or just in the commonsense way human beings always have, we tend naturally to come to theistic, religious answers. This is not because we’re deluding ourselves by falling for comforting myths, but because such answers are more plausible than the alternatives. In the contemporary philosophy of religion, the arguments for the existence of God are getting stronger all the time, and Antony Flew, the dean of the philosophical atheists, finally changed his mind and became a deist. The evidence just favors the theistic side of this debate. (For more on this, see J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane’s Atheism and Theism.)

Regardless of the merits of the arguments for the existence of God (though I am convinced that some of them are sound), the more fundamental point is that human beings have an ineliminable impulse to ask ultimate questions about the origin and end of the universe and the purpose and meaning of human life. A human being who never asks these questions in a serious way doesn’t lead a properly human life. He may be a fine accountant or engineer, an excellent attorney or analytic philosopher, and he may even be a good man in sense of being just and kind, but he is fearfully limited as a human being. Although most people lack the time, training, or ability to think through all the arguments about these issues as professional philosophers would, we are all responsible for confronting them and having some views on these matters. It is a moral failing—and a serious one, in my view—for a man to systematically ignore these questions.

Secular Humanism and the New Atheists

Unfortunately, this is pretty much what secular humanism does. I don’t mean the secular humanism of atheistic philosophers of religion; such people engage these questions at a very high level, even if, in my view, they come to mistaken conclusions. I mean the popular secular humanism of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and, yes, Daniel Dennett, notwithstanding the outstanding philosophical acumen he brings to many other issues. How so?

Ironically, but perhaps not accidentally, the New Atheists’ method is pretty much the one that Dennett attributes to traditional religion—a systematic exclusion of the relevant knowledge.

They accomplish this in two ways. First, the New Atheists tend to avoid even mentioning the ultimate questions that lead to theistic answers, probably because they know that the theistic answers to these questions have such powerful intuitive appeal. In particular, they most certainly do not acknowledge the undeniable empirical fact that there is a serious debate, pro and con, among analytic philosophers about the arguments for the existence of God. Doing so would be tantamount to admitting that believing in God is reasonable, and that would undercut the New Atheists’ whole project.

Second, the New Atheists constantly misrepresent the beliefs of their religious opponents, turning them into absurd doctrines so silly that virtually no one could believe them. Dennett’s citing the study that shows that prayer doesn’t produce better results from heart surgery is a good example of this latter technique. In referring to this study, Dennett implies that religious believers think that, when they ask for such things, God will perform miracles to grant them. Without denying the existence of the occasional miracle, no serious Christian thinks that this is how prayer works. Nor, as Dennett might say, is this some recent, face-saving reinterpretation of traditional doctrine. On the contrary, from the beginning, Christians have been told, You ask and receive not, because you ask wrongly, with a view to squandering what you receive on your own pleasures.

As Aquinas says, we pray not to receive what we antecedently happen to want but to bend our desires to receive devoutly what God wishes us to have. At this point, Dennett may say that this makes doctrines about prayer unfalsifiable irrelevancies, but this misses the point. The true doctrine about prayer is part of the larger Christian teaching about conforming our will to the divine will, wherein lies our perfection and the meaning of our lives. In Dennett’s hands, what is part of a deep truth about the meaning and nature of human existence becomes an obviously false belief about surgical success rates. The characteristic tactic of the New Atheism is obscurantism.

The Impact of Material Well-Being

As to material well-being, Dennett is right, in a way, that it undermines religious devotion. The truth is that, in the midst of peace and prosperity, it is easy for us to lose sight of the ultimate questions. This is why It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, and why poverty is one of the Evangelical Counsels. Yet such amnesia about the most important issues in life cannot be permanent. Sooner or later, we all have to face the question of the meaning of our lives, if only because our lives inevitably end in death.

The Psalmist says, No man can buy life without end or avoid coming to the grave. In his riches, man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed. The comparison to beasts is twofold. First, in the midst of material prosperity, human beings can easily blind themselves to essential facts of the human condition that, when confronted, properly set the human mind wondering about ultimate issues. People who blind themselves in this way are thus like irrational beasts, who cannot comprehend such issues. Therefore, it’s not, as Dennett thinks, that in misery and suffering human beings grasp at foolish theories that give them false hope. Rather, amidst prosperity, human beings blind themselves to the reality of the human condition and so never ask the questions that, once asked, cannot be plausibly answered except in theistic terms.

Second, in the midst of material prosperity, it is easy for us to believe that the good life for human beings consists in material well-being. This is what St. Paul calls living according to the flesh, and it is a life appropriate to beasts, not rational beings. In arguing that people buy into silly myths to find comfort among life’s tribulations, Dennett tacitly assumes that, to live a good life, all people should care about is material well-being—which is exactly what religious theists deny. This is another example of Dennett’s obscurantism and, in this case, it is a literally damnable lie.

Robert T. Miller is a professor of law and the F. Arnold Daum Fellow in Corporate Law at the University of Iowa College of Law and a senior scholar at the Classical Liberal Institute at the New York University School of Law.

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