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Religion is about literal doctrines after all

So after weeks of heavy breathing, Julian’s Heathen’s Progress arrives at what we already knew – that believers actually do believe the tenets of their religion.

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

Yes…just as the dread “new” atheists have said all along. Believers who don’t really believe are the minority, not the majority.

This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.

Yes…but then that would include Julian himself, for instance in his article in the Norwegian magazine Fritanke (not to be confused with the Swedish publisher Fritanke!) in March 2009:

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.

However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

I think Julian owes “the new atheists” an apology.

He concludes

It seems to me that these results, if truly indicative of what people actually believe, are highly significant for the present debate about religion. The challenge to the likes of Karen Armstrong – which I’d love to hear her response to – is to accept that when they claim religion isn’t really about literal belief, they are advocating a view about how religion ought to be in its best form which just doesn’t describe the reality on the ground. They are defending an ideal of religion, a possibility that is not the normal actuality. (Although I do have a potential response to this they could offer, which I’ll come back to in a future post.) Therefore when responding to atheist criticisms, the accusation cannot be that they misrepresent religion. The best that can be said is that atheists focus too much on religion as it is most usually found and should pay more attention to the better forms. Whether that is a good enough reply is the subject for another argument.

Again, all this is what the gnus have been saying all along – and getting a lot of crap for saying, from Julian among others. Good that he’s finally correcting himself, but it would be better if he actually admitted that that’s what he’s doing.



  1. sailor1031 says

    Why does Julian think this worth reporting as if it were news. We all know people who go to church because they believe just as we know people who don’t go to church because they don’t believe, even if they classify themselves as identifying with some religious denomination. I’m sure Julian knows such people too!

    Definitely in the “dog (not doG) bites man” category. And I thought philosophers are supposed to be smart…….

    BTW anytime you bring Karen Armstrong into it to makea point, you definitely lose the internets. (Guess I lose today now!)

  2. Sastra says

    Whenever I read a defense of religion which brings up the good that religion often fosters I flash an image across my mind of someone defending alt med by pointing out that quacks take a lot of time with their patients, concern themselves with the patient’s life, address diet and exercise, try to find ‘natural’ solutions, and so on and so forth. In both cases I feel like the apologist is missing the point.

    The good parts are not unique, and the unique parts are not good.

    Take the supernatural beliefs out of religion and you don’t have a supernatural-free religion. You’ve got a life philosophy that’s into poetry.

  3. Deepak Shetty says

    They are defending an ideal of religion
    And what a poor ideal it is.
    Even the “ideal” forms that Armstrong and co. champion seem to be so deeply unsatisfying.

  4. says

    Why does Julian think this worth reporting as if it were news. We all know people who go to church because they believe just as we know people who don’t go to church because they don’t believe, even if they classify themselves as identifying with some religious denomination. I’m sure Julian knows such people too!

    To his readers, it probably is news. Also, I’m personally not aware of anyone I know or have known that go to church while not believing, just for all the other nice stuff.

    And yes, Julian NEEDS to cop to changing his mind, and apologize. State it bald, state it plain. Take a page from Greta Christina, who flat out say “I was wrong” or “I’m changing my mind.”

  5. Stevarious says

    Good that he’s finally correcting himself, but it would be better if he actually admitted that that’s what he’s doing.

    Like so many of a certain mindset – it’s not about being right. It’s about not admitting you’re wrong. As long as you never actually admit to having been wrong, you can go forth and insist that your current position is the position you’ve always held, even when it’s diametrically opposed to your recorded position.

  6. kevinj says

    I have been following his series and was somewhat baffled by where he was going since his proposals for compromise came across as being a tad biased to the atheist position, leaving aside the digs at the gnus.
    Nice to see the reason why is he really did take a rosy view of religion.

    Be interesting to see where he goes next.

  7. jamessweet says

    I’ll say what I’ve said elsewhere: I applaud Baggini for doing this. He set out to identify the mythical common ground between faith and science, and yet unlike all of those before him, he did so in a consistently intellectually honest manner. Of course he came up empty (we knew he would), but that does not at all diminish the value in someone having performed the exercise.

    To be clear, this is subtly different from what all us New Atheists have been saying all along: Yes, we have made these very same arguments about the reality of religion as currently practiced, but the difference is that, however we originally arrived at this position, when we try to communicate to others we are coming at it from a position of advocacy. We are trying to show that faith and science are not compatible.

    Baggini, by contrast, set out to show that they are, and in what way. You cannot say he had stacked the deck against finding comity. And yet, because he was honest throughout, he failed to find it anyway.

    That’s a significant result, and although us gnus are understandably grumpy at Baggini for some his past statements, we still ought to be pleased with what he has done here. He bent over backwards to get religious apologists to agree to a version of faith which was compatible with science, and they still refused. That’s different from simply pointing out the ways in which they are incompatible.

    On a side note, it’s telling that Karen Armstrong was about the only theist to agree. I’ve said in the past that if Armstrong would only own up to the fact that her views are more in contradiction with the most common forms of theism than they are with atheism, and make the former her target instead of the latter, she’d basically be right. (I find her apophatic theology to be both pointless and rather silly, but it doesn’t contradict science per se, so… if somebody derives satisfaction from a pointless and silly activity, who am I to stop them?)

  8. says

    True, it is a useful exercise. It was very…interesting to see the “liberal” believers who wouldn’t agree to his four principles. Throughout I’ve been faintly amused at the thought that it’s all a careful trap (perhaps even including the earlier gnu-bashing).

    I would agree about Armstrong except that she also heaps praise on religion as such. If she would also stop doing that, then I wouldn’t mind her apo…

    oh well I probably still would, if I’m honest. I just find her irritating, and I probably still would. That humorless intensity is just not my kind of thing.

  9. Brad says

    The good parts are not unique, and the unique parts are not good.

    I like that, Sastra, it has a nice symmetry.

    Mind if I use it? Did you come up with it, or did you hear it somewhere else?

  10. Stevarious says

    I’ve never seen anything wrong with Armstrong’s scholarship… thought I could be terribly wrong about that as I’ve not investigated enough to feel confiden enough to make that statement without this disclaimer.

    Her conclusions are fairly wacky though.

  11. Allienne Goddard says

    I really am not trying to be a jerk about this, but his research was in no way a generalizable study, so who cares? We now know what people who were willing to respond to his questionnaire were willing to answer. Whoopie-dinkle-doo! He may be right that the way the results were collected would tend to understate the literalism of religious believers, but he has no evidence that this is so.
    I don’t get why people seem to understand that internet polls are bullshit, and yet don’t understand that a self-selecting sample makes the results of a survey non-generalizable. That’s not to say such surveys are always useless; for example, it might be a decent exploratory study to see what kinds of attitudes are out there. It does mean, however, that his findings cannot be generalized to represent the views of the populations he was surveying. Consequently, it doesn’t address his research questions, and therefore is useless to his purpose.

  12. bad Jim says

    Brad, Sastra was rephrasing a famous but apparently apocryphal quote from Samuel Johnson: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

  13. Sastra says

    Brad #9 wrote:

    Did you come up with it, or did you hear it somewhere else?

    It’s a rough paraphrase from a book review by — I thought — Dorothy Parker. Now I see bad Jim suggests it was probably Samuel Johnson. Yeah, I always get those two confused.

  14. jamessweet says

    The good parts are not unique, and the unique parts are not good.

    Thanks for highlighting this quote from Sastra, I had missed it, and I also very much like it. It succinctly states my objections to the phrase “Judeochristian values”.

  15. No Light says

    Not sure where else to park this link, but you might find this interesting:


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