This is just the weirdest thing: Julian Baggini discovers that believers believe. Baggini is an atheist who has in the past sniped at the New Atheists a fair bit; he’s argued that we’re an uninformed bunch who rail against straw man theism, because, he has argued, most practitioners of religion are followers of practice, not belief — they go to church for ritual and community, and all the dogma is dispensable. Now he has surveyed a few hundred believers, and learned that they actually do think the superstitious stories they have been told are very important.
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.
I think I’d call this the Atheist Delusion. Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we’re dead; we struggle to find a rational reason why friends and family are clinging to these bizarre ideas, and we say to ourselves, “oh, all of her friends are at church” or “he uses church to make business contacts” or “it’s a comforting tradition from their childhood”, but no, it’s deeper than that: we have to take them at their word, and recognize that most people who go to church actually do so because they genuinely believe in all that stuff laid out in the Nicene Creed.
It makes the phenomenon of religion even scarier, doesn’t it?
What brought me to this awareness is that the primary angle of conflict in my religious encounters has been creationism: people who believe against all the evidence that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. There is absolutely no practical reason for this; no moral reasoning; no excuse of community; not even an absolute literal requirement in their holy book. You can have a perfectly functional church that worships Jesus and follows all the traditional conventions and yet also accept that geology tells us that the planet is 4.5 billion years old. The praxis requirement simply doesn’t apply. Yet 40% of the people in our country blithely accept a narrow, modern interpretation that imposes a time limit on the age of the creation.
Yet another example was a trivial little incident in which I desecrated a cracker. I knew that people believed, but I expected that the response would be more of a rationalization: I, as an unbeliever, was completely irrelevant to their beliefs, so I anticipated that what would happen is a solid round of excuses in which I’d be belittled, told I just don’t understand the nature of the sacrament, condescendingly explained down to that as a non-Catholic, my actions were petty and unimportant and that I couldn’t really harm Jesus. I got precisely the opposite: a deluge of mail accusing me of doing great harm to God, ruining their religion in a way that demanded retribution, and intensifying their certainty that Jesus was in that communion wafer.
Basically, they did not bow to social realities and adapt to what was a truly trivial event; they doubled down.
I think this is another important element of the New Atheist movement. We take religious people seriously when they tell us what they believe. We don’t indulge in our own rationalizations, trying to second guess what they say and invent a more sensible excuse for their behavior: when someone tells me that they have faith that Jesus’ second coming is nigh, I accept that they’re a deranged and demented fuckwit rather than trying to cobble together a lofty sociological story about individuals fitting into community mores and building rhetorical interfaces to meld with group dynamics. Nope, they really believe in an apocalyptic messiah and are wishing the world would end in a catastrophe before they die.
I don’t believe in fighting against the little social accommodations people necessarily make to get by. I do believe in fighting hard against bad ideas. And that’s a difference between many atheists: do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.