In the bowels of an ugly review of AC Grayling’s latest book, Jonathan Rée makes a familiar accusation against ‘militant’ atheism (just the use of his modifier is a grand tell, isn’t it?). It’s that atheists are fundamentalists who see all of religion as fundamentalist, in a classic act of projection.
Militant atheism makes the strangest bedfellows. Grayling sees himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, but in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals. He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes. Resistance is, of course, futile. If you suggest that his vaunted “clarifications” annihilate the poetry of religious experience or the nuance of theological reflection, he will mark you down for obstructive irrationalism. He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and his training tells him that what cannot be translated into plain words is nothing but sophistry and illusion.
Aside from being a thoroughly tin-eared statement of Grayling’s position — the man loves the metaphors and poetry himself — it’s completely wrong about us atheists in general. We certainly do see the differences between the varied approaches to religion, and we certainly do not confuse them or misapply criticisms valid against one branch to a branch to which they are irrelevant. I think he’s gotten confused because of all the varieties of religious thought, we despise them all…but I assure you, we despise each one uniquely for its own treasured inanities.
Part of the problem, of course, is of the believers’ own making. We use this word ‘religion’ to apply to so many different kinds of beliefs, and they love it that way: it makes the confusion universal, and creates a great blinking billowing smoke screen of noise and lights and chaos under which nonsense can thrive.
But let me take a moment to cut through the ambiguities in one way and propose one simple distinction that might help resolve these uncertainties about what atheists are criticizing. I propose that there are two very broad categories of popular theologies. I am not claiming that these categories are complete or perfect or absolute, just that you can go a long way towards recognizing the kinds of arguments your opponent is making if you identify which way they are thinking, and that you can at least make it clear to the other that you aren’t trying to accuse a Baptist of being an Anglican, or vice versa.
My two categories are crunchy theology and squishy theology.
Crunchy theology is rigid, absolute, inflexible, and clear cut. Crunchy theology proponents like to tell you exactly how the universe works: you will go to hell for abortion, masturbation, gay sex, and believing in evolution. They have a definitive dogma that changes every few decades, but even so, when they adopt a set of propositions, they will tell you that it has always been this way since the first century AD. A crunchy religious person votes Republican because that’s what Jesus would do.
Famous crunchy religious people: most of them, but they include people like Albert Mohler, Ken Ham, Shmuley Boteach, Ayatollah Hassan Sanei. I say “most” of the famous ones, because crunchy theologians are the ones who shout out their theology the loudest, and are the quickest to define themselves by their faith.
We atheists despise them because they are wrong. They will happily assert the most errant nonsense in defiance of all reason and evidence simply because it must be true, or the whole house of cards that constitutes their dogma will fall apart. The book of Genesis must be literally true, because if there were no Adam and Eve and no fall, then Jesus’ sacrifice would be meaningless.
Squishy theology is evasive, ambiguous (and reveling in it!), and well-meaning but dishonest. They are confident that people are good and that the universe is loving and beautiful, and that religion’s role is to provide a framework for gentle moral guidance and an appreciation of God’s creation. Squishy priests are like the docents at an art museum; they want you to really, really love everything, and for the right reasons. They’re offended if you don’t love God and Jesus because…because…because you’re supposed to, and Jesus loves you, so how can you be so mean and deny him? But you can love him in your own way, of course.
Famous squishy religious people are Karen Armstrong, Norman Vincent Peale, the Dalai Lama (sometimes, at least publicly), the religion columnists at the Huffington Post. Also, probably, most of the ordinary believers you know.
We New Atheists detest them because they’re dishonest pollyannas. They’ll skirt around conflicts between their beliefs and reality, preferring to divert the argument into a pursuit of red herrings (for example, accusing atheists of treating Karen Armstrong as synonymous with Terry Jones, rather than facing the vacuity of Armstrong’s beliefs). Look, most of the Western ones are Christian — they’re asking us to believe in the divinity of an ancient Jewish carpenter. But can they come right out and admit that? No. We point out that what they’re asking us to accept as reasonable doctrine is fundamentally absurd and silly, and they defend themselves by accusing us of denying poetry and metaphor and art (see: Rée, Jonathan). They love to call themselves “spiritual” (an undefinable, meaningless term) and claim atheists are missing out on feelings of awe and belonging.
Squishy theology even has some appeal to some atheists, like Jonathan Rée, who hold vaguely charitable feelings towards the ol’ church, because their wonderfully dodgy approach to the truth allows such atheists to avoid confronting any incompatibility between belief and actuality. It’s a fine refuge for people who don’t want to think too hard about what faith actually says.
So really, Jonathan Rée, I know the difference. I think you’re a foolish apologist for bogosity because you’re a coward who hides behind magical metaphors (to which I always ask, “metaphor for what?”), not because you believe Abraham had a strong position on the age of the universe. I will happily tailor my arguments against religion to be appropriate to your goofy beliefs in the beneficence of lies.
For instance, your blatant denial of valid knowledge…
The distinction between believers and unbelievers may be far less important than Grayling and the New Atheists like to think. At any rate it cuts right across the rather interesting difference between the grim absolutists, such as Grayling and the religious fundamentalists,
Wait, wait…I have to stop him there. Has Rée even read Grayling’s books, or met the fellow? Grayling is a soft-spoken, friendly gentleman who is happy to discuss nuance — he’s a freakin’ philosopher. “Grim absolutist” is about the most absolutely wrong-headed description of Grayling I’ve ever read.
OK, carry on.
who think that knowledge must involve perfect communion with literal truth, and the sceptical ironists – both believers and unbelievers – who observe with a shrug that we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve. When we die our heads will still be filled with a few stupid certitudes mixed in with some more or less good ideas, and we are never going to know which are which. There is no certainty, we might say: so stop worrying about it.
That we lack absolute certainty — a position that those scientific-minded New Atheists happily endorse — does not imply an absence of probablies. We can examine the evidence of reality and see that no, the universe almost certainly doesn’t love us; no, there is almost certainly no life after death; no, your favorite Jewish laborer or Arab merchant almost certainly wasn’t a prophet with divine favor, because there is no reasonable evidence for any of those claims. And further, the people who argue otherwise do not have any special access to evidence, no particular authority on supernatural matters, and are completely unable to provide replicable, confirmable support for their claims.
So I would agree that both atheists and theists (squishy and crunchy!) will die believing in things that are wrong. But that does not mean that we can’t discern in this life what things are almost certainly false.