Atheism’s “Impoverished Narrative”

The universe’s marvels, which our Holy Books revealed,
Simply cannot hold a candle to the things that stayed concealed
But Holy Men weren’t worried—no, they knew just what to do;
When science showed new wonders, they just said “God did that, too.”

My aggregator threw me a strange one today–“Atheism and girl guides“, a post mostly grousing about the changes in the Girl Guides’ oath, removing the religious language to make it more inclusive. And an early paragraph sums it up nicely:

At one level, the atheist reworking of the Girl Guide oath to drop mention of God makes absolute sense: if you have disparate groups, you try to find a common level on which they can all agree. In the past, Catholics, Muslims, Jews etc managed to meet on a non-denominational theism. Now, theists and atheists meet on a programme of shared morals. It’s about compromise and agreeing on what we share rather than what divides us.

Although it is not an atheist reworking, but a secular reworking. As the author says, this is common ground, not exclusion of believers.

And then…

For a Christian, however, what you have is a serious impoverishment of a culture. Particularly in an organization which is devoted to the character formation of the young, that formation essentially consists in getting young people to see the difference between what they think or feel, and what is actually the case; what they want to do, and what they should do. There are (at least) two elements to this: a cognitive element based on understanding the world in a certain way; and a narrative element which provides us with a network of stories and heroes that provide analogies for our own behaviour. So, eg, a Christian formation will regard the world as meaningful and directed by the will of God, and will refer to (eg) the Bible as a stock of narrative on which we can draw.

From a Christian perspective, the more attenuated the stock from which the formation is drawn, the worse that formation. At best, the formation of character is weakened. At worst, it is actually poisoned by a pernicious alternative: to replace, “love my God” with “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is to replace an objective source of values with feeling.

*sigh* Yes, god’s values are objective. That’s why there are so many different versions of them, and why god always seems to agree with the person quoting him.

In the end, this is not just about atheism vs theism, but an impoverished narrative vs a rich one, and relativism vs objectivity. A lot of modern atheism is simply dumb: it’s the sort of thing 18 year old computer geeks would come up with. Christianity is being dumped, but instead of being replaced by a rich humanism soaked in the classicism and literature of the past, it is being replaced by a void. The better sort of atheist realize that but most don’t and even fewer have any sort of viable proposals to fill that void.

Impoverished vs rich is all? The Greek and Norse mythologies are incredibly rich–I loved reading those as a child, and studying them up through college (and one of my favorite books is the Mythological Atlas of Greece, which locates the physical areas that gave rise to various myths. It’s not just that the gods existed, but here, specifically, is where they did this or that. Frankly, the rich narrative was lost when the girl guides decided on “god” rather than “the gods”. And as for the void that god fills and atheism can’t? Please, take a look at how much of “creation” is in the bible. When the bible was written, our understanding of the universe was tiny. The notion of a galaxy, let alone of a universe full of countless galaxies, was unimaginable. Mind you, a god giving revealed truth to his chosen representatives could have mentioned something about it (along with suggesting that people wash their hands regularly), but it wasn’t until humans discovered it that suddenly it was part of God’s Great Universe, and evidence of How Much He Loves Us. (This bit was the inspiration for the opening verse, btw.)

From a Catholic point of view, there is simply nothing that will work in the long run beyond a true religious formation. I don’t expect atheists to agree, but I do expect them to start provide suggestions which go beyond simply using the delete key or suggesting that four year olds study Darwin.

Nice. As wonderful as Darwin’s view of life is (and it is far richer than the tapestry you claim the bible and religion in general present), it is a tiny fragment of the astonishing world we know now that we did not know when the universal and objective truths of religion were revealed. We can and do apply science to all of the questions that religion pretends to give answers for. We know more about human nature, we know more about our environment, we know more about our universe… Go to any modern college or university library, or major public library, and separate out the information therein into to piles–what religion has taught us, and what we learned apart from religion.

Then tell me which world view is impoverished.


  1. Randomfactor says

    All the stars mentioned in the bible are our nearby neighbors. Religion ought not to be able to claim credit for anything observed through a telescope…or a microscope, for that matter.

  2. Becca Stareyes says

    Given that most four year olds I’ve met love dinosaurs, they would probably think an age-appropriate version of evolution would be So Cool. Actually, come to think about it, the average four year old I’ve met is usually really interested in one or more parts of the universe — dinosaurs/other extinct animals, vehicles, outer space, the ocean, modern animals of various sorts, costuming/clothing… at that age, the world is a rich and amazing place anyway, because so much of it is new to them.

  3. says

    We don’t crap in someone’s cereal bowl and call it Grape-Nuts…and for this we’re “impoverishing” people?

  4. says

    Thanks for the publicity, Cuttlefish!

    I suppose I should ‘fess up at getting some little digs in at (some varieties) of atheism. Mea culpa. But there was actually a serious question there which atheists do need to think about more carefully. At the moment, we start (certainly in the UK) with institutions created within a fairly clearcut form of Protestant Christianity. At the moment, the reaction to a decline in religious belief are increasing campaigns to dilute or remove religious content. But even from an atheist point of view, I’m not sure that dilution is a good idea: are we going to end up simply with the lowest common denominator?

    So it was a genuine question: if you were going to mount an atheist takeover of Christian institutional forms, don’t you think it would be better to argue for a substantive atheist content rather than simply a dilution of existing Christian content? (To take your own example, should you be arguing for an introduction of Norse mythology into the Girl Guide movement?)

  5. Matt G says

    The ol’ “it’s a better story” argument? Well, I guess if you can’t win the “it’s true” argument there’s not much else to do. As Dawkins says in The Magic of Reality, our story is wonderful, in part, because it IS true.

  6. Cuttlefish says

    I actually have no problem at all with removing the mythology from secular activities; there is plenty of space in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, religious schools, and more, without the need for incursion into the public sphere. I have no worries that the dozens of churches in a ten mile radius of me will dry up and blow away if the scouts who meet at the library don’t also talk about a god.

    My parents ran a boys’ camp, unaffiliated with any national organization. There was archery, riflery, arts & crafts, singing, storytelling, skits, nature lessons day and night, plant and animal identification, canoeing, sailing, swimming, photography, and much more. Which of those would I replace with mythology? None of it. It could fit in with storytelling, but any stories would have to earn their way in, and there just isn’t a lot of Christian mythology that can compare to, say, my side of the mountain. If I want old fashioned writing, I’ll choose Shakespeare over King James every time.

    You cite deBotton as a “better type of atheist”; I’ve written about his ideas here, too–it will not surprise you that I disagree with him. Take gathering together on Sundays (or Saturdays, or Tuesdays, for that matter); I love the idea of a shared community that cares for one another, shares values, and enjoys one another’s company. I think the fan organizations of sports clubs do a fantastic job of that (in some cases; certainly not all), without any need for the intrusion of religion into this part of the public sphere. What would I remove from those gatherings to replace with religion? Nothing.

    You seem to take for granted the privileged perch that religion enjoys; you see its removal as “something missing”. To me, though, it is a foreign body; if it is removed, there is no reason to replace it with anything.

  7. Pliny the in Between says

    In the modern and much more varied market place of ideas, what amystics such as myself are fighting for, is a world where children are not indoctrinated into an a priori acceptance of religious doctrines before they have time to develop any kind of critical thinking skills. Constant exposure to concepts that are taught to be accepted as given, creates patterns of thinking that may be difficult to shed in later life if one is so inclined. Religion in historical context has become something from which one has to disassociate, rather than an option freely chosen by a thinking and mature being. In other words, religion should be something requiring one to opt in rather than opt out as it is now.

  8. Lothar Lorraine says

    There is an important question which needs to be asked here.

    How many percent of reality do you know?

    How many percent of all the parallel universes?

    How can you consider it unlikely that there might exist entities somewhere else who are so wonderful and powerful that they cannot be comprehended by a human mind?

    I’ve never read or heard convincing answers from self-proclaimed Skeptics.

    Kind regards from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  9. Cuttlefish says

    As soon as we see evidence of some, we are prepared to acknowledge their existence. In the meanwhile, in the percentage of reality that we do know, how much of that has evidence of such entities?

    It’s purely a pragmatic stance; follow the available evidence. Don’t waste time believing in, or denying, the trillions of things that might exist but for which we currently have no evidence.

    Remember that a lack of belief (like atheism) is not at all the same thing as an active denial. If you show me evidence of the sort of thing you write about here, and I look at that evidence and deny its existence (think “creationist museum”), then I am being closed-minded.

  10. No One says

    How can you consider it unlikely that there might exist entities somewhere else who are so wonderful and powerful that they cannot be comprehended by a human mind?

    And why would they automatically be “wonderful” ? They could be, by our standards mind you, apathetic to us, or complete and utter bastards. You don’t know. After-all “they cannot be comprehended by a human mind” including yours.

  11. says

    “God’s values are objective” is malarkey. How do people who say this explain slavery?

    One explanation I’ve heard on the slavery issue was that slavery back then wasn’t as harsh as we’ve come to know it. But this argument collapses when you find in Exodus how it’s not ok to beat your slave till he dies, but if you beat your slave and he is able to get up within 2 days, that’s just fine. Because the slave is your property.

  12. says

    @ cuttlefish 8

    Thanks for the response.

    You talk about religion being the foreign body: if it is removed, there is no reason to replace it with anything. The problem with that -certainly in Western Europe- is that the institutions of the state and of civil society have been formed within 1500 years of a Christian culture. Remove the bits of Christian culture -the symbols, the songs, the oaths, the stories- and you may not have much of an institution left.

    Perhaps a way of approaching this is through the concept of a civil religion. Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Hobbes proposed state religions as a way of ‘gluing’ society together. Even if religions such as Christianity are false, they did act as a social glue.

    So if the glue is dissolved, what’s going to replace it? You say ‘nothing’. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s viable. You make two specific points:

    a) “there is plenty of space in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, religious schools, and more, without the need for incursion into the public sphere. I have no worries that the dozens of churches in a ten mile radius of me will dry up and blow away if the scouts who meet at the library don’t also talk about a god.”

    The problem with that is that it suggests to me you envisage atheism as being parasitic on the social glue still provided within civil society by religion. Now, I don’t think you really mean that -and, in any case, with the drop in Church going in Western Europe, it won’t really work here even if it would in a North American context. I suppose in the end I think you ought to be raising your sights: IF you could envisage a society where sky fairy worshippers like me no longer ran around creating the religious institutions of civil society, what would provide the social glue?

    b) ‘I think the fan organizations of sports clubs do a fantastic job of that’

    The problem I see with this response is fan clubs aren’t really analogous to (say) the Girl Guides. Fan Clubs are essentially voluntary organizations with the function of enjoyment; the Girl Guides and the Scouting movement generally were set up deliberately to form character and to build and support communities (including the nation state). Both the form of Scouting (‘duty to God’ and the substantive content of its character building betray its Christian origins). My worry would be: take out the Christianity and you have something that is incoherent -not because an atheist morality is necessarily incoherent, but because, rather like a game of jenga, you have taken out a key block in the actual pattern that has been formed as a result of Christianity.

    As I said, my own solution would of course be not to remove the Christianity! But putting that aside as a solution that is unlikely to find much favour here, I think you are left either with the hope that simply subtracting overt Christianity leaves something that still coherently functions as a form of social glue and as character formation (which I take it is your favoured path); or you start to advocate not just subtraction of religion, but its replacement by a positive, atheism-compatible culture (which I take it is de Botton’s path).

    Anyway, I’ve abused your hospitality enough! Live long and prosper!!

  13. Cuttlefish says

    cumlazaro, we see the world very differently.

    Your “1500 years of Christian culture” is as distorted as it is privileged. There has not been a unified Christian culture, but a fractured conglomeration of sects each laying claim to the mantle of Christianity–gladly including other groups when you need to point to numbers, but separate and distinct when it comes to what your true and objective values are. Imposing one view feels like the glue of civilization to those who are members of the ingroup; if you are a member of a different religion, or none, then the parasitic group is not the one you have claimed–rather, like toxoplasma gondii, the parasite has taken over the brain of the greater culture, and is making it behave not for the good of culture but for the good of religion. I absolutely reject the concept that religion is the glue of culture; cultural institutions exist both with and without religion, and it is every bit as reasonable to say that a culture thrives in spite of religion as because of it. Religious institutions are not the social glue of society; they serve their own interests, which sometimes coincide with society’s.

    For b, I can assure you that you are quite wrong. My parents’ camp built character and socialized kids, and it did so without religion at all, let alone Christianity in particular (did you note how your argument slid from the cultural glue of religion to the key block of Christianity? This is what I mean about including and excluding other faiths as your argument needs). I have seen sports fan clubs hold blood drives, food drives, vaccination drives, charity events for individuals and communities… helping one another is what we do, and it is important enough that we invented institutions to make it easier. Religions are not the cause of our civility, they are but one effect of it.

    de Botton wants to pick and choose from religion, which is fine for him. I personally think other institutions have already covered those things. It is not “what do religions do that we need to imitate?”, but “what do people need that we need to provide?” that is the question. Schools, clubs, music, sport, science, art, community… food, shelter, comfort, protection… there is nothing religion gives us that cannot be had without it.

  14. Pliny the in Between says

    What many Christians are saying in essence is, “without immersive brainwashing from birth, how ever shall we control the masses?”

  15. steffp says

    @ Anna Harrison #17
    I second that. But I’d insist to include the “Culture”novels of Iain M. Banks…


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