Wilkins is not happy that I jumped down Pagels’ throat for a stupid comment in an interview. He thinks I ought to take Pagels more seriously (as did some of the commenters here), and, unfortunately, also goes on to mischaracterize the uppity atheist arguments, like so:
This is what I reject about the Dawkins/Moran/PZ aggressive atheism – it takes the most stupid version of religion, argues against it, and then claims to have given reasons for not being religious. At best (and here I concur) they have given reasons not to be stupid theists. But a good argument takes on the best of the opposing view, not the worst.
Alas, as is common for criticisms of this kind, the “best” of the religious views are mentioned as a mythic monolith on a far-off mountaintop, rather than actually stated, making them rather difficult to take on. I think it’s because whenever anyone tries to state them, there’s usually a lot of hemming and hawing and admissions that they don’t actually believe in these arguments, they’re just trying to be fair and state that there are good arguments out there. It’s basically a bait-and-switch: They say, “I may believe X, but here’s Y; you can’t refute Y!” Then we pound on Y for a while, and they say, “Why are you wasting my time with arguments against Y? I believe in X!” So you pummel X for a bit, and they announce, “I may believe X, but here’s Z; you can’t refute Z!” And so it goes, endlessly. This is the theme I argued in an essay on Edge.
Here’s a little story to help you understand my point of view. Once upon a time, there was an imaginary anthropomorphic supernatural god, and there were all kinds of stories about him or her doing magical things on Earth, and some of those stories were entertaining or even great works of literature. People got cleverer, though, and they built a great high-powered laser (figuratively speaking) out of logic and reason and history and good scholarship, and they trained it on the hairy thunderer and zapped him into a slowly dissipating cloud of attenuated plasma. We uppity atheists don’t get to take credit for that; I’ll freely concede that it was theologians like Pagels who did it first. Good for them.
The weird result, and the problem we’re wrestling with now, is that there were different responses to the Great Zap.
The majority of people on this planet did not notice that a bunch of smart people blasted their god into vapor. He was imaginary to begin with, the demonstration of his logical nonexistence did not represent any change in his behavior, and so they go right on making up self-serving stories about his magical doings (alas, no great literature is emerging from this degenerate belief any more, unless you count the Left Behind books.)
Some people, even people like Pagels who pulled the trigger, liked the long-bearded old white man in the sky, so they keep going through the motions and worshipping him. I really don’t understand this group at all, but I guess in some the force of tradition is strong enough and the willingness to partition off unwanted ideas in the right context is ubiquitous enough that they can keep going. I am not at all sympathetic to the members of this group who want to blindly disavow the existence of group #1; group #2 is the weirdest of the bunch.
Some people look at the great hole punched in their myths with dismay, and find a new excuse: worship the vapor! Yeah, that’s the ticket—god isn’t a man-shaped entity, he’s the Great Cosmic Gas, praise be lines of electromagnetic force and lumps of matter! Of course, we’re working on tuning the laser to zap those, too…
Among those who have noticed the obliteration of the human-like god and are looking around at what’s left, some have noticed the great Logical Laser, and how powerful it must be, so they’ve started worshipping that. These are the humanists, and I do feel some sympathy with them—at least they’ve picked something real and useful, and the laser sure is nifty.
A subset that crosses boundaries, that is, some of whom are religious or humanist or atheist, are noticing all these people after the Great Zap who are casting about looking for something to worship, and are wondering if “worship” is an intrinsic need in humanity. People like Scott Atran are busy looking for cultural and biological substrates that would drive people to believe. That’s not an uninteresting question, I just wish they’d notice the existence of group #6.
A few, the uppity New Atheists of which I am a member, are looking at the old myths, the god-shaped hole, the cosmic forces, the laser of reason, and are saying that what is, is — it’s all very interesting, but we don’t have any reverence in us that is looking for an outlet. We don’t need to displace religious feelings onto anything, because we don’t have them, and the sooner the rest of your clowns get over this cultural inertia that’s bogging you down in unnecessary piety, we can move on to much more interesting subjects. Our job is to puncture those unwarranted feelings of respect that are left over in the debris from the disintegration of God, and maybe help spread the word to group #1.
So sorry, Wilkins, I’m not conceding a thing. Pagels is a smart scholar who is still carrying around some goofy-looking baggage, and you yourself are burdened with a lingering deference for ozone. You’re never going to talk me into sharing that fondness for irrelevant apologetics, and besides, I’m having too much of a good time blowing raspberries at the godly.
Oh, and if you want more, I agree with Rosenhouse. He’s taken care of the details.