Baby Bear’s lament: James Wood in the New Yorker

I must admit that I quite like the subtitle for this new anti-atheist lament in the New Yorker by James Wood: “A don defends the Supreme Being from the new atheists.” I just picture a gigantic graying gentleman in academic robes, his sleeves flapping as he swats aside the helicopter gunships piloted by Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Hitchens as they swoop in to take out a cowering, defenseless, and semi-transparent Bronze Age patriarch behind him. It’s a peculiar arrogance of the true believers that at the same time they fervently follow this imaginary being that they claim is omnipotent and manifest in everything around us, they also flop into paroxysms of flustered, frantic defensive denial when some guy merely criticizes their holy hero. That’s it; we say, “we don’t believe in your deity, can you give us a reason we should?” and they immediately start blustering about how we should believe, and it’s good for us, and all these other smart people believed, and atheists are unlettered nuisances who should quit annoying us with these questions. But they never, ever give us any evidence or any reason.

Unfortunately and typically, Wood’s essay plummets into that tawdry and familiar territory immediately after the subtitle…a subtitle which was probably written by an editor anyway. And yes, it is the same old stuff, with the only novelty being that Wood also waves away all the theologians peddling an abstract immaterial rarefied deity — he wants a good old fleshily incarnated, interventionist and activist god who did not impregnate Mary with “aristocratic philosophical vapor”, but presumably got busy with a Lordly wang (details not to be discussed, because Harvard Professors of Literary Criticism are apparently discreet about matters of meat and biology). It makes for an awkward mix, because while he begins by taking trite swipes at atheists, he’s actually trying to criticize Terry Eagleton’s views on religion; Eagleton also detests atheists, but is one of those religious apologists to whom god is an ideal, but not necessarily one that has to have any kind of empirical reality.

This situation puts Wood into a dilemma. He’s writing a review that pans Eagleton’s book; he really doesn’t like his theology, or his Marxist phantasm of a god. But Eagleton is a loud critic of the New Atheists, and that’s a central point of his book, and Wood despises them, too! How to make sure no one confuses him for a supporter of those awful god-haters? Easy enough: begin with a long rant condemning atheists. And so he does.

Unfortunately, he chooses to argue against those familiar straw man atheists, damning them for an ironic reason: because they criticize a literal god, the familiar Abrahamic thunderer, and do not engage the more refined philosophers and theologians. It’s a bad move, because first of all, the New Atheists are not so narrow as he imagines, putting this whole diatribe off kilter, and secondly, because he is then going to harangue Eagleton for being too refined. Apparently, religion to Wood is like the story of the three bears: Papa Bear’s religion is too hard and fundamentalist, Mama Bear’s is too gooey and nebulous, but Baby Bear’s religion is juuuuuust right. And no one ever criticizes Baby Bear.

I will skip over the whole anti-atheist prelude — it’s just too trite, and his only arguments are a) that smart philosophers have believed in God, and b) God inspired J.S. Bach, therefore, atheists must be wrong. His criticism of Eagleton is a little more interesting, because I made the same damned argument myself. In fact, a lot of atheists have said this, that one of the reasons to disbelieve in specific religious sects is that they are indefensible, and their proponents always retreat into a brand of mushy deism when questioned. This, of course, is another reason to dismiss the first third of Wood’s essay, since he is merely claiming that atheists never make the argument against rarefied religion that he will, when we know full well that we’ve sneered at it routinely and with vigor on many occasions before Wood discovered it.

For example, he gives a brief account of John Rawls’ loss of faith, which was a mixture of dismay at religious hypocrisy, personal loss, and the observation of real evil in the world. Wood seems to respect this, because it is a rejection based on certain specific expectations of a deity. Eagleton, however, is wrong because his expectations are non-existent or nebulous.

This familiar recoil from belief—it has the typicality of a case study—is surely as propositional as it is performative. Daily religious belief is full of such implied propositions (e.g. “God is just”; “God saves my soul”; “Christ was a God made man”). It is no good for Eagleton to turn on Rawls and say, in effect, “But I don’t mean your kind of belief in God or even your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal. There is really no such thing as what you call ‘the supremacy of the divine will,’ because God doesn’t ‘exist’ as an entity in the real world.” Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.…They denigrate ordinary belief as a set of benighted misconceptions, while, out of the other side of their mouth, they can praise ordinary belief as a set of non-propositional practices. (“It’s not about the proposition that the resurrection happened so much as about doing good, preparing the flowers at church, kissing icons, and so on.”) Sure enough, Eagleton engages in this dialectical chicanery, too. He can do so because Christ’s divinity seems to have no palpable value for him.

He goes on to complain that both Eagleton and the New Atheists have completely missed the boat on real religion, the moderate religion practiced by most people, which is neither fire and brimstone fundamentalism nor the ghostly shell of a religious pretense practiced by over-educated philosophers. He describes it nicely and positively (to his mind) as the “idolatrous forcing and appropriating of God, the desperate and faithful submission to divine will and succor.” While Eagleton does seem to gloss over that, it’s silly to accuse the New Atheists of ignoring it: we consider that to be a rank load of steaming goat offal, too. Just to say that there’s a kind of general religious belief that is more literal and more anthropomorphic than an over-intellectualized deism does not mean that that kind of god is real. If Wood wants us to take him seriously (I doubt that he does), he has to present some substantial evidence for the existence of his real and immediate god than to just declare that he has a lot of worshippers.

I mentioned that he seems to be more appreciative of the god-loss of John Rawls. He returns to this wishful idea of an atheist he might like in his conclusion.

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother’s account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect—alas.

Awww. The only good atheist would be one who is sad that there is no god, and is willing to be James Wood’s ally and help beat up on those fundies and weird Oxford abstract theologians.

Baby Bear needs a friend.

I’m so sorry, Baby Bear. All we’ve got here are hordes of triumphal atheists who think the whole enterprise of religion is hairy effin’ bollocks, and we aren’t at all sad about our loss of faith, a loss that we’ve found liberating and joyous. The Goldilocks of the 21st century are going to eat all your porridge, romp on your furniture, and turn all three of you out of the house to live in a nice wildlife preserve, where you belong. Won’t that be lovely? Try not to eat each other, but don’t expect the humans to think you are members of modern civilization.