Don’t attack religion — read a novel?

Richard Dawkins is a sanctimonious Victorian liberal. Daniel Dennett is a chattering nabob. Sam Harris is a vitriolic racist. And Christopher Hitchens? Well, he’s ill, so we’ll just say that he’s a diverting gadfly. (Clockwise, from top left.)

Everybody takes potshots at “The New Atheists,” but most often it’s for their style, not their ideas. An article by essayist and literary critic James Wood in the Guardian (August 26, 2011) is just the latest example.

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity.

Wood’s criticism is echoed by many, including atheist writers like Martin Rees and Michael Ruse, who have been featured in a number of articles here in the past. I have some sympathy for the civility of the  “accommodationist” position they advocate, within the context of firmly rejecting the irrational beliefs they tolerate.

And I admit that at their worst the mentioned atheists are very proficient at narrowing their target before cutting loose. To the extent that it’s true that they see all religion as more of the same, despite my own atheism I have to agree with their critics. The majority of religious people are not fundamentalists, let alone Bible literalists. Some theists are thoughtful and nuanced believers, while the great majority are “instinctively religious,” comfortably believing what they seldom see the need to examine critically.

Wood takes up this theme when he accuses the New Atheists of having “nothing very interesting to say” about how people believe things. We don’t believe in lockstep, nor are our beliefs cast in concrete (some fundamentalists excepted). What we believe — and how we feel about it, which is much the same thing — fluctuates with time and circumstance. Belief is more a fluid state than a set of principles, and Wood thinks that this is the essential characteristic that the New Atheists miss when they highlight a static tenet of faith, then shoot it down. According to Wood, they don’t do the nuances well, if they’re interested in them at all.

Well, that may be, but in their identities as atheists, what more is there to be said than that they decline to believe?

In their other roles, as evolutionary biologists or cognitive scientists or social psychologists or historians or anthropologists, atheists have as much to say as theists do about the modes and practices of belief .

Explaining (or explaining away) belief is immaterial to the specific “role” of the atheist, which is simply to decline to believe.

So far, we’ve seen the essayist Wood — enter the literary critic Wood.

If the New Atheists have little to say about the ins and outs of religious belief, who is in the best position to explore the hows and wherefores of faith?

The novelist, that’s who. At least, that’s Wood’s answer. Where, despite thirty years of teaching literature, I might respond with the kind of list I created above — cognitive scientist, social psychologist, historian, anthropologist — Wood the literary critic and sometime novelist proposes instead that the best insights into the acquisition and practice of religious faith are to be found in fiction.

There’s a juicy opportunity for irony here, and I’m sure that all the atheists in the audience have already arrived there — The best sources for understanding the complexities of religious belief are works of fiction? Well, ok. That’s what I’ve been saying all this time, isn’t it? But let that go.

Wood credits fiction with the ability “to dramatise … how ideas are not just held but actually lived,” and in that he’s quite correct. He is right that there are some kinds of mental experiences  whose representations in our conscious minds are not easy to deconstruct empirically. To a considerable extent, the re-creation of states of mind is what art, including the novel, is “for.”

This doesn’t mean that understanding the mechanisms is unimportant — it’s just different from the experience we feel. The notes on a page are a symphony, and then they’re not, at the same time.

As much as I think that the future of our understanding of ourselves lies in empirical research, and not in fictional re-representations, I agree with Wood that good literature lets us experience virtually the consciousnesses of others. That those others do not in fact exist is irrelevant, for in the real world our apprehension of the consciousness of others is no more immediate and no more genuine than are our experiences of fictional characters.

Indeed, if the research that suggests that we have a “Story Central” somewhere in the left cerebral cortex is accurate, our consciousness of our own cognitive experiences may well be no more “real” than are these fictional apprehensions. There’s a phrase for that idea: “We are our narratives.”

It really doesn’t matter that brain science and literary fiction are so different. The one can tell us how it all works; the other can simulate for us what it feels like when it works.

Both are worthy enterprises, and I suspect that we would be quite impoverished if we ever faced a world in which only one survived.

4 thoughts on “Don’t attack religion — read a novel?

  1. I think this was my favorite post thus far – your own thoughts and ideas seem to come through more clearly… it involves taking a bit of a risk, but I think you are intelligent enough to take it. I wrote my own piece on the so-called ‘New Atheists.’ If you have time, you might check it out here:
    I think we lose something when we take the approach of the New Atheists – I read Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion’ hoping to find some conjecture or discussion about WHY we might be so inclined to fall into disillusionment… what I found was a trite passage less than a page long (in a 400 pg + book) that sounded like it was written by an Evolutionary Psychologist (tells a nice story, but does not explain much). I think part of the problem involves the subject-object perspectives that you are alluding to in your piece. The New Atheists want to look at things ‘objectively,’ but humans also live as subjects and some of our experiences cannot be captured by an objective science since there is no way of getting around our subjectivity. The solution, judging from some of the New Atheists positions, is to simply call many of these unexplainable subjective perspectives illusions (e.g. the new talk about consciousness). In other words – these things don’t exist. I’m not buying it.

    Like you, I am an atheist. But I am more interested in trying to understand WHY we are so prone to falling into belief systems. The New Atheists (by the way, I keep using that term because I think there IS something ‘new’ about them) do not do much for me in that regard.

  2. Thanks, Brad. I highly recommend your article to anyone reading this thread. Here’s the comment I posted there:

    It’s too bad that you don’t seem to have the time to write here more often, for your too few pieces are both erudite and enjoyably literate.

    While I agree that the Horsemen can be tedious, from your posts here and your comments elsewhere I know that I have more tolerance for scientific “reductionism” than you do.

    On one level, the scientific method is little more than reductionism, in the sense that larger observations are explained by/resolved into successively smaller bits.

    However, to explain is not to explain away. The mechanism and the experience are not the same thing. Yet, I see no need for any species of dualism, any kind of spiritualism, or any appeal to an ineffable “humanness” in order to dignify or elevate what we experience.

    I’m quite comfortable with a machine view, and I can almost embrace a zombie hypothesis, so long as we realize that we’re describing physical processes, and not dismissing or diminishing the altogether different — and essentially human — experiences those processes produce.

    To be me is not to be what my brain does — but nothing that’s me depends on anything other than what my brain does.

    As Hamlet said of something else entirely, “This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.”

    All the research I’ve read supports this view, and I think that it’s a mistake either to discount the research to protect the human experience, as some do, or to use the research to eliminate that experience, as the Horsemen do.

  3. The need to solve the problems of living together on a planet with limited resources needs to be informed by good science and guided by perceptive humanity. After his period of indecision Hamlet did have to take action.

  4. By the time Hamlet decided, the initiative was no longer his, was it? Part of his tragedy resides in the wasted insight and personal growth which Hamlet brings to a conflict in which he is doomed — in an unkind assessment, perhaps as much by his own weaknesses as by the evil circumstances in which he is forced to act.

    But that’s a worthy subject for a very long discussion …!

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