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.