Another look at atheism and accommodation

There are “accommodationists,” and there are “New Atheists,” and one of their favourite pastimes is to take erudite potshots at each other. Terms like “fascist” and “quisling” fly from one armed camp to the other.

Every once in a while, someone attempts a more layered and, inevitably, more measured approach. These rare essays usually prove to be both thought-provoking and refreshing.

Such is the case with British philosopher and writer Jonathan Reé’s article “The Varieties of Irreligious Experience,” published in the latest issue of New Humanist.

Reé, a self-proclaimed non-believer, argues that just as there is no one form of religion, there are many varieties of irreligion. That is, there are more kinds of religion than the fundamentalist, Bible literalist variety which is the usual target of the New Atheists. And there are more kinds of non-belief than all-out scorn and dismissal.

In his view, the New Atheists too often underestimate the depth and subtlety of the religious experience and demonstrate the limitations of their own thinking:

Some of us however – including many who regard ourselves as non-believers – suspect that the new new atheism forces the pace, distorts the issues, and underestimates the intelligence of its enemies.

Reé points out that atheism has meant many things in many contexts over many centuries. Moses was an atheist with regard to the polytheism of his time. Spinoza was a non-believer of churches, but not of religious feeling. Shelley, in his own assessment, was more of a deist than a “hard” atheist. And so it goes, through Comte and Nietzsche to today, with no single catechismic doctrine with which to bind together all those who have added “a-” to one or another kind of theism.

To any “New Atheist” who would reply that atheism means rejecting religion in all of its manifestations, that, in effect, the example thinkers were not “really atheists,” Reé replies:

If the older versions of atheism – from Moses and Socrates to Shelley and Nietzsche – were less straightforward than they might have been, the reason may be the complexity of religious phenomena rather than the obtuseness of those who sought to describe them.

In making this point Reé makes it clear that he does not at all equate religion with churches and dogma:

The difficulty is that people may commit themselves to a religion without buying into any particular theory as to what does or does not exist: they are simply throwing in their lot with some historic community, identified not by doctrines but by rituals, stories and a shared sense of the sacred. Religion as it enters the lives of many believers will not be damaged by a demonstration that it is not much good as science.

True to his article’s title, Reé backs his viewpoint with frequent reference to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. He notes that James scorned the idea that religion is nothing more than “a childish superstition which we will all put behind us once we reach the age of reason.”

Reé, like James, downplays the role of doctrine in the typical religious experience. He suggests that thoughtless, doctrinal atheism is no better than — and little different from — thoughtless, doctrinal theism. In the same vein, he writes, “Not all believers are gullible fools, and intelligent religiosity might have more in common with intelligent infidelity than with ignorant faith.”

Indeed, says Reé, “Philosophical theologians who tried to ‘construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason’ were missing the point, and chest-thumping atheists who tried to refute these intellectual constructions only compounded the error.”

Reé does pull back a bit from James’s extremely broad definition of religion, which would see almost any moment of quiet thought or tender feeling as a “religious experience.” In so broad a definition, Reé complains, “If those of us who think of ourselves as atheists, rationalists, humanists or secularists are to be classified as religious in spite of ourselves –- believers, perhaps, but in a post-theistic style –- then we risk entering a Hegelian night in which all cows are black.”

Reé switches focus for the last part of his article, briefly discussing what he considers the three most fundamental “problems” believers face: the size and indifference of the universe, the insubstantiality of the soul and thus the unlikelihood of life after death, and the arbitrary nature of culture-specific morality. Yet, he argues, none of these problems actually makes the case for atheism:

Each of these motives for irreligion — problems of scale, of the afterlife, and of morality –- makes the idea of God less comforting than it would otherwise be; but none of them constitutes an argument for atheism.

There may not be an effective argument for atheism, Reé points out, since many religious people — the literalists excepted — do not base their faith on reason or evidence in the first place. Many of them “may not accept the idea of God as an actually existing entity, so arguments for atheism will not disturb them; and they will be aware that there has always been more to religion than belief in God.”

In the end, Reé writes, it would be best to recognize that there are as many paths to disbelief as there are to belief, that the New Atheists have no exclusive license to practice irreligiosness:

If there has been a lot of traffic travelling from the camp of religion to the camp of disbelief in the past couple of centuries, it has followed many different paths, and is bound for many different destinations.

As I wrote at the beginning, it’s refreshing to be able to read something on this very contentious subject for its content, without having to fight through overheated rhetoric to get there. For that, at the very least, I admire Reé ‘s take on the subject.

At the same time, I think that, like so many others, Reé himself has to some extent succumbed to the disease against which his article warns. Just as there are many varieties of believers and many varieties of non-believers, there are at least two varieties of New Atheists.

One variety is the familiar type which Reé depicts here: the stereotypical hater, blustering about the evils of religion in all of its forms. Another, less familiar but I suspect more numerous variety is the atheist who on one hand has neither time nor sympathy for the brayings of the Bible literalists, those proud know-nothings who would happily roll us all back to the 13th century; on the other hand, however, this type of atheist respects and, to one extent or another, participates in a kind of non-doctrinal feeling that some call “spirituality.”

I don’t much like that word, “spirituality.” It’s very difficult to move it far enough away from its usual association with belief in God that the word still can convey a sense of ordinary human thoughtfulness and feeling. If anyone has a better word, I’d be happy to hear from you.

It’s no accident that many of the historical figures who espoused or lived a non-traditional — that is, non-religious — kind of interaction between the human mind and the universe in which the mind lives found themselves misunderstood, persecuted, or both.

On the small scale of this blog, I have written often about fundamentalism, seldom with patience and often with scorn. At the same time, however, I have also written on occasion that some varieties of “spirituality” seem to me to be understandable, even reasonable. I have even admitted once or twice to twinges of “spiritual” feeling myself, typically while listening to a Westminster Abbey evensong service or enjoying an early Sunday morning of open-air gospel singing at the Vancouver Folk Festival. What’s not to like?

The difference in frequency between my postings of distress at the antics of fundamentalists and those of tolerance of “spirituality” is due more to the fact that the literalists are much more busy trying to turn my world into theirs than are the more placidly spiritual. Like everyone else, I respond rather strongly to perceived threat.

Perhaps the most efficient way for me to show some tolerance credentials is just to point out that near the time this blog started I posted an article titled “I don’t believe it, but you go right ahead.” If you want just the theme line, here it is:

… The absence of evidence for the existence of God does not invalidate all of the experiences, intellectual and emotional, which we call “religion.”

It’s an old article, and my thinking has gone through some twists and turns since last year, but in all the ways that matter I stand by what I wrote then.

And if you haven’t read that article before, maybe it will help to prove my contention that there are New Atheists, and then there are New Atheists.

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4 thoughts on “Another look at atheism and accommodation

  1. I agree with the stance you seem to take… and with Ree viewing religion in the broader sense, which could presumably include any ideological belief system that tries to tell us how we ‘ought’ to live our lives. Though secular religions are harder to identify, we can sometimes follow the telltale sign of members ferociously defending a particular worldview (if you think differently, they get angry, spiteful, and condescending). I used to subscribe to Jerry Coyne’s blog – ‘Why Evolution is True,’ but I recently unsubscribed for above-related reasons. I find the individuals there to be just as narrow-minded and vindictive as some of the religious fundamentalists… they seem to embody the stereotypes of that particular variety of ‘New Atheist’ that grates me.

    The word spirituality is interesting… I wonder if we could call Dawkins spiritual in the sense that he cherishes that feeling of ‘awe and wonder’ when thinking scientifically about the universe and our humble place in it. I guess for others it could be a state of ‘mindfulness…’ maybe for others, a sense of ‘lucid awareness.’

  2. Calling Dawkins “spiritual” is perhaps better than calling him “bright,” an entirely smug and superficial designation, one that I quite dislike.

    And while I agree that Coyne’s pretty aggressive, as I wrote a while ago in a review, the book itself ( Why Evolution Is True) is calm, clear, and quite compelling. If you haven’t read it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at its milder tone.

  3. Modern progressive churches tend to use the word “love” a lot but that may be because formerly male dominated churches are being led by women and the main focus is on relationships and thus morality. God still has to be used for dealing with death and the awe and wonder bits. And in post modernist style most people are happy to explain God according to their own interpretation.
    The importance of empathy looks like a possible basis for a secular religion.

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