So recently there was a good bit of blogging reaction to the public disagreement between four of the most tendentious intellectuals on planet Earth: Stanley Fish, Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. All four of them are prone to making and then furiously humping straw men while avoiding introspection about their own previous work and thinking. In this particular case, the issue was the muscular public atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens, which Eagleton and now Fish have criticized as ignoring the genuine virtues of religious thought.
I completely agree with the criticism that Eagleton and Fish aren’t talking about religious practice or religious institutions which actually exist in the world, but instead a secular person’s ideal spirituality, primarily concerned with the limits to knowledge, the importance of mystery, the meaning and phenomenology of human life, and so on, and that both of them rig the game so that there can be no legitimate challenges to religion. Many actually-existing religions have very strong truth claims that are expansive in scope rather than the kinds of tentative, humble embrace of the unknowability of human existence that Eagleton and Fish see as the essence of religion. Dawkins and Hitchens, on the other hand, irritate me not just because they lack even the slightest trace of introspection about their own past errors and exaggerations, but because on the subject of religion and atheism, they have such truncated tunnel-vision arguments.
A pox on the whole discussion as these four construct it. This isn’t exactly a new debate. Finding the shrillest or most tendentious formulation of long-standing arguments on these issues is not much of an accomplishment.
As with many similarly well-worn discussions, I’d just as soon review the available lines of argument about why secular or atheistic thinkers perhaps should have an interest in religion or spirituality which goes beyond being resolutely hostile, which takes religion to be an interesting subject to investigate with an open mind (rather than just finding new ways to arrive at familiar criticisms). Any of these lines of argument has its own shortcomings, and none of them seem to me to prevent strong criticisms of some or all religions, but all of them seem to me to provide some intellectual texture and complexity lacking from recent “muscular atheism” of the Dawkins-Hitchens type. It’s not that they don’t consider some of these lines of argument, but that they simply see them as speedbumps on the road to the crusade.
Here’s what I come up with when I make a list.
1. Religion is adaptive, instinctive, or inevitable (in human consciousness or in social experience), and therefore arguing against it is largely beside the point. I know that Dawkins has entertained versions of this argument, as have other evolutionary psychologists who have a critical perspective on religion. There’s a familiar dodge in this kind of argument about the evolutionary roots of a contemporary behavior of which the arguer disapproves: that the behavior was once adaptive and is now maladaptive. But this claim is often asserted rather than studied or demonstrated, usually with striking disregard for what “adaptive” means in evolutionary biology, as well as weak arguments about why the new norms are preferable. In the context of contemporary global society, in what respect is strong religious faith maladaptive? The most secular populations in the contemporary world have the lowest birth rates. Where’s the evidence that the reproductive success of religious populations is threatened by their religious belief or practices? These uses of evolutionary argument have never really escaped the intellectual failings of social Darwinism, in that they’re used to make moral or social claims about what human beings should be instead of what they are while ignoring actual evolutionary science. In any event, this kind of argument should really be a much bigger impediment for Dawkins-style atheism than it appears to be.
2. Religion is sociohistorically embedded. You could argue that regardless of one’s personal opinions of religious belief or practice, that religions and spirituality are as deeply embedded in human social organization as state sovereignty, law, kinship structures and so on. You might be able to make a philosophical argument against a specific religion or religion in general, but it would be irresponsible to allow that opposition to blind you to your intellectual responsibility to explore the complex history of religious practice and sentiment or to unrealistically assume that this history can be simply dispensed with because of the cogency of a philosophical argument. I suppose you could go from this line of argument to suggest that a passionately anti-religious person needs to understand that their political project is a profoundly revolutionary one, no different in scope than an anarchist who wants to eliminate the nation-state. And as with any revolutionary project, the scope raises a moral problem about the costs of pursuing it and a practical problem about the plausibility of pursuing it.
3. Religion is functional. This approach is where a decent number of secular intellectuals who have studied religion tend to alight, conceding that whatever the philosophical problems of religion, it serves some kind of useful long-term or short-term functions for its adherents and as such, makes some kind of sense. This argument has all the problems that functionalism has applied to any practice, but it’s still a pretty serious challenge to the strongly anti-religious, in part because the range of possible functions is so broad: psychological comfort, social networking or mobilization, territorially expansive form of political connection that doesn’t rely on kinship, enforcement of moral norms, you name it. The anti-religious might argue that these functions can be better served by other institutions or belief systems, but it’s up to them to demonstrate that. Or they can argue that these functions are themselves bad, but that’s a much harder thing to do in many cases than knocking some specific bit of theology from a given religion.
4. Local religious practices and experiences and large-scale religious institutions are different. E.g., this is the conventional “I’m not against religion, just against organized religion” argument, an observation that an anti-religious critic who reasons about all religion from the actions or beliefs of a large-scale formal religious institution is missing an important distinction. This is the reverse of what the commenters at Crooked Timber noted about Eagleton and Fish, which is that they construct an idealized philosophical account of spirituality that ignores the concrete institutional reality of religion.
5. The private or local habitus of religious life is different from the ideological life of religion. Similar to #4, an observation that how the experience of spirituality may have little or nothing to do with formal ideologies or philosophies put forth by religious organizations, and that a critical view of the latter should not be projected easily onto the former.
6. Religious ideology is a superficial gloss on top of bad social action; the bad action is not caused by religious ideology. So, for example, if an anti-religious critic were to ascribe the cause of the Crusades to the existence of religious faith or religious organizations, they might arguably be missing deeper or more powerful underlying social, economic and political causes of the Crusades. This is a fairly familiar kind of debate between historians whether we’re talking about religion or not, about whether or when cultural, intellectual or social conflicts visible at the “surface” of events are are actually causes of those events or not. I think at the least you could suggest that long lists of bad events attributed to religious faith or organizations are intellectually lazy, that almost any given event is a lot messier when you poke into it. For example, just saying that the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo’s findings and ergo, that religion suppressed scientific truth and human progress is pretty much greasy kid’s stuff as far as understanding that specific history, which also involved Italian court politics, the economic and social transformation of Renaissance Italy, debates within Western European Catholicism about many subjects, and a good deal else.
7. Religious thought and experience is a subclass of philosophical exploration of questions about the meaning of human life. This is where Fish and Eagleton are coming from, and while they make the argument in manipulative fashion, there’s certainly a more interesting version of it available which acknowledges that the norm of religious life may not involve philosophical exploration but that religion is at least one example of a broader class of such explorations, and that the broader class involves something valuable and important that cannot be provided by most scientific thought.
More? I’m fairly unsympathetic to some of these lines of argument, but I at least know that a lot of ink has flowed under all of these bridges.