Figgleton v. Ditchens

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.

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15 Responses to Figgleton v. Ditchens

  1. daah says:

    Religion is always organized, otherwise it’s called faith or belief.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok. But Dawkins and Hitchens are then talking about both faith and religion, though most of Hitchens’ venom is reserved for organized religion.

  3. Bill McNeill says:

    It is valid to get annoyed at anyone who makes sweeping truth claims on the basis of appeal to authority and/or personal emotional conviction. Whether or not those truth claims have anything to do with sentient creators is beside the point. If a person holds non-dogmatic religious beliefs, then I disagree with them only on what I consider to be a pretty uninteresting philosophical point and otherwise get along just fine. If a person holds dogmatic religious beliefs, then I have the same problems with them I’d have with a secular fanatic.

    Sigh. It’s just impossible to say anything new on this topic.

  4. Carl says:

    Agreed, Bill.

    I’ve been following and hanging fire on this ‘debate’ with a sense of deja’ vu and where-to-start; I really appreciate you Tim for your usual elegant framing of the bigger picture.

    A variant of #3 that you mention but that’s important to linger on is the ‘civic religion’ line that pops up so regularly in various strands of republicanism / communitarianism. At a certain point just about everybody who wants to build intentional political community notices that reason alone doesn’t motivate people very well or bind them virtuously into the public thing. (Obviously this is not a problem for liberals for hobbesian or lockean / smithian reasons.) Some kind of emotional mediation is needed, which is the central expertise of religion.

  5. jim says:

    To (somewhat) defend Ditchins:

    Yes, religions are very much more than their truth claims, but Ditchins (and their friends) don’t have quarrels with many of those aspects. Religions are at least partly about community — both real (the local congregation) and imagined (The Church). But Ditchins doesn’t have anything against real communities: people helping each other is fine. Religions are partly about moral teachings and comforting rituals. But unless those rituals deny some person their human rights (e.g. Sati or Female Genital Mutilation), live and let live. It’s the truth claims that Ditchins objects to, and the use of the imagined community to propagate them. And at least in Dawkins case — he’s an evolutionary biologist by original trade — he didn’t start the fight.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, but that runs into the reverse of the problem that Eagleton and Fish run into. Eagleton and Fish argue about the value of an idealized vision of spirituality that has little resemblance to actually-lived religions and their expansive truth claims. Dawkins acts as if you can take all of the things that religions do with which he has no argument and subtract from them their truth claims, as if nothing about what religion is requires those truth claims. But if you run down the list I’ve built, those kinds of truth claims are:

    1) arguably an integral part of why religion is adapted to human psychology or sociality
    2) arguably an integral part of the sociohistorical embeddness of religion
    3) arguably part of how religion achieves its functional utility (e.g., a necessary part of mobilizing rhetoric or a necessary part of religion constructing its ‘right’ to act within community, etc.)
    4) part of what religion does within local or personal practices as well as what it does institutionally

    If you follow 6), then religious truth claims aren’t an important part of actions commonly attributed to religion. For example, you could look at the conflict over evolution in the U.S. and say, “Look, religious truth claims are just the rhetorical gloss on top: what this is REALLY about is social struggle between an educated meritocracy and working-class communities which have been excluded from certain kinds of economic or social opportunity”.

    And if you follow 7), while the conventional truth claims of organized religion are subject to criticism, spiritual or religious thought still has some kind of truth to offer which is at least orthagonal to or distinctive from scientific truth.

    So this really doesn’t get Dawkins et al out of trouble at all, because it’s not clear that you can just magically subtract truth claims from religion and retain whatever functions or aspects of religion that Dawkins et al would concede to be legitimate or harmless.

  7. msw says:

    To start with, the whole “Ditchens” thing is a dishonest intellectual trick, the equivalent of arguing against the social justice ideas of John Edwards/Pol Pot. Dawkins is a serious public intellectual and deserves to be taken seriously. Hitchens is a buffoon. They don’t make the same arguments – there is no “Ditchens” position.

    1. Even when following his worst evo-psych instincts, Dawkins clearly doesn’t believe that arguing against X is pointless. That’s why he writes books. He’s clearly not a simple determinist.

    2. Lots of beliefs are sociohistorically embedded. Some of them are also false. Pointing that out is a perfectly legitimate activity. I’m pretty sure you’ve done it as well. As for his book-publishing being a program equivalent to overthrowing the state, well, this accusation is a step up from your previous claim – that Dawkins secretly harbors Wellsian dreams of mass murder – but not by much. You do realize that aside from the less obvious Modernist dreams that you accuse him of (you’re too much of an internet pro to fall into that trap), this is pure Jonah Goldberg, don’t you?

    3. Dawkins very explicitly addresses the functional claim that religion, even if false, makes us a better person. He takes the question very seriously and answers it at great length. Personally I would think an exasperated sigh and a direction to open a history book to a random page and start reading would suffice, but there you go.

    4. But they all make truth claims that are false. If they make no truth claims, the Dawkins explicitly excludes them from his critique (he’s pretty clear about this, but it’s clear from this and previous posts that you haven’t read his book.)

    5. But again, they aren’t true.

    6. Dawkins doesn’t make this claim. His list of the sins of religion was made to counter a similar claim – that religion, even if false, is morally advantageous. Again, try reading what he’s written. That said, *I’ll* make this claim. I’m pretty sure christianity had something to do with the crusades. Or maybe you could let us all know what is the secular reason for witch-burning?

    7. Dawkins isn’t interested in meaning. It’s when you start making factual claims that Dawkins objects.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Part of what I’m doing here is just listing out the terrain of a very long-running conversation, not necessarily agreeing with it. For example, on #6, I also think Christianity (its ideology, its belief system) had something to do with causing the Crusades. But there are certainly social historians who argue that witch-burning was “really” about underlying social conflicts, and not especially motivated or caused by religious belief, for example.

    It’s fair to complain that I gloss Dawkins based on his shorter public speeches and interviews on these topics, and I should read his more detailed work. But see my above comment: saying that you think religion is fine or acceptable in these respects *unless* it makes truth claims is arguably disentangling things that can’t be disentangled.

    (On the evo-psych point, though–here I have read Dawkins at greater length, and I think he’s has the same problem that both evo-psych and memeticists have with explaining why *and* how we could or should think other than what we are evolved or adapted to think. Buss, for example, runs into a problem with explaining why we should follow other moral or social rules for sexual relations than those which he describes as EEA adaptations. Obviously the fact of arguing that we should think or act otherwise means they’re not determinists, but it’s not at all clear how they get away from being determinists. If rationality is a kind of escape hatch which allows us to choose to think or be differently, to supercede our evolutionary minds or behaviors, it’s not clear how evo-psych can so precisely calibrate its description of what behaviors are a reflection of EEA adaptations and what behaviors are not.)

  9. jim says:

    You can subtract the truth claims from religion, though. When I lived in New York, I knew a number of atheist observant Jews. That is, they kept (more or less) kosher, held seders, attended services on high holy days, but denied the existence of any god, especially one peculiarly concerned with the Jews. This may have been the idiosyncratic reaction of a few members of a particular generation to the Holocaust, but it shows that one can be religious without acceding to the truth claims of the religion.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    There are religions which have practices that subtract out the truth claims while keeping the habitus pretty readily. There are also a number of religions which support a plurality of truth claims and insist on little dogma, as well as religions which don’t particularly take any interest in actively contesting naturalism or science. So a lot is possible. But there’s a different between what’s possible in the concrete history of a specific religion and arguing that all religions have these possibilities equally within their grasp.

  11. msw says:

    Evo-psych is silly, but Dawkins doesn’t lean on it in his atheist writings, which are straight-up popularizations of empirical critiques of theism, so it’s not applicable here. Evo-psych types never explain how rationality could provide an escape out of “hard-wired” rules, but of course they can’t give any details on those hard-wired rules in the first place (it’s a completely non-empirical “science”), so it’s hard to see how they could. But possible explanations aren’t that hard to imagine – think about how hard “evolution” has worked to convince you that you experience an unbroken visual field, despite a big fat optical nerve in the middle of your retina. Yet one familiar with this fact can “escape” from the misleading evidence of their senses and take into account that their brain tricks them into believing there’s no blind spot. (Obviously, this is my example, not Dawkins’).

    My complain here is that I like your writing, except on this subject, where it goes past unfair and approaches something nasty. Notice that when reaching for an analogy for Dawkins’ project, instead of comparing it to, say, attempting to convince people that the solar system is heliocentric, or that disease doesn’t come from an imbalance of humors, you compare it to an attempt to overthrow the state. You consistently use violent imagery when describing Dawkins, and seem to ascribe violent aims to him. Dawkins’ “project” is to use convincing arguments to demonstrate that theism is a myth. He speaks and writes books. He’s the poster child for the Open Society.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I actually don’t mean that analogy as hostile at all. I mean to point out, however, that if you accept that religion is sociohistorically embedded in any profound way, that aiming to disembed it is by its nature a revolutionary project in scale and scope. A revolutionary project need not be a violent or destructive one, but it’s different than a reformist one in scope and character.

    To put it another way: if one argues that contesting religious truth claims is only a reformist project, that it doesn’t have to involve any especially profound transformation of existing society, that there is every reason to think that religious truth claims can be relatively easily turfed out of contemporary global societies, I think you one is arguing by implication that religious truth claims are not particularly sociohistorically embedded. I think you potentially could argue that. In fact, the argument I list as #6 above claims exactly this, that religious ideology is a superficial, highly plastic gloss that overlays deeper social, economic or political interests.

    If, however, you accept that at least some religious truth claims, and the religions to which they are connected, are deeply embedded, then hoping to contest them successfully is by its nature a revolutionary project of some kind, unless you have a very long time frame in mind and you’re fairly sanguine about whether there’s any progress towards your goal.

    There’s nothing vicious in that statement. I’m just saying that’s the facts. If I were a committed critic of the nation-state (and many are) and was determined to see new forms of sovereignty or territoriality replace it over time, I’d have to accept that I would be pushing for something that had a revolutionary scope or character, a major transformation of the world as it is.

    Unless I was also going to argue that I’m not particularly serious in my criticism–that I’m just saying, “Hey, get rid of the nation-state”, with little interest in whether people are persuaded or not by that call.

  13. msw says:

    And the “Things to Come” accusation? Still feel that’s fair?

  14. Rob A says:

    MSW, I can agree with you that Dawkins may be treated slightly unfairly here, but I can’t see how you can be so “up” on Dawkins’ views and so “down” on evo-psych. What approach DO you bring to the psychology of religion…?

  15. aprudy says:

    Surely, you’ve seen this redubbing of Hitler (as Hitchens) in the bunker:
    Alan Rudy ’84

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