A Godless Ramble Against the Ditherings of Theologians

by PZ Myers

Last week, I was told that I have a "god-shaped hole in my heart." My first thought was to reply that no, I have a perfectly intact heart thick with good strong sheets of muscle, but of course, that would have proven his point, that I've willingly replaced the Holy Ghost with actin and myosin, and the sacraments with Hodgkin and Huxley's sliding filament theory. So I have to confess that my email correspondent was correct in his sentiment, at least: I lack any feeling for god, religion, and superstition. It's simply true, and freely admitted. Although if I were to digest the idea down into a greeting card sentiment fit to be emailed, I think I'd prefer to phrase it as he has a god-shaped figment jammed crosswise in his brain.

I think all of us lack any god-presence in us, but many of us have had it hammered into us from birth that we should—we're trained to confuse any stirrings of appreciation of greater things for the diddling finger of a god, and we're also brought up to believe that those of us who notice the absence of any deities should be shunned. One major problem we face, in addition to the thugs and fools of crude religion, is that even intelligent people of good will are disquieted by outspoken atheism. This is particularly obvious in a recent article about Sam Harris which marshals theologians and academics to dismiss him.

The un-gospel according to Sam has found a huge audience, but every bit as striking is the counter-reaction to Harris among religious scholars. Mention his name to academics of just about every religious persuasion and you can almost see their eyes roll. Oh, that guy.

Harris has grossly oversimplified scripture, they say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it's akin to the intolerance he claims he is fighting. If there is such a thing as a secular fundamentalist, they contend, Harris is it. Even some who agree with his conclusions about the dangers of fanaticism find his argument ham-handed.

I don't care to defend Sam Harris in particular—there are some things I disagree with him on—but I am going to roll my eyes at this ridiculous reverence for scripture. Get real. The books of the Bible were written by cynics and opportunists, poets and peasants, fervent true believers and syncretists who decoupaged scraps of other traditions into their holy gemisch, and of course, scholars and scribes who were committed to rationalizing their culture's traditions, and who weren't above lying to make a political point. The only thing sophisticated about it is the generations of contortionists who have striven to make excuses for it. As a snapshot into the mind of Man and the nature of society, it is exceeded in quantity and quality, and is just about as uneven in both, by a random week's worth of television programming. I think we can get more insight into humanity from an academic analyzing Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Project Runway than we do from any Bible scholar—at least the culture critic isn't hampered by pretentious illusions that he or she is gazing deep into the Mind of God.

I'll give them this much credit: many academic theologians know they aren't in the God business full well.

"I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion," says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. "But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake."

According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution -- let's all ditch God -- is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these "Old Books" at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about.

We need a "sophisticated attack on religion"? No. Harvey can see that there are deep, disturbing trends in religious belief in this country that need to be checked, but what he means by "sophisticated" is actually "half-hearted." This is the stumbling block we face: that any honest attack on religion is going to be against the core assumptions of faith, the values placed on belief without evidence in beings without substance, and I'm sorry, but if we're going to be consistent, that means we have to criticize bad ideas held by nice people. In fact, it's not about attacking people at all, but foolishness. If we start playing the game of picking and choosing our targets on the basis of whether we like the people or not, then our atheism becomes just another tool to be used for or against certain people, and we've abandoned the integrity of the idea for the convenience of social engineering.

So no, I am not interested in pushing moderates into camps, nor am I interested in putting the extremists there. I care about scooping out the ideas and subjecting them to the light of unblinkered criticism. These theologians seem more interested in looking for exemptions and excuses for keeping some ideas out of the lights...but then, I'm beginning to think that is precisely the job description for the field.

"All of reason is informed by some faith, and there is no mature faith that hasn't been coupled with and enlightened by some reason," he says. It's also wrong for Harris to assume that Christians consider the Bible the direct word of God, Volf says. Most don't, so combing the scriptures for the fingerprints of fallible authors, and then declaring victory once you find them, is silly.

"Most Christians believe that while the Bible was inspired by God, it is not free-floating, megaphone pronouncements out of nowhere by God. It was given through the medium of a culturally situated people, with the limitations of their knowledge at the time. And it's our task to ask, 'What does this mean to me today?'"

Volf is simply dribbling out well-practiced rationalizations. My "faith" that, say, physicists have been doing their job to the best of their ability for the last few centuries and that their measurements and theories are reasonable is not the same as a faith in things unseen, in great conscious powers that lurk in the cosmos and fret over our diets, in the God-aided destiny of Chosen Peoples. I have mechanisms for evaluating and testing the ideas generated by reason, for one thing, and consider reliance on ideas without evidence a weakness rather than a virtue.

It is true that many of the recent books on godlessness do make an effort to find the most reprehensible acts of religion as examples, but Volf clearly doesn't understand why. We are in a culture that blindly accepts the symbols of religion as a proxy for good—religiosity is a prerequisite for public service, precisely because so many people falsely assume that someone wearing a crucifix must be a good person, and better than someone without one. Harris and Dawkins and I (at least, I'm sure about the last one in that list) are not arguing that all religious people are bad, which would be just as dogmatic and damning and false as the current assumption that all religious people are good, but are instead trying to break a fallacious prejudice. Our fellow human beings should have to earn our trust by their actions, not by the expedience of simply putting on a clerical collar—pointing out a few pedophile priests is not intended to suggest that all priests are bad, but that some could be, and that their faith is no sure-fire guarantee of propriety. Further, it's to point out that contrary to the loud insistence of the believers, religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality.

As for the idea that some theologian has a better idea of what Christians believe than any other random person who is a member of our culture, I suggest that he needs to read the news sometime, and perhaps drop in on his local megachurch, or tune in to the painful, strained sincerity of the Christian rock station in his region. I sit in my town's little coffeeshop, which is also the site for Bible discussion group meetings in the morning, and I hear all the time what ordinary, decent Christian folk believe about their religion. "Limitations of their knowledge" and "culturally situated people" are not phrases that come up very often. These are people possessed of absolute certainty that God has literally spoken and told them, through the intermediary of their priests, precisely what they must believe if they want to avoid an eternity of hellfire—doubt and skepticism are not words in their language.

And these people vote.

Voters should oust congressional Republican leaders because U.S. foreign policy is delaying the second coming of Jesus Christ, according to a evangelical preacher trying to influence closely contested political races.

I do not believe this particular evangelical preacher is going to get far—he's a kook and a scoundrel—but he readily finds an audience receptive to this kind of nonsense. The Left Behind books would not have sold tens of millions of copies if there weren't a solid core of Christian believers who refute by their existence the absurdly attenuated, fleshless assertions about religious belief of the theologians. This is a case where the atheists have a better handle on the pulse of the people than these people who make religion their profession—which makes sense, I suppose, since if anything, we're more reliant on our understanding of reality rather than our ability to invent fabulous rationalizations for the absurd.

Please, please don't ask atheists to overlook the insanity of the religious. If you are offended at these embarrassing instances of kooky, irrational, dangerous behavior that we so gleefully bring to your attention, do something about it...other than beating up the messenger.

Oh, and good luck convincing the average American that they really believe that God is a cultural construct and an abstract concept free of empirical evidence. If you are interested in breaking the back of fundamentalism, don't look to the Sadducees who caution against the fervor of the godless—their goal is to decapitate any secular movement that threatens the status quo. One thing modern atheists are cultivating that these desiccated relics from the divinity schools lack is some vigor, some fire, some passion—and an appealing positive message of the power of reality. I think there's some hope for us in that.

So sure, we have god-shaped holes. It's our stigmata, we wear them with pride.