Troy Jollimore on the God Debate
“Ever since the Enlightenment,” write John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in “God Is Back,” “there has been a schism in Western thought over the relationship between religion and modernity. Europeans, on the whole, have assumed that modernity would marginalize religion; Americans, in the main, have assumed that the two things can thrive together.”
“God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World” is, in large part, an extended argument that the Americans were right: right to think that religion and modernity were compatible and could flourish together, and right to think that the way to encourage this double flourishing was by instituting a church-state separation in order to encourage religious pluralism and diversity. The American accomplishment, as they see it, is the achievement of a robust spiritual marketplace in which free individuals can choose and pursue whatever vision of God suits them best—or, if they so prefer, choose none at all. (The book’s heavy use of the consumerist language of markets and the free choice is, incidentally, no accident; Micklethwait is editor in chief of The Economist, and Wooldridge is its Washington bureau chief.)
One might well sympathize with many aspects of this. (I certainly have nothing bad to say about the separation of church and state, although I wish the authors had acknowledged that many religious Americans are not nearly as appreciative of it as they are.) The problem with “God Is Back,” though, is that the convincing arguments run in only one direction. The authors make a fairly persuasive case that modern technology and expanded individual freedoms have encouraged the spread and vibrancy of religious belief, not only in America but also in many other parts of the world—China, Latin America, South Korea and so forth. But if modernity has indeed been good for religion, it is far less obvious that religion has been good for modernity.
In the U.S., progressive movements in favor of civil rights and social justice once had deep and pervasive religious roots, but these days the dominant religions in America are nearly always associated with counter-progressive forces that frequently take their inspiration from (and frequently try to return society to) some set of pre-modern traditions or values. The same is true today in various other parts of the world; most saliently, perhaps, in the Middle East. Religion, in all too many cases, seems to encourage parochialism and hatred of the other, as well as superstition and scientific ignorance—all human flaws that the spread of modernism and universal reason was supposed to help us overcome.
In the American context, the issue of religious resistance to science is especially troublesome. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, though, spend little of “God Is Back” on the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps they felt that the topic has been talked nearly to death—a feeling for which I have some sympathy. Or perhaps the explanation lies in their rather simplistic understanding of what would constitute “compatibility” between religion and science. In their view, to show that two beliefs, or belief systems, are compatible, it is enough to show that there are significant numbers of people who adhere to both. The mere existence of religious believers in the modern world, then—the fact that modernity did not simply wipe religion off the map—is enough for Micklethwait and Wooldridge to conclude that religion and modernity (including science) are in their sense compatible.
But this establishes nothing of any real interest; after all, people often think inconsistent and incoherent things. The interesting question is whether it makes sense, in the modern world, for a person to be religious. The correct explanation of religion’s persistence in the modern world, then, might be not that religion and modernity are actually compatible, but rather that humans are irrational enough, and capable of sufficient degrees of cognitive dissonance, to simultaneously hold incompatible beliefs. (As the biologist Jerry Coyne, writing in The New Republic, recently put it, saying that religion and modern science are compatible because some people fail to grasp their mutual exclusivity “is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.”)
The question of whether religion has survived modernism is therefore distinct from the question of whether, rationally speaking, it ought to have done so. But this second question is one in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge very rarely display any interest. One consequence of this is that the authors’ standards for what constitutes a vindication of the legitimacy of religious belief are often startlingly low. Scientists, they write, “are demonstrating that religious experiences are ‘real’—in the sense that they are associated with changes in brain patterns.” But whoever claimed that religious experiences were not real in this sense? Every experience is associated with some sort of change in the subject’s brain patterns. (When people cast horoscopes or go to séances and play with Ouija boards, things happen in their brains too.) Yet the argument strikes the authors as impressive enough that they return to it at the end of the chapter: “It seems that religious experiences can be ‘real’ to the people who enjoy or endure them: they are connected with changes in the activities of the brain.” What a revelation!
Equally unconvincing is the authors’ claim that evidence showing an apparent link between religiosity and dopamine levels “makes it harder to dismiss religion as a mere ‘illusion,’ as Freud once put it.” I suppose what they must mean is that, if such evidence pans out, religion is no mere illusion; it is, rather, an extraordinarily useful illusion. What puzzles, though, is that their inability to provide any evidence that religious belief is actually true, and not some sort of illusion, doesn’t seem to bother them at all.On the other hand, at various points in the book the authors do seem to suggest that religious claims about God’s existence and nature are true, and that religion’s ability to provide such truths gives it an edge over science. “Faith,” they write, “provides certainty in a world where secular certainties are constantly being undermined.” Elsewhere they summarize, with apparent approval, William F. Buckley’s view of higher education in “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley, they write, “rejected the idea that the university was a mere education marketplace (especially a bazaar where all the stalls were run by socialists, atheists, and other bearded misfits). He believed that the purpose of education was not to keep students up to date, but to introduce them to eternal truths and provide them with the means for defending them.”
To defend religion on account of its ability to provide eternal truths (or, for that matter, truths of any sort) is a far cry indeed from defending the “reality” of religious experiences by pointing out that they are “real” to the people who experience them. Yet there are multiple passages in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge are most naturally read as asserting that religious beliefs are not just useful, but true—indeed more certainly true than scientific or other secular claims—and that faith is a valid path to religious knowledge. In discussing contemporary American Christianity, they write: “What matters in religion is after all the Truth, not attendance figures. […] The simplest defense of [megachurches] is indeed growth: modern management is bringing more people to God and providing more cash for the churches to spread his word.”
In these passages and others, “God Is Back” does seem to presuppose, or at least to want to presuppose, the existence of God and the validity of faith as a path to knowledge of ultimate reality. But why, then, include the “brain patterns” argument, and other attempts to legitimize religious beliefs in ways irrelevant to their truth or justification? If faith itself justifies religious belief, why bother with other types of argument, particularly when those supplemental arguments are so obviously lame? (There is, if not an answer, an explanation: As the authors say upfront, the book “is written by a Roman Catholic and an atheist.” Apparently, the two didn’t manage to get their stories entirely straight.)
For someone who wants to defend religion’s continued validity in the modern world, the appeal to faith can certainly seem attractive. After all, if faith is a legitimate path to knowledge, and indeed to certainty, then religion need fear nothing from modernity; no finding of modern empirical science can hope to shake from its foundations a belief that in fact has no foundations, but is simply held as a result of an unshakeable conviction on the part of a believer who has no interest in what she might actually have reason to believe.
The deep problem with this position, though, is that it undermines the authors’ compatibility claim. Faith, if accepted as legitimate, may shield religious beliefs from science, but how then to defend science against religion? If the two sorts of beliefs are established in entirely different ways then there can be no neutral way of reconciling them when they conflict, and so it is hard to see how they could be considered genuinely compatible. Of course, if science and religion never made conflicting claims, this might not trouble us. But that religion and science do make conflicting claims is a wearisomely familiar fact in light of, to take what is only the most obvious example, recent and ongoing debates about teaching evolution, creationism, “intelligent design” and so forth in American public schools.
At any rate, the appeal to faith is intellectually untenable, and the authors’ insistence that religion has an edge over science in the areas of truth and certainty is deeply wrongheaded and indeed ironic. The passage on Buckley cited above suggests that those who value eternal truths side with religion, while those who care only about being “up to date” will side with science. But no scientist would accept this characterization, because no scientist will cede to religion the advantage in the pursuit of truth (whether “eternal” or otherwise). The idea that it is a disadvantage for secular approaches that “secular certainties are constantly being undermined” is exactly the opposite of the truth: It is in fact because scientists are constantly trying to falsify their own claims that we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in the ones that we have not yet managed to falsify. (Ask any responsible scientist what it would take to make her give up her beliefs about any part of the world, and she will be able to tell you. Ask a typical religious believer what it would take to convince him that, say, Jesus was not the son of God, and you will succeed at most in irritating him—you will almost certainly get no answer at all.)
Faith, then, has a highly unfortunate double consequence: It increases one’s confidence in one’s beliefs, while simultaneously decreasing one’s grounds for confidence. Pace Micklethwait and Wooldridge, what faith provides is not in fact certainty, but rather the feeling of certainty. Sadly, there are many who cannot tell the difference. It would be nice if the existence, somewhere out there, of eccentrics holding irrational, even crazy beliefs for no good reason at all was something we could simply laugh off or otherwise ignore. (I put aside the legitimizing effect of the acceptance of faith-based epistemological standards on the larger culture of intellectual relativism—the “I watch Fox News because it won’t trouble me with evidence contradicting my views” phenomenon—not because this has not been horrifically harmful, but because I do not have the space to treat it adequately.) If building huge and horrifically ugly churches, buying and selling utterly tacky religious paraphernalia and encouraging people to make Christian rock and Kirk Cameron movies were the worst things these eccentrics did, my fellow skeptics and I would be willing to grit our teeth and look the other way.
The problem, of course, is that some of these eccentrics go further, insisting on trying to prevent American students from becoming educated, or passing laws to prevent homosexuals from getting married, or hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. And if the view of the typical moderate religious believer about faith is correct—I mean the sort of moderate believer who may oppose some or even all of these oppressive and violent acts—it is hard to see exactly what is wrong with these people’s actions. For they, too, have faith that what they are doing is correct and approved by God, and faith, on this view, justifies itself. Flying a plane into a building isn’t easy; you have to have quite a bit of faith in order to bring yourself to do it.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge are of course well aware of this, and it is not surprising that they devote considerable portions of their book to trying to convince their readers that religion is not as conservative, intolerant or dangerous as many skeptics have taken it to be. Yet their own evidence often speaks against the reassuring conclusions they want to draw. “The proportion of Americans who believe that Islam promotes violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled over the past six years,” they write—and go on to decry this trend, as if this change in attitudes were inexplicable. Perhaps they have forgotten what they themselves wrote a mere 20 pages earlier:
“Still, it is interesting how many Muslims, especially young Muslims, want to reorder European society to accommodate their preferences. A 1997 survey of twelve hundred young Turkish Germans discovered that about a third of them said they believed that Islam should come to power in every country in the world, Europe included, and that using violence against nonbelievers was perfectly justified if it served the greater Islamic good.”
Surveys of Muslim university students in Britain produced nearly identical numbers. And this is in Western Europe, where one might expect, in general, less extreme attitudes. It is not only Americans, then, who believe that Islam promotes violence; it appears that belief is also held by a very substantial portion of Islam’s adherents.
The authors are no more convincing when they turn their sights to the U.S. in order to argue that George W. Bush’s presidency has been unfairly maligned as theocratic and irresponsibly religious by skeptics on the left. For such people, they write, “the gap between ‘rational’ European politics and ‘faith-driven’ American politics loomed larger” under Bush “than it ever had under Bush, Sr.” But this gap, they go on to argue, is “overplayed in the short term.” Why think this? Because “the degree to which Bush actually adopted policies for purely religious reasons is exaggerated.” The Iraq war, for instance, was not undertaken primarily for religious reasons: “American foreign policy […] has been a jumble of traditions and contradictions.”
So much is true, but how does this excuse the faith-based constituency that put Bush into office? Bush was clearly a poor choice to occupy the highest office in the land, and he owed his ascension to the support of American evangelicals, who, as “perhaps the most anti-intellectual religious group in America,” weren’t nearly as concerned as they ought to have been about his lack of knowledge, or of speaking or thinking ability, or his tendency to make decisions based on gut feeling, or his belief that he was literally carrying out God’s will. Whether or not Bush himself believed it, the official reason for invading Iraq—the notoriously nonexistent WMDs—was accepted by a credulous public mostly on the basis of trust in the president, whom many Americans regarded as “one of us.” (As Micklethwait and Wooldridge admit, “Evangelicals clung to Bush’s original justifications for the war in Iraq […] long after most other people had abandoned them.”) Whether or not it was initiated for explicitly religious reasons, then, is essentially irrelevant: The Iraq war happened, and was for a very long time supported by the American public, precisely because those in a large segment of that public were encouraged by their religions to allow their faith commitments and counter-intellectual sentiments to determine their voting behavior and political judgments. In America, as we should all know by now, there is no clean distinction between people’s religious feelings and their patriotic political ones.There is also good reason to resist Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s attack on the idea that Bush’s religiosity, and that of the electorate, had bad effects on his domestic policy. Their reassurance that “Bush and his fellow theocrats ended up doing almost nothing to undermine American secularism” is surely premature: The truth of this claim remains to be seen. (It will depend in part, among other things, on the future behavior of his Supreme Court appointees.) Meanwhile there can be little doubt that Bush’s religious proclivities, and his desire to please his evangelical supporters, had negative consequences on the health of the American republic. Consider the ban on stem cell research, the drastic underfunding of scientific research in general, or the pressure on scientists to skew their research results in order to accommodate the administration’s views on global warming and other such matters. (It is worth noting that the latter two go entirely unmentioned in “God Is Back.”)
Or consider Bush’s backing of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge correctly observe, the measure failed to pass, but they neglect to mention that it lent momentum to other, parallel efforts—including the successful effort to pass California’s Proposition 8. The success of Proposition 8—another religiously inflicted social injury that barely rates a mention in “God Is Back”—casts considerable doubt not only on Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s benign view of religion, but also on their anti-judicial bias, and their populist contention that legislatures expressing the alleged will of the people are generally more capable than the courts of reaching acceptable positions on civil rights issues.
The view of religion as both benign and necessary has deep and insidious roots. In a revealing moment near the end of “God Is Back,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “Secularists hoped that science would marginalize religion. In fact, the advance of science—particularly biotechnology—is raising all sorts of religious questions.” This, to my mind, is fascinatingly confused. The passage is designed to suggest that biotechnology has somehow found evidence for religious claims: If science “in fact” raises religious questions, then clearly religion is validated by science! But of course, what biotechnology raises is not religious questions, but moral ones. The thought that morality must be fundamentally religious in nature—that we cannot talk about values without talking about God—is a preconception, a prejudice, and one that many secularists are growing understandably tired of hearing repeated. (For my part, I must confess that I find morality much easier to understand without the mysteries and confusions injected by belief in God.)
One must already have faith in faith to conclude that the world must be seen through the lens of faith. And one must have such faith, too, to view religion in a predominantly positive light, given all that has been done in its name. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are surely correct to claim that religion—not God, but religion—is back. I remain, as yet, unconvinced that this is either an inevitable development or a happy one.
Troy Jollimore is associate professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book “Tom Thomson in Purgatory” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2006.
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