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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

God in the Zoo

At various points in my life, I’ve called myself a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic, and a Spinozan. I have never found God an indifferent proposition in any guise, although I have often thought that the habit of attributing the name God to objects of such vast and conflicting variety must say something about, at the very least, our systems of classification. I won’t get all deconstructive on your ass (as the policeman said to the monkey), but it is no accident that the signifier which floats so freely in a system built, ostensibly, to fix the meanings, is that of the creator of the structure itself. From the speaker of the word comes the word 'confusion'.

As a middle aged man working on being a sage, of course, my meditations naturally turn to the Gods or Goddesses. And being a perennial, low carat, glue sniffing punk, my inclination is to mix and match my divinities, scratching the cosmic record – which is why, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot of the spirits at the portals of each sense.

Which is by way of pointing LI readers to Anthony Gottlieb’s review of the recent spate of atheist books – by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris in the New Yorker.

It is much more learned and witty than Terry Eagleton’s mishandling of Richard Dawkins. Gottlieb is less eager to show his cards, or to try to make books on religion automatically into books on theology. Gottlieb’s handle on that contretemps reflects LI’s own attitude:

“For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.”


That is a neat little paragraph, partly because one of the themes of Gottlieb's piece is that you can't trust the polls about people's religious beliefs - while, at the same time, Gottlieb does like to quote polls about people's religious beliefs. There is a slight inconsistency there, but the real point is that religious belief is not about yes and no responses to questions that are formed in order to facilitate quantification. When the questions are left open, the responses then become much more difficult to quantify over. So the contradictory attitude towards polls is - almost- justified.

Gottlieb is an editor at the Economist, a magazine that likes to think that it is still plugged into the Edinburgh enlightenment. The tone he strikes is Humean – that is, Gottlieb is repelled by zealotry more than he is attracted to advocating one or another belief about God’s existence. He approves of Hume’s openendedness about the whole God question – although of course that openendedness is derived, partly, from a justified fear of legal and professional prosecution on Hume’s part. After all, in his youth a man was actually executed for disbelief, a fact given great play in James Buchan’s excellent book on the Edinburgh enlightenment. Here’s Gottlieb’s Hume:

“Voltaire, like many others before and after him, was awed by the order and the beauty of the universe, which he thought pointed to a supreme designer, just as a watch points to a watchmaker. In 1779, a year after Voltaire died, that idea was attacked by David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail. Hume couldn’t have been more different from today’s militant atheists.

In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”


Gottlieb’s taste is towards just such ‘cheerfulness’ – but one man’s jovial Hume is another man’s lukewarm countenancer of religion’s many and varied oppressions. And those oppressions, in turn, are about the class composition of society. There is a cheerfulness that comes with eating well and disbelieving the credo that supports the social order one both benefits from and defends, and that cheerfulness can turn vinegary and cynical if the order is shook the least bit. Oddly, Gottlieb doesn’t mention Paine. Hitchens has to be understood, or at least, I suspect, understands himself, as working in the tradition of Paine – and definitely Paine dispensed with the elite culture and cheerfulness of Hume and the discussions of the philosophe and spread light as he saw it in vulgar language among the vulgar. But Paine was never an atheist, and was offended by the term. Of course, the Age of Reason was used to batter his reputation into dust in America, which was just starting to flirt with one of cycles of panic revivalism. On the other hand, The Age of Reason sold astonishingly well. It competed with the Bible in the first decades of the 19th century – and of course, the Bible is always being given away, so it has an unfair advantage. The notion that churches, mosques and temples – and the whole order of clerisy – are oppressors whose very bread and butter depends on imposture is something that Paine, more than any other historical figure, spread abroad. Of course, anti-clericalism was a standard tenent of the philosophes, and it became a mark of ‘liberalism’ in Spain, Italy and France in the 19th century, but it was Paine who gave it the vernacular it had in working class culture.

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