The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
If you're looking for someone to hurl sweeping, ill-informed insults at the deeply held beliefs of hundreds of millions of people, the so-called New Atheists are always happy to oblige.
In the most recent of a long line of examples, talk show host Bill Maher and guest Sam Harris got into a heated exchange with actor Ben Affleck and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof about whether Islam deserves to be denounced by secular liberals as (in Harris' words) a "motherlode of bad ideas."
But that wasn't the end of it. In the more than two weeks since the segment aired, Harris has continued his side of the argument on his website; Kristof has penned a Times column developing his own position; and religious studies scholar Reza Aslan has made countless appearances on cable news, published his own Times op-ed, and, most recently, given a free-wheeling interview to New York magazine on the issues surrounding the controversy.
It's that interview that caught my attention — because of the way Aslan goes about defending Islam: "[T]he principle [sic] fallacy of...the so-called New Atheists...is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false. People don't derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion."
Now, I'm no fan of the New Atheists. I think their understanding of religion is shallow and their dismissal of it facile. And then there's their insouciant attitude toward the prospect of godlessness. As I've argued before, the New Atheists prefer sentimental, superficial happy talk to sober reflection on the challenge of living a life without God.
And yet intelligent defenders of religion should prefer the often insulting hostility of the New Atheists to the kind of defense one gets from Aslan. Yes, Harris and Maher, along with Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Jerry Coyne, and Daniel Dennett, regularly demonstrate bald-faced anti-religious animus along with frequent displays of ignorance and intolerance that sometimes shade over into outright illiberalism.
But at least they take religion seriously — as a set of norms, practices, and beliefs that make and respond to truth-claims about morality, history, the fate of humanity, the meaning of life, and the nature of the universe. Aslan, by contrast, defends faith by denying it has much that's distinctive to say about any of these matters — or rather that whatever it does say merely reflects and amplifies preexisting "cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, [and] political prejudices and preconceived notions." On this view, religion and truth have little — if anything — to do with each other.
This isn't to say that thinking of religion as a set of truth-claims is sufficient to evaluate its character. Over and over again, the New Atheists have demonstrated the limits of treating religious texts as expressions of primitive science that can be summarily dismissed by the findings of modern physics, biology, and archaeology.
But focusing on truth at least keeps alive the possibility of a deeper form of scriptural reading and a more thorough intellectual engagement with a religious outlook on the world.
Consider the questions posed by a recent New York Times op-ed titled "Does Everything Happen for a Reason?" The essay summarizes the findings of several studies, each purporting to show that people tend to believe that significant events in their lives do indeed "happen for a reason." This is true both for a majority of religious believers and for a majority of self-described atheists.
If these studies are correct, some minimal form of theism would seem to be the natural default for the human mind, even for those, like atheists, who explicitly deny the existence of an entity or agent with the capacity to make things "happen for a reason."
It is, of course, the world's great religions that respond to, justify, and seek to explain this widespread conviction, describing it with such concepts as divine providence, fate, and karma. All of them presuppose that the world and historical events have a meaning and purpose — that human beings and their joys and loves, trials and sufferings, matter in some way — that surpasses our individual lives.
Is this true? Is there some kind of plan governing our destinies? Do we matter to anyone or anything beyond our human world? Does any force or entity, either immanent within the universe or transcending it, care one bit about our happiness and despair? Might there be an inherent principle of justice at work in the universe ensuring that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished for their deeds either in this life or in one to come?
Many skeptics will be tempted to dismiss such questions. Sure, lots of people believe things happen for a reason, they'll say, but that's just a vague bit of wishful thinking that no doubt arose for good evolutionary reasons in the distant past and lingers archaically in our brains to this day, fooling us into detecting patterns of coherence that aren't really there.
That's one (viciously circular) explanation.
Here's another: The prevalence of providential thoughts and feelings might be a response to something real, permanent, and important, if not in the universe itself, then within us.
Settling the matter requires that we listen to what the great religions of the world — including their most intellectually formidable theological representatives — have to say about the character of providence. Does one of these religions offer a more plausible, potentially truer account than the others? Or, on closer examination, do all of them lose their plausibility? If so, might another, more philosophically refined account make more sense? Or is the problem with the idea of providence itself? If so, where does it come from? And why does it persist like an ineradicable reflex in the human mind?
A sincere reckoning with religion — as well as an honest investigation of authentic atheism (life divested of all forms of providential thinking) — requires that we treat religious truth-claims with utmost seriousness, and that we examine them in their most potent, cogent, and compelling form.
The New Atheists fall far short of meeting that standard. But they come closer than would-be defenders of religion for whom the question of truth never even arises.