God wars

Is the upsurge of faith in America and the West a glorious spiritual reawakening, or a barbaric superstition that must be stamped out? Two opposing new books turn religion into a heavyweight brawl.

By Laura Miller

Published August 2, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

"Through a glass darkly" is how Paul described the way we see the truth about the universe, and when it comes to matters of faith, you don't have to be a believer, let alone an Apostle, to agree. There's something inadvertently eloquent about the fact that Alister McGrath's "The Twilight of Atheism" and Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" have been published within a month of each other, as they so perfectly illustrate the triumph of heat over light in this debate. The first book is a semi-disguised crowing session about the subsiding of godlessness in the Western world; the second is a 336-page fulmination on the evils of religion and the urgent need to crush it before it kills us all.

Each of these two books epitomizes a position on the question of what role religion should play in contemporary life, and each one mixes credible arguments with some pretty fancy footwork around inconvenient facts. In other words, they are acts of sheer rhetoric, parries and thrusts in the long jousting match between faith and skepticism, rather than genuine explorations or illuminations of ideas. Like a lot of political books published lately, they amount to ammo. Inquiring minds need not inquire here, but minds that are already made up will feel right at home. It's enough to make you suspect that it's no longer possible to have a real conversation about religion.

What's the thinking agnostic to do? Well, observing the combatants in action can at least help us understand the nature of the impasse. McGrath's book is a masterpiece of condescension masquerading as sober consideration, lucid in a magnanimous, Olympian sort of way, and so ensconced in its authority that it positively reeks of Oxford, where, sure enough, McGrath is a professor of historical theology. Only rarely does he allow himself the kind of biting retort Harris manages to squeeze onto nearly every page -- McGrath knows that sort of thing just makes you sound defensive. But he succumbs to jeering at the other side often enough to make you suspect he's not nearly as confident of his own side's triumph as he wants to appear.

Harris, by contrast, is fiery, a polemicist raging against the "life destroying gibberish" he maintains is threatening humanity's very survival. He can't resist studding the pages of "The End of Faith" with seemingly every withering zinger that's occurred to him in the shower or during bouts of insomnia, from deploring "religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone and unicorns" to asking us to "imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of "Star Wars" or Windows 98." And if you can't imagine that, it's easy to picture the intended readers of this book storing up an assortment of these righteous epithets to fling at pious relatives over the Thanksgiving turkey.

McGrath reveals that he embraced atheism in his youth but grew out of it, and suggests that the rest of the modern world has done the same. "The Twilight of Atheism" is a history of the belief during its heyday, which according to McGrath consisted of the 200 years between the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Much of the book is a potted overview of such influential thinkers as Feuerbach, Marx and Freud (the "three great pillars of atheism") who between them laid most of the groundwork for the atheist arguments that no doubt continue to rage on Internet bulletin boards today.

McGrath makes a great show of respecting these arguments and of valuing the "moral seriousness" of atheism, in the manner of Marc Antony praising Caesar now that he's safely dead. He finds plenty of support for writing atheism's obituary in the current resurgence of religious belief in the West, it's true. But whatever ground religion has actually regained isn't quite enough for him, and so McGrath stoops to making faith's provinces appear even larger, using an array of dodgy rhetorical maneuvers and artful omissions that would put a used car salesman to shame.

Atheism, in the crankish institutional form of American Atheists, the organization founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, is no doubt as pathetically irrelevant as McGrath claims. But secularism, which McGrath repeatedly tries to elide with the atheist "movement," is far from a spent force, and so his "how art the mighty fallen" routine seems a bit premature. The liberal notion that people should be allowed a private freedom of conscience and belief but that those beliefs should not be permitted to drive public policy isn't of great interest to McGrath, mostly because he would prefer to avert his eyes from the ugly spectacle of recent religious incursions into the political realm. Although perfectly happy to accuse Freud of misogyny and O'Hair of homophobia, he manages to entirely skirt the fact that, in this country, fundamentalist Christians have tried to elevate such prejudices to the status of law.

That lacuna can't be blamed on the fact that McGrath lives in England, where fundamentalism doesn't present the same threat to freedom that it does in the U.S. When an American religious phenomenon happens to support his assertion that an "imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient" atheism is losing adherents to a renewed Christianity, he is more than willing to notice it. Pentecostalism, which is taking much of the world's uneducated and working-class populations by storm, offers, he says, "a direct, immediate experience of God" that circumvents not only the drab confines of atheism but the "rather dry and cerebral forms of Christianity" as well.

There's something comical about McGrath's donnish nod to the snake handlers (what's next, Anglican hip-hop?), but it isn't nearly as absurd as his efforts to show that postmodernism has ridden to the rescue of religion by dismantling atheism's insistence that there is "only one, correct, rational way of looking at the world." Postmodernist philosophy, he writes, defies atheism's "emphasis upon uniformity and control" and its demands for "the suppression of differences and diversity." This assault on hierarchies makes postmodernism the natural ally of -- what, the faith that brought us the Inquisition and the Moral Majority?

Compounding this silliness is McGrath's bizarre focus on Christianity, as if the faith of a mere 33 percent of the world's population offers the only alternative to refusing to believe in God at all. Perhaps that's because the rise of Islam's violent militant wing makes it so hard to herald the reflorescence of religion as a uniformly Good Thing, a celebration of the vitality and meaning that can never be found in the negative tenets of atheism. For proof of atheism's sins, McGrath has the handy example of Soviet Communism, whose atrocities, he insists, prove that "to remove God is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality."

The devil, we are told, can quote the scriptures to his purposes, and so can the modern-day polemicist find a way to make the monsters of the 20th century serve his own ends, whatever those ends may be. For McGrath, Stalin's crimes prove that godlessness leads to bloodbaths; for Harris, the carnage arose from the fact that "communism was little more than a political religion." Harris insists that religion lies at the root of many if not most of the bloodiest conflicts in the world today, but that a polite "taboo" against criticizing other people's faiths prevents us from calling it to account. Religion, he says in a familiar argument, is rooted in essentially irrational beliefs based on no evidence and as such should be banished from the public sphere. Harris takes it a step further, however, by asserting that even privately held religious beliefs are a hazard and should be rubbed out.

At the heart of "The End of Faith" is an intriguing argument that some practices associated with religion, particularly Eastern religions emphasizing meditation, can indeed be proven to have some kind of real-world value. The effects of those practices on the brain can be measured, and their ability to help us transcend "subject/object dualism in perception and cognition" has been demonstrated to contribute to the small list of things that constitute human happiness. To say that meditation fosters a salutary sense of oneness with the universe and humanity is categorically different from claiming that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead.

To get to this interesting proposition about the likelihood of our eventually finding empirical support for the claims of "spirituality," however, Harris first insists on cataloging every abomination committed in the name of faith. There are, of course, many, and Harris maintains that religiously motivated violence is not an exception to the prevailing monotheisms of our time, but the logical result of the bloodthirsty "barbarism" of the texts on which they are based. Not only do the Bible and the Koran excuse such crimes, they actually incite them, by urging the faithful to kill unbelievers with impunity. Furthermore, people willing to believe crazy things on the basis of no evidence, Harris says, are capable of any enormity, from burning witches to suicide bombings.

While it's true that religion often plays a role in humanity's wars, Harris' political naiveté gravely undermines a book that, at heart, makes a political argument, however weakly supported. Throughout our history, human beings have fought each other over land and resources and who gets to tell whom what to do. Because most of the people who do the fighting won't actually enjoy the spoils, leaders have concocted all kinds of emotionally persuasive justifications for hating the enemy enough to kill him. Those reasons include tribal affiliation, skin color, cultural practices, class and religion, among others.

Harris is correct that you can only get someone to kill in God's name if they already believe in God, and so religion has long been a useful tool for the world's tyrants and demagogues. But that's not the same as saying that religion causes such conflicts as the Troubles of Northern Ireland, which are actually rooted in a struggle for sovereignty and the centuries-old dominance of Irish Catholics by Protestants backed (or at least tolerated) by the British government. People far more knowledgeable about Middle East history than Harris have persuasively demonstrated that militant Islam is the ideology that the discontented lower middle class turned to only when Arab nationalism failed to rescue the region's peoples from "humiliation" at the hands of the West. (And in those rare cases where fundamentalists have actually seized control -- in Iran, for example -- the general disillusionment soon centers on them, as well.)

Closer to the truth would be the dismal notion that human beings don't need particularly compelling reasons to butcher other human beings, even their neighbors and friends. The genocide in Rwanda, whipped up out of ethnically based class tensions by a mass media motivated by heaven knows what malevolent impulses, had no religious dimension. It's almost as if we're looking for an excuse to single out some members of our population for persecution, and only the thinnest of justifications need be provided. (Interestingly, these two authors see the Ur-genocide in Nazi Germany in entirely different lights; for McGrath it's a secular phenomenon because of the Nazis' relative irreligiosity, while Harris sees its roots in a religious, rather than ethnic, anti-Semitism.)

Harris is on solid footing as long as he confines himself to philosophy and neuroscience, fields he has studied at the doctorate level. "The End of Faith" provides an illuminating introduction to the distinctions between such philosophical approaches as pragmatism, realism and utilitarianism, and some followable arguments about the nature of belief and reality. Unfortunately, Harris also makes claims to political relevance, and when it comes to real-world application of his ideas, he is nearly as wild-eyed as the zealots he fears, and certainly as impractical.

Moderate Christians, Jews and Muslims come in for particular censure from Harris, because, he writes, they advocate the mere "dilution of Iron Age philosophy" rather than the only sensible course, which is to junk those religions entirely. Fundamentalists are at least true to their precepts: If the Bible and the Koran are the word of God, then all the words in them -- including the many, many hateful, bellicose and savage passages regarding the recommended treatment of infidels -- are as valid as any other. The moderates' smorgasbord approach to those texts, in which only the peace-loving bits are embraced, is self-deluding and wishy-washy. It swathes the Bible and the Koran with a mainstream legitimacy those books don't deserve and creates a nurturing environment for the breeding of fanaticism.

Never mind the fact that most religious fanatics loathe moderates, and would hardly see the evaporation of religious centrism as a reason to abandon their cause. On the role of religious moderates, perhaps the most important aspect of the question of how religion should factor into public life, Harris' polemic is inconsistent even before you hold it up to the facts. On page 45, "religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world" but on page 152 Muslim moderates hold "the fate of civilization" in their hands because only they can "reshape their religion into an ideology that is basically benign."

Harris reaches this contortion because even he must finally acknowledge that forcing secularism on deeply religious people is a recipe for disaster. In fact, the feeling that this has been going on in the Muslim world for the past 30 years is precisely what motivates most Islamist militants. Clever conservatives know exactly how to whip up such resentment in the U.S. as well. Take Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who placed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse, and who is depicted by Harris as merely a crude zealot. Moore, of course, knew that this stunt was illegal and that he'd never get away with it. Getting away with it wasn't the point. The media circus surrounding the removal of the monument enabled Christian extremists to portray themselves as a minority under attack, even with a born-again president sitting in the White House. Maintaining a siege mentality is crucial to activating this kind of constituency.

How exactly does Harris propose that we eliminate religion from public life in a democratic nation where the majority of citizens believe in God and 35 percent report that they believe the Bible to be the literal word of God? Well, we can "stop listening" to the faithful and stop pussyfooting around pretending to respect beliefs that are patently absurd. (This is presuming a secular "we," which is a big presumption.) But religious people already feel that their beliefs are subject to constant assault and ridicule by mainstream culture, and this only makes them more adamant. There are more of them than there are of us (I count myself a secularist who is also concerned about the encroachment of religion into politics), and if push comes to shove, it may turn out that they are the ones who have been tolerating us, not the other way around.

McGrath points out, in "The Twilight of Atheism," that atheism gains adherents whenever religious institutions hold too much power or fail to satisfy people's cravings for "the presence of the divine in everyday life." Likewise, religions are usually energized by efforts to squelch them. Plus, in the squelching lies another kind of madness, and so Harris finds himself floating the idea that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." How -- despite Harris' strenuous efforts to distinguish good, rational belief systems from noxious, irrational ones -- this differs significantly from executing people for blasphemy and other thought crimes is hard to say.

If the distinction between rational beliefs and irrational ones is important enough to kill for, then Harris needs to do a better job of making it. As much as I favor his vision of a firmly secular society, I have to agree with McGrath (and Stephen Jay Gould) that, ultimately, the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven by means of conventional empiricism. The natural sciences aren't equipped to evaluate claims that are supernatural and finally unknowable. In a rare moment of humility, even McGrath concedes that agnosticism may be the only truly moral response to the question.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura MillerFOLLOW magiciansbookLIKE Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Islam Nonfiction Religion