Believers and atheists take potshots at each other and at Laura Miller's "God Wars."

By Salon Staff
Published August 5, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read "God Wars," Laura Miller's review of Alister McGrath's "The Twilight of Atheism" and Sam Harris' "The End of Faith."]

Laura Miller writes: "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."

Even though I appreciate Miller's attempt of finding a balance between two opposing views, it's sad that the article must end with the above platitude. The fact that its existence can neither be proven/disproven does not make belief in tooth fairies a gray zone that requires tactful handling. From the snippets provided in the article I am assuming that Harris is complaining about just this type of taboo that prevents putting Abrahamic religions into the same category as other fanciful beliefs.

A more thorough treatment of the pro/con arguments (any new ones?) that go beyond standard misunderstandings would have been appreciated.

-- Marco Grubert

The fact that countless readers will be exposed to Laura Miller's brilliant insights into this thorny subject is nothing short of a miracle (for lack of a better word). And all without ever a pontifical harrumph! On the contrary, her slyly slipping in "when push comes to shove," in this context was too, well, divine!

When people devote whole big books to making a case -- pro or con -- for organized religion, it's just another form of proselytizing, and sometimes a cliché (as in: "Back off!") is the only sensible response (if one is not a book reviewer.) Here's mine: Whatever happened to "live and let live"? I guess I'm just an incorrigible (uh oh!) "secular humanist," headed straight for perdition. Oh, well.

Thanks, Laura Miller; masterful, as always!

-- Marjorie C. McKenna

Laura Miller correctly notes that "The natural sciences aren't equipped to evaluate claims that are supernatural and finally unknowable."

However, she misses the point in her dismissal of atheism on this basis. No modern empirical scientist is so naive as to deny "God" or evaluate "God claims" because data from assorted instruments (telescope, electron microscope, etc.) don't disclose such an entity.

Rather he - and the atheist, by extension - merely notes that the proposal of the idea of divinity itself is logically unnecessary.

Its existence doesn't help to explain the simplest (spectral) line transitions in an atom, or the luminosity of stars -- nor help to make verifiable predictions about either.

To all intents, therefore, the very premise of "God" is superfluous, tantamount to a useless appendage. Hence, it can be dispensed with on that basis.

This is the point atheists are making!

-- Phil Stahl

Alister McGrath need have no fear: God is in no danger of demise -- at least, not anytime in the near future.

Atheism (at least, a principled philosophy of atheism) is a middle-class techno-luxury.

Here's why: Faith in a Supreme Being provides the kind of sustaining relief from existential anxiety that is difficult to replace. Basically, only those with access to a solid education in science (that bane of all superstitions) and the leisure time to ponder the irrationalities of faith can afford to totally do without God. (Not that they would, necessarily, but these are basic prerequisites.) To wit: All three of the pillars of godless thinking cited by McGrath -- Freud, Marx and Feuerbach -- were solidly middle-class (though Marx may arguably be considered the middle-class charity case of Engels), and all were born long after the Scientific Revolution. All were extremely well read in natural history, philosophy, etc. And the people they principally influenced were the ones who were able to read them (by virtue of being wealthy enough to be literate). Godlessness is the sport and province of the idle intellectual.

The only other class of person who arrives at atheism is one who can no longer reconcile belief in a benevolent deity with personal experience (say, for example, after having survived the Holocaust). But relatively few people have an experience so utterly nihilistic as living through genocide, and relatively few people in the world have access to the luxuries of middle-class life.

Even the godless Communists, it turns out, secretly had faith.

-- Shilla Nassi

I haven't read either of the books Miller reviews, but it appears that neither author bothered to consider the concept of social and spiritual evolution, that is, the idea that humans may -- and perhaps should -- evolve beyond the concept of religion altogether. This is not to say that religion should be eradicated or replaced by some new and perhaps equally dangerous orthodoxy, but that what is likely best for humanity is to abandon such systems entirely. One might even argue that we should devolve back to an earlier era of our history before religion existed.

Humans are inherently spiritual, and archeological evidence supports the assertion that mankind has been aware of this and has sought connection with "the divine" for millennia. It is only relatively recently -- within the last 3,000 to 5,000 years -- that complex religious systems and their dogmatic codifications of belief and morality have managed to fracture and fragment societies throughout the world. It is this critique of religion that Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" appears to make.

Our current era and its many conflicting realities, pressures and very real dangers will ultimately demand that we, as human beings -- not simply Americans, Europeans, Asians or Africans -- seriously assess our innate spirituality vis-à-vis these things. Indeed, it is my belief that the confusion and fear that so often accompanies times of great change and uncertainty is the underlying cause for such radical -- and ultimately temporary -- shifts in religious belief, which is to me where Alister McGrath apparently derives his thesis. As soon as things "get better," however, piety and conviction invariably wane. (Is there a study to show whether religious fervor was more or less intense during the roaring 1990s versus post-9/11?)

In times of crisis, people want to know -- to believe, at least -- that something better awaits them, come what may. Furthermore, people want to know -- to know, as if it were at all possible -- that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to believe, and in so doing achieve some peaceful resolution allowing them to better cope with the chaos around them. Ultimately, this is nothing more than a primitive reaction to danger, a form of adaptation to a changing environment that requires nothing more of us than surrendering to a "higher power" with the tacit implication that this "higher power" is ultimately in control and that whatever happens is simply beyond our ability to change or influence.

The abdication of responsibility for the fate of ourselves and our fellow humans is a shortsighted and cowardly excuse for facing the real challenge -- moving beyond religion to a higher state of spiritual awareness that transcends books, tradition and dogmatic teachings and makes real progress in bringing an end to human suffering. (In my opinion, it was this that Jesus and Buddha and others tried to communicate, but far too soon in human history for their teachings to be understood properly.) It would be, at least, a step in the right direction to personalize our individual religious experiences and beliefs while focusing more on what we have in common rather than those beliefs that continue to keep us apart.

What scares me? The irrational elements of religious extremism with built-in self-destruct mechanisms; radical believers in "End Time" prophecies who are willing to manipulate world politics toward an ultimate Armageddon simply because their interpretation of a hallucinatory book in the New Testament tells them it is an inevitability, and that they will be taken to Heaven on the wings of angels in its wake. Or disillusioned young men who expect groups of virgins will attend to their every need in Paradise if they martyr themselves in the name of destroying the perceived infidel.

The religion problem is one that will undoubtedly play a key role in the future of humanity. Even if we are all the creation of one God who imparted to us the power of choice, we can still choose to step away from the abyss and, in so doing, become closer to God by saving ourselves than we ever could by destroying each other.

-- Michael Borum

I was wondering what evidence Alister McGrath cites for his premise that atheism is in its "twilight." Every poll I have seen recently indicates a marked increase in Americans who claim no religion affiliation. The largest percentage I have seen is 14 percent. And in Europe, church attendance has declined markedly.

As for the "Nazis' relative irreligiosity," Hitler died as a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church, Nazi soldiers had the German equivalent of "God is with us" on their belt buckles, and Hitler thought highly of Luther's anti-Semitic writings.

-- Gary Kern

Laura Miller concludes: "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." But the problem isn't one of existence -- it's definition. To my theist friends, I say, "Define your God and I'll tell you if I believe in it." Spinoza's God has little in common with that of the "Left Behind" novels. There is no coherence to what "God" is, and without such coherence talk of "existence" is pretty meaningless. And just to make it worse, she tosses in "proven." What does this mean? Legally proven? Mathematically proven? Scientifically? Proven as a matter of logical necessity? Proven beyond a reasonable doubt? This is just a recipe for rampant equivocation.

-- Geoff Arnold

I have always wanted to ask atheists: What do you believe? Do you believe that your mother, spouse or daughter loves you? Prove it. As a matter of fact, prove something important. Prove love, commitment, trust, goodness, hope, joy. In life, what can one prove?

The second question is: Why? I know my answers to these questions, I would like to know your answers. If life is nothing more than a chemical process, then why is the chemical process of life to be preferred to the chemical process of death? What makes genocide wrong? Why get up in the morning? If life really is a colossal accident of nature, then what is wrong with destroying it?

-- Chris

While it is encouraging to read a Salon article that is as critical of a book by an atheist philosopher as it is of one by a moderate Christian theologian, Laura Miller's critique of Alister McGrath's "The Twilight of Atheism" is quite clumsy.

Miller declines to take seriously McGrath's praise for Pentecostals, who in fact share with his own Anglican Church an emphasis on both the mystical and the purely physical, as well as a global, diverse and often theologically moderate membership. Miller dismisses this connection, contrasting McGrath's Oxford austerity with the "snake handlers," a cute but irrelevant reference to a fringe sect, located almost exclusively in the American South, that bases its peculiar teachings on a single, disputed biblical passage. Oddly, her very next point limits McGrath's concept of religion to this extremism to which she has so awkwardly opposed him. It is true that postmodern thought is not a "natural ally" of "the Inquisition and the Moral Majority." But McGrath is addressing the survival of the wider world of religion (OK, of Christianity, both his field of expertise and the larger of two major expressions of religion in the world of Western thought he is discussing) in the face of classic atheism, an element of modernism and its demand for rational empiricism. Postmodernism, with its skepticism towards absolute truth claims, is by definition similarly disposed towards absolute falsehood claims -- such as dogmatic atheism.

Miller ends her article by noting that she and McGrath agree that religious tenets ultimately cannot be proved, contradicting her earlier treatment of his appeal to postmodernism and demonstrating the utter incoherence of her critique. I am genuinely impressed that Salon, unlike most liberal publications, refuses to simply ignore or patently dismiss religion. I just wish that it handled it with the same skill it demonstrates in nearly every other topic it addresses.

-- Steve Thorngate

Laura Miller's article, while correctly identifying two more nuts who purport to have answers, is sadly a little light on real sustenance.

Where is the discussion of the real "sides" to this ongoing debate? Say, an article comparing Richard Dawkins' "Viruses of the Mind" with Bishop Shelby Spong's "weak" (meaning "not requiring belief in the patently false") Christianity? Not that I would suggest for the moment that either of their respective arguments are the be-all and end-all, but they are certainly more interesting than Miller's selection.

The fundamentalists are amusing, but as we should know by now, about as much is gained from a fundamentalist intellectual cage-match as would be gained from actually putting the proponents into a cage and prodding them to fight for real.

Amusing, sure. But incisive coverage, making us take another look at our own views, not.

-- Shannon Roy

If religion really does make a comeback, it certainly won't be because the tenets of the historical religions have become any more plausible or coherent. If you listen to modern apologists, you'll hear a lot about the political, psychological or even medical benefits of Christianity or Islam or Judaism, and almost nothing about the intrinsic validity of these faiths. No wonder. It has been very difficult for a long time to make philosophical sense out of religious language, let alone to establish the existence of purported supernatural agents. Nothing has happened recently to change that.

For all I know, religions may indeed be useful, but since they are quite indefensible as systems of true propositions, you have to wonder if it's quite decent to promote them.

-- Jim Harrison

Salon Staff

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