A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live. “You must change your life,” as the broken statue of the god Apollo seems to say in Rilke’s poem. Science does not—it isn’t designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls “the conduct of life.” Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion “is a scientific theory,” “a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life.” This is—if you’ll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.

[…]

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description. Indeed, it is what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls their “austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions” that enables the sciences to do their work. So when, for instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and pop-cosmologist Lawrence Krauss dismiss the (metaphysical) problem of how something could emerge from nothing by pointing to the Big Bang or quantum fluctuation, it is difficult to be kind: Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what “nothing” signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.

Atheists: The Origin of the Species seems to have been born out of frustration with these and other confusions perpetuated by the so-called “New Atheists” and their allies, who can’t be bothered to familiarize themselves with the traditions they traduce. Several thoughtful writers have already laid bare the slapdash know-nothingism of today’s mod-ish atheism, but Spencer’s not beating a dead horse—he’s beating a live one, in the hope that Nietzsche might rush to embrace it. Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. “The knowledge of contraries is one and the same,” as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.



Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run several stories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to two new books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:

What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.

The problem is, the “culture war” is a false construct created by politicians and public intellectuals, left and right. The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim. Especially in the U.S., social conservatives are often called out in the media for reifying and inflaming this cultural divide: The rhetoric of once and future White House hopefuls like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Bobby Jindal reinforces an “us” and “them” distinction between those with faith and those without. Knowing God helps them live and legislate in the “right” way, they say.

But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.


One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born – that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate – from the spirit of Christian asceticism. One has only to re-read the passage from Franklin, quoted at the beginning of this essay, in order to see that the essential elements of the attitude which was there called the spirit of capitalism are the same as what we have just shown to be the content of the Puritan worldly asceticism, only without the religious basis, which by Franklin’s time bad died away. The idea that modern labour has an ascetic character is of course not new. Limitation to specialized work, with a renunciation of the Faustian universality of man which it involves, is a condition of any valuable work in the modern world; hence deeds and renunciation inevitably condition each other today. This fundamentally ascetic trait of middle-class life, if it attempts to be a way of life at all, and not simply the absence of any, was what Goethe wanted to teach, at the height of his wisdom, in the Wanderjahren, and in the end which he gave to the life of his Faust. For him the realization meant a renunciation, a departure from an age of full and beautiful humanity, which can no more be repeated in the course of our cultural development than can the flower of the Athenian culture of antiquity.
 The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into evervday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

In fact the whole history of monasticism is in a certain sense the history of a continual struggle with the problem of the secularizing influence of wealth. The same is true on a grand scale of the worldly asceticism of Puritanism. The great revival of Methodism, which preceded the expansion of English industry toward the end of the eighteenth century, may well be compared with such a monastic reform. We may hence quote here a passage from John Wesley himself which might well serve as a motto for everything which has been said above. For it shows that the leaders of these ascetic movements understood the seemingly paradoxical relationships which we have here analyzed perfectly well, and in the same sense that we have given them. He wrote:

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this— this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism

The people filled with the spirit of capitalism to-day tend to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church. The thought of the pious boredom of paradise has little attraction for their active natures; religion appears to them as a means of drawing people away from labour in this world. If you ask them what is the meaning of their restless activity, why they are never satisfied with what they have, thus appearing so senseless to any purely worldly view of life, they would perhaps give the answer, fi they know any at all: “to provide for my children and grandchildren.” But more often and, since that motive is not peculiar to them, but was just as effective for the traditionalist, more correctly, simply: that business with its continuous work has become a necessary part of their lives. That is in fact the only possible motivation, but it at the same time expresses what is, seen from the view-point of personal happiness, so irrational about this sort of life, where a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Perhaps what Atheists are really arguing for is not Science, not the use of Scientific method of inquiry, but for the primacy of Work over anything else. What atheists essentially demand of the religious, in particular the poor, rural Christians, is that they should get back to their work, back to being scientifically managed at Wal-Mart and Amazon distribution centers.


On a recent day, Ms. Nez and several other residents stood on a bluff near a cluster of small homes and traditional Navajo hogan dwellings as the wind whipped across a valley that once bustled with mining activity.

The group talked of their grandparents — medicine men who were alive when the mines first opened — and wondered what they would think about Red Water Pond Road today.

“They would say ‘How did this happen? They ruined our land,’ ” Ms. Nez said. “ ‘How come you haven’t prayed to have this all fixed up?’ ”


Residents call Hacienda the “Haci-hellhole” or “Bedbug City.” Nearly everyone has a story of bedbugs, and residents collect them in mason jars to show to housing authority maintenance workers, in an attempt to prove they aren’t making up the source of their pockmarked arms.

Almost one-fifth of the apartments in Hacienda were infested with bedbugs, according to the most recent federal inspection in 2012. Exterminators have been called at least nine times in the last year, but residents say the place still is overrun with the blood-sucking pests.

Residents used to have more hope. In 2009, the bedbug situation became so dire at Hacienda that residents signed a petition, stormed the City Council chamber and “raised so much hell” that the housing authority was forced to fumigate the entire building, said Eaton, the Hacienda resident who struggled with mice and cockroaches.

No one wants to do that now. Walk around Hacienda and Nevin Plaza, and almost every resident will tell you a personal anecdote about the housing authority’s failed promises to provide the basics.

Eaton has lost any hope that the agency will help. After months of complaints, contractors gave her a few sticky pads for the mice in her apartment. She bought her own mouse poison, and the infestation has improved.

“Who even wants to try anymore?” she said. “I wanna go someplace else, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. They treat us like animals here.”

[…]

Unable to get basic help from the housing authority, residents often turn to prayer.

On a recent Tuesday, about 15 Nevin Plaza residents gathered in the first-floor common room for their afternoon prayer group.

“There are a lot of things going on in here that people’s unhappy with but they don’t want to say because they don’t want to get kicked out,” said Eddie Williams, the resident pastor who lives on the second floor. “But since we started praying, people’s not as scared.”


Hello, sorry to bother you, but I was hoping I could borrow just a minute of your time. You see, lately I’ve been thinking about whether there’s something more to life, something I’ve been missing. There are even times when I feel like I’ve lost my way and may never find it again. So while I really don’t want to intrude, I was wondering if you might have a moment to tell me about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It won’t take long.
Would you mind coming in and sitting down? Just to speak with me for a little bit? If now’s not a good time, don’t worry. You can come back. Do you have a pamphlet or something? It would be great to have some information about how God is always there for me. Though I suppose it isn’t possible that God could be there for me all the time, is it?
Anyhow, if you have some literature—even a whole book—maybe you could leave it with me so that I can look it over, and then you could stop by and talk to me about it later, whenever it’s convenient for you. Better yet, is there a place in my community I could visit to find out more about the sacrifice Jesus made for me? I’d be interested in learning about something like that.
Also, I haven’t heard the good news, but I certainly would like to.

Hello, sorry to bother you, but I was hoping I could borrow just a minute of your time. You see, lately I’ve been thinking about whether there’s something more to life, something I’ve been missing. There are even times when I feel like I’ve lost my way and may never find it again. So while I really don’t want to intrude, I was wondering if you might have a moment to tell me about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It won’t take long.

Would you mind coming in and sitting down? Just to speak with me for a little bit? If now’s not a good time, don’t worry. You can come back. Do you have a pamphlet or something? It would be great to have some information about how God is always there for me. Though I suppose it isn’t possible that God could be there for me all the time, is it?

Anyhow, if you have some literature—even a whole book—maybe you could leave it with me so that I can look it over, and then you could stop by and talk to me about it later, whenever it’s convenient for you. Better yet, is there a place in my community I could visit to find out more about the sacrifice Jesus made for me? I’d be interested in learning about something like that.

Also, I haven’t heard the good news, but I certainly would like to.


the psychoanalyst … is there as a symptom. He can last only as a symptom. But you will see that humanity will be cured of psychoanalysis. By drowning it in sense, in the religious sense, of course, one will succeed in repressing this symptom…Religion is made to do this, to cure people, that is to say, to make sure that they do not note what doesn’t go smoothly.

J. Lacan (via sinthematica)

This is not the sign of a healthy society. Ordinary citizens should not live in fear of saying or doing “the wrong thing”. Diversity means respecting conscientious objections and making reasonable accommodation to let subcultures survive. Erasing God from the public square, and turning religion into a secret activity between two consenting adults in the privacy of their home, leads to what the poet Seamus Heaney calls the hollowing-out of culture. A no-God area can only sustain a fragile and brittle civilisation, a setting worthy of a broken people.

The roots of today’s intolerance, however, run deep. Decades of totalitarian regimes instilled suspicion of authority; while the birth of ethical relativism taught that everything goes – just not judging others. Religion took no account of these historical developments. It was authoritarian, judgemental, and hypocritical to boot. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 showed Islam was guilty certainly of the first two accusations; the abysmal cover-up by the Catholic Church of its priests’ paedophile abuse exposed it as guilty of the third.

Given the precedents of the past century, westerners today should be hard-wired to resist the persecution of religious people. Of course, it would be blasphemous to compare the hardships of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the west today to the plight of their forebears in totalitarian regimes or to their co-religionists elsewhere, who live in fear for their lives and are being systematically abused and driven from their homes. To be a Christian in Iraq, Egypt or Pakistan, or a Muslim Uighur in Xinjiang, western China, or a Buddhist in occupied Tibet, means routine persecution. A law suit, a disciplinary hearing at work, or even hate speech online or in person can seem insignificant by comparison. But that is no reason not to mind.

Religion has long been synonymous with authority. This was no bad thing when, for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom. Bloodthirsty authoritarians from Hitler to Pol Pot drove a tank through this vision: they turned authority into authoritarianism. Those who survived their brutal regimes and those who witnessed them cherished their individual liberty, once they regained it, all the more.


Faith and doubt: an ethnographic study into political and spiritual convictions in an age of uncertainty. Laurie Taylor talks to the Lecturer in Anthropology, Dr Mathijs Pelkmans, about wide ranging research which suggests that the foundations of religious and secular ‘faiths’ are surprisingly fragile. Drawing on a diverse range of cases, from spirit mediums in Taiwan to right-wing populists in Europe, he analyses the ways that belief systems are either sustained or collapse. He’s joined by Alpa Shah who has studied Maoists revolutionaries in India. Also, Alexandra Hillman discusses her new paper on ‘waiting’ in hospital emergency departments.

Where demonstrative reasoning appears to conflict with the sense of Scripture, then those capable of demonstration (the philosophers) know that the passages must be interpreted allegorically so as to cohere with the demonstrative truths. Philosophers should be careful when they do this not to offend the religious sensibilities of the less sophisticated, in sharp contrast with the practice of the theologians. The latter frequently interpret such passages so crudely that they either throw doubt on religion itself, or threaten the pursuit of philosophy by raising doubts in people’s minds concerning the orthodoxy of the conclusions reached by the philosophers. Language should be seen as a sophisticated vehicle for communicating information to different categories of audience. Religion is a means for the easy comprehension of the majority of the people, and where a hidden meaning exists it is up to the philosophers to discover it and keep it to themselves, while the rest of the community must accept the literalness of Scripture.


“They have all become pious again, they are praying, they are mad!” he said, and he was amazed beyond measure. And indeed, all these higher men, the two kings, the retired pope, the wicked magician, the voluntary beggar, the wanderer and shadow, the old soothsayer, the conscientious in spirit, and the ugliest man – they were all kneeling like children and devout little old women and adoring the ass. And just then the ugliest man began to gurgle and snort as if something inexpressible wanted to get out of him; but when he really found words, behold, it was a pious, strange litany to glorify the adored and censed ass. And this litany went thus:

Amen! And praise and honor and wisdom and thanks and glory and strength be to our god, from everlasting to everlasting!

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

He carries our burden, he took upon himself the form of a servant, he is patient of heart and never says No; and whoever loves his God, chastises him.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

He does not speak, except he always says Yea to the world he created: thus he praises his world. It is his cleverness that does not speak: thus he is rarely found to be wrong.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

Plain-looking, he walks through the world. Gray is the body color in which he shrouds his virtue. If he has spirit, he hides it; but everybody believes in his long ears.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

What hidden wisdom it is that he has long ears and only says Yea and never No! Has he not created the world in his own image, namely, as stupid as possible?

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

You walk on straight and crooked paths; it matters little to you what seems straight or crooked to us men. Beyond good and evil is your kingdom. It is your innocence not to know what innocence is.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

Behold bow you push none away from you, not the beggars nor the kings. Little children you let come unto you, and when sinners entice you, you simply say Yea-Yuh.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

You love she-asses and fresh figs; you do not despise food. A thistle tickles your heart if you happen to be hungry. In this lies the wisdom of a god.

But the ass brayed: Yea-Yuh.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra