By Mathew Goldstein
The Vox website says that “Vox's journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters.” An interview by Vox’s agnostic journalist Sean Illing with atheist John Gray was recently published October 31 under the title “Why science can’t replace religion” with the subtitle “John Gray on the myths the “New Atheists” tell themselves.” Although I have not read John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism, here is some commentary on that interview.
Sean Illing begins with the comment that the question - does god exist - is probably unanswerable. He then says ‘That’s probably why I’ve always found the so-called “New Atheists” misguided in their critiques of religion.’ A question about how our universe operates is unanswerable when available empirical evidence cannot favor one answer over competing answers. Sean Illing could claim that religious supernaturalism versus non-religious naturalism is unanswerable because no amount of empirical evidence will provide decisive proof with absolutely zero chance of being mistaken. But that is an impractical standard that no one applies in any other similar context, and as such is a double standard that must be discarded in any balanced, reasonable, discussion.
When we discover something new about how the universe operates it is sometimes possible to evaluate whether that new discovery is more consistent with the constraints of naturalism or with the absence of such constraints. Therefore, the overall available empirical evidence is not silent or missing on this question. Therefore, this question is answerable by the only reliable method we have to adjudicate such a question: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Before we declare that this question is unanswerable, we need some explanation for why we should disregard the large amount of empirical evidence that we have that our universe operates within the constraints of naturalism and the corresponding lack of good evidence to the contrary.
Sean Illing says “New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.” Sean Illing is exhibiting a bias here by miscategorizing atheism, an intellectual conclusion regarding how the universe operates, as a “literary movement” such as Misty Poets or New Formalism.
He then says atheists fail to recognize that “religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world”. Religion without claims about how the universe operates is akin to frying without heat. Yes, frying food is about more than placing items in hot oil. But at the end of day, regardless of the fact that frying food is about more than the mechanics of frying, without the mechanics of frying there is no fried food. People can, and no doubt there are people who do, go through the motions of being religious, by worshipping a deity they do not believe in, by praying to deity they do not believe listens, by observing holidays honoring events that they do not believe occurred. But then it a social activity cloaked in a religious veneer which could easily be replaced by strictly secular social activities, it is no longer a genuinely religious activity anymore. This is what is so misguided about the “it’s about so much more than a set of claims about the world.” Many claims about the world are about more than the claims in isolation because claims about the world can also have implications for us. Claims about how the world functions are foundational for our decision making. This is all the more reason to try to be careful to try to get it right when making claims about how the world operates.
The interview then focuses on John Gray’s criticisms of his fellow atheists. John Gray equates religious myths with “myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths” that he claims animate other atheists. He disagrees with Steven Pinker’s argument that the numbers demonstrate that the scientific revolution has brought with it large gains for the quality of human lives. Steven Pinker collected a lot of hard evidence on behalf of his argument. His dismissing Pinker's arguments as myths akin to the myth that Moses parted the Reed (or Red) Sea is unfair.
John Gray characterizes religions as “profound, as inexhaustibly rich” and claims other atheists are “mostly ignorant of religion”. Yet John Gray is himself an atheist. This implies that such additional insight and knowledge regarding religion still falls short in justifying religious beliefs. Yet he does not appear to be eager to share with his audience why he is an atheist. Instead, he points out that human minds evolved for survival, not for rationality, implying that religious beliefs are not rational. He considers it foolish to claim “we have no need for religion anymore”, implying that religious beliefs are needed for human survival. Looking around, we see different countries with different degrees of religiosity. The evidence we have not only does not support, it tends to oppose, the notion that the less religious countries are the weaker countries. The approach of pitting rationality against survival implies that there is a conflict between the two, but that is arguably an artificial conflict, there need not be a conflict.
I do not know the basis for John Gray’s claim that the stories in the book of Genesis “were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.” But let’s assume this is true for the sake of argument. Genesis obtains it special authority by claiming to reveal the actual actions of an actual god that people then worshipped and prayed to, thus giving us very good reason to think they believed this particular god existed. So insofar as thinkers or theologians did not interpret Genesis as revealing the actual actions of an actual god, insofar as they also failed to tell their fellow Jews that Genesis was a fictional parable, they were misleading their constituency.
Today there is an additional problem here that was less acute a thousand years ago. The story of Genesis contradicts modern knowledge. John Gray dismisses this problem on the grounds that the Torah (and presumably also the Bible, Quran, and the holy books of other religions) never was, and is not, about knowledge, but instead is about creating, and finding, meaning. Yet if Jewish thinkers and theologians were knowingly and deliberately misleading their constituency about the fictional nature of god and the Torah, they were presumably doing so because creating and finding meaning from the religion was, and presumably still is, rooted in believing that particular holy books are revealing factual knowledge about a real, existing God, or supernatural realm. If this is not the case then why was denying the existence of god considered to be a punishable criminal offense in John Gray’s United Kingdom for many centuries, and why is that still the case in some countries?
John Gray acknowledges that “ideas do have consequences.” He does not tackle the question of whether false ideas are more likely to flourish with bad consequences in those societies where ideas about how the universe operate are unanchored in empirical evidence and thus not well constrained. Instead, he points out that both non-religious and religious ideas can be bad ideas. True, but isn’t the truth versus falsity of beliefs also a factor here, and if it is a factor isn’t that reason to place value on that distinction? Ultimately, theism and atheism are conclusions about how universe operates. So if we want to avoid bad consequences then maybe a better focus is to take the distinction between poorly justified and well justified beliefs, as measured by the criteria of best fit with the available empirical evidence, seriously.
He claims that “we should regard religions as great works of imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true” and that “any atheism that fails to do this ... probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.״ Smuggling in the word “empirically” here is weaselly because religions exhibit a self-interested tendency to claim that empiricism is biased, too restrictive, or unreliable and that circular faith (they deny, or do not acknowledge, the circularity) is epistemologically more important, reliable, and valuable. John Gray identified Pascal as one of three “very clever” philosophers, so he should be aware that Pascal’s Wager is a good example of a non-empirical, or anti-empirical, and therefore weak, justification for believing religious claims about how the universe functions. John Gray is trying to convert a third person discussion about religious beliefs into a first person self-assertion of those religious belief by the atheist speaker. He appears to want to try to convince his audience that when an atheist claims that religious beliefs are distinct and different from non-religious beliefs then ipso-fact that atheist has somehow adopted those religious beliefs. This seems to be a deliberate strategy to try to discourage honest conversation by atheists about religious beliefs. That transparently false strategy will not work. We know that various beliefs, such as the belief that not worshipping, or not having faith, prompts god to initiate deadly weather events, or the belief that macro-evolution is a false conspiracy of dishonest scientists, mostly originate from, and are mostly promoted by, religions. We know that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. make different and distinct, sometimes incompatible, factual claims. John Gray’s description of religion as lacking any intention to assert what is true lacks integrity. He is falsely redefining religion as something akin to a set of fantasy novel books like Lord of the Rings.
He then generalizes that we all “live by our fictions.” If we “all” fail to live with no fictions then therefore it makes no difference if we live by fewer fictions? Does John Gray prefer cleverness over integrity? How does John Gray define sophistry? He does not like people who are conceited and claim to stand above others. Good advice. At the same time, publicly arguing for beliefs is a secular activity. Arguing that particular conclusions or ethics are better is not a religious activity. Atheists who publicly argue for atheism are not ipso-facto adopting religious beliefs or practices. Keeping silent about why we favor atheism is not an attribute of the genuine, or a better, atheism.