Bigger Than Phil: When did faith start to fade?


In Tom Stoppard’s 1970 play “Jumpers,” the philosopher hero broods unhappily on the inexorable rise of the atheist: “The tide is running his way, and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. . . . There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.” Well, when was that date—when did the noes have it? In 1890? In 1918, after the Great War? In 1966, when Time shocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead? For that matter, do the noes have it? In most of the world, the ayes seem to be doing just fine. Even in secularized Manhattan, the Christmas Eve midnight Mass is packed tight with parishioners, and the few who came for the music are given dirty looks as they sheepishly back out after the Vivaldi.

The most generous poll never seems to find more than thirty per cent of Americans saying they are “not religious or not very religious,” though the numbers get up to around fifty per cent in Europe. But something has altered in the course of a century or so. John Stuart Mill said in the early nineteenth century that he was the only youth he knew who was raised as a skeptic; by the end of his life, skeptics were all around him. Yet, though the nineteenth-century novel is roiled by doubt, there isn’t one in which the doubters quite dominate. Whatever change has occurred isn’t always well captured by counting hands. At a minimum, more people can say they don’t think there is a God, and suffer less for saying so, than has been the case since the fall of Rome. The noes have certainly captured some constituency, obtained some place. What, exactly, do they have?

There’s a case to be made that the change is more like pulses than like tides. If the nineteenth century ended with freethinkers in every front parlor, for most of the twentieth century the sound of atheism became more agonized and muted. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the firebrand head of the American Atheists, had an occasional spot on Johnny Carson, but it was always in the last ten minutes of the show, the same spot that, ahem, Johnny gave to authors. (Billy Graham got on right after the monologue.) The glamour lay in faith. Nearly all the great modernist poets were believers: Auden and Eliot in Anglo-Christianity, Yeats in some self-crafted Hibernian voodoo. Wallace Stevens, whose great poem “Sunday Morning” is all about what to do when you don’t go to church, saw his atheism treated very discreetly, like Hart Crane’s homosexuality.

Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

Written By: Adam Gopnik
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  1. That is the most long-winded article on God-v-NoGod ever. So many names dropped, so much puffery.

    Although a proudly ‘strident’ atheist I care nothing for the possible existence of God, who lives in the minds of the believers.
    My concern is what they do with him… make religions. Let him rest peacefully and invisibly in their imaginations.

  2. like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies.

    According to Dawkins, The God Delusion’s purpose was to persuade fence-sitters and lend enough succor to secret supporters to encourage their self-exposure and normalise nonbelief so as to reduce social opposition to it.

    atheism could proclaim its creed.

    It doesn’t have one.

    This makes sense of a kind, the nonexistence of God being an issue for modern people, and rising up everywhere. But reporting on every place you see it doesn’t help to see it more clearly. (On one page, we hear about Anna Clark…

    A few dozen authors may not be important, but social trends in the populace shouldn’t be ignored.

    The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement.

    But is either bad?

    “Modern art is a celebration of the secular,” he states confidently, meaning Picasso and his like, and although he backtracks quickly, he can’t backtrack far enough, since so much of modern art—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko—has been religious or mystical in nature.

    There will be examples on each side, but a book-length defence of a trend shouldn’t be dismissed in a sentence with a handful of counterexamples.

    Atheism sanctifies less of the world but names more of it, he seems to say, and this is in itself enough. This seems to leave the door open for believers to engage in expanded “naming” of their own, which would turn mighty Jehovah into little Tinker Bell—if you say his name enough, he lives.

    This reasoning is specious; that naming things is “enough” doesn’t mean in this context that naming claimed things is enough to show they exist.

    Stephens counts the atheists first, emphasizing their role in the anti-slavery movement, even though, as he knows, the Christian churches played a far larger one.

    A calculation to test that should subtract the Churches defending slavery and make per capita adjustments; and, if it does, the conclusion reverses.

    Who seeded the ground is the historian’s easy question; what made the ground receive the seed is the hard one. Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone.

    Is Gopnik claiming the arguments against the gods in which people believe, and the criticisms of arguments for such gods, don’t work well at a logical or empirical level? Because if so, he ought to back that up.

    Religious history becomes a question of human causes and events. Divinity is diminished without ever being officially doubted.

    But what is wrong with a pluralistic approach to undermining theism? There are many documented examples of people whom “New atheist” books have persuaded (e.g. see Converts’ Corner). Which approach is most effective is a hard question, but presumably no one method gets everyone who can be reached.

    One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own. A reactionary would point out, with justice, that each high point preceded a revolution that turned ugly enough to make nonbelief look bad. Very much like the Christians in the Roman Empire, the noes have had it most often less through numbers than through discipline and self-confidence and an ambition for power, even claiming, like Christians, the assent of a state: first Republican France, then the Soviet Union.

    Firstly, to characterise Republican France as seeking to make atheism universal (don’t forget the Deist efforts of Robespierre and the Jacobins, and in particular the fact that they targeted atheists), or the USSR as basing its policies on atheism (rather than, for example, Marxism and Lamarckian agriculture), is dishonest. Secondly, since the third peak has yet to lead to an embarrassing revolution, there’s hardly enough data to predict a third revolution is on the way. Thirdly, there were many embarrassing times for religion too, including at the time of these revolutions. For example, Stalin’s work was largely concomitant with that of Hitler and Mussolini, and both of their governments had overtly Christian motivations and policies. And fourth, though many died in the French Revolution, it may have been necessary for France to end up the constitutional democratic republic it is now.

    Yet the need for God never vanishes.

    A common refrain in criticisms of the feasibility of growing atheism is that religion’s past sociological success implies its inexorability. But while it was near-universal in all societies before the Renaissance, non-belief has quickly become a significant minority (or a majority) in every nation where people have had a century or more of Western education. The irony is that, while the condition for religion to fail is always painted in these analyses is its outright extinction, even secular minorities cause vocal complaints from religious people who claim to fear the social implications.

    [Hart’s book] doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself.

    Isn’t that the “Big Banger” argument?

    Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)?

    There are some very interesting answers to this from theoretical physics, but rehearsing them isn’t the point here. The real question is why do religious people always default to the same answer when none other is known? “If A didn’t cause B, it caused whatever caused B, or whatever caused whatever caused B if something other than A caused the cause of B, or…” is embarrassing logic.

    If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells

    That’s a terrible comparison. A biologist knowing the signs of animal intelligence, even if sometimes detecting false positives, is not analogous to someone claiming an unevidenced god made the universe for no reason at all, let only such a person making many additional claims about that god.

    The maker of the great atheist anthem was anything but an atheist.

    Surely an atheist who adopts other superstitions is anything but a theist.

    And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.

    It would be fairer to say the ayes are making illegitimate knowledge claims the noes are not (although the latter often succumb to others), rather than that the legitimate knowledge is in one group’s hands only. The religious can accept and know scientific explanations, and can even find new ones during scientific careers.

    It’s significant that the New Atheism gathered around Richard Dawkins.

    But is that because of the nature of biology? Judging by the history of journalists on atheism, it may be a matter of them never becoming as familiar with other examples. They just about know about Christopher Hitchens, but they always have to mention Dawkins (Gopnik is no exception) even if there’s no need for it. I once saw an article define atheism as the view that Dawkins had defended in The God Delusion, as if he had invented it. Anyone familiar with the publication dates of the pieces assembled in A Devil’s Chaplain will realise Dawkins’s association with explicit atheism predicts New Atheism by many years. Whether his specific background is the reason isn’t clear.

    Relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, we can establish, tend to have a declining belief in a deity. But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God? Of such questions, such causes, no one can be certain. It would take an all-seeing eye in the sky to be sure.

    Or research. Such research suggests science makes us calm (specifically, safe) and rich, and that reduces religion. This helps explain why the US, where wealth is common but healthcare has long been restricted, is anomalously religious in the Western world.

  3. There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.” Well, when was that date—when did the noes have it?

    Nov. 24, 1859

    But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

    Sept. 11, 2001

    • In reply to #4 by BanJoIvie:

      There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.” Well, when was that date—when did the noes have it?

      Nov. 24, 1859

      But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?
      Sept. 11, 2001

      should be voted Best Comment of 2014

    • In reply to #5 by Miserablegit:

      What a whole lot of blathering hot air just to say that us non believers are becoming a bit more in ya face, and what are you going to do about it.

      I agree. The article was just a lot of blather with almost nothing meaningful to say. So typical of the kind of junk that gets passed off in publications like the New Yorker as supposedly deep and intellectual when it’s nothing of the sort.

  4. I think I now understand why this writer doesn’t tweet. However, his broadcasts are succinct and witty.

    I’m interested to learn about John Lennon’s nine months flirtation with atheism; our next door neighbour is at present in America on a book tour publicizing the latest of his numerous volumes on the Beatles, this time it’s two tomes delving back into their individual family histories.

    In response to Adam Gopnik’s question “Why did the non believers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals?”

    To counter the dissemination of untruths about the natural sciences by fundamentalists and other ignorant people.

    Adults are at liberty to believe what ever nonsense they like but children have a right to a proper education.

    I take it it was a rhetorical question, so perhaps he could have answered it right there, then the article wouldn’t have been quite so long.

  5. I think Joss has nailed all the wrong-headed stuff here, and there is plenty. But the one point that I find interesting is the “aesthetic” one, the scary or comforting view of the world.

    I am certainly drawn to the godless universe, because it is the more thrilling, yes more dangerous, but more open to adventure, possibility, and…well…creation.

    I frequently make pleas for tolerance of others with differing (un rewirable) psychological make ups (high/low empathy, left/right moral dispositions). Those aspects that can be considered aesthetic or quasi aesthetic I suggest must be accepted as facts about people, but the behaviours they may manifest are arguable with.

    I want to find a way of talking to people (religious people) who have this phobia of a godless universe and the love of an anthropocentric one, but I haven’t quite got it yet.

    I suspect that part of the answer lies in Jerry Coyne’s cat. What we most treasure emotionally exists outside of mankind also. (I don’t think Gopnik has grocked this.)

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