The Chronicle Review

The Believers

Post-9/11, scholars scolded the religious. Now they overintellectualize them.

Reuters/David Ryder

A prayer service at Seattle Pacific U. offered comfort to people at the small Christian university in June after a gunman killed one student and wounded two.
July 28, 2014

September 11 changed the God conversation. Atheism was always a reasonable alternative to theological glitches like the problem of evil, and of course God seemed increasingly unnecessary after Darwin’s revolution, but atheism was a relatively quiet and confident minority position. Like opera fans who know they’re right but don’t bother to evangelize the unsophisticated, atheists were generally too imperious to go to the trouble of public debate.

But after 9/11, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the new atheism, showed us the first wave of atheist response: anger, retaliatory logic, and self-loathing about the failure of flaccid liberalism—our impending cultural suicide from too much naïve tolerance. Pugilistic Islamic fundamentalism was taken as a token for religion generally, and the excesses in this world of otherworldly metaphysics led the Horsemen to call for the end of faith altogether.

Academics slight the essential day-to-day comforts that keep religion, or at least its spiritual secular offshoots, relevant.

Recent books offer a second wave, with political, economic, and philosophical takes on religion and its surrogates. Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists (Simon & Schuster), Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God (Yale University Press), and Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World (Princeton University Press) are much more historically aware, and more comfortable with the persistent ebb and flow of Western religion, than were the Horsemen’s admonitions. But in focusing on seductive macrosocial and lofty theological impulses, the new books slight the essential day-to-day comforts that keep religion, or at least its spiritual secular offshoots, relevant. They also largely dismiss the powerful light that science can shed on spiritual longing. They don’t miss the forest for the trees; they miss it for the sky above the trees.

Watson’s tome focuses on the 20th century, contrasting significantly with Eagleton’s and Scruton’s books, which are short, idiosyncratic, and range over many centuries. Taking his start from Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that "God is dead," Watson shows how the 20th century tried to answer Nietzsche’s subsequent questions: "How shall we comfort ourselves?" and "What sacred games shall we have to invent?" The inevitable yearning for transcendence is its own kind of eternal recurrence, and the secular age has not escaped it.

Watson’s story is about how prosperous Western people no longer live in the enchanted garden of religious metaphysics, but must try to feed their residual divine yearning with secular alternatives: science, art, New Age actualization, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. We 20th-century capitalists have been on a quest to find ecstasy in every domain except its traditional religious territory. Watson, like most 21st-century atheists, is way past the Nietzsche-era lament and instead celebrates this secular cultural movement, the psychologizing of theology, seeing it as more mature and realistic.

After Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and quantum mechanics, we had to learn to live with open-ended cosmological uncertainties and real mortality rather than the death-denying wishful thinking of traditional monotheism. This is a healthy developmental stage in the maturation of Western culture, but Watson, who is a good historian, details totalitarian attempts to eradicate religion, and, relatedly, the inevitable consolations of religion for people in hostile environments. While many people still cling to comforting theologies, Watson reveals how the therapeutic core of religion has been extracted from traditional metaphysics and repackaged. Instead of priests we have counselors to handle our emotional crises, and instead of geocentric security we have the strange inspirations of evolutionary deep time and the astonishing multiverse.

The virtue of Watson’s book is the collection of optimistic, if impressionistic, examples he offers of how scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, and secular philosophers like Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, and Ronald Dworkin, reveal a meaningful world without spiritual metaphysics. These secular paradigms involve fulfillment through the natural wonders around us rather than the supernatural ones beyond us. After the totalizing trajectories of religious fundamentalism and imperialism, the size of life, Watson points out, was scaled back in the 20th century, away from cosmic consciousness to bonsai scope. And that is good, Watson writes: "The age of overbearing ideas is over." He would probably approve of Candide’s cultivating his garden at the end of Voltaire’s novel, or maybe Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day enjoying the simple pleasures of small-town life.

One distracting feature of Watson’s book is the style. It strains so hard to be a trade book rather than an academic one that it makes its points with a flurry of literary, intellectual, aphoristic quotes. He seems overly worried that he will bore the reader and tries to rouse us by throwing bons mots at us in every paragraph. I found that somewhat exhausting, but it’s a quibble, I suppose, and many others will probably enjoy the vertigo. The target audience of the book seems to be smart readers who have not done much work in the humanities—business people, lawyers, doctors, etc., whereas Eagleton’s and Scruton’s books assume a more initiated demographic.

I don’t know if Terry Eagleton has read Watson’s new book, but it’s exactly the sort of secularization that Eagleton thinks will never really work. "From Enlightenment Reason to modernist art," he explains, "a whole range of phenomena … took on the task of providing surrogate forms of transcendence, plugging the gap where God had once been." In fact, "the history of the modern age," he says, "is among other things the search for a viceroy for God."

Eagleton gives us a spirited tour of the main contenders. First we had an almost deified Reason during the Enlightenment, then the Geist of the early Romantics, the imaginative flights of the late Romantics, and, in the 20th century, culture. The elevation of literature, music, art, and aesthetics generally sought to crystallize the core features of religious transcendence, delivering the nutritional aspects of God consciousness without the unhealthy metaphysics.

Reuters/Lane Hickenbottom

A congregation handed out bottled water to evacuees after tornadoes struck northeastern Nebraska in June.

Eagleton suggests that culture was the most resourceful proxy for God, and he treads similar territory as Watson, but then loses faith in the possibility of a cultural surrogate. "The Almighty," Eagleton admits, "has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of. … Again and again, at least until the advent of postmodernism, what seems like an authentic atheism turns out to be nothing of the kind."

The reason all previous substitutions for religion have failed, Eagleton says, is that the primary function of religion is to justify and uphold political authority. Religion is sadly inevitable in modern nation-states, according to Eagleton’s Marxist approach, since elites need that oft-cited opium to dispense to the masses. But postmodernism, he suggests, has finally come to the rescue and offered up the real possibility of atheism. How? By dethroning all culture (including religion) from a place of elite privilege, thereby decentralizing all meaning. Postmodernism democratizes culture and dethrones its socially coercive theologies. "If postmodern culture is depthless, antitragic, nonlinear, antinuminous, nonfoundational and antiuniversalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority," he writes, "one might claim that it is genuinely postreligious, as modernism most certainly is not."

The major problem with this argument is that it’s hard to see whom Eagleton is talking about. His own analysis acknowledges that the bloodless cultural option could never compete with the full-blooded body of meaning provided by working-class religion. But then he seems to mistake the ostensible research into working-class life (so beloved by cultural-studies scholars) for actual working-class consciousness. Working-class consciousness, I submit, has as much postmodern awareness as Justin Bieber has maturity.

The meaning of religion is quite different in communities under 300 people than in groups of thousands.

As the anthropologists Allen W. Johnson and Timothy Earle have detailed in The Evolution of Human Societies, the meaning of religion is quite different in communities under 300 people than it is in groups of thousands. "If sanctity at the local group level is mainly about highlighting and reinforcing the ties that bind families into groups," they write, "at the level of the regional polity, sanctity is mainly about encouraging the compliance of commoners with elite policies and privilege."

Eagleton is exclusively concerned with this large-scale political function and, like Mao and Marx before him, he is both impressed by its power and depressed by its anesthetizing effects. While professing a more sympathetic view than that of the Four Horsemen, Eagleton fails, just as they did, to appreciate the proximate social benefits and existential advantages of local group religion. Yes, big-time statist religion is an opiate, but people are not really religious in that way. It’s small-time, local, community religion that provides the motivation for membership. And no matter how big the state gets, the local, family-based pockets—"affective communities," as they are sometimes called by religion scholars—still do their living and dying in service of one another and God rather than economic abstractions like the "industrial capitalist system." Our collective imagination is fed directly and powerfully by the motivating stories, ceremonies, and images of religion. But Eagleton lacks the main ingredients—insights from biology and anthropology—for understanding an inevitability beyond modern politics.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim inspired a century (and counting) of an anthropology that reveals religion’s social-solidarity functions. Using ceremonies and stories, religions help us manage our emotions and include us in groups. In a dubious dodge of this tradition, Eagleton rejects the explanation of religion as social cement, by cherry-picking rebellious gospel passages. In Matthew, Chapter 10, for example, Jesus says, "I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Almost desperate to say something controversial, Eagleton doesn’t recognize that religion is primarily about identity. He emphasizes the Marxist view so strongly that he’s forced to deny the anthropological view of religion as a positive social mechanism. Arguing instead that Christianity is "disruptive," he says Jesus came "to tear father away from son in the name of his mission." But that premise willfully ignores the obvious role that religion plays in forging "fictive kin" groups, families beyond family ties. And Eagleton undercuts his own argument. He cannot, after all, claim that the essence of Jesus’ message is disruption, if the lasting role of religion (according to his Marxist approach) is supposed to be human domestication. Which one is it: opium of the masses or spark of rebellion? The real answer is both, but Eagleton can’t break out of his class-struggle paradigm enough to figure out how.

Roger Scruton’s new book, The Soul of the World, is quite different from the others. He is not looking at religion from the outside, trying to understand it as a cultural formation. He is a believer. "I regard my argument," he says, "as making room, in some measure, for the religious worldview." He insists that he is not endorsing any particular faith. But anyone can see his Christian preferences peeking through.

The beginning of Scruton’s book is exciting because he immediately acknowledges the emotional core of religion. He correctly concedes that Islam has metaphysical beliefs but that "emotional needs" (for instance, the instinct for sacrifice and obedience) precede rational arguments and far outweigh them in shaping the theology and lifeways of Muslims.

Of course, the same is true of Christianity and even secular communities. As Bob Dylan sang, "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody." Scruton contends that religion satisfies a deep urge in all of us to sacrifice, but that advanced religions like Christianity have reoriented sacrifice—instead of sacrificing another person, as the Aztecs did, Christianity promotes self-sacrifice. That is an interesting point, which he drops too quickly. It raises questions about post-9/11 suicide violence and theology. Is the idea of the "infidel," for example, the sort of thing that lends itself to the sacrifice of innocents? Buddhists don’t have the infidel notion, and they celebrate compassion to a high degree. Is that why their political suicides kill only themselves, as in self-immolations, and not scores of bystanders?

Apart from occasional denominational lapses, Scruton keeps his book focused on the ecumenical domain, the whole enterprise, which he sees as above and beyond that of science. He thinks that evolutionary explanations of religious beliefs and customs are reductionist and refuses to take them seriously. Contrasting Freud’s view of incest taboo (as repressed incest desire) with evolutionary psychology’s view (an innate-disgust brain module), he sides with Freud—whom he admits offers weak science but at least acknowledges that our experience of a taboo has a subjective awareness of forbidden desires. Scruton thinks that evolutionists merely posit biological switches that serve the genes of the group or the individual organism.

But Scruton’s view of evolutionary explanations is a caricature. Sophisticated evolutionists acknowledge multiple levels of causation. The most remote and ultimate explanation will be natural selection shaping genetic variations. But of course there is a more immediate level: what the specific organism itself is feeling, thinking, and doing. Every biologist knows that when I go on a date, I am not thinking about natural selection and the propagation of my genes. I’m thinking about subtle issues of attraction: Is this person interesting? Is this person good-looking? Does this person smell good? Can she dance? Evolutionary psychology does not deny the existence of a subject’s intentionality. It simply works its analysis at another level.

One wishes that Scruton, and others of his ilk, would simply stipulate the autonomy of the humanities and get on with the analysis. Ironically, Eagleton shares Scruton’s distaste for the sciences, which is amusing since they share nothing else and represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. It’s pretty obvious to the rest of us that anthropology and evolution have made significant contributions to our understanding of religion, whether or not either Scruton or Eagleton is willing to concede it.

Eventually, Scruton gets to a stimulating dialogue with the history of modern philosophy, and nicely articulates the horns of the philosophical dilemma concerning God. On the one hand, Kant showed that we cannot pierce the world of our experience to access some transcendental reality, because our subjectivity always mediates what we think of as reality. Hume showed that we also cannot trust the myriad forms of "design argument" (like intelligent design), because the data of nature are entirely compatible with chance and even malevolent causes.

Scruton responds to this dilemma by suggesting that the impulse itself toward the transcendental, however thwarted, is still significant. It suggests that there is something beyond the perceptible here and now, something that we sense. But a promissory note is not quite enough, even for those who are predisposed toward faith, and Scruton offers an interesting second step. He suggests that Hegel’s dialectical approach, in which freedom, meaning, and agency emerge from and surpass base needs and desires, is at least partial fulfillment of that transcendent promise, taking us from the world of selfish appetites to the higher realm of ethics. Hegel, he says, just needs to be updated, translated into modern terms. He doesn’t really offer those terms per se, but hints that contemplation of the self eventually reveals the Other as a self, and therefore as worthy of the moral recognition and levels of dignity so celebrated in religions.

Scruton fails to see that an evolutionary approach, when sophisticated, is another kind of Hegelian updating. Ever since Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba introduced the concept of exaptation—a trait evolving to serve one function but then taking on another—we have had a way of describing the emergence of things like altruism and morality from humbler precursors like care for kin. Moreover, the evolution of culture (including religion) creates a whole new level of selective pressures that regulate human behavior away from crude self-interest.

Despite his pervasive hostility toward the sciences, Scruton gives us a welcome refocusing of the religion debate on the personal level rather than the genetic and group-selection levels. Our daily lives are dominated by challenges of work, family, sex, law, and emotional health, not instincts and genetic fitness. As Scruton puts it: "To look for God is to look for the redeeming person, to whom you can entrust your life." Religion provides the narrative that places our emotions into a framework of redemption.

People looking for God are not looking for proof, but for a subject-to-subject encounter: something intimate.

This territory—the phenomenology of religion—is where Scruton is most interesting and nuanced. He reminds us of some often forgotten truths. People who are looking for God are not looking for proof, for evidence. They are looking for a subject-to-subject encounter—one that is like human friendship or love, something intimate.

Scruton idealizes humans as actualized beings, who, through Hegelian realization, achieve "full consciousness of themselves and their reasons for doing what they do." But this is an inaccurate picture of most people. Besides an elite group of Oxbridge intellectuals who regularly contemplate the meaning of the moral law that binds them through their contemplation qua contemplation, the majority of religious people are working-class stiffs who need a dose of comfort to get through the week. Religion for them is not a cognitive philosophical project but an emotional folkway. Scruton recognizes this at the beginning of his book, but his subsequent meditation takes us largely into the territory of Kant, Hegel, Venetian architecture, and Beethoven concertos. Like Eagleton, Scruton loses interest quickly in real working-class religion, and takes to the skies.

When some visitors came to visit Heraclitus, they found him warming himself at his kitchen stove. The visitors paused and waited outside the door, expecting Heraclitus to come out and entertain them in the formal room of the house. He called them into the lowly kitchen instead, saying, "There are gods here, too." Aristotle tells this story as a way of encouraging scholars to investigate even the messiest, most ignoble and everyday domains of life. Get your heads out of the clouds and examine the ground, too. One wishes the authors of these books had heeded this advice and spent more time with people and less time with theories and texts.

The authors continue to think of religion primarily as a system of beliefs (as did the New Atheists before them), but I suspect that religion is a set of feelings (affects) first, group identity second, and beliefs only last. If we’re trying to appreciate the inevitability of religion, or its substitutes, we must go deeper than political economy and modern history and culture. We must better explore the positive social-emotional complex that not only allows but propels spiritual action in everyday life.

Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy and a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. His books include Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press, 2012). He is a Fulbright lecturer in Beijing.