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Adam Gopnik on the Varieties of Unbelief

Though Ross Douthat was easily able to take apart its over-confident assertions, there’s still something important to Adam Gopnik’s (very well written) essay, “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?” He gives a helpful short history of the rise of modern “atheism” and “skepticism,” but he also points out the practical side. Note well this observation:

Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone. The sappers who silently undermined the foundations of the Church did more damage than the soldiers who stormed the walls. Two luminaries of the English and French Enlightenment, Edward Gibbon and August Comte, entirely elude Stephens’s story. Neither was a nonbeliever by argument or by avowal, yet both helped kill God by implication and by insinuation. The most effective and far-reaching case against Christianity in eighteenth-century England is Chapter 15 of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Gibbon concedes—that is, “concedes”—the obvious truth of the Christian religion, and then asks, deadpan, what worldly mechanism would nonetheless have been necessary for its triumph? In a manner still not improved upon for concise plausibility, he enumerates the real-world minority politics that made it happen. The Christians had the advantage of cohesion and inner discipline that the dissipated majority, pagans and Epicureans alike, did not. Religious history becomes a question of human causes and events. Divinity is diminished without ever being officially doubted.

Comte, in his way, did more damage to organized religion than Diderot, not by quarrelling with it but simply by imitating it. He brought an aggressive form of “humanism” to nineteenth-century France, inclining toward a form of worship that replaced the God above with Good Men below. His kind of humanism created chapels (one still exists in Paris) filled with icons of the admirable: Héloïse, Abélard, Galileo. It’s still a cozy space. Instead of making us God-size, he made faith us-size. Just as religious tolerance was established less by argument than by exhaustion, infidelity was made appealing by atmosphere. Argument mattered chiefly through the moods it made.

This is hard to argue with, and the phenomena continues to this day. American civic religion has its icons: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. More recently we have branched out into a sort of multicultural or multitraditional cultus, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela added to the Pantheon. Consistent with Mr. Gopnik’s point, we can see that none of those figures, neither Jefferson nor Mandela, are really valued for their particular arguments as they are what they symbolize, and that signification is often itself subject to contemporary cultural and communal biases.

What’s really interesting– or curious– about Mr. Gopnik’s essay, though, is the pushback against pure naturalism/rationalism:

But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

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—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love. Stephens, for that matter, takes his title from the seemingly forthright John Lennon song “Imagine.” Lennon, having flirted with atheism for about nine months, from Christmas of 1970 to the fall of 1971, fell back into a supernaturalist web of syncretism of his own, flying the “wrong,” or westerly, way around the world and practicing astrology. Stephens says diplomatically that Lennon “remained intermittently susceptible to belief”—but in truth Lennon was entirely captive to whatever superstition had most recently tickled his fancy, or his wife’s. Imagine there’s no Heaven—but pay attention to the stars and throw the I Ching as necessary. The maker of the great atheist anthem was anything but an atheist.

There’s no real answer given in the essay. It’s mostly observational, based on a sort of materialist, pragmatic, and whiggish-elite understanding of the human disposition. Still, there’s something going for it, at least in our world. Most people don’t really sort out the tensions and contradictions in their life or thought. For the Christian, this is not so much a problem as it is a challenge to continue the old “faith seeking understanding.” For atheists, rationalists, and skeptics, however, I’m not so sure. Mr. Gopnik is able to label Nietzsche a sort of juvenile, but that’s a much different thing than actually answering him.

Of course, it’s hardly a complete apology to demonstrate this kind of reductio. But it is worth considering. If a theory cannot account for the basic elements of humanity, is it possible for humans to consistently hold it? And if a humanism has to continually beg, borrow, and steal from other religions, is it just for those humanists to consider themselves somehow above the religious fray?

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.